Generally speaking, you can get your seat reserved at the same time that you buy your plane ticket – most airlines can book up to 11 months in advance. Some smaller airlines don’t assign seats ahead of time and you will have to wait until you check in for the flight. Obviously, the further ahead you book your seat, the more choice you will have when it comes to your seat assignment.
Keep in mind that seat assignments are technically a courtesy and are never 100% guaranteed; although most of the time your pre-reserved seat will not change between the time you book it and the time you board the plane. Occasionally though, the airline may change your seat assignment – usually the reason is because of a change of the type of aircraft flying on this route. If your airline does change your pre-reserved seat to something you don’t want, always ask the reservations agent if there is another seat – or flight – available. If not, there is little you can do except to try to change your seat on arrival at the airport.
The first big choice you have to make is: window or aisle seat? There are advantages to both, and it’s really a matter of personal choice. The window seat is generally easier to sleep in on a longer flight, as you can lean against the wall, you also won’t be disturbed by the person next to you getting out of their seat. At the same time, you may have to disturb them – or climb over them – if you are in the window seat. You also have more of that scarce luxury – legroom – if you are sitting in the aisle, as you can stretch your legs out into the aisle itself. Be careful though of those heavy beverage carts if you have limbs sticking out! Some passengers, if there are two of them traveling and the aircraft has three seats across in a row, will take an aisle and a window, and hope that nobody takes the middle seat – a strategy that sometimes works.
Generally speaking, airline reservations agents tend to assign seats at the front of the plane first, so if you ask for a seat at the back you have more chance of an empty seat next to you on the day of the flight. Ask what type of aircraft you are flying – some smaller jets and commuter planes have just one seat on the side.
Some particular seats on the plane or certain rows of seats are preferable to others. The exit row seats (the row of seats where the emergency exit door is situated) are highly sought after by frequent flyers and those in the know, as these seats have a lot more legroom than the regular seats. It can be difficult to get an exit row seat though – airlines usually save these coveted seats for their elite flyers, or passengers who have paid for a higher priced ticket. There are FAA requirements as well – anyone seated in the exit row must be at least 16 years old, able to communicate in English and open the emergency door if asked to.
Always ask at the airport when you check in – there is a chance you may be able to get an exit row seat if they are still available. If there are two exit rows, one behind the other, ask for the second row as the seats don’t recline on the first of the two exit rows. The other row of seats that is coveted is the bulkhead row. This is the first row of seats in the coach cabin; the big advantage is there is no passenger in front of you to lean their seat back against your legs. The disadvantage of these seats is you have to put your carry on bag in the overhead bin rather than on the floor in front of you. Some aircraft offer wall-mounted bassinets on the bulkhead row, which can be used if you are traveling with a baby.
When asking for your seat assignment over the phone, or online, keep in mind other things as well. How close to the bathroom or the galley is your seat? Passengers, especially on a longer flight, tend to congregate outside the bathrooms, and the galley area may be noisy with the flight attendants preparing meals, etc. How important to you is it to have a seat clear of the wing (if you want a view outside) or close to one of the movie screens (if you want to watch the film) or next to a power port (if you want to use your laptop in flight)? Any airline reservations agent or travel agent should be able to answer these questions; many airlines’ websites also have detailed seating maps showing the location of movie screens, bathrooms, so-called ‘undesirable’ seats (usually one that doesn’t fully recline) and anything else that might affect your decision.
Finally, if all else fails and you have not been able to get the seat of your choice; always ask at the check in counter on the day of your flight. Airlines always keep some seats ‘blocked’ to be assigned at the time of check in, these may be for last minute groups traveling together, children traveling alone, or passengers needing extra assistance who need to be seated at the front of the plane. If these seats are not given away, you have a reasonable chance of being able to claim one. The airlines also plan on having a ‘no-show’ factor – passengers who fail to turn up for their flight – so you may be able to get their seat as well.