How to Survive a Middle Seat

10 Hacks to Survive the Middle Seat on an Airplane

We’ve all been there. The middle seat on an airplane. The horror! That middle seat beckons you. It gnaws at the back of your mind. A chill runs down your spine. You know you are in for hell.

For an experienced business traveler this should be a rare experience (honestly, it shouldn’t happen ever if are a seasoned pro and shame on you if it does! LOL). But for the less experienced traveler you are going to want to learn how to survive the middle seat!

In this article you will be introduced to several tips on surviving the middle seat on an airplane. Using these “middle seat strategies,” as we call them, you might be able to get yourself OUT of the middle seat or at least survive the trip!


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10 Hacks to Survive the Middle Seat

Here are the 10 hacks you can employ to either get out of the middle seat or deal with it once in.

A note about Southwest Airlines: Most airlines assign you a seat either when you book your ticket or at check in depending on the class of ticket you booked. However, Southwest Airlines uses a different approach. Travelers are assigned boarding groups and boarding numbers. Groups A, B & C with a corresponding number that refers to the numerical order you board the plane.

The more status you have with Southwest the more likely you are to board earlier in the process (and thus get to pick your seat). The later in the process you check in (if you don’t have “status”) means you will board later.

In simple terms this means that if you get a boarding pass that is B31 or higher there is a reasonably good chance you are going to get stuck in a middle seat. If you get a C Boarding pass (of any number) you are almost guaranteed! Here’s a link to the full boarding process with Southwest

Let’s dig in!

Middle Seat Tip #1: Ask for a seat change

Chances are this won’t work (there’s a reason you are in the middle seat in the first place), but it definitely won’t work if you don’t ask! So ask a gate agent. They just might switch you!

Note: if you are traveling Southwest, not much you can do. See our note, above. 

Middle Seat Tip #2: Pay for a seat change w/ miles

Some airlines will let you “upgrade” your seat location with miles (or w/ a small fee). For example, Delta offers this for a fee – you can read how here. If the airline’s fee is reasonable, and it’s a long flight, it might be money well spent. For a shorter flight (say less than 2 hours or so, it’s probably not worth it).

Middle Seat Tip #3: When you do get seated, keep your eyes peeled for an open seat nearby

Some airlines won’t let you switch seats (especially into their more premium seats) but many do. And since other travelers are probably thinking the same thing, you have to be quick. As soon as boarding is complete, make your move! Be bold about it.


Middle Seat Tip #4: Pick your middle seat wisely (if flying Southwest)

With Southwest you get to pick your seat (not true w/ other airlines). So, pick one that has someone small sitting in the window or aisle seat. No need to be next to two broad shoulders body builders.

And if you absolutely know you are destined for the middle seat, sit up front. At least you can get off a little quicker. No need to add the extra pain of disembarking last too.

Be careful, because sometimes there will be a window in the back of the plane or even an aisle. Sometimes.

Speaking of picking seats on Southwest, here’s an article I wrote that talks exactly about how pick seats the smart way on Southwest Flights.

Middle Seat Tip #5: Claim your elbow room!

If you are ultimately stuck in the middle seat you have to claim your elbow room! And never release it! The way I figure it, if you are the unlucky soul who has to ride middle seat, then you deserve BOTH armrests.

But just to make sure, claim them.

Never let your arms leave ’em! Ever! Don’t reach into the seatback pocket. Own em, they are yours for the flight!

In fact, there is an unwritten travel etiquette rule that says that the middle seat always gets the arm rests. Not everyone follows this! You can read about more unwritten travel rules here: Airplane Etiquette: The Unwritten Rules for Traveling on a Plane

Middle Seat Tip #6: Recline your seat

I hate it when someone reclines their seat in front of me and I rarely recline my seat back (see my link above on Airplane Etiquette). I view it as my contribution to being nice.

But, when stuck in a middle seat, all bets are off. Recline it. Enjoy it.

Since I am a little taller I also use my knees as a stop to make sure the guy in front me of cannot lean back.

Not fair? Don’t care!

You might even want to get yourself a travel pillow (like the Trtl) too for some extra neck support. 

Middle Seat Tip #7: Stow all of your bags up top

You are stuck in the middle seat. That sucks! But, no need to lose leg room too. As you are boarding the plane, drop your luggage into any space you see – regardless of if it is near your seat.

Do your best, however, to avoid stowing your bad BEHIND your seat if you can help it. You will be swimming upstream to retrieve your bag when debarking the plane. 

This is also the one time and one time only where it may be ok to check  your bag. Even then, I don’t recommend it.

But if it’s it’s a really long flight, and a full flight, and you don’t have a connection, and if it’s your return-home flight, I will allow it. See my 101 Travel Hacks for the Business Traveler for my opinions on checked bags.

Middle Seat Tip #8: Use the tray table

Drop that tray table down as soon as you can. Lean forward. It will create a little space between you and your compatriots (who are not thrilled w/ a middle seat passenger either).

The tray table nap might get you through an hour.

The tray-table-lean-forward-and-watch-a-movie-on-your-phone trick can get you through another hour.

And by then, you are halfway done.

Middle Seat Tip #9: Go to the bathroom before you get on the plane.

No need to be stuck in a middle seat AND have a full bladder. Make sure you go before you get on the plane!

Middle Seat Tip #10: Stretch! Get up and stretch mid flight.

Even if your aisle buddy is zonked out, wake him/her up and get up. Stretch. Walk around. Use the lavatory if need be.

Also, make sure you stretch before you get on the plane. Being stuck in an uncomfortable seat for a long period of time can wreak havoc on the back and neck. Give it a head start!

Some Bonus Tips on Surviving the Middle Seat on an Airplane

We’ve added a three bonus tips on surviving the middle seat for you in addition to the 10 above:

I generally don’t talk to my fellow passengers. But in a middle seat, I will consider breaking that rule. You are stuck w/ these folks for a few hours. Maybe one of them will be nice, or interesting, or maybe even be compassionate about it and lean away from you. 

Download some movie / TV content, charge your devices, and get some sweet Bose noise canceling headphones. Don’t be stuck in a middle seat AND bored. 

Stay even keeled about it. Nothing lasts forever. No need to lose your mind over what in reality is a small period of time in your overall life. Suck it up. It will end eventually. Then get smarter and avoid it in the first place!


Final Thoughts on the Airplane Middle Seat

There you have it. You were dumb enough to get stuck there so really…you deserve it! Just kidding. Sort of.

Seriously though, we hope you enjoyed this list of middle seat hacks designed to help you avoid or survive the middle seat. What are your middle seat tips? Join the conversation! Leave us a comment or tweet us @CBoardingGroup.

Don’t forget to follow us on ALL of our social media including Instagram and Facebook.


By the way, if you are interested in more travel tips and travel advice, you might be like these great articles:

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10 Hacks to Survive the Middle Seat on an Airplane

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Survive the Middle Seat on an Airplane

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