How to get the best economy seat on your next flight

Gone are the days when you might be able to sweet-talk a check-in attendant into upgrading your economy seat to premium or business. In most instances, you get what you pay for. However, even in economy, all seats are not equal.
Economy seats on an Airbus A380. Picture: Mario Tama/Getty ImagesEconomy seats on an Airbus A380. Picture: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Economy seats on an Airbus A380. Picture: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Ryanair has been accused of deliberately assigning middle seats to passengers who choose not to pay for seat selection, a clear indication that these are the least appealing options.

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With most airlines now charging for the privilege of choosing your seat, it pays more than ever to select carefully, particularly on long-haul flights. With a bit of homework, you could avoid paying for a dud, and get yourself the most spacious option available.

Sales pitch

Airlines configure their planes differently; one of the most unpopular economy layouts is the 3-4-3 – the two seats in the middle of the row of four being the least desirable. Airbus recently gave airlines the option of “densifying” its new A380s with a 3-5-3 economy configuration. Pity those in the middle row of five when they need to disturb their neighbours to go to the loo.

The number of seats crammed into the back of the plane has a bearing on width and pitch (the measurement from the back of one seat to the next) and therefore comfort. The website has a guide to all airlines’ seat pitches; the industry standard is 31-32in, with Avianca of Colombia offering a generous 34in and Qatar and Thai between 32-34in. Norwegian recently started flying the single-cabin, economy-only Boeing 737 Max 8 on selected routes, which has a shorter seat pitch than its Dreamliners (29-31in v 31-32in), while Thomas Cook and easyJet offer just 29in.

Know before you go

Use your flight number to find out what sort of plane you will be travelling on. has seat maps of more than 1,000 aircraft, highlighting the best and worst seats in each cabin. For example, on a Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A380, the A and K seats on emergency exit rows – which command a surcharge for advance booking – are marked red despite having extra legroom; the seat width is slightly reduced and despite looking like window seats, they are next to a door. Rows 65, 66, 82 and 83 are marked red for their limited recline. However, the seemingly innocuous 51D is one of the best economy seats. Despite being in a middle row, it is behind a missing seat, doubling the legroom.

Have baby, will travel

Travelling with an infant can be stressful, but one benefit is the option of booking a seat with a bassinet. They come with added legroom, since the bassinet is fixed to the wall in the front row of each cabin. These are offered on a first-come, first-served basis, but it’s worth trying to select them in case they haven’t been booked by parents. Just remember your ear plugs.