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Stuck in the middle? Use these tips on locating the best economy seats

Think all economy seats are the same? Sure, they all look alike, packed together so tightly that a Greyhound coach looks more spacious. But some seats are better than most. The trick is finding them, and it isn’t always obvious if you don’t know what plane you’re on.

Frequent fliers, of course, know the drill, thanks to a knowledge base built on experience. The occasional traveler flying for pleasure may not even know the difference between a narrow-body plane and a wide-body. But you don’t need to be an aviation expert or million-mile flier to pick the right seat. There are plenty of apps and Web services that do the job for us.

Even if you’re paying a budget fare, you can still have a (somewhat) enjoyable experience in the back of the plane. We pinged travel expert Charles Barkowski, author of Running with Miles, for some of his tips on finding the best seats.

Middle seats always suck

You should never voluntarily choose this seat unless you’re flying with friends and family (even then, stick another poor unfortunate soul from your entourage in this seat). If there’s nothing but middles seats left, try to score a bulkhead seat (see below). Sometimes the option is made for you: a last-minute flight, standby from a cancelled flight, or an airline’s no seat-preference rule. Your best bet is to turn on the charm with an airline employee; ask a gate agent nicely if you can be reseated, or a flight attendant if there are open seats after takeoff. Emphasis on “nicely.”

Every expert agrees: If flying solo, avoid the middle seat if you can help it.

Every expert agrees: If flying solo, avoid the middle seat if you can help it.

Know your plane

Some airlines like Southwest, Virgin America, and Spirit use a single type of aircraft, which makes it easy to remember which seats are better. Larger ones like United, Delta, and American have so many variations in their fleets, that it can be mindboggling. Which is why we’re big fans of SeatGuru’s website and app. As long as you know your flight number and date of travel, SeatGuru will pull up a map of your plane and show you where the questionable seats are (avoid the ones that are colored yellow or red). It will even show you what amenities are offered, such as video on demand or AC power. You can also find out how seats are arranged in larger wide-body (two-aisle), and some configurations are better than others.

Of course, airlines will often switch plane types at the last minute. But usually you are still able to make changes via the airline’s website or mobile app. It’s a good idea to check your flight status before departure.

Check for better seats five days before the flight, as better seats open up when elite frequent-flier members get upgraded, Barkowski says.

SeatGuru's website and mobile app (now owned by TripAdvisor) is loaded with aircraft information for nearly airline. It also has user comments, which can be very helpful.

SeatGuru’s website and mobile app (now owned by TripAdvisor) is loaded with aircraft information for nearly airline. It also has user comments, which can be very helpful.

Related: The best airline first-class cabins are more like flying hotels

Pick your seat at reservation

If you can help it, never leave your seat selection to the airline or a travel planner. Most airlines let you choose the seat at the time of booking. If you can do it, don’t wait until the last minute. Using the same SeatGuru tip as above, you can reserve a choice seat in advance.

Not all planes are configured similarly, and varies by aircraft type and airline.

Not all planes are configured similarly, and varies by aircraft type and airline.

Be in the front

There are advantages to sitting as close as possible to the front. You can deplane earlier (crucial if you have a short connection time), and on smaller planes, flight attendants serve from front to back. The front is also usually the quietest; the middle suffers from engine noise, while the back usually has the commotion from lavatories and galleys.

Unfortunately, airlines also realize the advantage of sitting upfront, and are charging extra for the privilege or offering it as a free upgrade to their elite frequent fliers. Many have designated this section as a “premium” offering, which isn’t really that different from other seats except maybe a few more inches of legroom. But, depending on the flight, it may not cost that much more for the bump up.

The back isn’t entirely bad, according to Barkowski. “Front seats are always chosen first, so look more toward the back, closer to takeoff, for empty rows.” The reason being that, unless it’s a full flight, you may end up with more room.

Premium economy

We just mentioned airlines are designating the front of economy cabins as a premium product. But some, mainly international carriers, are truly creating a premium product with amenities that are just a notch below business class. Wider and fewer seats, free grub and alcohol, and more techie features like larger displays and power are just some of the enhanced offerings. But these specialty cabins also cost significantly more. If the budget allows, consider it for long-haul flights.

Read Barkowski’s recent post about these premium seats.

Lufthansa's new premium economy cabin offers an upgrade experience, but for a fee.

Lufthansa’s new premium economy cabin offers an upgraded experience, but for a fee.

Related: Panasonic’s high-tech airplane seats bring luxury amenities to coach

The thing about bulkheads

A bulkhead is that barrier separating cabins. It could be a lavatory or galley in the middle of a coach cabin, or the wall that divides economy and business. Sitting behind one yields more legroom, which makes it easier to get in and out. However, you may have to deal with a crying baby in a bassinet or people crowding around a lavatory, and you can’t place anything in front of your feet. Again, use SeatGuru to locate the better bulkhead seats.

Never pick a seat in front of a divider, as recline angles are severely restricted.

Bulkhead seats offer generous legroom, but lack space in front to store a carry-on bag. Some airlines charge for these seats.

Bulkhead seats offer generous legroom, but lack space in front to store a carry-on bag. Some airlines charge for these seats.

In case of emergency

Seats located near emergency exits offer large amounts of legroom and there are never any kids (per FAA regulation), provided you are willing to assist the crew if needed. However, airlines are also now charging extra for these seats.

“They may be uncomfortable on longer trips because they are less padded and don’t have moveable armrests,” Barkowski says.

If you are somehow able to score one without fee, go for it. Note: Again, airlines configure their planes differently, so some emergency seats are actually worse, e.g. limited recline. Use SeatGuru to double-check before selecting.

Sleep, or when nature calls

If you have no intentions of leaving your seat during flight, pick one by the window. You can rest against one while you sleep (although, from experience, it’s pretty uncomfortable), and other passengers won’t interrupt you (unless you’re sitting next to a Chatty Cathy, which we can’t help you with).

Aisle seats give you easier access to overhead bins, lavatories, and the exit when deplaning. If you have bladder issues, this might be the best seat for you. You will, however, have to deal with rolling carts, passengers walking up and down the aisle, and requests from your seatmates when they need to get out.

This decision is up to you. No amount of advanced technology can solve this dilemma.

If traveling with a companion

Barkowski says if you aren’t traveling solo, pick the aisle and window seats. “Most will not choose the middle and you can get three seats for the price of two.” Of course, if it’s a full flight, the airline will most likely put someone in there.

Look for two-seat configurations

This map of a United Boeing 767 is configured in a 2-3-2 arrangement. Opt for the two seats on the sides.

This map of a United Boeing 767 is configured in a 2-3-2 arrangement. Opt for the two seats on the sides.

United Airlines

This is a no-brainer: If a plane’s seat map shows a configuration of two seats (window or aisle, no middle), pick those if they don’t fall under any of the warnings mentioned above. Depending on an aircraft (for example, the upper-deck of an Airbus A380, Boeing 767, Airbus A330, or the rear of Boeing 777), airlines might configure the sides of a wide-body plane with this setup.