How I usually end up with empty seats next to me on flights

How I usually end up with empty seats next to me on flights

I’ve logged over 1.5 million miles of air travel so far (most of it in basic economy class), and even without trying, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to maximize the experience. Basically, I think I’ve figured out how to end up with an empty seat next to me more often than not.

Notice that I didn’t say that it happens on every flight. There is definitely an art to picking flights that have the greatest chance of having open seats, and that is exactly what I’m about to explain.

With a bit of determination (and a sprinkle of good old fashioned blind luck), it’s not all that difficult to fly around the world in economy without rubbing body parts with creepy strangers. Especially the ones who just can’t get the hint that you’d really rather not be sitting next to them. 

SANspotter empty seat southwest 737 MAX 8
Is there anything more beautiful than an empty seat next to you on a long flight? Here I am crushing hard on the void next to me on a Southwest 737 MAX 8 taking me out to Hawaii.

The seven ways of getting an empty seat next to you on a flight:

I’ll do a deeper dive into each one of these points in a moment, but first – here are the 7 things that have helped me to score empty seats next to me on so many flights over the years:

  1. Flying mid week (as opposed to Mondays, Fridays, and weekends)
  2. Choosing an aisle seat in the center section on widebody flights
  3. Traveling solo
  4. Using ExpertFlyer to gauge how full a flight is before even booking it
  5. Purchasing an extra seat
  6. Flying on major holidays
  7. Getting lucky

I should also mention that sometimes things don’t work out at all and I end up sitting next to some really annoying people. For example, there was that time in United 757-200 business class where the guy next to me spent the majority of the flight eating a bucket of home-cooked garlic asparagus he brought onboard with him. I gag even thinking about it.

The truth is that there’s no guaranteed way of ending up with an empty seat next to you on any given flight.

However, as I explain all of these points in greater detail (below), it may spark some ideas of your own. It’ll also behoove you to do some personal experimentation to increase the odds of it happening on the flights that you regularly take.

1. Avoid flying on the weekends

If your schedule is flexible in any way, I highly recommend avoiding travel on the weekends. Fridays and Mondays are probably the busiest days due to all the business travelers going to work and then returning home. Sundays are pretty bad as well due to the super hard-core business travelers who leave home a day early in order to make an 8 AM Monday morning meeting somewhere.

In my personal opinion, Saturdays are a mixed bag. There are far fewer business travelers on Saturday, but on the flipside, it’s prime time for families with small children to fill up the planes to go see grandma.

SANspotter empty seat
The date was Thursday, October 18th, and I sat in blissful solitude in Icelandair 767-300 economy from San Francisco all the way to Reykjavik. It was glorious.

If you have to fly on Saturday, I’d recommend flying in the late afternoon and evening – everyone is pretty much where they need to go by that point, and the chances of getting an empty seat next to you on your flight will be much higher. At least that’s my experience.

FYI, I’ve had the best luck flying on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Out of all the flights where I’ve had an empty seat next to me, most have occurred on these days.

As you might imagine, this is an especially important tip for any first time flyer who tends to feel claustrophobic and needs as much room as they can get to spread out.

SANspotter sitting in a Sun Country 737-800 standard seat with an empty adjacent seat
Pro: Sun Country 737-800 Standard seats are a lot more comfortable when the one next to you is vacant. Con: there’s nobody to complain to about the aches and pains you’re feeling.

2. Choose aisle seats

More specifically, aisle seats in the center section on widebody flights. Now, before you inform me that widebody flights are becoming increasingly rare these days, I just want to say that I know – and that this tip is primarily intended for long-haul flights. The kind where you really want an empty seat next to you.

The strategy fits simple: The center section on most widebody flights has either 3 seats or 4. If you’re on a flight that has 3 seats and you take one of them, that only leaves two. Yeah, a couple traveling together may scoop those up – but the trick is to be proactive pick a seat in a row which already has a solo traveler seated in the other aisle seat.

When you choose your aisle seat, that only leaves the center seat open. The chances of anyone voluntarily choosing that center seat over an aisle or a window somewhere else is extremely slim unless the flight is completely full.

SANspotter empty seat economy class
Seats 15D (and E) all to myself in the center section of a Norwegian Air 787-9 economy from LGW to LAX. The only downside of having an open seat next to me was that I couldn’t ask “you gonna finish that?” as I pointed to their tray of uneaten food.

This method works especially well for couples traveling together. If you’re on a single-aisle aircraft with a 3-3 seating configuration (as most are these days), select both the aisle and window seat and leave the middle open.

It’s a win-win situation no matter the outcome. If the seat remains empty, then… yay! If that middle seat ends up being occupied, chances are extremely high that the middle seat guy or gal would be thrilled to death to switch it for an aisle or a window so that you and your traveling partner can still sit together.

3. Travel solo

This is actually just an extension of the aisle seat method I described above. However, it’s worth noting that there is a major advantage to traveling by yourself that will greatly increase the chances of having an open seat next to you: flexibility.

SANspotter empty middle seat tips
The time: 7:21am. The place: Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (in easyJet A320 basic economy heading to LGW). The mood: smug, for scoring yet another empty seat next to me.

If you’re traveling by yourself, you are free to pick and choose the best seat based on how full the flight is (right up until departure time). I personally watch the seat map like a hawk for as long as I can, and make as many adjustments as possible to increase my chances of sitting next to an open seat.

Speaking of looking at seat maps…

4. Spy on all those empty seats using ExpertFlyer

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have probably already seen my full review of ExpertFlyer. It’s a powerful suite of tools for frequent flyers that I just can’t live without. 

For example, the seat map tool on Expert Flyer is really good, as it allows me to view seat maps for most major airlines long before I book a flight. I can very quickly and easily see how full (or open) a flight is before booking it, which is a huge timesaver for me. Nothing ticks me off more than going through the booking process for a flight only to realize at the very last moment that it’s completely full and I can’t get the seat that I want.

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With ExpertFlyer, my chances on being on a flight with an open seat next to me are much higher. It’s not the perfect tool, as the seat map feature only or works for the major airlines – but it’s definitely one of the handiest airline and travel tools I have at my disposal at the moment.

5. Purchase an extra seat

If figuring out how to get an empty seat on your next flight is your main purpose in life (or at least the primary objective of your next trip), purchasing an extra seat is the only sure-fire way of making it happen. As a matter of fact, it isn’t all that unrealistic and spendy as it might seem.

Sanspotter delta a350 empty seat
Admiring my muscles in Delta A350 Premium Select from ICN to DTW? Nope. I’m just stretching out while rolling up my sleeves thanks to all the extra space.

Using the US as an example, it’s not all that uncommon to find round-trip economy fares for transcon flights in the $250-$350 range. If you end up finding a really good deal, it may behoove you buy two of those seats and feel good knowing that you will have extra space for your entire journey no matter what.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather sit in economy with an open seat next to me rather than feeling cramped in a completely full domestic first class cabin.

The only downside to doing this is that it isn’t possible to book an extra seat for yourself though most airline websites or apps. You’ll have to call the airline directly and make the reservation over the phone (which may incur additional booking costs).

6. Fly on major holidays

One of the best ways to end up with an empty seat next to you is to fly on a major holiday. Here in the US, most everyone who travels for Thanksgiving and Christmas do so in the days leading up to it (not the day of).

For example, one of the most comfortable flights of my life was Air France A330-200 economy from Paris to Detroit on Christmas Day 2007. The flight was maybe 30% full, and I had rows and rows of seats all to myself.

The runner up was flying from Portland to San Diego in the late afternoon of July 4th a while back. I was one of only 4 passengers onboard. It was weird (but fun).

7. Get lucky

As I’ve already mentioned, there’s no exact science to getting an empty seat next to you on a flight. You could do all the steps I’ve outlined above (exactly as I described them), and it still might not work. Sometimes it’s just a matter of dumb luck.

SANspotter another empty seat
I scored an empty seat next to me in Qantas 787-9 premium economy from San Francisco to Melbourne! It was lucky as heck, but I wasn’t about to protest the situation.

A few final thoughts

The fact of the matter is that you’ll never really know if that seat next to you is going to remain empty until the boarding door closes – even if you purchase an extra seat to proactively prevent someone else from sitting there. If the flight is overbooked, the airline has every right to take it from you and issue a refund for the amount you paid for it.

The best plan of attack is to plan for the worst and hope for the best. It’s never wise to step onto a flight feeling overly confident that you’ll have an empty seat next to you, because that’s a sure-fire way to end up feeling ticked off and frustrated when things don’t go your way.

Just plan as best as you can, and go with the flow. You’ll win some, and you’ll lose some (but the goal is to win more often than not).

Comments (12)

  1. Albert

    June 28, 2019
    • SANspotter

      June 28, 2019
  2. Albert

    June 28, 2019
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      June 29, 2019
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    June 29, 2019
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      June 29, 2019
  4. Randy Preising

    June 30, 2019
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      June 30, 2019
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    July 1, 2019
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      July 2, 2019
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    August 19, 2023
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      August 20, 2023

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