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10 Practical Tips to Survive the Airplane Middle Seat

by Jeremy B

The Airplane Middle Seat. We’ve all been there. You glance at your boarding pass and realize you are stuck in the airplane middle seat. Gasp! The horror! A chill runs down your spine. You know you are in for hell. Here are some practical tips to survive this experience.

No one loves the middle seat (I don’t care who you are…you are lying if you say you love the middle seat on an airplane). For an experienced business or frequent traveler this should be a very rare experience (honestly, it shouldn’t ever happen* if you are a seasoned travel pro and shame on you if it does! LOL).

*PS…yeah, it still does happen, I know. E.g. you switch to an earlier flight home and all that’s left is middle seats, etc. But you know what I mean…

For the less experienced traveler, however, the airplane middle seat is likely going to be a part of your travel experience more than you want it to. And unless you are a child, you are not going to enjoy your experience very much which is exactly why you need the 10 practical tips and hacks I share in this article to help you survive the middle seat!

In this article you will be introduced to several tips / hacks for surviving the airplane middle seat. Using these “middle seat strategies,” you might be able to get yourself OUT of the middle seat or at least survive the trip!


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Practical Tips & Hacks to Survive the Airplane Middle Seat

Here are the 10 hacks and tips you can employ to either avoid the middle seat, get out of the airplane middle seat or survive it, once you are in it!

But, before we do that, there’s a few foundational airline concepts we need to ground ourselves in.

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How to Survive the Middle Seat on a Plane

Avoiding the middle seat starts first with understanding your airline’s seat assignment and boarding process

Before we get too far into things a quick primer on airline seat assignment and boarding process is worthwhile. We could spend the next 4000 words talking JUST about this subject so I am going to hit the high points here which will frame the conversation for us.

  • Most airlines (but not all) will let you pick your seat when booking your flight
  • However, sometimes the cheapest fares offered by an airline will NOT let you pick your seat assignment until you get a little closer to check in
  • If you want to be guaranteed a specific seat or seat type (e.g. window seat) you may have to pay more
  • Many airlines give preferential status to their most loyal customers reserving portions of the plane including seats and seat types for these customers. Unless you are one of them (e.g. Delta Platinum Medallion, etc) your seat choices may be limited
  • Other airlines, like Southwest, don’t assign seats EVER. More on this in a moment

All of this is to say: MAKE SURE LEARN YOUR AIRLINE’S SEAT ASSIGNMENT AND BOARDING PROCESS. Doing so will lessen your chances of getting “stuck” with a middle seat and/or help you understand what your options on dealing with an airplane middle seat may or may not be.

A note about Southwest

Since Southwest Airlines’ boarding process is pretty radical (and different from many other airlines) I am going to spend a paragraph or two explaining it because it could impact your chances of landing in an airplane middle seat.

Southwest Airlines uses a different seating and boarding approach. There are no assigned seats. Travelers are assigned boarding groups and boarding numbers. And these boarding groups get assigned out no earlier than 24 hours before your flight. There are 3 boarding groups. 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!

Why is this important? If you want to avoid a middle seat on a Southwest Flight you may have to take special precautions or steps. We talk about this more, later, in our Southwest Tips section.

Here’s a link to the full boarding process with Southwest. 

You might also be interested in: 14 Travel Hacks for Picking the Best Seat on a Southwest Flight

Avoiding the Airplane Middle Seat

Ok, let’s talk about how to avoid the middle seat on a plane to begin with. This is a much better strategy than trying to do a dive an catch after you’ve already been assigned a middle seat or trying to survive it!

Here are a few strategies to avoid it in the first place:

  1. Learn your airlines’s seat assignment & boarding process. Avoiding a middle seat starts first with knowledge. How does your specific airline assign seats? Are there any tricks you can use (e.g. book it with a specific credit card, or get status first, then book the seat, etc)? All good questions and worth investigating.
  2. Get status. Of course, once you get “status” with an airline you can often avoid airplane middle seats altogether (not necessarily true on Southwest, but with status it’s USUALLY true). This is the best strategy, but it takes time and is usually only going to be something frequent travelers can attain and not the common folk.
  3. Pay a little more. Most airlines (although not all) will let you pay a little more to get a better seat. Not only might this mean more legroom but it might also mean you can select something OTHER than a middle seat. Again, this is dependent upon your specific airline.

These three strategies, in part or in whole, can help you avoid the middle seat on the plane in the first place.

Note: See the Section on Southwest Airlines, later, where I give you some specific tips for that airline and how to avoid getting a middle seat.

Surviving the Airline Plane Middle Seat – dear god…how long is this flight!

So, your best laid plans failed. You are now FOR SURE in that middle seat. Ugh! Don’t worry, your fellow passengers aren’t thrilled you are stuck there either…

When No One Takes the Middle Seat

Or are you!? In this section we identify several tips and hacks designed to help you survive the middle seat including maybe pulling a fast one at the last minute to get out of the middle seat!

The Hail Mary: 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!

Pay for a seat change w/ miles (or $$)

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 (3+hours), it might be money well spent. For a shorter flight (say less than 2 hours or so, it’s probably not worth it).

If it’s a long haul flight…it might be the best money you ever spend!

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.


Claim your elbow room!

If you are ultimately stuck in the middle seat you have to claim your elbow room! And never let it go! The way I figure it, if you are the unlucky soul who has to ride middle seat, then you deserve BOTH armrests. In fact, this is a common unwritten travel rule: middle seat gets the armrest.

You can read about more unwritten travel rules here: Airplane Etiquette: The Unwritten Rules for Traveling on a Plane

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! I am being a little dramatic here, but it’s been my experience that passengers will fight over the arm rests sometimes, waging a silent elbow war and throwing etiquette right out the emergency exit door.

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 the Karma bank.

But, when stuck in a middle seat, I think all (most) bets are off. Recline it and you will give yourself a little extra space. It probably wouldn’t hurt to see who’s behind you and if it happens to be someone large, maybe you don’t lean back or maybe don’t lean back all the way. Just something to think about.

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

Stow all (most) of your bags up top

Potentially unpopular opinion ahead:

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 relatively near your seat (nearer the better, though).  If you are boarding later in the boarding process, this is important because there is much less space. If you are boarding earlier you will likely find space near your assigned seat.

airplane middle seat hacks - image of a dude stowing his bag

Do your best, however, to avoid stowing your bag BEHIND your seat if you can help it. You will be swimming upstream to retrieve your bag when debarking the plane. And if you do happen to have a really small bag (like a purse), stow it under your seat. It’s not that big and there’s really no need to take space in the overhead bin. A larger backpack or duffel? If you are in the middle seat, I am fine with you tossing it up above you. I know this is an unpopular opinion… 🙂

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. 🙂

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.

Image of a tray table and text saying tray table nap - saving middle seaters since the wright brothers

The tray-table-lean-forward-and-watch-a-movie-on-your-phone trick can get you through another hour. 🙂 [This is my personal favorite when stuck in an airplane middle seat]

And by then, you are halfway done.

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! Being in a middle seat and being insanely more uncomfortable because you need to pee is sucky. Go before you fly.

Stretch! Before, during and after. 

Before you board the plane, bust out some airport yoga (aka stretching). Loosen up a bit.

During the flight (if it’s a long one, anyways), get up, walk around, use the lavatory. Stretch. Loosen those muscles up.

Bring something to do

This is a good rule of thumb on any flight, but much more important when in an airplane middle seat. Charge up your phone / iPad, download some movies or shows, get some good good headphones, maybe some books for your Kindle, and survive.

Don’t be stuck in a middle seat AND bored. 

Southwest Airlines Tips for Avoiding the Airplane Middle Seat


Ok, we’ve finally got to the part where we can talk about avoiding or dealing with a middle seat on a Southwest Airlines Flight. If you recall, Southwest does their whole seat assignment and boarding process totally different than most everyone. As such, your middle seat airplane hacks need to adjust a little bit.

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.

Some Bonus Tips on Surviving the Airplane Middle Seat

Here’s a few bonus idea on surviving the airplane middle seat for you:

  • Strike up a conversation with your neighbors. 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.
  • 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!

Be sure to check out 101 Travel Hacks for the Business Travelers and learn how to uplevel your travels! There are 100+ Travel Hacks collected and curated for you!

Final Thoughts on the Airplane Middle Seat

There you have it. Everything you need to know to avoid the airplane middle seat or at least survive it.  In some ways…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 airplane middle seat. What are your middle seat tips? Join the conversation! Leave us a comment or tweet us @CBoardingGroup.


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Christian June 2, 2019 - 12:33 pm

I dunno, a lot of your suggestions when you can’t avoid a middle seat could be construed as trying to make life more miserable for the people around you. I often fly with my wife, usually in coach, and she hates the idea of sitting next to a stranger, so I pretty much always get the middle seat. This would be less of an issue if I wasn’t 6’5″ and about 285. Pretty much I just try to go with a live-and-let-live perspective. I try to take either the front or back of both armrests, I never recline unless it’s an overnight flight, and laying out the tray just makes for less personal space. In short, I try to treat people as I want to be treated.

George June 5, 2019 - 9:14 am

Really tired of the word hack. It’s way over used and silly outdated. Hasn’t it been 10 minutes of fame for that word? Isn’t it time to over use a new fashionable word? So you can sound just like the next happenings fool next to you? I also think your a combative traveler. Stealing overs overhead. Fighting for arm rests. Maybe you need that screaming baby that’s always on every plane sitting behind you. Have a nice flight🙏

The C Boarding Group June 5, 2019 - 9:15 am

Pissy much?

derek December 30, 2019 - 10:08 am

Recently, I sat next to an obese person. Darn it! Actually, I found it was not that bad. The passenger was in the sweet spot of obesity. Not obese enough to occupy my seat. Too obese that their elbows were resting in the middle of the armrest, enough for me to use a little spot of the armrest directly in front of the seat. It wasn’t so bad after all!

The C Boarding Group December 30, 2019 - 3:34 pm

Sounds like it could have been a lot worse!


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