The departure gate was packed, and it was clear it was going to be a full flight.
I boarded the plane, squeezing my way past the passengers stowing their luggage in the overhead bins, as I made my way to my row down the back.
There was already a guy in the window seat. I took my aisle seat. “How’s it going,” we mumbled from our respective sides, acknowledging we would be spending the next 16 hours together.
The stream of passengers was starting to slow. Suddenly a man with the build of a sumo wrestler loomed over us. Mr Window Seat and I glanced at each other nervously.
* Window, middle or aisle? What your plane seat preference says about you
* Insider tip: Window vs aisle seats – which is better for a long-haul flight?
* The unofficial rules for the window seat on a plane
The man looked at his ticket. “Nope, I’m the next one,” he said, and moved along. Mr Window Seat and I tried hard to contain our glee.
Finally, the announcement came over the intercom: “Boarding is now complete.”
We looked around us. Everyone was now seated, and every row was full except for ours, where the middle seat remained empty.
We’d basically won the economy class equivalent of the lottery – but while there was a little bit of luck involved, I had also played a part in rigging this situation using a clever seat selection trick.
Now, if you’re travelling solo, it’s a rare flight where you’ll get an entire row-of-three to yourself. You’ll most likely end up bookending a couple.
That’s where this seat selection strategy comes in. When choosing your seat, you shouldn’t just go for one of the empty rows and hope for the best.
Instead, look at the seat map and see if another solo flyer has already booked either the window or aisle seat. Then, depending on your preference for window or aisle, take the seat at the other end.
Unless the flight is completely full, or the airline randomly assigns seating, it’s highly unlikely another solo traveller would opt for the hated middle seat (unless they are among the less than 1% of passengers who would intentionally select the position as their first preference).
This is something I always do when flying long-haul – because I prefer the aisle seat, I look for a row where someone is already in the window seat. In most cases, I’ll choose a row down the very back of the plane. And it works almost every time.
I’ve enjoyed the extra space that results from having the middle seat free on multiple flights between Auckland and Dubai, and on my most recent flight from Auckland to New York.
It just makes it so much more comfortable – if there’s a stranger sitting beside you, you can’t really lean on them, so you’re stuck in a pretty rigid position for the whole flight. With the middle seat free, you can lean over onto its headrest, hog the armrest all you like, and make the most of the extra legroom, too.
But the hack can work for two people travelling together, too. When selecting your seats, don’t pick two that are right beside each other – instead, find an empty row and take the window and aisle seats.
Best case scenario, other passengers will avoid your row, leaving you with the middle seat empty. Worst case scenario, someone is assigned the middle seat. Then you can ask them nicely if they wouldn’t mind swapping with one of you, so you can sit together. They’ll likely be stoked to get a mini-upgrade to the window or aisle seat.
Unless they’re one of the aforementioned less-than-1% who have actively chosen the middle seat. Then you’re going to be stuck sitting next to Chatty Cathy.