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A few days ago I flew from Honolulu to Guam in United economy and got myself five seats in a row, so I could sleep during the flight.

Even at 6’4″, I only needed four consecutive seats for sleep. I raised the arm rests, collected a few pillows and blankets, and had some great sleep for a few hours after take off. Then I switched off with my brother and he napped for a few hours.


  • How did I maximize my chances of getting an entire row?
  • How does a row in economy compare to one First Class seat?
  • How was my sleep?

United shows the seat map online and on its mobile devices.

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 6.14.06 PM
Click View Seats to see the seat map

The 777-200 we flew had a 2-5-2 configuration in economy. I had originally selected a window and aisle seat for me and my brother on the left side of the plane.

As the date of the flight approached, I noticed that some entire rows of five seats in the back of Economy Plus and other rows in the back of economy were empty.

Our seat map was a bit like these seat maps for an upcoming flight except there were entire rows of five in the back that were empty too.

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 6.17.01 PM Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 6.17.14 PM

When I checked in a few hours before the flight online, the rows of five in the back were still empty, so I changed my seat to the middle seat in a group of five.

I reasoned that that would block groups of 3+ from being added to the row and would discourage groups of 1 and 2 from choosing the row, preferring a row without someone right next to them.

I boarded as soon as I could with my group, headed to my row, and discouraged people from moving to it by lying across four seats for the rest of boarding. Of course, if someone had officially switched his seat to my row before boarding, I would have given him his seat, but I just didn’t want people to see a mostly empty row and move on their own.

Nobody ever joined my row, I sat up when it was time for take off, and laid back down after take off for a two hour nap. I then let my brother have the row for a few hours.

Back Up Plan 1

If no rows of five were empty, a row of four would have been plenty. The middle section in the back has only four seats as the cabin narrows.

I am 6’4″ and didn’t reach the fifth seat of my row when lying down.

Back Up Plan 2

I was willing to pay $72 onboard to upgrade to an Economy Plus seat in an empty row of five to colonize it. That seemed smarter than paying $989 to upgrade to first class at check in.

I confirmed via twitter in advance that the same price is offered for an onboard upgrade to Economy Plus as is offered at check in.

Five Economy Seats vs. One First Class Seat

Some of United’s 777s that serve Hawaii, like the one we flew, have large recliners in First Class in a 2-3-2 configuration.

I would much rather have a row of economy to sleep fully flat than one large recliner.

In economy, we could stream entertainment for free on our own devices, so entertainment wouldn’t have been better up front.

The only benefits of First Class would have been:

  • priority security, but I had TSA pre-check
  • free food, but food only cost $10 in economy
  • free booze, but I wouldn’t have drunk on this flight
  • priority boarding, but on an empty flight there’s plenty of overhead space
  • more comfortable for sitting and working, but I’d prefer more comfortable for sleeping

For this situation, I much preferred my own row in economy, and I was ecstatic to get it for free.

On fairly empty planes, the empty rows go to those who plan ahead and make the bold moves. What tips do you have to secure an empty row?

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