Edited by Joe Cortez, June 2018
When booking your flight, you will probably always see a row of middle seats open for your selection, because aisle and window seats are all occupied.If a flight is completely sold out, the best seats are always taken in advance. But it's clear that many passengers are accepting their randomly assigned seats and not making the decision on their own after completing the ticketing process.
Prior to boarding, you should always select your airline seat to ensure comfort when you fly. This guide will help you find the best seats -- even when it looks like you won't be able to book the best seat.
Why should I select my seat ahead of time?
There's absolutely no advantage to not selecting a seat, unless all of the seats in the main cabin are taken. By selecting your seat at the first available opportunity, you can ensure the best available selection of free seats in your cabin, or paid premium seats.
What happens if all the seats available in your cabin are taken? In this case, there's a possibility that by not selecting a seat, you will get a better assignment at the gate with additional legroom. However, this can be a roll of the dice: you could either get a middle seat, or be the first one bumped if a flight is overbooked.
If you want to guarantee the best seating availability, there's no shame in buying a secured upgrade to a seat with extra perks and more legroom. More airlines are even adding perks to their seats with more legroom. On American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, flyers who book the seats with more legroom can get complimentary alcoholic beverages during their flight.
When should I select my airline seat?
After you finish booking your flight (or during the process, depending on the airline), you should click to view the seat map and make your pick. If you book your flight with friends or family members on the same reservation, they will likely be assigned seats nearby automatically.
If you are traveling with a group -- like friends or family -- it's important to note the airline's seating policies. If everyone is on the same itinerary, then all their seats can be selected at the same time. But if you are traveling on "basic economy" rules or aboard Southwest Airlines, you may not get to sit together. Basic economy seats are assigned at the gate, while Southwest has an open seating policy. While you can't do much about basic economy, you can use strategies to get seats together on Southwest.
there may be better alternatives available, with multiple open seats in the same row. If you have a few minutes to spare, check out your aircraft's layout on Seatguru.com, or get advice from other frequent flyers on FlyerTalk.com.
How can I find the best airline seats?
After you complete the booking process, head over to Seatguru.com and locate your aircraft. Your airline may have multiple versions of the same airplane type, so make sure the airline's seat map matches what you see on Seatguru. If they don't match up, simply select a different version of that same aircraft.
For example: United Airlines operates multiple configurations of the Boeing 777-200 airframe. Some of these have updated cabins, while others are more dated. There are also two different types of Business Class seats on the international configured planes, so pay very close attention when you go to match these up.
If you're using Seatguru, look for the green seats on the map. In the economy cabin, these are typically located in rows that require an up-charge. Tou can expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $130 to select a seat in this section, depending on the seat and the length of the flight - but as we discussed above, they come with some nice perks.
Seats that don't have any color coding are fine picks, too. These won't have tons of extra legroom, but they're average seats for that cabin. Generally, you'll want to avoid yellow and red seats, as these often come along with a negative bullet point or two, be it a position near the bathroom or galley.
Although finding the best airline seats may be a challenge, selecting them upfront and comparing notes can help you find the most comfortable every time. Don't be afraid to select your seats at booking, or paying up for a more comfortable seat -- it could mean the difference between a pleasant flight, or five hours of misery.