Can you get a better Ryanair seat if you check in later?

Plane Talk: All else being equal, you would expect a middle seat one-third of the time – but does this happen?

Simon Calder
Travel correspondent
Thursday 25 April 2024 15:16 BST
Ryanair assigns seats to passengers who choose not to pay for a specific place
Ryanair assigns seats to passengers who choose not to pay for a specific place (Simon Calder)

“I have heard that the later you leave it to check in with Ryanair, the higher the chance of avoiding a middle seat,” Mick G writes.

“Is that correct?”

Here’s the context. Many of us who fly with Europe’s biggest budget airline choose not to pay for a specific seat. This is despite the multiple invitations to do so, and warnings of the consequences should we not avail of the service – which costs a minimum of £4.50.

Undeterred, we take our chances in the “random” distribution of passengers in unassigned seats. If you decline all invitations to pay for a seat, the airline’s reservations system will assign you one when you check in online – which must be online between 24 hours and two hours ahead of the flight. Will it be:

  • A or F, the window seats in each row of six?
  • C or D, the aisle, with easy access to stretch your legs, etc?
  • B or E, middle seats where you barely have armrest rights?

I have never met anyone who prefers a middle seat to a window or aisle (unless it also came with extra legroom); but conversely couples who pay to sit together will select a window or aisle seat, plus a middle.

Ancillary revenue – paying for stuff beyond the basic seat – is a crucial element of Ryanair’s profits. The option of random seating is illustrated by dice being rolled. Don’t say the airline didn’t warn you about the likelihood of a middle seat if you insist on rolling with the fortunes of the skies.

“Before continuing with random allocation please be advised:

  • High chance you’ll be sitting in the middle seat.
  • You might sit apart from your travel companions.
  • Unlikely to be in the front or back of the aircraft.”

(That last line is relevant. Since Brexit, being in the centre of the plane rather than forward or aft isn’t ideal. Long waits at passport control are now standard, so leaving rapidly by the front or rear stairs can save plenty of time on arrival.)

Should we blame Ryanair for allocating middle seats as a kind of punishment for parsimonious passengers? Not at all. Right up until check-in closes, the airline is open to bids from passengers who recant while checking in online and are suddenly prepared to pay. They deserve the widest amount of choice for a window or aisle seat. Why would an airline give away a benefit for which others will pay?

Mick’s hypothesis is this: with a system that is geared to assigning middle seats wherever possible, anyone who waits almost until the last moment is more likely to get a window or aisle seat.

Fortunately I can offer some original research thanks to my saved boarding passes. Looking back at the previous seven years, I have taken 39 Ryanair flights. Assuming the distribution were truly random, and did not take passengers’ paid selections into account, I would expect to be assigned a middle seats 13 times.

The assignments that the Ryanair seating gods bequeathed were interesting – including a series of four straight flights where I was assigned B (middle seat on the left) and another sequence of four E seats (middle on the right).

Yet the total number of middle seats is 15, which meant that on 24 occasions I was assigned a more desirable A, C, D or F. That means I endured middle misery for 38 per cent of the journeys – not much more than a truly random assignment. Yet once you drill down to the time of check-in, relative to other travellers, it gets interesting.

The “sequence” code on your boarding pass indicates where, among the passengers, you checked in. The number can go all the way up to the capacity of the plane.

The first to check in is 1, the last 189 (except on newer Ryanair jets, when it is 197). With this parameter added, I dug deeper to look for correlation.

Was a window or aisle more likely when I was among the last to check in? The answer appears to be “yes”, confirming Mick’s theory.

For example, from Stansted to Belfast my sequence number was 172; I won 12F. From Stansted to Seville, a similar story: I was 171st and earned 4A. Anything over 100, indeed, seems to increase the likelihood of avoiding the middle seat.

Conversely, checking in as soon as the 24-hour window opens looks a bad move – with a middle seat almost certain.

The best seat I have ever had on Ryanair was in July 2019, flying from Stansted to Dortmund. I was 186th to check in. The boarding pass said: “Assigned at gate”. I was given 1A: a free ticket to lots of legroom and, on arrival at the German city, the fastest possible getaway. Yes: it appears you can “game’” checking in with Ryanair to get a better seat. But don’t cut it too fine.

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