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’m not really sure what the deal is, but I’ve been extremely lucky this year – at least when it comes to air travel. You’ve probably noticed that I’m flying economy class a lot more this year (which is pretty much the opposite of luck, I know) but I’m happy to say that it hasn’t been all that bad. As a matter fact, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to maximize the economy experience – enough so that I’m feeling an irresistible urge to teach you how to get an empty seat next to you on a flight (exactly the way I do it).

Notice that I didn’t say “any” flight. There is definitely an art to picking flights that have the greatest chance of having open seats. But with a little bit of determination (and a sprinkle of blind luck), it’s not all that difficult to fly around the world without rubbing elbows with creepy strangers who just can’t get the hint that you really don’t wanna know how gassy and bloated they feel after eating airline food.

The six 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 6 things that have helped me to score empty seats next to me on many of my flights so far this year:

  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. 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, just like on that United LAX-EWR segment 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…

The truth is that there’s not a 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.

Method number 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 far away.

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 all the way from San Francisco to Reykjavik on Icelandair.

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 anyway.

FYI, I’ve had the best luck flying on Tuesdays and Wednesdays this year. 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.

The 2nd method for getting an empty seat next to you on a flight: 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 for this method is this: the center section on most widebody flights has either three seats or four. If you’re on a flight that has three 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 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 an 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.

Method number 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 (on easyJet 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…

Method number 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.

Empty seat method number 5: purchasing 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 on a recent flight from ICN to DTW on Delta? 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. 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).

Method number 6: 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 from San Francisco to Melbourne! It was lucky as heck, but I was happy to take it.

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).

Does anyone else have any other tips for scoring an empty seat next to you on flights? Let me know in the comment section below!

Comments (10)

  1. Albert

    June 28, 2019
    • SANspotter

      June 28, 2019
  2. Albert

    June 28, 2019
    • SANspotter

      June 29, 2019
  3. AVLspotter

    June 29, 2019
    • SANspotter

      June 29, 2019
  4. Randy Preising

    June 30, 2019
    • SANspotter

      June 30, 2019
  5. Randy Preising

    July 1, 2019
    • SANspotter

      July 2, 2019

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