It’s a question as old as air travel itself: aisle or window seat? Over the years, it’s been the cause of many social-media debates and flying elbows in Southwest’s first-come, first-choice boarding queues. And while numerous polls have tried to settle the issue, they’ve led to little clarification (this report from British travel company Thomas Cook Airlines said that 61 percent prefer the aisle, another survey insisted that the choice depends on how often you fly, and yet another saw the two seats tied).
As a first step, we consulted airlines to get our hands on some facts, but they were—unsurprisingly—cagey. What they did confirm is that people are willing to pay for their preferred seats, and they know it: choosing where you sit will cost you about $30 extra on most flights.
With information on lockdown, we turned to travel experts—a.k.a. Twitter followers and travel-savvy editors—to weigh in, igniting a storm of comments and office debate. Aisle took a comfortable, though not decisive, lead among our respondents, garnering 42 percent of votes versus windows’ 36 percent, while 22 percent copped out with “it depends.” (A lone contrarian wondered, “No option for the middle?” And while a middle-seat redesign might soon make that a legitimate option, we refused to dignify that question with a response.)
In the end, there was no definitive answer to air travel’s version of musical chairs. The airline reps we talked to not so subtly suggested upgrading to business class, and another reader recommended, “Just buy two seats, people.” Though if you have that sort of cash to burn, you might as well check out used Boeings on Aircraft Exchange. If not, consult our guide to decide, below, on whether to ride the glass or the aisle on your next trip.
How Long Is the Flight?
Point: Assistant travel editor Kaelyn Lynch was once trapped against the window by a “gigantic rugby player” during a 14-hour flight from New York to South Africa. “If I fall asleep, slap me,” he told her, then proceeded to drink six mini bottles of wine and pass out. She shook him, but he kept snoozing, leaving her unable to move about the cabin for the duration of her flight. When she got off the plane, her legs were so full of fluid from the lack of movement (a phenomenon called peripheral edema) that she could barely walk.
Conclusion: If the flight’s long enough to cause a blood clot, you might want to make sure there’s no chance of obstruction.
Are You Assertive?
Point: “Have you ever been in the window seat on a seven-hour international flight, when everyone else in your row is sleeping and you have to go, but you don’t want to be the jerk who wakes everyone up because, lord knows, it’s hard enough to fall asleep on an airplane?” —Ariella Ginztler, associate gear editor
Conclusion: If you’re on a flight longer than a few hours or have weak bladder control, you’d better be fierce or in the aisle seat.
Will You Get a View?
Conclusion: If you’re flying into a scenic airport, over a continent in daylight, or even above the ocean around sunrise, you’re seriously missing out if you’re sitting by the aisle.
Are You Really Excited to Get to Your Destination Five Minutes Faster?
Point: “I’m one of those people that just runs past everybody, so I always opt for the aisle.”—Jenny Earnest, audience development director
(Slightly more alarming) point:
Conclusion: If you’ve got a short layover or are a nervous flyer, go with the aisle.
Can You Sleep on a Plane?
Point: “Obviously, window. Why is this even up for discussion? In the aisle, there’s nowhere to put your head except on someone else’s shoulder.” —Erin Berger, senior culture editor
Counterpoint: On the same flight to South Africa she spent trapped against the window, assistant travel editor Kaelyn Lynch figured she’d at least have somewhere to lean her head to sleep. But she soon discovered that the distance between the seat and plane wall was farther than that of the smaller domestic planes she was used to. A pillow and balled-up sweatshirt simply fell into the gap, leaving her with a sore neck and not a second of sleep until she collapsed into bed in Cape Town. She hasn’t chosen a window seat on an international flight since.
Conclusion: The distance between the seat and the window varies by model, according to Mark B. Dowty, director of business development and engineering for seat manufacturer Collins Aerospace. We recommend looking up a blueprint for your aluminum bird and deciding accordingly. Either way, it’s probably time to invest in a neck pillow.
How Long Are Your Legs?
Point: “I’m tall, so always the aisle.” —Luke Whelan, research editor
Counterpoint: “Your head gets bonked!” —E.B.
Counterpoint: “Oh yeah, and I’ve had many bruises from the beverage cart.”—L.W.
Conclusion: There’s no winning if you’re tall. This time, the shorties take the day.
Ultimately, the truth is that when traveling to a new and exciting destination, you really can’t go wrong. As David Haskell, who we once described as a real-life Lorax (a character fond of air travel), put it: