Travel SOS: how to snag the best seat on the plane

Kay O’Sullivan reveals her no-fail strategy for snagging the best seat on the plane.

Snag the best seat on the plane

Kay O’Sullivan is no accidental tourist. More than a decade ago, she decided to combine two of her favourite things – journalism and travel – and become a travel writer. Since then, she has written about travel for numerous papers, magazines and on the internet, both here and internationally.

It’s a question we’re often asked: how do I get the best seat on the plane? This week, in a break from our usual style, we’ve asked travel guru Kay O’Sullivan if there’s a definitive answer to this query. Turns out, she has a no-fail strategy to ensure that you get the best available seat and a decent night’s sleep on a long-haul flight. Here it is …

Step 1
Immutable law of long-distance flying: When you select your seat/s, the last cabin should be your first choice. 

Why? Because the front cabins fill first, the last cabin fills last, so if there are going to be spare seats on a flight, the last cabin is where you will find them. 

Exactly why the forward cabins fill fast eludes me. Sure, you might get off the plane five minutes before the bods at the back, but where’s the advantage in that? Everyone has to wait for the transit bus to the terminal to fill up, then queue for immigration, and then wait for luggage … you get my drift. 

And fear not that you will starve because you are down the back of the bus. Gone are the days when the meal trolley was hauled up to the very front and then slowly inched its way towards the back with the greedy hordes taking the best of what was on offer before it got to you. Today, the crews roll out multiple trolleys to get mealtimes done and dusted as quickly as possible. 

One final thing before I divulge step 2 of my cunning plan – can I say again you absolutely must select your seats as soon as you pay for your tickets. Even if your quest for space is stymied because the plane is full, you do not want to be the piggy in the middle of a row. 

Step 2
Big planes are boarded from the back to the front to avoid traffic jams of people; so if you are sitting up the back you will be ‘invited’ to board first.

Ignore the call. Don’t move at this point. You have to hold your nerve and board only when there are less than 10 people left to get on. This is crucial, as you will see later.

Step 3
Once on board, you have to look as if you know exactly where your seat is. A nonchalant stroll is how I’d describe my MO on boarding. The thing is, if you are at all hesitant or obviously searching the cabin, a helpful attendant (yes, they exist) might ask to see your boarding pass to take you to your seat. That’s game over.

Airlines are happy for passengers to claim empty seats but prefer us to sit in the seat we are assigned until the plane levels after take-off. Loads of people know this, and they are the ones you need to outwit to secure extra space.

There are increasing numbers of bolshie ones who will make a bolt for the spare seats as soon as they can, often when the pilot asks the crew to lock and alarm the doors. You’ll see them as you stroll past, they’ll be bobbing up and down in their seats to see what is available. But here’s the thing. Human nature being what it is most people fear the embarrassment of being evicted if the rightful owner of the seat comes to claim it.

Which is why it’s crucial – repeat crucial – you are one of the last to board. That way you will be able to carefully survey the entire cabin for the pick of the spare seats and know that you will be safe from eviction.

Step four
Once you spot the space you want to nab, and hopefully it’s a row on its own, don’t dicker around. Plop yourself down like you belong and set about making it your own by spreading your stuff around. If you’ve got a row of three, claim the middle seat as no one would bother asking you to move to either side.

Because I don’t want to risk someone taking adverse possession of my territory while I’m in the toilet changing into comfortable clothes for the flight, I’m always dressed to fly. A tad obsessive? Yes, indeed. 

But the results – a row to myself on four different long-haul flights recently – suggest my plan works.

It will for you too. Happy flying.

Do you have a travel question for Kay? If so, email your Travel SOS to



    To make a comment, please register or login
    16th Dec 2017
    Yes, and how selfish can you get! A row of seats to yourself while the rest of the passengers, some of them elderly have to struggle out of full rows when they need the toilet, some of them who would give an arm and a leg to be able to stretch painful limbs out a bit, parents with small children who would love to get that child off their lap just for a little while, and others who may be sitting next to the world's fattest person and would love to get away from the overflow into their seats.
    21st Dec 2017
    That is why she is writing this article - for those people - the people who would "give an arm and a leg to be able to stretch..." and the "parents with small children" etc.
    16th Dec 2017
    Don't get it? You are allocated a seat number on your ticket, if you want a special seat they charge extra.
    Apart from that, when the plane crashes you are the last one to hit the ground if you sit in the back.
    16th Dec 2017
    People really do this sort of thing. I have seen young men grab a whole row of seats by lying down as soon as the fasten seat belt sign goes off and sleep all the way on an international flight.

    I think that as a courtesy to their passengers crew should stop this sort of thing and make seats available to those who really could use a bit more space.
    16th Dec 2017
    When another is lying across 3 seats, Maggie, I am sure the crew would do just that if someone experiencing risk or pain simply asked.
    21st Dec 2017
    You are right JAID. I was given the row of seats on a Qantas flight when I asked for my seat to be changed to the isle seat because I have a painful medical condition where I need to be in the isle seat to avoid twisting it trying to get out of inside seats and to be able to get up and stand occasionally.

    I expressed I was upset that I had booked the isle seat because of this but they changed the seating plan and took away the seat I booked and put me in the inside seat. I told them i couldn't deal with that and they put me in the row of spare seats at the back. I didn't mind that it was backing onto the toilet with people lined up next to me. It didn't smell or anything and people lined up in the isle next to me doesn't make any difference to me.
    16th Dec 2017
    Thanks for your humerous flying strategy ...sure brought a smile to my face ????
    16th Dec 2017
    Selfish inflight behaviour has been around for longer than most people realise. I have seen it all, hogging all the space they can get, seat reclines, extended times in toilets, unreasonable demands on cabin crews,etc,etc etc. Sorry folks its here to stay and will get worse before it gets better. Even cabin crews try to distance themselves from it. Try to avoid long distance travel in economy if you can. Passengers seated in business class are usualyl better behaved.

    16th Dec 2017
    Problem is flights are so cheap now - even the riff raff Labor and green supporters and bogans can afford to fly

    And fat People too - they SHOULD pay for 3 seats
    16th Dec 2017
    And skinny people should be taxed at a higher rate because they haven't contributed to the economy by buying larger amounts of food - LOL!
    16th Dec 2017
    That’s offset by the savings they make to public health costs and smaller global warming footprint

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