20 Tips and Tricks to Make the Most out of a Crappy Middle Seat on a Plane
Sometimes bad seats happen to even the best people.
Everyone hates the middle seat on a commercial airliner. In the middle seat, you:
- Fight over armrests.
- Rub elbows awkwardly with strangers.
- Endure bad habits and body odors on both sides.
- Have no place to rest your head to sleep.
- Have to get up when your window-seat neighbor goes to the lavatory.
- Have to ask the aisle-seat neighbor to get up when you have to go to the lavatory.
Seasoned travelers know tips and tricks to avoid getting seated in the middle seat in the first place (more on that later).
However, if you are stuck with a long flight in the sandwich seat of “sardine class,” there are ways to make it less miserable … even fun!
Here are 20 tips and tricks to make the most out of a crappy middle seat on a plane …
1. Pick the Right Middle Seat
Sometimes you get to the airport counter and find out that only middle seats are available. Don’t turn off your brain and pick at random. Not all middle seats are created equally.
Look at the seating chart on the seat selection page. Is the plane a 3-3 configuration, or a 3-3-3 configuration? That is, does it have one aisle down the middle of two aisles with three seats in the middle of the plane? This configuration is common on larger, long-haul planes.
If there is a 3-3-3 configuration, the middle seat of the middle section is preferable, because you can access an aisle in both directions. You have two chances at a friendly neighbor to make access to your seat more pleasant.
At all costs, avoid the middle-middle seat of a 3-5-3 configuration!
Other considerations … consider an emergency exit seat or a bulkhead seat (i.e. the front row of the section). These seats usually have more legroom. You might not be able to store carry-on luggage under your seat … but this can be a good thing. More on that later.
At all costs, avoid the middle seat in the back row! Not only will it take you forever to board and disembark, but the back row usually doesn’t even recline … which is murder if the seat in front of you reclines!
2. Pack your Carry-On Strategically
Surviving a middle seat starts with the packing. If you have to dig around in an overstuffed carry-on for in-flight necessities (earplugs, tablets, your coat, medications, etc.), you risk awkward or angry looks from your neighbors.
Consider bringing the smallest carry-on possibly to keep under your seat, filled only with items you know you will need in-flight.
An amazing choice would be to repurpose a product parents know well: the NowSport Waterproof Car Backseat Organizer. This product can easily be adapted to fit on your tray table, contains compartments for various essentials, and even features a tablet holder to place your iPad or other tablet for movie viewing!
3. Prepare your Body
Don’t just strategize over what to put in your carry-on prior to the flight. Strategize over what you put in your body. Prepare yourself for the ordeal by following these pre-flight rules:
- Drink lots of water so you stay hydrated and avoid headaches.
- Abstain from alcohol and caffeine, diuretics that will induce frequent lavatory visits.
- Abstain from high-sodium foods to prevent swelling.
On the day of the flight, choose comfortable clothes and bring layers in case the cabin gets cold. PRO TIP: Wear athletic compression socks, like these ones from SB SOX. Both in the airport and on the plane, these socks help your circulation and prevent swelling.
4. Prepare an In-Flight Survival Kit
Flights in any coach seat can be an ordeal. It pays to be proactive. Consider buying a dedicated leather or canvas bag and stocking it with in-flight necessities. Here are some ideas of what to pack in your in-flight survival kit:
- Privacy aids (sleeping mask, earplugs, etc.)
- Sleep aids
- Lotions (great for moisturizing and aromatherapy)
- Essential medications
- Non-essential medications (pain relievers, antihistamines, anti-gas tablets … whatever might make the flight go faster)
- Lip Balm
- Portable USB Charger
More on many of these items later, but for now, Lulu Paxton makes lipstick-sized aromatherapy cartridges you can use to inhale your favorite essential oils without disturbing your neighbors … especially useful if your neighbor has a disturbing aroma.
Some planes have charging ports; others don’t. One of the best investments for a long flight you can make is an external battery for your USB-charging devices. You don’t want your Bluetooth headphones or your media player dying mid-flight. Anker makes an ultra-thin charging bank with four USB outputs, including USB-C.
5. Perform Light Cardio Exercise Before, During, and After your Flight
The flight will be more comfortable if your muscles are loose and limber. Light cardio gets your lymph moving, prevents acid from pooling at your joints, and staves off cramping and soreness.
Before and after the flight, consider a short jog, powerwalk, bike ride, or a few pool laps.
While on the flight, treat yourself to a walk up and down the aisle every hour or so. Time these walk with bathroom trips to minimize the impact on your aisle seatmate.
6. Stretch Before, During, and After Your Flight
Hours seated in the same position can lead to cramping. Even worse, it may put you at risk of a clotting condition called deep vein thrombosis.
You can avoid this danger by stretching before, during, and after the flight. Focus particularly on the calves to keep deep vein thrombosis at bay.
Stretches for Before the Flight
- Downward Dog. Lying prone with your hands and toes flat on the ground, push your hips up and your body into an inverted “V” shape with your butt high, legs straight. Alternate bended knees gently for more calf involvement.
- Figure Four Stretch. Standing on one foot, rest your lifted ankle on the knee of your standing leg like half of “criss-cross applesauce.” Sink slowly into a squat until you feel the stretch in the crossed leg. Hold for 10-30 seconds, then straighten up, lower your foot, and repeat on the other side.
- Half-Kneel Hip Stretch. Drop into a deep runner’s lunge, one hand on the floor, the other on your front knee. Drop the back knee to the ground 5-10 times. Repeat on the other side.
- Inchworm. From a standing position, bend at the walk your hands forward, pitching your hips forward until you are in pushup position. Arch your back, head high (“upward dog”). Walk your hands back to the “toe-touch” position and stand up straight. Repeat 5-10 times.
- Reach and Sweep. Standing with one foot on the ground and the raised leg extended in front, bend at the waist, hands extended toward your feet until you feel the stretch in your hamstrings. Hold for a few seconds, then straighten up, and repeat with the other foot on the ground.
- Toe Raises. From a standing position, flex your calves and extend your toes to raise yourself up on “tip-toes.” Lower and repeat 10-30 times.
Stretches for During the Flight
- Seated Lower-Back Twists. Feet planted on the floor, place your hand on the opposite knee and twist about the waist in the opposite direction to improve circulation to your lower back.
- Seated Figure Four. Place one ankle on the opposite knee and slightly depress the knee to stretch the calf. Lean forward to stretch the hamstrings.
Stretches for After the Flight
- Kneeling Lunge Twist. Drop to a lunge with the back knee on the ground. Put your opposite elbow on the front knee and twist in the direction of your front leg. Repeat on the opposite side.
- Quad Stretch. Standing on one foot, tuck your heel to your butt and grab your heel with your hand. Press your foot down against your hand, creating a stretch through your quad. Repeat on the other side.
- Lunge with Arm Raise. From a standing position, step back into a lunge, raising your hands above your head with straight arms at the same time. Repeat with the other leg.
- Side lunge. With legs spread wide, lunge to one side, stretching the inside of your thigh. Repeat on the other side.
7. Use the Restroom Before Boarding
There’s an easy way to avoid the awkwardness of stepping over your seatmate to get to the lavatory—try to avoid needing the lavatory in the first place. Even if you don’t have to go, you can hit the airport restroom right before boarding. Try and get that bladder as empty as possible before ensconcing yourself in your cocoon.
8. Board as Early as Possible
An early boarding group gives you the opportunity to “build your nest”—arrange your seating area for comfort and convenience—before you have a seatmate in place to bother with your activities. If you follow Tip #11, it will also ensure room in the overhead storage bins for your carry-on luggage.
To get an early boarding group, consider the following:
Check in as soon as possible.
You can usually check-in 24 hours before your flight. Set a reminder, or, even better, arm your phone, tablet, or desktop browser to remind you. Download the airline app and log in or create an account connected to your flight info. Enable push notifications so you get a reminder to check in as soon as check-in becomes available. Don’t ignore that reminder! Other people won’t be. Check-in immediately and you may get a better boarding group.
PRO TIP: On Southwest flights, this can even help you avoid the middle seat altogether! Southwest does not pre-assign seats, so people who board early get their pick of the litter.
Join the Airline’s Frequent Flier Loyalty Program
People who have status, loyalty points, or co-branded credit cards with an airline are sometimes entitled to perks like early boarding.
9. Claim Your Armrests
You may be dreading the scuffle over armrests. Maybe you have gotten into a challenge of wills with a seatmate over who gets access to this precious coach-class real estate.
Here’s something infrequent fliers don’t always know—air travel has established etiquette. One of the big rules is that the middle seat gets access to both armrests.
Doesn’t that make you feel better? By claiming both armrests you are not being rude. In fact, if your seatmates challenge you for an armrest, they are being rude.
Don’t count on them to know that … or to care. When you get seated, make the first move. Put your arms on the armrests and keep them there. Claim your territory! Most people don’t like conflict and will yield.
If, however, someone confronts you or tries to elbow in on you, aggressively or passive-aggressively, consider asserting yourself politely. Stay calm. Tell them you’re sorry for any discomfort, but airplane etiquette allows the middle seat access to both armrests.
10. Recline your Seat
You may also feel self-conscious about reclining your seat for the sake of the passenger behind you. Let go of that! Economy-class etiquette entitles you to fully recline your seat. The passenger behind you is also in a middle seat and will almost certainly recline him or herself … and so will the passenger in front of you, limiting your space further!
Reclining your seat allows you to relax your joints, sleep easier, and reclaim valuable forward space.
11. Store Most Luggage Overhead
Space is the most valuable commodity in the middle seat. Leave no stone unturned to reclaim it. Consider the space under the seat in front of the Holy Grail.
This may feel like a sacrifice. You might have a lot of things to bring on this trip, and an overstuffed “personal item” like a backpack or tote may be essential to bring it.
However, if you can pair your personal items down to only what you actually need at your seat, you will regain priceless space to stretch your legs and maximize comfort. Consider a small backpack or purse you can keep comfortably in your lap or tuck into the seat-back pouch.
Alternately, just store everything in the overhead compartment. You can take out some essentials when you get situated and store them in the seat-back pouch. Remember, early boarding will ensure you maximum prep time at the seat, as well as ample overhead storage.
Remember, you can always access the overhead compartment in-flight … but that will require your aisle seatmate to get up, so keep it to a minimum.
Looking for a smaller personal item? Try this compact anti-theft backpack by Pacsafe.
12. Make Friends with your Neighbor
Everyone hates the awkwardness of brushing up against a stranger or asking them to get up so you can use the bathroom.
Here’s an easy fix—make friends with your neighbor!
Maybe you’re a shy person, but this is really worth it. Becoming familiar will destroy the awkwardness of the close quarters. Moreover, an engrossing conversation with your seatmate is far-and-away the best way to pass the time on a long flight.
So how do you do this if you’re introverted? Consider the following:
- Just say hi. Point out the awkwardness of the close quarters with strangers. Say that you find flights are more enjoyable if you break the ice. Chances are, your seatmate will be grateful.
- Break the ice. Crack a joke or make small-talk. Pay a compliment if you like one of their garments or in-flight trinkets.
- Try to get them to break the ice. Bring a fun gadget of your own, like a Rubik’s cube or other practical puzzle. Alternately, bring a book with an interesting title or cover to spark conversation.
13. Invest in a Neck Pillow
It’s nearly impossible to sleep with nowhere to rest your head. Consider a U-shaped neck pillow to immobilize your head. Less flopping around means deeper sleep with less neck pain. You can almost always buy one of these pillows at the airport.
Plan ahead by adding a neck pillow to your Amazon cart. The Cabeau Evolution S3 Travel Pillow is made of 100% memory foam, zips into a portable travel pouch, and even features a fastening string to keep it on your head!
14. Invest in Noise-Cancelling Headphones
The antidote for overly-chatty neighbors and screaming babies, great noise-canceling headphones can make-or-break a long flight.
With a low profile, Bluetooth connectivity, divine comfort and impeccable audio fidelity, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II Wireless Bluetooth Headphones are the gold standard.
15. Invest in Privacy Aids
A sleeping mask and earplugs may not be part of your day-to-day life, but neither is the coach cabin of a jet plane. Covering your eyes and plugging your ears may make the difference between a nourishing nap and a true “red-eye.”
Manta Sleep offers a luxurious, affordable eye mask made from soft, breathable materials. It puts no pressure on your eyelids, a distraction most sleeping masks fail to avoid.
Earplanes makes reusable earplugs specifically designed to relieve pressure when used in an airplane cabin, reducing the likelihood of sinus pain.
16. Consider Sleep Supplements
Forget chatting with your neighbor … unconsciousness may seem like the most appealing plan to pass the time in the middle seat of a long flight.
“Sleeping pills” for a long flight are a controversial solution. We fall on the “don’t” side for prescription insomnia or anxiety meds, especially benzodiazepines like Xanax, Klonopin, or Valium.
These powerful depressants will dull your reactions in the event of an emergency and make you a more unpleasant seatmate in your own right.
Instead, consider “natural” sleep aids like melatonin supplements. Your body produces melatonin naturally to regulate the sleep cycle. Taking too much for too long can depress your body’s natural melatonin production, leaving you dependent on the supplement … but a long flight in a middle seat is a special case.
Natrol makes fast-dissolving melatonin tablets that you don’t have to store in your one-quart Ziploc baggie full of liquids.
17. Update your Reading Material
Once seated, the goal is to stay busy so the hours in your tincan seem to … ahem … fly by.
Stocking up on good books—maybe books you have been meaning to read but never found the time—is a great solution. You can stimulate your brain while stuck in half-foetal position between two seatmates.
Extra points if you can make it an eReader like the Amazon Kindle. This saves space in your carry-on luggage. An eReader with ePaper is even better. This matte surface doesn’t strain your eyes like LCDs or Retina displays.
18. Download Audio and Video Content Beforehand
Most commercial airliners, particularly long-haul jets, have seatback screens with preloaded content. Others have in-flight apps that allow you to consume content on the Wifi-enabled device of your choice (tablet, smartphone, notebook PC, etc.)
Just in case you hate every movie or TV show offered, or if they charge entertainment fees you don’t want to pay, load your devices with content for the flight—movies, music, podcasts, whatever you enjoy. Most of us stream our content, but streaming won’t be available in-flight because your access to data will be cut off.
Premium streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube Red, Spotify, and Stitcher allow you to download content directly to your phone or tablet.
These programs will still be accessible to you even in airplane mode or 30,000 feet above the nearest 4G-LTE tower. You can pass the time in the company of your favorite stories, sounds, and sights.
Audiobook players like Audible.com also download content to your phone. Arm yourself for entertainment, and don’t forget your favorite headphones! Some flights may offer complimentary in-flight headphones, but they will probably scrimp on the quality.
PRO TIP: Download the airline’s in-flight entertainment app while still on the ground! Once you are in the air, it may be too late to get it, because the in-flight WiFi signal connects you only to the airplane’s “intranet” (flight data, onboard entertainment, etc.), not the internet, where the app marketplaces live.
19. Learn Tray-Table Tricks
Surviving the middle seat requires every tool available to you. Don’t forget your tray table.
Tray tables take up a lot of space without compromising your legroom. If you are used to leaving the tray table up for most of the flight, consider breaking this habit to alleviate your middle-seat misery.
With the tray table taking up space in your domain, you assert your presence to your seatmates, encouraging them to respect what little territory is afforded to you.
Here are some pro-level uses of the tray table:
- Store in-flight essentials, freeing up legroom under the seat in front of you and reducing your need to shift in your seat to access carry-on luggage.
- Take a “tray table nap”: A true “Jedi” tray-table move. Set a pillow on the tray table, lean forward, and take a short nap. This is how you really assert yourself to unpleasant seatmates.
- Set up your viewing devices. Get a tripod for your phone or tablet and turn your tray table into a little movie theater.
MoKo makes a collapsible, portable universal stand you can prop your tablet or smartphone onto.
20. Focus on Breathing
Practice mindful breathing in the middle seat. Deep breaths help keep your brain and body nourished with plenty of oxygen. Yoga breathing also staves off anxiety, particularly helpful for people who are afraid of flying or suffer from claustrophobia.
Every hour or so, take a deep, slow breath in, hold it for 5-10 seconds, then slowly exhale. Repeat this exercise three to five times.
If you are an anxious flier, consider adding guided meditation audio to that preloaded content on your device. Dhanpal-Donna Quesada offers a breathing-focused guided meditation available to stream, download, or purchase on CD.
With these 20 tips, you can make your middle-seat flight as painless as possible.
Of course, the best way to alleviate the pain of the middle seat is to sidestep the middle seat altogether. In that spirit, here are:
BONUS: 3 Tips to Avoid Getting the Middle Seat
1. Book in Advance
Not always possible, but the earlier you book, the more seat selection you will enjoy.
If you fly Southwest, check in 24 hours before your flight, as early as possible. An “A” or “B” seating group practically ensures you a window or aisle seat in the free-for-all that is Southwest seating.
2. Don’t Skip Seat Selection
Most booking platforms allow you to select your seat. Online, this may take the form of a pictorial diagram.
If you skip this step, you will be seated at random upon check-in!
Some airlines charge extra fees for popular seats. Other airlines charge you a fee to select your seat to begin with. Only you can decide if such fees are worth it.
3. Ask to Be Reseated …
You may have decided the middle seat is a problem for “future you” … then find yourself cursing “past you” as your flight date arrives.
Usually it is not too late. You may be able to get re-seated …
By Phone or Online
Call the airline and see if you can be reseated. You may be able to select or change seats after-the-fact using the airline’s online reservation app or booking profile. Extra fees may apply for preferred or changed seats.
Ask the agent at check-in to be re-seated. Again, fees may apply.
At the Gate
Ask the gate agent to be reseated. We’re getting down to the wire, but if someone else hasn’t claimed all the window or aisle seats, you could be in luck.
On the Plane
The last resort. After the cabin door is sealed, look around. Any available seats are probably fair game, because boarding is D.O.N.E. after the hatch closes. If you spot a free aisle or window seat, summon the flight attendant and politely ask to be re-seated.
This form of “seat upgrade” usually doesn’t cost you anything. No one else is sitting there … it might as well be you. Congratulations! You successfully broke out of middle-seat jail just when all hope seemed lost!