Five Ways to Improve Your Chances of Getting a Good Seat

1. If At First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again

Today, most airlines allow you to select a seat when booking a flight. Most travelers choose the least expensive flight then select the best available seat ... after checking the appropriate SeatExpert seat map, of course (actually, most don't choose a seat at all and let the airline choose it for them, but visitors to SeatExpert aren't most people).

But what if none of the good seats on the least expensive flight are still available?

If you haven't already booked your flight and no preferred seats are available on the flight you have selected, it's time to investigate what's available on alternative flights. (If you have already booked your flight, consider this a tip for next time.)

Usually, at least one other airline will offer flights to the same destination on the same date, and depending on the route one airline might even offer multiple flights on the same day. And if you are flexible enough to travel a few days earlier or later, your options expand even more.

Because most people shop for the lowest priced flight, there are often more (and better) seats available on more expensive flights. If you are able to find a good seat on an alternate flight, consider the increased cost as the cost of an upgrade to a better seat. Why get stuck in a middle seat on the least expensive flight when, for a few dollars more, you could be sitting in your favorite seat on another flight?

2. Know Your Goal

Do you need to make a tight connection for your next flight? Then you will probably want a seat near the front so you can exit more quickly. If you don't care about getting off the plane quickly, a seat near the rear of the aircraft might provide a better chance of having an unoccupied seat next to you, especially if the passenger load is light.

In short, selecting a seat is all about knowing what is important to you.

Near the front of the airplane you will feel the least impact from turbulence, and food service will reach you first, so you’re practically guaranteed your choice of meal. On international flights, sitting in the back usually means you’ll wind up at the end of the line for immigration and customs. Also, airlines tend to seat families together in the back of the plane, so if you prefer to avoid kids you will also want to stay away from the back, especially if traveling to a family friendly destination.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, most airlines load from back to front, so if you want to increase your chances of finding space for your carry-on items you should consider a seat near the back (unless you are an elite-level frequent flyer who enjoys the benefit of pre-boarding, but we will get to that later). Be aware though, seats may be more cramped in the back because the fuselage narrows. In some cases, seats in the last few rows can be as much as an inch narrower than seats in the front.

3. Become a Frequent Flyer

If we could offer just one bit of advice to any frequent traveler, it would be to accumulate as many miles and achieve as high a status as possible with one frequent flyer program. Often referred to as elite-level programs, we're referring to the level of membership at which you can earn the most miles, points, and privileges.

Review the elite-level programs offered by airlines and you'll see why this is an important consideration. Most programs provide special upgrades at no cost, pre-boarding, and early check-in (not to mention bonuses that can increase your mileage and point totals automatically by 25-125% each time you travel).

4. Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Does the seat in front of you have limited recline? How near is your seat to the bathrooms (and the odor)? Do you have storage space nearby? Will the flight attendants be passing your seat frequently and/or hanging out nearby?

No matter how good your seat, it is only as good as the environment in which it exists. A comfortable seat with extra legroom that is located directly across from a lavatory might not be to your liking. When reviewing the SeatExpert seat maps, be on the lookout for seats that are color coded half in green and half in yellow. This color coding indicates that the seat has both favorable and unfavorable qualities. Be sure the bad doesn't outweigh the good before selecting your seat.

5. Last Chance for Comfort Next 2,000 Miles

When checking in for your flight, and even as late as boarding, there is still an opportunity to improve your seating arrangement.

If you check-in online or at an airport kiosk, review the seating options one last time, as some seats might have recently become available. Airlines often upgrade elite customers in the days before a flight, which frees up some of the better seats in economy class. (Bonus Tip: After you’ve bought a ticket, some airline Web sites won’t let you check the seat map. An easy way around that: Begin the process of booking another ticket on the flight until you get to the screen where it permits you to choose your seat.)

And if you have been unable to select a good seat by the time you are boarding, it never hurts to ask the gate agent if any better seats have become available. Though the chances are slim at this point, you never know, and you would hate to miss out on a chance at a better seat simply because you failed to ask.