Hints & Tricks: How to Sit Next to an Empty Seat – For Free!

Cebu Pacific Review Seat

If you fly economy class, you’ll surely often feel like a sardine in a tin! It gets particularly uncomfortable when you have other passengers to your right and left that stop you from having any space to move, and sometimes even have a nasty smell.

But it doesn’t have to be that way: Some travel freaks often get an empty seat next to them or even a row of 3 or 4 seats to themselves. We show you all the hints & tricks:

Regularly Check the Seat map

Most airlines offer an online check-in. Download the airline app or visit their website and check-in there. Even if you have to check in some luggage, you can still check-in online beforehand. Here you can see which seats are already occupied and can select your favorite seat.

United Seat Map
A United Airlines seat map

Regularly check the seat map online. Most airlines (e.g. Lufthansa or United) let you view it after having reserved the seats, or even after having done the online check-in. Checking the map once again roughly 45 minutes before boarding is useful, as you can then see if the seat next to you has remained empty and, if needed, change your seat once again online. There even is a practical tool, with which you can create Seat Alerts. For more on that, read this:

The downside: Once the gate staff has arrived (usually roughly 30 minutes before boarding), most airlines will deny access to the seat map. Also, not all airlines allow changing your seat for free in all classes.

Changing Seats in Flight

Once they announce “boarding completed” (or something similar) in the plane, no more passengers will board the plane and the doors will be closed. If you have the intention of changing seats, you should not lose any time. This is especially easy from an aisle seat.

Do note, however, that some seats, e.g. emergency exit seats, are sold at an extra cost and that you’ll probably be asked to return to your seat if you sit there.

The downside: This is usually frowned upon by the crew. Not only does this cause the airplane to be out of balance, but the crew can also have problems locating specific passengers, e.g. for specially ordered meals. If you want to avoid an argument, simply talk to the crew politely!

Make use of the Emergency Exit Rules

In the internal rules of some airlines (e.g. Lufthansa, Ryanair), it is stated that certain emergency exit seats have to be occupied. There has to be someone who can open the door in case of an emergency. The crew, therefore, has to look for “Able-Bodied Persons” (ABP), that can then sit on those seats for free, if they haven’t been sold. The friendly question: “Do you need someone for the emergency exit row?” can help.

Notausgang Flugzeug Emegency Exit
Emergency exit row in the plane © andyh12 – stock.adobe.com

The downside: While emergency exit seats offer more legroom, their armrest is often fixed, which makes those seats tighter. Also, the table and (if available) in-flight entertainment screen tend to be inside the armrest, which doesn’t necessarily make those seats more comfortable. Additionally, you’re usually not allowed to stow your bag under the seat in front of you at start & landing, and will often not have an armrest next to the window.

Ask the Gate Staff to Change Your Seat

A far more elegant way to change your seat is by asking the gate staff to change it. This is probably the way that has the highest success rate. Simply aks, in a friendly and timely (min. 5 minutes before boarding) manner, if there still is a seat with an empty neighboring seat or even a free row.

The downside: Sometimes (e.g. in cheap economy class fares) seat changes cost money, especially if those seats, for instance, have extra legroom. In that case, the staff will want to charge you.

Reserving Window and Aisle Seats

If you’re traveling as a couple, a good idea might be to directly reserve the window and aisle seats and leaving the seat in the middle empty. Why? Because nobody wants to sit in the middle seat.

The downside: If the plane is fully booked, someone will be seated between you. This, however, can be quickly solved with a bit of diplomacy. Having a window and aisle seat to offer, you certainly have the best cards in your hand for a seat swap.

Sitting Further Back

Flights are generally fuller at the front and at the wings. This is because the airlines’ reservation systems tend to fill the planes at the front (business travelers want to leave the plane quickly) and at the wings (for trimming). The last rows often remain empty. If you select a seat in the back of the plane when doing the online check-in or when reserving your seat, you’ll have an increased chance of not getting a neighbor.

The downside: It will take longer to deboard the plane (except if the rear door is opened) and you’ll be served last and maybe not get to select your food choice anymore.

Seat Blocking for Frequent Flyers

Do you have a frequent flyer status at a program, such as Miles&More? Then some airlines will inofficially give you the pleasure of a so-called seat blocking. Lufthansa, for instance, tries to keep the seats next to their Senator, HON, and Star Alliance Gold customers empty as long as possible.

The downside: Airport staff and other frequent flyers with a status can still reserve those seats.

Most Important: Select Empty Flights

Obviously, all these hints won’t work if the flight is sold out. You’ll only have a realistic chance of getting an empty seat next to you if a substantial amount of seats remain empty.

This is easiest when booking flights without much anticipation. A low price and many empty seats on the seat map (often displayed during the booking process on the airline’s website) are indicators for an empty flight. It gets harder for long-term bookings – or even impossible! You could check the flights in the near future that are flown on the same weekday, and make assumptions for the future. Other factors, such as national holidays and school breaks also have to be considered.

With the Expertflyer tool, you can see how many seats have been booked and check the seat maps of many airlines.

Your Suggestions?

Do you have some more tricks up your sleeve? Then leave a comment!

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