If you're flying in Economy or a with a low-cost carrier, the ability to choose your seat in advance is probably going to cost you extra. I hate fees with a passion as much as I detest the infamous traffic in Manila (where I'm currently based before I leave on my RTW trip). Activate "savvy traveler" mode! Time to get a great seat assignment and avoid that pesky fee.
The trick to choosing a better seat for free is checking in to your flight 48 - 72 hours in advance. You will have really slim pickings if you are planning to put on your best puppy dog eyes and attempt to get your seat reassigned with a gate agent just before the flight. When you purchase a ticket and forego seat selection, the airline randomly assigns you a seat in god knows where. With prior personal bookings, I have seen my own random seat assignment being the middle seat of the last row of the cabin despite the majority of the cabin being empty. Oh no, you didn't! Clearly the seat assignment algorithm will try and fill in undesirable seats first and reserve better seats for customers who want to pony up the extra fee for them.
Fortunately, most of the major airlines will hopefully allow you to change your seat assignment to an unoccupied one during the web check-in process en gratis. Yes, you are banking on a lot of luck but it might pay off. On a recent flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka, I must have cashed in some lucky chips because I was able to snag bulkhead seats on both segments of my flight! If you didn't already know, bulkhead (first row of economy) and exit row seats are widely considered as the best seats in a standard Economy class cabin with more legroom. With that said, it is not surprising to see airlines charging even more for those particular rows!
I'm in the fortunate position of being a solo traveler who is able to fit quite comfortably into a regular economy seat. Getting an exit row or bulkhead seat to me is a nice bonus. This allows me to be flexible enough to play the waiting game and roll the dice. I may win some and also lose some but I will no longer let the airline assign me a random seat ever again with this handy tip. On the flip-side, if do require additional legroom and are willing to pay for a seat assignment then by all means go ahead. There is simply no sense in gambling if it means there is a big chance that you'll get stuck in a standard seat, or worse, the middle seat (gross) and be horrendously uncomfortable for the entirety of the flight.
Actionable Steps When Booking Your Next Flight:
#1. Forego seat assignment when purchasing airfare if it costs extra. If you are able to select your preferred seat for free then you can go straight to step #7.
#2. Identify when web check-in opens (varies by airline). For example, Malaysia Airlines will allow you to check-in online the earliest exactly 48 hours in advance of your flight segment.
#3. Create a reminder using your method of choice to check-in online at the time identified in step #2. In your reminder, put in the reservation identifier (such as E-ticket number or reservation number) to expedite check-in. My preferred reminder protocol is adding an entry in my calendar application with a reminder 3 hours before and at the time itself.
#4. When checking in online, fill out all requisite information in your party and find the ability to change seat assignments.
#5. On the seat assignment screen, check if any bulkhead or exit row seats are available. If unavailable, change your assignment(s) to the best available based on your preference (window, aisle, seats together, front/back of cabin, near bathroom, etc.)
#6. Repeat steps 3 - 5 if the airline cannot check you in for all the segments of your flight in one sitting.
#7. Enjoy your flight!
Hope that helps!
PS: If you really like being in the middle seat, get in touch with me! I'm curious to hear why. :P
Nico Atienza is a Philippines born, Sri Lanka raised traveler who sold everything, quit his job and escaped the rat race to travel the world in 2016. Apart from his love of travel, he is an award winning volunteer, miles + points aficionado and perpetually epicurious story teller. You can peer into his life by following him on Twitter, Instagram or send him an Email.