(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY No one enjoys sitting in the middle seat on a long flight -- according to Independent Traveler, "A majority of Americans would rather get stuck in traffic or go on a blind date than sit in the middle seat on a full flight." If you feel the same way, there are some things you can do to avoid that middle seat (or mitigate the pain of getting stuck in one).
Get seat alerts with ExpertFlyer. If you book a flight and there's nothing available except the dreaded middle seat, all hope is not lost. ExpertFlyer is a service that you can use to get notified if a better seat becomes available later. Use the site to specify the kinds of seats you prefer and then, if a seat pops up, you'll get an instant email notification. Then call the airline and change your seat assignment. ExpertFlyer is free if you only need to book one flight at a time, but costs $5/month if you are a frequent traveler and want additional features.
Call after midnight. If you landed in middle seat jail when you booked your flight, continue to check back, but do it right after midnight. Reservations expire at midnight, so you might be able to snag a seat before someone else does.
Arrive early for discounted upgrades. Another strategy: If you are stuck in the middle of a row, show up to the gate early with the goal of getting a cheap upgrade to first class. You can't count on this, of course, but some flights will offer a small number of upgrades at crazy low prices. That's your exit strategy to comfort.
Book around the middle. Even if you avoid the middle seat, there's a good chance you'll end up elbow-to-elbow with someone else. If you are traveling with another person, avoid the temptation to book adjoining seats. Instead, book the window and aisle seats, leaving the middle seat between you empty. (Obviously, do this in a row in which all three seats are available.) Most people will avoid booking that middle seat between you if possible, so unless the plane is full or nearly full, you might get an empty seat between you to stretch out in comfort.
Telegraph unavailability. If all else fails, and you find yourself stuck in the middle between two other people, you'll have to find ways to make the trip bearable. Be sure to bring your iPad or Kindle, as well as headphones. To emphasize that you don't want to get sucked into idle banter for half the flight, put the headphones on to telegraph your disinterest. Don't be rude, just be unavailable.