I won't lie to you: the only truly easy way to get the best seat on a plane, every time is to buy it.
No, I don't mean showing up at the gate lugging your own personal La-Z-Boy (complete with cup-holder armrests!) -- I'm talking about flying first class, or your own fancy jet.
But those options aren't available to everyone, so let's lower our sights a bit and talk about getting the best seats available in steerage -- you know, the holding pen that the airlines wittily refer to as "economy class."
Even economy has "good" seats: windows and aisles -- with aisles leading ever so slightly -- and the best of best are located in the exit rows or bulkheads. Unfortunately, someone has to fill all those middle seats; let's try to make sure it's not you.
1. Obvious Approach: Select your seat when you purchase your ticket. That sounds like a no-brainer, I know, but you'd be surprised how many travelers don't do this and simply accept the seat they're assigned without ever looking at it. Days (or weeks) later, they are horrified to discover they've been shunted into a middle seat. Pick your place as soon as you can.
2. Pay for Premium Seats: These are generally roomier exit rows or seats with a little more leg room, but hold off before paying the fee for these seats. I've noticed that when the plane isn't filling up, the fees for these seats can drop dramatically. Maybe you wouldn't want to pay an extra $35 each way for a "good" seat, but how about an extra $10?
3. Promptness Pays: Some airlines don't release seats until precisely 24 hours before departure, so you must be ready for seat selection then -- at that very moment. In other words, if you're on a 6 a.m. flight, set an alarm clock for 5:45 a.m. the day before, so you can fire up the computer and make your selection the instant seats are available. If you delay this by even a couple of minutes, all those wonderful windows and aisles can disappear.
4. Southwest Method: If you're traveling on this no-frills carrier, check-in early. This won't necessarily get you a seat, but it will get you a good place in line to claim a seat. Alternate action: consider paying the $10 charge for EarlyBird check-in, which lets you board the plane ahead of the masses.
5. Don't Be Shy about Aches/Pains: Some airlines set aside sections that include "good" seats so families can sit together, or people with disabilities can be more comfortable. Do you have a legitimate medical problem? If so, contact reservations to inquire about your options and be prepared with a doctor's note. Do not, however, wait until you're onboard to request a special treatment: one fellow who'd recently been in an accident tried that on a US Airways flight and became so demanding that the airline eventually diverted its flight to London to dump Mr. Injured off in Boston.