The 3 Secrets to Getting an Empty or More Expensive Seat on Flights

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I’m not an antisocial guy.  Ok, sometimes!

I find one of life’s simple pleasures to be an empty seat next to me on the plane.  I don’t like wasting time, so I usually try to work during my flights.  Or sleep!

And I can work better (or sleep) when I have a little room to breathe!

Empty Seats On Flights

Business Class Isn’t Always an Option. Sitting Next to an Empty Seat in Coach Is the Next Best Thing!

Here’s how I’m able to sometimes sit next to an empty seat when I fly.

1.   Change Seat Assignments Online

Once while flying United Airlines from Austin to San Francisco, I had some work I really needed to do.  I wanted to set up an office on the plane to maximize my efficiency.

Waiting at the airport for my plane to arrive, I opened the United Airlines app on my phone to see if I was one of the lucky folks with a vacant seat next to them.  I was not one of them!

Empty Seats On Flights

No 2 Empty Seats Next to Each Other

I wasn’t targeted for United’s Economy Plus subscription, and I did NOT want to pay for an upgrade to the Economy Plus seat.

So I waited until the last minute at the gate.  And used the app to switch my seating assignment next to an empty seat a few rows back.  And it worked like a charm!

Empty Seats On Flights

There Were Lots of Empty Seats Near the Back of the Plane

Here’s the seat map of a Delta flight I took:

Empty Seats On Flights

There are Currently 2 More Seats With Empty Seats Next to Them

If I see someone has taken the seat next to me, I’ll gladly switch my seat to a few rows back so I can sit next to an empty seat.

This obviously won’t work every time.  There are last-minute seat re-assignments, and sometimes every seat on the plane is taken.  In those cases, I keep my office inside my carry-on.

2.   Ask and You (May) Receive

Million Mile Secrets team member Jasmin has had multiple successes getting upgraded to Premium Economy simply by asking!  It made a huge difference on a 9+ hour flight between Washington, DC, and Honolulu.

It doesn’t hurt to politely inquire with the gate agent if something further forward with a bit of extra space is available (the worst they can say is no).  And on flights that aren’t full, they may have to shift some folks into an otherwise-empty Premium Economy section anyway for aircraft weight and balance.  JetBlue may be the exception, since they continue to sell seats with extra legroom even after folks have boarded the plane.

And keep in mind, you may not be able to see all available seats on airline websites or mobile apps.  So even if it appears there are no rows with empty middle seats to move to, it could be worth asking the gate agent if there’s anything they can do.

3.   Don’t Assign Yourself a Seat

You can also wait for your seat to be assigned for you by the ticketing agent at the airport instead of choosing it yourself beforehand.  This will give coach seats a chance to fill up, and increase your chances of being bumped to Premium Economy.

However, there are no guarantees, and eve some risk involved!  Possible outcomes are:

  • You still end up getting a regular coach seat
  • You end up being split from folks you are traveling with
  • You get NO seat assignment, and are bumped from the flight

So weigh the dangers before you decide to go this route!  You may end up on the worst seat in the plane.

Bottom Line

If you want to sit next to an empty seat on the plane, you can use your airline’s mobile app to view the flight’s seat chart and re-assign your seat!

Do you have any tips or tricks for getting a bit of extra space on flights?

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17 responses to “The 3 Secrets to Getting an Empty or More Expensive Seat on Flights

  1. It’s obvious, but if flying a wide body, I reserve an aisle seat in the center block rather than in the outside blocks. The window seats will fill up a lot more quickly than the dreaded middle seats in the center, leaving a better chance of an adjacent seat remaining vacant. And, like you, I take another look at that seat map closer to flight time to see if any of those “window seat is taken but aisle seat is not” options turn up. No strategy helps, though, when the flight is full, which happens a lot.

  2. My wife and I will usually book an aisle and window and hope the middle does not get assigned. On long flights where the middle is assigned, I have asked the gate agent if I can pay to upgrade the person assigned to the middle seat to econ+ so we can have the open middle. So far I’ve been lucky in that the agents have reassigned the middle seat – except on 100% full flights – without cost. On those occasions when the flight is full, I suck it up and take the middle (next to my wife), letting the assigned middle person have the aisle.

  3. I know that at least once I tried and was unable to change my seat after checking in (I can’t remember which airline but I believe it was AA). Actually I would have expected that to normally be the case – that once I check in, my seat is “locked” unless someone from the airline changes it for me.

    So this isn’t the case? Can I really change my seat 30 seconds before I board? Does it vary by airline?

  4. I have the same question as Jon too. Can I actually change my seat assignment at the gate right before boarding?

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  11. When I have to fly American or United I will usually not pick a seat before hand, typically 1 out of 3 flights I will get upgraded to at least a premium economy seat.

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  15. If you use app to change seat how do you get new boarding pass?

  16. @Kyle – but how often are you stuck in a middle seat? Not meant to be snarky – that’s a serious question. When I can’t get a window (for a redeye) or aisle (otherwise) when I buy the ticket, I check in exactly 24 hours before the flight time and generally can get the seat I want. I always assumed that other people are doing the same, and thus if I wait, middle seats will be all that’s left.