I don’t think anyone would disagree that long haul flights - especially the loooong flight from Australia to Europe - in economy class is not something to look forward to. Therefore the seat you are allocated on the plane can make a huge difference as to whether your flight is just bearable or actually enjoyable.
How many times have you boarded a plane with your fingers crossed that you’ll have an exit row seat so you can stretch out your legs, only to find you are crammed in with your knees pressed against the seat in front? Too often, probably!
Being seated close to the toilets on long-haul flights can also be an unpleasant experience. Passengers in aisle seats often find themselves bumped (accidentally or not!) by fellow passengers on their way to the toilets.
The amount of leg room you have, and the location of your seat, can make a huge difference to the enjoyment level of your flight. We'd all LOVE to fly business class but unfortunately it's not always possible.
Further reading: 5 things you should know before you book your flights to Europe
A case in point was on a trip to Europe a few years ago when I flew from Melbourne to Paris via Bangkok in economy class (that's coach class for my North American readers) with Thai Airlines.
After my tickets had been issued, I logged on to the Thai Airways website to try and pre-book specific seats on the flights for my husband and I. Thai’s computer system wouldn’t allow me to book specific seats for the first leg of our trip - Melbourne to Bangkok (possibly because it was only a few days before our departure) - but it did let me choose the seats I wanted for the Bangkok to Paris flight.
Fortunately, that flight was on an Airbus A380 and I chose seats 76A and 76B on the upper deck. The beauty of these seats was that they were in a row of only two and were immediately behind the business class (Royal Silk) section. As we had a bulkhead in front of us, there was more legroom than in a regular economy class seat so we could really stretch out when it was time to sleep.
Even with a screaming baby across the aisle from us, we managed to sleep for about seven hours straight on the fourteen hour flight - extra leg room, together with good earplugs and an eye mask, definitely helped.
Further reading: What's in my carry-on bag?
The other bonus was that I was able to pre-book these seats for free as they are regarded as ‘standard’ economy class seats.
Not all airlines are equal, though, when it comes to pre-booking specific seats for your flight. When I worked as a travel consultant I was amazed at how differently each airline treated the pre-booking of seats and it seems that it is still the same.
Some airlines allow passengers to pre-select their preferred seats whilst others don’t, and some charge for the privilege whilst others allow standard seats to be pre-booked for free.
I decided to contact the major airlines on which Australians fly to Europe to find out their policies on pre-booking seats and here’s what I found out:
Cathay Pacific Airways
When reserving seats on Cathay Pacific flights both standard economy and premium economy class seats can be pre-selected at no cost Passengers can pre-select exit row seats if they meet the safety and health requirements for exit row seating.
Cathay Pacific extra legroom seats can be booked online up to 48 hours before flight departure or at counter (not kiosk) check-in for an additional (undisclosed) fee.
Passengers looking for Emirates preferred seating have a few options and there are some differences to the applicable charges for Emirates preferred seat vs regular seat, depending on the fare you have purchased.
Economy Class Flex Plus allows you to select a regular or a preferred seat (except on A380 upper deck) at no charge. With Emirates’ Flex Plus fares, preferred seats (which include Preferred Upper Deck on A380, Twin or an Extra Legroom seat), all incur a fee.
For those travelling Economy Class Flex on Emirates, extra legroom seats incur a fee but regular seats are free to select.
Finally, Economy Class Special or Saver fares require to pay for your seat selection (prices vary). You can check the applicable charges by logging into your booking on the airline’s website.
If you wait until online check-in 48 hours prior to departure, however, you can select a seat at no cost, but the seat selection will be limited. Emirates extra legroom seats are very likely to be unavailable this close to departure.
Etihad allows the pre-selection of standard economy class seats for a fee.. 24 hours prior to departure, travellers are able to select a seat free of charge.
When making your Etihad seat selection, the seats at the front of economy, known as “preferred seats’,cost Dh130 to reserve, extra legroom seats cost Dh520 and standard seats cost Dh100.
Certain ticket types can also bid for a class upgrade or a “Neighbour-free Seat” (the higher your bid, the more likely you’ll get the seat). If you're flying with Etihad, you might like to consider the 'bidding upgrade' option that I wrote about here.
Economy Classic and Economy Flex passengers can select standard seats in zone 1 free of charge, while Economy Light Fares are charged a fee for all seats. Economy Flex passengers can also select seating in the “preferred zone” of zone 1 for no extra cost.
Lufthansa extra legroom seats in all zones start at EUR25 and go up to EUR100.
Austrian (part of the Lufthansa group), charges $39 for standard seats, $78 for legroom seats and $110 for exit row seats.
Just a note: You can select a seat type (legroom, aisle, window) but not an actual seat (3A). This means you may, after all, end up near the loo.
The Dutch carrier allows pre-selection of standard seats at no cost once check in has opened but fees apply to select a regular seat beforehand. Pre-selection of extra legroom seats incurs a fee. This fee varies depending on the flight.
Australia’s national carrier allows complimentary seating for guests on domestic flights, and Economy passengers on the Saver or Flex fare. If you’re on an international Economy Sale fare, you’ll have to pay between $11 and $30 for standard seat selection depending on the length of the journey.
All economy fares pay a fee for extra legroom, anywhere from $15 up to a whopping $180 depending on the flight! Is it worth it? Only you can answer that.
Always do your homework, though. I was able to pre-select standard economy class seats for a flight to London for $30 per person. The seats I pre-selected were bulkhead row seats which, in this instance, are regarded as ‘standard’ seats so we had extra leg room but only paid $30 each.
Another bonus on this Qantas flight to London via Dubai was that it had a single flight number so we only had to pay the $30 fee once each. If we had two flight numbers (for example if the flight number changed in Dubai), we’d have had to pay the fee twice.
More details about Qantas' seat seat selection fees here.
On Qatar Airways, seat selection fees do not apply to standard economy class seats.
Exit row seats are excluded from pre-selection due to safety reasons and are assigned at the check-in counter.
Preferred seats on Qatar Airways - seats in the front area of the economy cabin - can only be selected by eligible passengers up to 72 hours prior to flight departure.
To be eligible for preferred Qatar seat selection you must be paying the highest Economy Class fare or be a Qatar Airways Privilege Club Platinum, Gold or Silver member. Emerald, Sapphire and Ruby members of other oneworld airlines are also eligible.
When it comes to seat selection, SAS, the Scandinavian airline, allows passengers to arrange seat selection in advance in all classes on SAS operated routes.
To select a preferred seat on a SAS flight between Asia/USA and Europe, SAS Go (Economy class) passengers pay US$59 for extra leg room, US$40 for a preferred seat at the forward part of the Go cabin, US$29 for window or aisle seat and US$12 for a middle seat.
Alternatively, you wait until online check-in 22 hours prior to departure when you can select remaining seats at no charge.
(Note: On US flights you can choose a seat for free among seats at the rear of the aircraft.)
Singapore Airlines recently introduced new Economy fare types. The most basic fare (Lite) charges for any Singapore Airlines seat selection (starting at US$5 for standard seats).
Forward zone seats (seats located closer to the aircraft doors) can be pre-booked from US$8. Note: Singapore Airlines make a nice exception for parents travelling with a child or infant. Even Economy Lite fares may select Standard Seats for free if there are infants or children in the travelling party.
The next fare level (Standard) allows for complimentary standard seat selection, and the highest Economy fare level (Flexi) allows you to choose forward zone and standard seats for free.
Singapore Airlines extra legroom seats come at a charge (from US$25) at all Economy and Premium Economy levels.
To choose which seat you’d like to pre-book I recommend visit SeatGuru.com which has seat plans of every aircraft, including a Singapore Airlines A380 upper deck economy seating plan.
Thai Airways allows pre-selection of standard economy class seats for no charge. Thai Airways exit row seats cannot be pre-selected - they are only allocated at check in.
Further reading: 7 cities to consider for your stopover en route to Europe
How to pre-select your preferred seats
So, how do you pre-select your seats? Once your flights have been paid for and the tickets issued, you can log into your booking on the airline’s website. You’ll need to enter your booking reference number and your surname to retrieve your reservation.
Each airline’s website is different, but generally speaking, head to the Manage My Booking area and choose Select Seat. If pre-selection is allowed, a seat map will indicate which seats are still available for pre-selection. If payment is required, you’ll be prompted to enter your credit card details before the seats are confirmed.
If you have booked your flights via a travel agent and standard seat selection is free of charge, your agent should be able to pre-select your seats for you.
Handy info to know about pre-selecting seats
- Bulkhead seats often have bassinets that drop down from the ‘wall’ in front and, naturally, preference for these seats is given to families travelling with infants.
- The airline always has the right to re-assign your seats due to health and safety and operational reasons.
- Fees paid for pre-selecting seats are non-refundable.
- Most airlines allow you to use frequent flyer points to pay for seat selection.
- It goes with saying that the earlier you can pre-select your seat, the more chance you will have of securing the one you prefer.
Before pre-selecting my seats I always visit Seat Guru. It provides seat maps of each aircraft and handy information about specific seats on each flight.
Do you have a preferred seat that you like to select before flying? Would you pay for the privilege of pre-selecting your preferred seat?
*Lufthansa, Austrian, SAS and KLM don’t fly into Australia but have alliances with other carriers between Australia and Asia. For example, you can fly with Cathay Pacific from Australia to Hong Kong and then connect to SAS for your Hong Kong to Europe flight.
All information correct as at the time of writing. All prices are in Australian dollars unless specified. Prices are per passenger.