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Get More Elbow Room When Traveling

I won the lottery earlier this month. No, not Mega Millions, but something almost as good: I flew from California to Europe in economy class and had three seats to myself. And I wasn’t the only one: about twenty of us in the back of the plane had three or four seats each.

I asked a flight attendant why the plane was so wonderfully empty. He explained to me that I was flying a seasonal flight (from San Francisco to Zurich, on United) shortly after the season started, and that such routes often take time to build up a full number of passengers. I immediately regretted not booking the same route for my return trip: on my return flight from Munich a week later, I could count the total number of empty seats on the plane on one hand .

Would you like to take advantage of this tip yourself? You can find seasonal flights from your home airport in non-stop flights to make your travels easier.

Another reason the coach section of my flight was so empty? San Francisco and Zurich are popular departure and arrival points for business travelers. Perhaps the airline was willing to operate my flight with a virtually empty economy cabin because they were earning enough revenue from business travelers sitting up front. This is another tip for trying to get an empty seat (or two) next to you on the coach: Fly heavy business travel routes. Consider flights from business hubs like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, DC, to business hubs like Brussels, Geneva, London, Milan, Mumbai, Singapore and Zurich. (These hubs don’t have to be your final destination; this is where you can connect to your final destination.)

You may not mark an empty line every time (I certainly don’t), but here are some additional strategies I employ to maximize my space in economy:

  • Fly on Tuesday or Wednesday, when planes are less crowded. Of course, also fly in the low season.
  • If you think your flight won’t fill up, choose a seat toward the back of the plane. If there are two of you, take the window and the aisle in the same row. The middle rear seats are the last to fill, giving you the best chance of ending up with an empty seat next to you. I love having a window, partly for the view, partly so I can rest my head against the fuselage of the plane when I sleep, but if you don’t need a window and you’re flying a widebody, choose an aisle seat in the middle section in a row where the other aisle seat in that center section is already occupied. Chances are the middle seats between you will only be occupied if the entire plane is full.
  • Download your airline’s app and check the seat map for your flight so you can change seats if your row is full. The last week before a flight, I check the seat map daily. (Note that not all airlines give you this visibility or flexibility: my ticket from Munich to San Francisco on Lufthansa required me to pay for a seat assignment, and I could then only change seats by making a call telephone.)
  • At the airline gate, ask the agent if there are any empty seats on the plane, and if so, politely ask to sit next to one of them. (It may help to tell the agent that you have a lot of work to do during the flight and could use the wiggle room.)

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