When traveling, especially long flights, the seat you are in can be the difference between a great or terrible flight. Many airlines punish new travelers through the seat selection process and if you don’t pay attention you can find yourself in a middle seat quickly.
When booking flights, always start with Google.Flights. As you search for flights in google flights you can also view what type of aircraft you will be flying on. Once you become familiar with the different types of airplanes you will start to be able to narrow your search for the perfect seat. Once you select the plane you would like to fly on, then the next step is to consult SeatGuru to determine what version of the aircraft the airline is using.
Majority of my experience is with American Airlines, so I will be using AA for my examples.
American Airlines has several regional jets. I prefer the ERJ-170/175 because of the 2-2 (Window Seat, Aisle Seat (Aisle) Aisle Seat, Window Seat) layout. If picking a flight where an ERJ is available I will pick it over other aircraft, since there is no possibility of being stuck in a middle seat. AA also features several CRJ aircraft which also have a 2-2 layout. The plane I try to avoid from a comfort perspective is the ERJ-140 aircraft. The plane is a 1-2 layout and legroom is nonexistent. 3C is by far the worst seat on the ERJ-140 aircraft, avoid at all costs.
AA is quickly removing its MD-80 Aircraft for the fleet, but they feature a 2-3 layout. If an MD-80 is available I will try to chose a seat on the 2 side since I prefer the window and its easier climbing over one person instead of two.
The most widely used plane in the AA fleet is the 737. There are two or three versions of this aircraft. Some have updated interiors with seat-back entertainment, some do not. I still haven’t mastered the art of picking the right 737 for a given flight, but with a standard 3-3 layout most seats are as good as any other.
AA has inherited several Airbus aircraft from the US Airways merger last year. The A319 and A320 are mostly the same. There are some seats that have extra legroom due to the exit row, but the A321 has a few seats that are miles above the rest. The A321 has large exit doors. These doors mean there are entire rows missing from the plane. If you are lucky enough to snag an exit row on an A321 legroom will not be a concern.
AA’s long haul fleet is mostly the same in economy. On AA’s 777 and 767 aircraft the layout is 2-5-2 and 2-3-2 respectively. Much better than the 3-4-3 layout on 747’s. The only ugly duckling in AA’s long haul fleet is the 787 which features a 3-3-3 layout.
How to get the best seat:
Now that we know the basics of picking a plane for a flight, the next step is getting the right seat. As an AA Platinum or Executive Platinum you can book Main Cabin Extra (MCE) seats for free at the time of booking. These MCE seats typically cost an additional $30 and offer a few extra inches of legroom. When booking I always select an MCE seat, but have found that AAgents often “upgrade” passengers into these seats if they complain when checking in at the airport. The same is true with the exit row seats. The exit rows and MCE rows are almost always full. Usually shortly before boarding I will ask the gate agent if there are any rows with empty middle seats. Since I’m not particularly tall, I don’t necessarily need the extra legroom. I would much rather be sitting next to an empty seat. MCE may sound great, but more often than not the middle MCE seat is filled with a tall or larger passenger that at the last minute asked for a little extra room.
Sadly, the days of sitting up in first class for free without status are long gone. The front of the plane on domestic flights used to be a loss leader for airlines. The cost was so high compared to a coach seat that very few people would pay for the seat. The airlines would then “upgrade” frequent flyers as a reward for being loyal to the airline. Occasionally the gate agents would give out upgrades to random travelers as well. Now, the upgrade system is almost entirely handled autonomously. On AA, Executive Platinum members are given upgrades 100 hours before departure, Platinums clear 72 hours before departure, and Gold members clear 24 hours before departure. Upgrades are given out based on percentages of seats sold and historical metics. Airlines are not starting to realize that people are willing to pay for these first class seats if the prices are slightly lower further reducing first class availability. Delta Airlines is leading this charge by offering first class seats for only slightly more money on domestic routes.
Lastly, occasionally Airlines will fly a 3 cabin plane, such as a 777-200, from one hub to another. American only offers two cabins on domestic routes which means the airline will allow you to book an economy ticket and sit in the business class cabin for free! Another reason to pay attention to the type of aircraft and seat map!
When I recently flew from Miami to Chicago I had several options for flights. The first was to fly non-stop from Chicago to Miami on AA’s 767 and return on two flights via ATL on ERJ-175’s. When I checked the 767 seat map on SeatGuru.com I realized the 767 heading to Miami that I could get on was the old cabin and not the new 767 Retrofit. The return flight however, again on a 767, was the retrofit cabin. Both flights had plenty of upgrade availability, but one product was significantly nicer than the other. It took a few extra minutes to plan the flight, but the return flight was extremely comfortable and well worth the extra time required to book.
Each Airline publishes their own seat maps, I have included major US Airlines below: