1) Avoid the front or back of the cabin if you like it quiet
Galley kitchens, lavatories and areas where passengers tend to congregate to have a stretch tend to be at the front and back of the cabins.
And bassinet crib positions for babies and families with young children are usually at the the front of each cabin — which means the back of a business class cabin might have babies in economy just the other side of a thin wall.
All of those factors combine to be pretty noisy, so if peace and quiet is important to you, pick a seat elsewhere.
Inflight bars and lounge areas also tend to be found towards the front and back of the cabin, so if you’re not planning to imbibe then pick a seat as far away from them as possible.
2) Go for an exit row, not a bulkhead, if you want legroom…
We’ll steer you away from heading for the bulkhead if stretched-out legroom is more important to you than space for your knees.
The difference is that you can extend your feet underneath the seat in front of you, but not if there’s a bulkhead wall ahead.
There’s usually more space for your knees in the bulkhead, though — and, when space is tighter at the back of the plane, there’s crucial space for your laptop too.
The emergency exit seats — where the rows of seats are spaced further apart for emergency access, and there’s no bulkhead wall at all — are almost always the best for the seriously tall passenger.
3) …but for extra elbow room, try far away from the doors
If you pick one of the least desirable places on the plane — a window or aisle far away from the doors — you’re banking that nobody will want the even worse middle seat next to you. So you’ll have space to spread out your carry-on bag, papers and laptop.
This is a bit of a gamble, since if the plane is absolutely full, you’re plumb out of luck and you’ll end up in a less-than-best seat.
But most planes have a few spare seats free, and the last to be filled tend to be middle seats at the very back if the plane only boards from the front, or three quarters back if the plane boards from both the front and rear doors.
(Extra tip: Frequent flyers often like to snag a seat in the last few rows on front-and-rear boarding flights since they can be first off.)
4) Aisle fan? Pick a seat in the centre section if there is one
On larger planes — the ones with two aisles, like a 747, A380 or similar — fans of aisle seats are better off picking a seat in the centre section if there’s a choice.
(Naturally, this doesn’t apply to business class seating where everyone has direct aisle access.)
Sitting in the centre section of those seats almost always means that you’ll have fewer passengers picking their way over you than if you were sitting next to a window passenger, no matter whether you’re in business or economy.
And sometimes — like in Qantas‘ A380 business class below — there’s no middle seat in the centre section at all.
Even if you’re on a plane where there are middle seats next to you, they’re less desirable for other passengers than window seats — so they’ll be the last filled, increasing the likelihood of a spare seat next to you.
5) Hunt down the smallest cabin on the plane
Again on those larger planes, check out whether there’s a smaller cabin tucked away somewhere. Often, the plane’s design and the airline’s layout choice mean that there’s a smaller cabin with just a few rows of seats — perfect for a quiet and productive flight.
On a Boeing 747, this often means the upper deck — usually business class, but sometimes economy or premium economy ends up there too, in a very comfortable layout.
Some Airbus A380 layouts have economy class upstairs, in a more spacious 2-4-2 layout rather than the 3-4-3 seen downstairs.
Virgin Australia’s Boeing 777 planes (the ones heading to Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi) have a whole row of business class in its own separate little cabin — the exclusive Row 5.
So keep an eye on those seating layouts and see if there’s a smaller cabin you can pick.
Bonus tip: keep checking back, especially 7, 3 and 1 days before departure
If you don’t like the seat you can pick at check-in, make sure you keep checking back periodically. (Try setting a calendar appointment to remind you, noting down the six-digit PNR booking reference number in the appointment so you have it to hand.)
Often, airlines will keep back the very best seats for their most frequent flyers to start with, and those seats will then be released back into the general pool as it gets closer to your departure.
And other passengers who have snagged your favourite seat might have changed flight, been upgraded or swapped places.
Particularly useful times to check back are seven days, three days and twenty-four hours before your departure. Those tend to be the times that airlines most frequently shift around the seats they might have been keeping back.