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How to Get an Empty Seat Next to You on a Flight

Finding out you have an empty seat next to you on even a short flight can feel like winning the lotto or upgrading to first class, except that you didn’t have to spend a dime for the extra space. Believe it or not, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of securing that additional armrest space.

Pick a seat toward the back

The most popular seats in economy class are toward the front of the airplane. Usually aisle and window seats will fill first, followed by middle seats toward the front, then aisle and window at the the back. So, if you choose a back aisle or window seat, the middle seat is more likely to remain unclaimed. When on a domestic flight with a center row of seats, aim for a seat in that center row for better chances of have one or both seats open at takeoff.

For a fee, aim for back of the extra-legroom section

Many airlines have a seating section called economy plus, comfort plus, or main cabin that—for a price—comes with extra legroom. If you are a frequent traveler with elite status on an airline, you may have access to this section for free, or you can pay a little extra for those additional inches to stretch out. This section fills up, and usually completely, on domestic flights with business road warriors. But on international flights, it’s a different story.

Extra-legroom seats may be the last to fill on the plane because casual travelers won’t want to pay the extra money to sit there. Those who aren’t willing to dig deep into their pockets for first-class seats will want to sit at the front of the extra-legroom section, leaving the last row or two only partially filled. You’ll have a better chance at an open seat next to you at the back of this section than the back of economy.

When traveling as a couple

Traveling as a couple can be an advantage when it comes to seat selection. If one person picks the aisle seat and the other picks the window—especially toward the back of the plane—there’s a lower chance another person will want that middle seat. And even if someone does book that seat, they will probably be more than happy to switch with one of you so you can sit together.

But what if there is a middle section to the plane, then which section should you try to claim for yourself by straddling the middle seat? Try for the middle section over either side sections. Many travel bloggers have noted that the middle seats of both side sections fill faster than the middle seat of the middle section. And again, if that middle seat does get booked and you swap it with the other person, you and your significant other are still guaranteed an aisle seat and easy exit for restroom trips.

Use an app

If you check the seating chart before boarding your flight and see that the seat next to you has been filled, but there are two unassigned seats next to each other elsewhere on the plane, see if the airline’s app will let you swap seats for free. Or ask the agent to make the swap. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s worth a shot.

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