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How to Pick the Best Airplane Seats on a Long-Haul Flight

As an American living in Australia, I’m quite familiar with the 20-hour long-haul flight from Sydney to New York. A direct flight to Los Angeles takes about 14 to 16 hours, depending on headwinds, and then there’s the stopover and then another five hours to JFK. As a poor student, I’m always on the lookout for cheap international flights, so it means I end up with a lot of red eyes and plenty of lengthy stopovers.

For this arduous long-haul journey, finding a good seat is critical. There’s nothing worse than touching down in Los Angeles at 7 am, having not slept a wink and then needing to wait another 8 hours at LAX to board a connecting flight to New York. Funny enough, I’ve never managed to get myself upgraded, except to Economy Plus, which gave me an extra inch of leg room – and a broken entertainment screen.

If you’re making the long haul for the first time, here are a few tips on picking the best seat:

Check in online. If you can pick a seat at the time of booking, go for it as seats fill up fast. Alternatively, many airlines will let you check in online so you can head straight to the gate without needing to queue at the airport. Many carriers also tend to release exit row seats on the day of the flight, so you have a better chance of securing some highly coveted leg room then.

Beware drafty conditions. There is nothing more irritating than not being able to sleep because you’re freezing! Entrances to the galley can create a wind tunnel, so seats right next to these can be quite cold. Ask for an extra blanket.

Watch for babies. Seats located in the front row directly behind the galley are often reserved for families with infants. On many international flights, a baby bassinet can be secured to the galley wall while the plane is in air. It can be exceptionally disappointing to get a great bulkhead seat only to have it come with a burbling baby.

Consider gambling on the back seats. A really nice flight attendant once pointed me to a row of five empty seats in the last row. Since most people tend to reserve seats in the front, the back rows are the most likely to be empty for you to sprawl out. The drawback of course, is most back seats are narrower so if you don’t get extra room, it can be quite disheartening. Red-eye flights tend to be emptier than other ones, so there’s a fairly good chance you’ll be able to catch some Zs.

Consult SeatGuru. This website has a great guide for picking a great seat for any airline and almost every aircraft. The trick to know what type of plane you’ll be flying in. You need to be on top of this, however, as sometimes airlines will change aircraft without prior notice – and then reassign your carefully picked seat!

Break up the long-haul flight. Another thought to consider, that I personally have come to prefer, is breaking up the long haul flight. Last year, instead of flying direct, I found a cheap flight to New Zealand that then connected to Los Angeles. The process of getting off the plane after the first three hours to stretch my legs and then hopping back on a flight that only lasted 12 hours was actually a lot easier on the knees.

If you have more ideas on how to make a 20-hour flight more pleasant, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have a great flight!

Paige Green is DownUnderGal and she writes and blogs in Australia. Originally from the US, she’s always on the lookout for last-minute holidays and deals to pop back home.

Beware draughty conditions – There is nothing more irritating than not being able to sleep because you’re freezing! Entrances to the galley can create a wind tunnel, so seats right next to these can be quite cold. Ask for an extra blanket.Baby onboard – Seats located in the front row directly behind the galley are often reserved for families with infants. The bassinet is secured to the galley wall when flying. It can be exceptionally disappointing to get a great bulkhead seat only to have it come with a burbling baby.

Backseat Gamble – a really nice flight attendant once pointed me to a row of five empty seats in the last row. Since most people tend to reserve seats in the front, the back rows are the most likely to be empty for you to sprawl out. The drawback of course, is most back seats are narrower so if you don’t get extra room, it can be quite disheartening. Red eye flights tend to be emptier than other ones, so there’s a fairly good chance you’ll be able to catch some Zs.

SeatGuru has a great guide for picking a great seat for any airline and almost every aircraft. The trick to know what type of plane you’ll be flying in. Keep an eye out as sometimes, airlines will change air craft without prior notice – and then reassign your carefully picked seat!

Another thought to consider, that I personally have come to prefer, is breaking up the long haul flight. Last year, instead of flying direct, I found a cheap flight to New Zealand that then connected to Los Angeles. The process of getting off the plane after the first three hours to stretch my legs and then hopping back on a flight that only lasted 12 hours was actually a lot easier on the knees.

If you have more ideas on how to make a 20 hour flight more pleasant, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have a great flight!

Paige Green is DownUnderGal and she writes and blogs in Australia. Originally from the US, she’s always on the lookout for last minute holidays and deals to pop back home.

27 Responses to “How to Pick the Best Airplane Seats on a Long-Haul Flight”

  1. 1

    Avoid sitting near small children as well. They are bonkers after about an hour or two, and then they will drive you bonkers!

  2. 2
    Claudine says:

    Great post. I never knew about seat guru.. thanks for that tip!! :)

  3. 3
    sheryl says:

    Great tips. I always spend so much time worrying about my seat and my seatmate(s). It can make or break a trip.

  4. 4

    Thanks for the great advice. You can bear a bad seat for a short flight — but long hauls will do you in.

  5. 5
    sarah henry says:

    You’re an American living in Australia? Well, I’m an Aussie living in America. We must tawk.

    I’ve been doing the SFO-SYD shuffle for, ah, a few more years than you (20-plus now) but wished I’d had these tips way back when.

    Truth be told, though, in the glory days before Down Under was discovered I could have my pick of seats — I’m talking an entire row — and I would just flip those armrests and make myself a bed and call it a night, at least on the way over.

    My how times have changed. Now I white knuckle it in the cramped confines of a single coach seat & have fun with pharmaceuticals to pretend i’m not up in the air (debilitating flight anxiety kicked in around about the time my boy was born.)

    Here’s what I wanna know: I’ve been a slave to United since the early days but am aware that it’s probably the least comfy way to cross the Pacific. I hear Virgin is lovely. QANTAS too, of course, but around Xmas their flights cost more than I paid for my first car!

    Your thoughts please.

  6. 6
    Frugal Kiwi says:

    Sarah Henry, my experience of Virgin Blue, as a US expat in New Zealand with occasional trips “across the ditch” to Aussie, is that they would charge you extra to use the toilet if they thought they could get away with it. There was one particularly uncomfortable cross continental flight I remember in the back row with no ability to recline from Perth to Brisbane. Ugh. I haven’t flown a regular Virgin flight though.

  7. 7

    Australia is on my “get there” list, but the length of the flight always seems so daunting. These tips are great – hopefully I can put them to use sometime soon.

  8. 8

    I’m with Kris. I *so* want to visit Australia and New Zealand, but that flight. Oh, that flight. I’m not sure I could do it. Thanks for the seating tips.

  9. 9

    Year ago I did seasonal work in Australia and New Zealand, and before it was time to belt up for take-off I would have a look around and move if I saw better seating options. I managed to stretch out on a number of flights. The days of flying with many empty seats may be over but it’s still worth checking to see if other seat options exist that may be more comfortable than what you have. If someone shows up for the seat, just apologize and move back to your assigned seat.

  10. 10
    Alexandra says:

    Am I ever glad my international flying days are over!!! Used do Boston/Paris four times a year and was always cold by the end of the flight. Now I hear airlines plan to charge for the first blanket, eight bucks, so for two you’d need to pay $16.

  11. 11
    Laura says:

    Just took a flight from Ottawa, ont to San Diego…

    I always go for the bulkhead seat at the front of the ‘economy section’. Here you have the luxury of:

    – no one in front of you to put their seat back
    – extra leg room
    – steward/ess’ will take and look after carry on as there is no room under the seat in front of you
    – first to be offered food and drink
    – close to the toilet
    – first off

    After that I try the ‘exit’ over the wing. They have extra leg room.

  12. 12

    Hi – having recently done the Sydney – LAX flight in the Economy section, I wanted to share my two tips: (1) seatexpert.com is a great site too (like seat guru) and (2) if you have to fly Economy, choose a window seat way in the back, where the plane narrows, because there are only two seats per row rather than three and there is a bit of extra room between the seat and window; plus, you’ll only have one person next to you rather than two. I chose a seat back there and had extremely good luck in terms of a seat mate (which I wrote about in this blog post if you’re interested, http://www.sarahlavendersmith.com/2010/02/craig-crowie-alexander/)
    Thanks for the post!
    - Sarah (aka FarFlung Gal, guest contributor in past)

  13. 13
    Katherine says:

    This is great advice! I’d also say, be careful of sitting near the bathrooms or galleys. People can often congregate around the bathrooms or keep popping into the galleys for snacks, making it hard to sleep or get privacy. If you’re traveling with companions, you might want to ask for the two aisle seats in the center section, hoping that nobody will want the center seats. If you get a whole row to yourself, you can really stretch out!

  14. 14
    MarthaandMe says:

    Thanks for these tips. The only tip I would add is that when we travel with our family of 4, we always try to get seats on the side of the plane where there are only two across. So we sit two in front and two right behind. It feels a lot less cramped then being smushed into a row of three seats. I also always lift up the arm rest between the two seats so both people feel like they have a bit more room. And always, always wear pants and bring a jacket or blanket. I am always freezing on an airplane no matter what time of year we travel.

  15. 15
    Donna Hull says:

    Great tips for choosing the best seat on an international flight. I like emergency row seats, if the airline isn’t charging extra for them. I always consult seatguru.com when making airline reservations. Of course, you never know when the planes will be switched out and all of your well-made plans are for naught.

  16. 16

    I don’t like sitting in the bulkhead–even if there is more room it makes me feel more claustrophobic staring at the wall. My new trick is taking a little dramamine right before the flight. And if you are traveling with your kids this OTC pill works wonders for them too.

  17. 17
    Jennifer Margulis says:

    These are great tips! I sometimes feel like NO seat is a good seat on super long flights but with a little savvy at least you can get a better seat…

  18. 18

    Nice information you have here. I now know better.

  19. 19
    Susan says:

    I’ve flown Boston to Oahu and Seattle to London, which are pretty long flights, too. I try to bring lots of reading material so I can lose myself in a good book or a trashy magazine. Also, sometimes if there’s a screaming baby or other unpleasant noises, I’ll taken an Ambien and just conk out. (Doesn’t work as well when you have a connecting flight, though.)

  20. 20

    I like window seats to see landing/take off,but I also like aisle seats so that you have best access to the bathroom!

  21. 21

    Aisle seats all the way if you can get them! Quick access to bathroom and for a leg stretch!

  22. 22
    phil says:

    Stop in Tahiti. Problem may not want to leave.
    Delta Business First is 120,000 miles round trip with a flat bed. Beg and borrow and plan in advance.

  23. 23
    NJ says:

    As a frequent flyer these are my tips for the best economy seats-

    1). Get an aisle seat, nothing worse than being cramped up next to the window or in a middle seat. An aisle seat means you can get up, stretch your legs and go to the toilet whenever you want

    2). Don’t sit more than seven rows from an emergancy exit, if the worst ever happens research has shown that your odds of getting out decrease dramatically

    3). Turbulance is worse at the back of the plane, for a smoother ride sit as far forward as you can

    4). Check seat guru to avoid bad seats

    5). Get a credit card that gives access to airport lounges (certain Amex cards do)

    6). Some airlines have economy seats with extra leg room that you can sit in for a small fee (Virgin Atlantic and Scoot are two) if your airline has this option take it, a couple of extra inches can make a big difference on a long flight)

  24. 24
    David Traversa says:

    An excellent companion: Ear plugs.

  25. 25
    Glenn says:

    If there are two of you flying, try to book two aisle sets next to each other. This allows you to get up and walk around without having to consider other passengers who may be sleeping.

  26. 26
    Phetpeter says:

    If your flight is overbooked, and 24hrs won’t effect you to much, Put your names forward to be bounced (denied boarding). You will get money in pocket, hotel , taxi’s, food and possible upgraded. If a family of four go for it, you could end up getting all the money back, giving you free flights. Once bounced from cattle class, you could end up in business or even first class if it turns out they are the only seats left on the flight. but you will get first boarding the next flight on even a better deal by being shunted onto another airline, perhaps with a direct flight.

  27. 27
    kerryd says:

    I used to do the trans-Pacific flights a lot and over the years developed my own preferences. Ages ago, I’d opt for the rear-most “emergency exit” seats. Often there are only 2 seats in those rows, and they generally only give them to reasonably fit people (those deemed more likely to be able to open the emergency exit doors should the need arise).
    Depending on the airline, often those seats, being closest to to the rear galley, would get service first and were closest to the bathrooms.
    Disadvantage was – when the plane arrived at the gate, suddenly 300 people ahead of you all stand up and start packing the junk they’ve had out for the whole flight, leaving you as one of the last to get off the plane. I used to estimate 1 1/2 hours from arrival at the gate until I was off the plane and through Immigration/Customs and out of the terminal.

    Then I changed my strategy. Now I select a second-row aisle seat on the left side of the plane. You always get on/off from the left side. There is usually a galley/bathroom between economy and business class. The 2nd row seats have their own entertainment system (the 1st row seats often have a single little TV on the bulkhead). I’d rather have to get up once in awhile to let someone out from an inner seat, than to have to clamber over people that look at you like your the devil if you need to go to the bathroom. When the plane lands I’ve got my stuff and am at the door and ready to get off before the crew has even opened it.
    Estimate from arrival to out of terminal – 20 minutes (depending on wait for checked luggage, if any).

    Book online. I check flights/fares through various sites, but generally always book my own tickets through the airline’s own website. That lets me pick the airline/flights/seats I prefer and usually as cheap or cheaper than using an agency.
    By doing that, I actually found (in recent years) that I was able to fly Business Class on one airline for as little as $150 more than flying economy on some other airlines. For long-haul flights, Business Class is the way to go ! Don’t be scared to use other airlines ! Business Class on Emirates is AWESOME, but expensive ! Business Class on Gulf Air is almost as awesome, but quite a bit cheaper !

    PLAN your trip ! From the moment you arrive at the terminal until you return. Know what you want/need on the flight BEFORE you even check in. Think about the steps you need to take between check-in and boarding.
    You KNOW you are going to go through security screening. You KNOW that you have to remove all metal objects BEFORE going through the scanner, EVERY TIME. Take that crap off BEFORE getting there. Stick it in your carry-on/purse/whatever so that you get there and whiz on through like a pro. Don’t be “that” person that gets sent back 2-3-4 times to remove the stuff they should have taken off in the first place.

    Have your in-flight junk ready so that as soon as you get to your seat, you dump that stuff, stow your carry-on and sit down without holding up the rest of the flight for 5 minutes while fussing about if you should take your book and sweater out now or wait until the plane is about to take off.
    Before landing, pack that stuff up again so that when you land, boom ! You grab your bag and are ready to ready to go while the rest of the passengers are milling around like zombie sheep.

    Do it right and you can be through Immigration and waiting for your luggage while the other sheeple are still trying to get off the plane !
    (Another advantage to flying Business Class – in addition to priority boarding/disembarking, better seats, better food, higher luggage allowances, lounge access and better frequent flyer benefits, Business Class travelers often have special lanes at Immigration counters, and their luggage is usually the first off the plane.)

    A little pre-planning and preparation on your part can result in a vastly greater travel experience, and allow you to “tsk tsk” as you watch other people make the simple mistakes that end up adding to everyone else’s frustration.

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