By design, airplanes aren't perfect rectangles, so it's only natural that not every seat will be exactly the same. Certain seats toward the back of a 777 may offer more legroom, for example, while seats immediately in front of an emergency exit row won't recline. Fortunately, tools like SeatGuru (www.seatguru.com) make it easy to identify these seats, assuming you know what model aircraft you'll be traveling on (this information is typically available when viewing flight availability). There are other factors to consider, however, so follow these tips to maximize your comfort on board.
1. Select at Booking: This may seem like an obvious first step, but many airlines allow you to purchase a ticket without selecting a specific seat. While some airlines don't allow you to select seats at booking -- notably Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines (which charges a fee to reserve seats), and some international budget carriers -- most provide an option to view a seat map at booking, allowing you to simply click on an available seat to confirm it in advance.
2. Avoid the Middle: If advance seat selection is an option for your airline, try to select a window or an aisle seat. Middle seats are typically the most uncomfortable, and larger "wide-body" planes (hint: a wide-body aircraft has two aisles, or three seat columns) offer middle seats in the middle section -- some even have five seats in the middle section, making it very difficult to get out from a middle seat if you need to stretch or use the bathroom. If you see a passenger in one of these seats, it's safe to assume that they booked at the very last minute, or didn't select a seat at all until they arrived at the airport. If you book and select your seat far enough in advance, you should be able to avoid the dreaded middle middle seat.
3. Stick to the Front: Passengers seated in the back of the plane are typically able to board first, but passengers in the front are almost always first to deplane, unless your aircraft utilizes air stairs to simultaneously deplane from the rear. This is especially important when going through immigration in a small airport -- passengers seated in row 5 may be on their way out of the airport 30 minutes to an hour before passengers in row 50, in some cases.
4. Pay your Airline : Airlines have made things even more confusing by throwing in revenue-generating extra legroom seats, in many cases even removing rows of seats to do so. These seats may go by different names depending on your airline -- JetBlue calls them Even More Legroom seats, while United occasionally groups these seats together in their own section of the plane, called Economy Plus. Whatever your airline chooses to call them, these seats typically offer the most legroom, and occasionally extra perks, such as extra frequent flier points (JetBlue), but they'll cost you -- typically $10 to $200, depending on the airline and the length of your flight. Some airlines, such as United, offer extra legroom seats free to elite members (see number 6).
5. Swap On-Board: Eyeing an empty seat (or row of seats) as you board the plane? Passengers who board the aircraft last may be able to snag the grand prize of air travel -- an entire row of empty seats. You can also check with the gate agent before you board to see if there are any empty rows. I typically take advantage of this grossly underutilized method of last-minute seat selection whenever boarding an overnight flight.
6. Earn Elite Status: If you haven't registered with your airline's frequent flier program, do so immediately -- if you fly often enough, you may even be able to earn the airline's coveted elite status, which comes along with a variety of perks, including priority security screening and boarding, waived baggage check fees, and perhaps the greatest benefit of all: preferred seat selection (and even free upgrades, depending on your status level). Elite fliers can often select exit row seats at booking, which also frees up these seats for other passengers on the day of travel, if the elite fliers who previously booked preferred seats are upgraded to business or first class.
7. Ask the Pros: As its name implies, SeatGuru offers details on seats for nearly every aircraft on every major airline around the world. Seat maps are color coded for easy identification -- a red seat should always be avoided, yellow seats have some drawbacks, green seats are ideal, and white seats are the norm. Most seats on each aircraft are white, with one notable exception -- after Spirit revealed their no-recline seats on the Airbus A320, SeatGuru colored all of the airline's seats red, as they have with seats that don't recline on other airlines (though the site has since changed the Spirit color-coding to yellow). If green seats are unavailable at booking, make a note of the seat numbers, and ask to be moved at check-in or at the gate. The site also offers notes for each seat on the plane, including details such as power outlet access or bathroom proximity. There are also in-flight amenity notes, so you can know whether to expect in-flight movies or WiFi before you board.
Which seat do you always try to reserve? Share it in the comments, along with your own seat-selection tips.