Super Jet International / Flickr

How To Pick Between a Bulkhead or Exit-Row Seat

Ask anyone about what they think the best seat is on the plane and they’re bound to tell you it’s the bulkhead or an exit-row seat. However, each type of seat comes with their own advantages and disadvantages.

There should be two main factors that you’re thinking about when deciding between a bulkhead and an exit-row seat. The first is legroom and the second is recline. Bulkheads and exits aren’t necessarily set up the same when it comes to each and these two things do vastly different things in terms of comfort when you’re actually sitting down. I’ll attempt to break down the biggest differences between the two types of seats, though it will vary depending on what type of aircraft configuration you’re in.

Because I am a short 5’3 something, legroom1 usually isn’t the biggest priority for me. (It doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it; but up to a certain point, I just get lost in a sea of space.) This might contrast differently with someone who clocks in over at 6’0 foot where legroom is the first and foremost concern. My metric is, however, different: I like to stretch back as much as I possibly can. I get annoyed sitting in an upright position the entire time, especially if it’s for a decent chunk of time. I don’t like any impediments to my favorite in-flight activity, sleeping.

Of course, you may even run into the mutant bulkhead-exit-row hybrid during your travels into the wild. Then I can’t help you.

The Bulkhead Seat

I don’t really like bulkhead seats but I’ll get to that in a second when I’ve covered all my bases. Most of people who like bulkhead seats enjoy them for the primary reason that’s it easier to bounce when the flight attendant throws open the cabin door. For short flights or itineraries with tight layovers, I have no issues taking a bulkhead seat because my time is valuable. The less time I can spend on the plane, the better.

There’s also legroom galore on a bulkhead seat. Depending on the airline and airplane configuration, there’s usually more ample legroom than found in an exit row. There are also more foot-resting options you won’t have with other seats on the plane, whether that’s kicking back and chilling out while your foot rests up against the wall. However, I actually find this incredibly uncomfortable since my legs don’t extend so far out as to end up in a enjoyable resting position. Instead, I’m always somewhat uncomfortably straddling the rather wasted legroom in front of me.

The other thing is that you have no seatback tray table in front of you or under-seat storage. This means, at times, the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system is likely to be clunkily stowed to the side of the seat. While it doesn’t bother some people, there’s an ease of use with the IFE system being directly in front of you. Lack of under-seat storage in front also means anything you want on hand with you is going to have to be stowed in the magazine rack unless you want to jump out of your seat during the flight to grab your belongings. (Most flight attendants will ask you to stow your bag or purse in the overhead compartment during take-off.)

On bigger planes or international flights, don’t be surprised to see young families, especially with babies, near the front of the plane. Bulkheads are best suited for bassinets, so if you’ve got a thing against babies, the bulkhead seat might not be the best place for you to get your shut-eye. I learned the hard way once on an Air Canada flight from Beijing to Vancouver. You’ll be on the baby’s time schedule, not anyone else’s.

Advantages: More legroom, faster to get off the plane
Disadvantages: No direct tray table in front, likely to be near babies

The Exit-Row Seat

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OK, I wish I was in first. (David Mulder / Flickr)

I like to think the exit row is the best compromise between sitting in the bulkhead row and sitting in first class. But don’t be fooled: exit-row seats come with their own set of pitfalls as well. The crème de la crème is reserved for first and business class, madam.

Though exit-row seats typically have more legroom than the average seat, I find that bulkhead seats still usually have the most legroom. That’s not to say that the exit-row has none; in fact, I often think that exit-row seats tend to have the best compromise of extra legroom and reclining abilities. You should be aware, though, that not all exit-row seats recline.

Let me explain. Exit-row seats are often set up so there are two exit rows next to each other because of the emergency exit. The exit is often located between the two rows and, for this specific reason, the front exit-row seats are not allowed to recline fully because this would block the emergency door in the case of something truly life-threatening. Meaning if you want the full recline, I would opt for a seat in the second exit row.

The bright side is you don’t have a lot of disadvantages of sitting in the bulkhead row. For instance, there’s usually some type of under-seat storage and most of the time the IFE doesn’t need to be stowed away. I’ve always relied on SeatGuru to check ahead of time for this type of stuff but the second exit row, however, is usually guaranteed to have most of these benefits.

These seats are generally further back in the plane so if you’ve got to run off in a hurry, don’t book an exit-row seat. For longer flights, I’m usually quite complacent. I mean, if I’m going to spend 11 hours on a plane, an extra 15 minutes to disembark isn’t probably going to make huge difference.

The other main disadvantage is that you have to be willing to assist in the event of an emergency. I know it’s just a spiel but hopefully shit never happens. Just be a good passenger and go over the emergency procedure card from time to time to refresh your memory. It doesn’t hurt and, who knows, you may even save someone’s life one day.

Advantages: Traditional IFE and tray table placement, under-seat storage
Disadvantages: Less recline (depending), often further back in the plane, exit-row responsibility

1 footnote

  1. Though I’m not going to go into great detail about this here, perhaps the most important term you’ll ever run into when talking about legroom is seat pitch, the measurement from one point on a seat and the same point on the seat in front of it. Greater seat pitch can mean more legroom but as Wikipedia likes to point out, it can be “affected by the thickness of the seat back.” It can also vary by airline, plane type and cabin but it’s a great thing to keep in mind when making your decision.
How To Pick Between a Bulkhead or Exit-Row Seat via @maphappy
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