I won the lottery earlier this month. No, not Mega Millions, but something almost as good: I flew from California to Europe in economy class and had three seats all to myself. And I wasn’t the only one—about 20 of us in the back of the plane had three or four seats each.

I asked a flight attendant why the plane was so blissfully empty. He explained that I was flying a seasonal route (San Francisco to Zurich, on United) soon after the season had begun, and such routes often take time to build up a full passenger load. I immediately regretted not booking the same route for my trip home: On my return flight from Munich a week later, I could count the plane’s total number of empty seats on just one hand.

Want to take advantage of this tip yourself? You can find seasonal flights from your home airport in Nonstop Flights to Make Your Travels Easier.

Another reason why the coach section of my flight was so empty? San Francisco and Zurich are popular start and end points for business travelers. The airline may have been willing to operate my flight with a mostly empty economy cabin because they made enough revenue from business travelers sitting up front. That’s another tip for trying to get an empty seat (or two) next to you in coach: Fly heavy business-travel routes. Think flights from business hubs like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., to business hubs like Brussels, Geneva, London, Milan, Mumbai, Singapore, and Zurich. (Those hubs need not be your final destination; they are where you can connect to your final destination.)

You may not score an empty row every time (I certainly don’t), but here are a few more strategies that I employ to maximize my space in economy:

  • Fly on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, when planes are less crowded. Fly in low season too, of course.
  • If you think your flight won’t fill up, choose a seat toward the back of the plane. If there are two of you, take the window and aisle in the same row. The middle seats in the back are the last ones to fill up, giving you the greatest chance of ending up with an empty seat beside you. I love having a window—partly for the view, partly so that I can rest my head against the plane’s fuselage when I sleep—but if you don’t need a window and you’re flying a widebody, choose an aisle seat in the center section in a row where the other aisle seat in that center section is already occupied. Chances are the middle seats between you will be occupied only if the entire plane is full.
  • Download your airline’s app and check your flight’s seat map so that you can change your seat if your row fills up. In the last week before a flight, I check the seat map daily. (Note that not all airlines allow you this visibility or flexibility: My ticket from Munich to San Francisco on Lufthansa required that I pay for a seat assignment, and then I could only change my seat by making a phone call.)
  • At the airline gate, ask the agent if there are any empty seats on the plane, and if so, politely request to sit beside one. (It may help to tell the agent that you’ve got a lot of work to do on the flight and you could use the elbow room.)

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