Whether traveling for business or pleasure, sometimes having the best airplane seats can set the tone for the entire trip. We have partnered with Arizona-based Susan Lanier-Graham, of Wander With Wonder, who spends many days every year on a plane and offers some tips on picking the best airplane seats when you book your flights.

Best airplane seats

American Airlines Airbus A321. Photo courtesy American Airlines

I spend a lot of time on planes. Sometimes, thanks to those frequent flier miles, I’m fortunate to get business or first class seating. I’ll be honest—you can’t beat those airplane seats. But, I’m not always that fortunate. So how do I pick a seat when I fly in the main cabin? I have a few tips and tricks that might help you pick the best airplane seats for your next trip.

One of the first suggestions is that you look up your flight—by date, airline and flight number—before you book, on SeatGuru.com. That will help you pick the best airplane seats for both business and leisure travel.

Understanding Categories of Airplane Seats

Although they may use different names, airlines traditionally offered First Class and Main Class. Today, many have added Business Class and something referred to as Premium Economy. What are all of those designations and how do they differ?

What is First Class?

First Class is the best of the best. On some airlines, you might have a private suite with a shower that can cost thousands of dollars. On US-based carriers, such as American Airlines and Delta Airlines, most international flights offer seats that convert into beds for overnight rest.

Best airplane seats

Delta One on an Airbus 330-300 (333). Photo courtesy Delta Airlines

Delta’s Delta One, available on international flights and cross-country flights between New York’s JFK and Los Angeles LAX or San Francisco SFO, offers such amenities as Westin Heavenly bedding, gourmet meals paired with award-winning wines, club access, noise-canceling headsets, entertainment and an amenity kit.

First Class on Delta and American features premium seats, first on/first off boarding, complimentary alcoholic beverages, food service and entertainment.

Smaller, commuter jets offer a First Class option as well. These are ideal for business travelers who want room to work, but find the limited space on the smaller jets unable to accommodate their laptops.

Best airplane seats

American’s E-175s feature a two-class configuration with 12 First Class seats and 64 Main Cabin seats. Photo courtesy American Airlines

What is Business Class?

Some airlines, including American Airlines, offer a service called Business Class that varies depending on the aircraft. On the American Airlines 777-300ER, Business Class includes seats that convert into fully-flat beds. While not as luxurious as a first class seat, it provides for a much more comfortable flight overseas than the main cabin and every seat has aisle access.

Best airplane seats

The Business Class cabin on the American 777-300ER is outfitted with fully lie flat seats – all with aisle access. Photo courtesy American Airlines

What is Premium Economy Class?

While airlines refer to Premium Economy by different names, it is a level of service usually offered on longer flights. It is in the Main Cabin, but at the front of the plane or in select seats and includes a few extra perks. These airline seats have additional legroom, usually extra recline, include snacks or food, complimentary alcoholic beverages and priority boarding.

Best airplane seats

Comfort+ seats on a Boeing 737-900ER (739). Photo courtesy Delta Airlines

What is Main Cabin Class?

Main Cabin seating is the most common seating on airplanes and the seats most people select when booking a flight. But even if you book a Main Cabin seat, there are ways to get a better experience. Even with shrinking seat sizes, it’s still possible to find the best airplane seats with just a little planning.

Best airplane seats

American Main Cabin Seats. Photo courtesy American Airlines

Are Exit Row Seats the Best Airplane Seats?

When some people book flights, they immediately check to see if exit seats are available, because everyone knows that exit row seats are the best airplane seats. Right? Not necessarily. There are a few pros and cons to keep in mind when considering an exit row seat.

Best airplane seats

Main Cabin seats in the emergency exit rows inside a Boeing 737-900ER (739). Photo courtesy Delta Airlines

  • Children are not allowed in exit row seats, so these are not for families traveling together.
  • No infants are allowed in rows either directly in front of or behind exit rows in the United States.
  • You must be physically able to assist the crew in case of emergency. While emergencies don’t happen often, this is a real obligation and you should take it seriously.
  • You must be able to speak the native language for your flight, so an exit row seat wouldn’t be an option for you if you are on Aeroflot and don’t speak Russian.
  • While there is more legroom, remember that the airline may have put the seat back tray into the seat arm because of the extra legroom, creating a narrower seat to accommodate the tray.
  • Seats in front of the exit row don’t recline, so you won’t have someone reclining into you. Likewise, don’t choose a seat in front of the exit row if you like to recline, because your seat won’t move.
  • The seats closest to the exit door tend to be chilly.
  • On planes with two exit rows, the first row of seats do not recline. So, while you will have extra leg room, you won’t be able to recline even on a long flight. This is the case in the photo above on the Delta 737-900ER.
  • Note in the above photo of the Delta Boeing 737-900ER (739) the first row of exit seats (Row 19) has three seats that do not recline; however, seat 20 has only two seats and both recline. Also note that in row 21, seats A and F have full recline and no seat in front of them because of the missing exit row seat. Those are the types of tips you can find on SeatGuru.com before booking your ticket.

Are Bulkhead Seats the Best Airplane Seats?

The other popular seats are bulkhead seats. Bulkhead seats are located behind any physical barriers—walls, curtains, screens. Again, there are some advantages and disadvantages to these types of seats. You can check out the specifics for the flights you are considering on SeatGuru.com, but these are general guidelines when considering bulkhead seating:

  • Bulkhead seats can be noisy because they are near the galley or lavatories.
  • There is no one in front of you reclining into your space.
  • Some bulkhead seats have limited recline.
  • Most bulkhead seats have trays in the arms, reducing seat widths.
  • Because there is no seat in front of you, there is no storage space in front of you for your backpack or purse, so those must be stowed in overhead space during takeoff and landing.
  • There may be no seat back pocket for headphones, cellphone or other personal items.
  • Some airlines use bulkhead space for infants, so you may find yourself sharing that space with families.

General Tips for Choosing the Best Airplane Seats

As you are making your flight reservations for your next trip, the most important thing to remember is that the best airplane seats depend on what is important for you.

Best airplane seats

Seats in the American Airlines Main Cabin. Photo courtesy American Airlines

The best airplane seat for me might be different from the best airplane seat for you. Here are some general tips that I always keep in mind:

  • If you sit in a window seat, it’s not easy to get up for frequent walks down the aisle or trips to the restroom, but you can lean against the window and get great views as you fly.
  • If you sit on the aisle, you can get up and down easily, but you might be bumped with the cart and you will have to get up on long flights when your seat mates need to use the restroom.
  • The front of the airplane is quieter than the rear and the front offers a smoother ride than the rear.
  • When traveling with small children, you might have more freedom if you book seats at the rear of the plane.
  • Last rows on many planes have reduced pitch, or the distance between rows, measured from the back of one seat to the back of the seat behind it. Those last rows often do not recline, either.
  • There may be one or two rows on the plane in which the windows don’t line up with seats, so that even if you book a window seat, you sit next to a wall. Check SeatGuru.com for verification.
  • Not all airlines yet offer electricity at each seat. Check with the airline and SeatGuru.com for confirmation.
  • Some seats have equipment installed under them, reducing the amount of under seat storage and legroom. This information is also available on SeatGuru.com.
Best airplane seats

A window seat offers great views. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

And which seat do I consider the best seat on the airplane? Obviously, I would prefer to sit in First Class. I love to book an overnight international flight, enjoy a glass of champagne and then a lovely meal. After that, I settle into my bed, usually watch a movie and then get a good night’s sleep. There’s nothing better than waking up to a breakfast on the plane and feeling refreshed when I arrive at my destination. On international flights, if you can afford the splurge, it’s definitely worth it. Business Class is a great compromise between First Class and Main Cabin Class on long-haul flights.

Best airplane seats

American Airline’s First Class cabin features an updated and enhanced version of American’s Flagship Suite seats. Photo courtesy American Airlines

If I can’t fit those premium classes into my budget, I opt for an aisle seat in the front of the plane. I prefer to have underseat storage for my backpack, seatback pocket for my personal items, and the ability to get up to go to the restroom without having to bother a sleeping seat mate. If I can get the aisle seat in the second row of exit seats, that’s also a great choice for me, depending on the airline and what SeatGuru.com says about the plane that I’m considering for my flight. Ultimately, the best airplane seat for me is the one that whisks me to far off destinations to discover something new and amazing that makes me say “wow”.

Travelocity compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site; such compensation may include travel and other costs.

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