When it comes to being comfortable on an airplane, having an empty seat next to you can be the single most important factor. After all, most domestic first class cabins have just two slightly wider seats per row, rather than three seats. So having an empty middle seat is almost like being in first class. And while most people attribute it to luck when they have an empty seat next to them, there are actually several ways you can influence the outcome. (See also: 10 Ways to Get Free (or Almost Free) Airline Tickets)
Choose a seat toward the back
As soon as you make a flight reservations, most airlines allow you to select a seat assignment. And in general, most passengers choose seats in the front of the plane in an aisle or a window seat, not a middle. This means that the last seats to be chosen are the middle seats in the back of the plane.
When you are selecting a seat assignment, to maximize your chances of sitting next to an empty seat, sit as far toward the back as possible, especially if you’re flying on a domestic route. If the plane is a widebody, sit in the center section of seats rather than in the seats in the side sections. (See also: Best Airline Credit Cards)
Consider the back of the extra-legroom section
Another strategy involves the extra-legroom seats that most airlines offer. These are in sections sometimes called economy plus, comfort plus, or main cabin extra. Seats in these areas are available to flyers who hold elite status in the airline’s frequent flyer program, or to anyone else who pays an extra fee. On domestic flights, these may fill up if there are a lot of business travelers, because many of those road warriors have elite status.
But on international flights, these seats are often the last to be filled because many leisure travelers are unwilling to pay the extra fees. Therefore, the rows at the back of this premium section may be even more likely to have an extra empty seat than the rows of standard seats at the very back. If you hold elite status or choose to pay for the extra legroom, then this is where you will want to sit to have the most chance of an empty middle seat.
When traveling as a couple, try to book both the aisle and the window seats, leaving the middle open. If the middle seat is occupied but you still want to sit next to each other, you can be confident that the passenger in the middle seat will gladly swap and take the aisle or window seat if you offer it. (See also: 5 Ways to Get Extra Legroom on Your Next Flight — for Free)
Use the airline’s app
If the tips above fail and you’re assigned a seat you don’t want, check the airline app when you’re at the gate. You may be lucky enough to spot a seat that’s available next to an empty seat and if so, some apps will let you change your seat right then and there. If not, try asking the gate agent to make the swap. It won’t always work, but it never hurts to check.
On Southwest Airlines, aim for the middle
Southwest Airlines doesn’t offer seat assignments, so you have to use a slightly different strategy to find an empty middle seat to sit next to. As with other airlines, Southwest passengers prefer to occupy the seats in the front of the plane, as well as the aisle and window seats. However, I’ve observed that some Southwest passengers will walk all the way to the back of the plane to look for an empty aisle or window seat, rather than take empty middle seats near the front of the plane.
Therefore, if you have the option, it’s best to take an aisle or window seat near the middle or even the front of the plane, since those passengers often walk past those seats in the hopes of finding an aisle or a window in the back. Even if there are only middle seats left in the back of the plane, some passengers will occupy those rather than turning around and going back to the front of the plane. Besides, doing so is impossible if others are still boarding. (See also: How to Get a Great Seat on Southwest)
Beyond that, some Southwest passengers have resorted to questionable behavior to save an empty seat next to them, such as placing an item on it or making themselves seem as unappealing as possible as seatmates. This can include spreading themselves out, pretending to be sick, or simply engaging in a loud telephone conversation while boarding.
I don’t recommend any of those tactics. You’ll likely have to sit in close quarters with these folks and you don’t want to be making enemies before the flight has even started. Anyway, these behaviors will make no difference if the flight is completely sold out.