On a recent not-quite-full flight to Mexico (sorry Canada, but my seasonal affective disorder was reaching epic proportions), I was reminded that the booking of airline seats should not be left to amateurs.

My girlfriend had chosen our seats when she booked the flight, and in an effort to keep us together, she’d sensibly booked an aisle-and-middle combination. The problem, of course, was that the window seat was later claimed by a guy bigger than both of us put together.

It was, as my husband likes to say, a teachable moment, and I explained to my friend the following (almost) never-fail trick for avoiding the sardine can experience on an airplane.

First: use the electronic check-in kiosks whenever possible–even if you’ve already been assigned seats by a travel agent or airline

During the electronic check-in process, you will asked to confirm your seat selection. You will be able to see the location of your pre-assigned seats, as well as any unclaimed seats.

Second: secure a seating arrangement that leaves a middle seat empty

It seems counter-intuitive for people traveling together to split themselves up, but that’s the magic of this system. When you book yourself and your companion into a window and aisle, that leaves a middle seat free–and no one likes to sit in a middle seat.

When the next person comes along to do their seat selection, they will avoid the middle seat and look for a window or aisle somewhere else–even if it means they have to break up their own traveling unit.

Third: be prepared to give up your better seat

Nine times out of 10, using this system I have found myself left with room to spread out. The middle seat is still vacant when the plane starts rolling down the runway. However, sometimes if the flight is full, someone will be forced to claim the dreaded centre seat–and then I simply ask them if they’d like my window or aisle seat so I can still sit next to my travelling companion. They always agree to the switch.

Try it–it really works!

And while you’re at it: beat the bank at Priceline.com

There’s another little travel trick you should know about too. You likely already know that you can save big money by bidding on hotel rooms at Priceline.com. But there’s a hitch: if your bid isn’t accepted the first time around, you have to wait for a period of time before you are allowed to try again. There is a way around it though: check out this helpful little post by friend and fellow Vancouver-based travel-writer Randall Shirley.

How about you–any travel-deal workarounds you’d like to share?