Departing Thessaloniki, Greece
If you have ever flown into a destination known for its skyline or famous landmarks, you might have wondered “will I see it?”. “It” might be the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles, the Vegas Strip at night, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Maybe you have gotten lucky and got to see that gorgeous view. Or maybe you realized you were on the wrong side of the plane and only got to see a lot of…wait for it…trees. As exciting as those trees might be (and in some places in the fall, they are pretty), it’s much better to see that cityscape or landmark, right?
Departing Santorini, Greece
I am often asked how I seem to always get my aerial shots. While I’m not 100% successful, I do get the opportunity more times than not. The simple answer is planning and luck. I’m very intentional with my planning on every single flight I take. Unfortunately, luck is and will always be part of the formula.
Admittedly, it took me a while to clue in. You know, to actually think about which side of the plane to sit on and then remember to think about it as I booked my flight. I fly enough now that I have certain flight patterns memorized and I know automatically which side of the plane gives me the best chance of seeing my target. However, when I fly somewhere new for the first time, I have no clue. But, I do know that day or night, I want to sit on the side that will give me the best chance of viewing as much of the destination as possible.
Arriving into Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I’m sharing my tips to choose the side of the plane to sit on to give you the best chance for that view. In full disclosure, it’s always a gamble. Flight paths change sometimes multiple times per day and even if you do get the perfect seat on the correct side, weather happens. Gamble.
1. Try Not to Sit Directly Over the Wing
Arriving into Madrid, Spain
…Or the first couple of rows in front of or behind the wing. Sorry, this does rule out the exit rows. Sometimes you have to choose between comfort and getting that shot. Besides, for most airlines these days, you have to either have status or be willing to pay extra for the exit rows anyway!
37,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean
You can still get decent photos if you are over the wing. Plenty of my photos are from the above angle. However, I try to aim for the wing to be behind or in front of me enough I have to turn to get it in my photos. It can make a cool reference. While I don’t mind the wing being in my photos, I mostly like the ability to take a photo with a wing-free view.
2. Be Intentional About Time of Day
Left: Barcelona, Spain Right: 34,000 feet over Miami, Florida en route to Lima, Perú
Depending on where you are going (and if you have the option), think about the destination and if it might have a better view at night, during broad daylight, or at sunrise or sunset.
Arriving into New York City
For example, the photo above is New York City at sunset. That particular afternoon, it was stormy and the sunset peeking through provided this cool, dramatic backdrop right before landing at La Guardia. Now for most first time fliers into NYC, broad daylight will give you the best chance to potentially see the Statue of Liberty. If you have flown into NYC before and have a little more experience with aerial views, the city can really show off any time of day or night.
Grand Canyon, Arizona (from a helicopter)
Other destinations will be more specific. The Grand Canyon can obviously only be viewed during the day and preferably middle of the day to give you the best chance of finding it.
Arrival into Las Vegas, Nevada
Vegas is cool during the day because the hotels are so massive against the flat desert, but let’s be real. The coolest shots of Vegas are at night!
Okay, you get the idea.
3. Choose A Window Seat
Departing Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I know you think I’ve lost my mind in stating the complete obvious but hold up. Someone actually tried to lean into my personal space in my window seat stating “sorry, I thought I would be able to see from the middle seat”. I chose to give him a pass in case it was the first time he had ever flown. I also chose to ignore other signs that suggested it was not his first time to fly.
All I’m saying here is these tips only work with window seats. Choose a window seat. Granted, you might have to choose between the convenience of the aisle and that fabulous shot you are hoping to get but if you don’t choose the window, none of this will work.
4. Be Camera Ready
Flying over Port Barcelona on arrival into Barcelona, Spain
This one might also seem obvious, but it’s actually a common mistake. A mistake I also made at first but quickly corrected. So many people think that because they have their camera in their purse or bag under the seat in front of them that they can just pull it out when the time comes. While you can do this, you will likely miss your shot. It only took once for me to learn after missing an incredible shot.
Departing Atlanta, Georgia
If at all possible, have your camera out and ready prior to takeoff. Don’t discount the takeoff. A lot of the best shots can be taken just after wheels-up. I always have my (travel) camera and my phone ready to go. There’s a chance, if your camera is a DSLR with a huge zoom lens, you might be asked to keep it put away until you reach 10,000 feet, but I have personally not witnessed this.
This is an unpopular word in almost any context. However, the good news is that research pays off a lot of the time in this particular situation.
Because flight paths change every time the wind blows (seriously, no pun intended), it is impossible to know for sure from which direction any given flight will land. There are a couple of ways to get a good idea.
Courtesy of FlightAware
Using FlightAware will give you special information and therefore is your best option for flight path prediction. It shows real-time flight paths as well as those tracked from recent arrivals. I’m not going to dive into how to use FlightAware in this post. But, essentially you want to look for the path the plane takes starting from the initial approach to the final approach into its destination.
Courtesy of FlightAware
Sometimes that path is a straight line…
Courtesy of FlightAware
and sometimes it involves a U-turn. That U-turn frequently gives one side of the plane a fabulous view of the area such as downtown or a famous landmark so long as the airport isn’t located too far away.
Hint: If you are new to flying, this crucial time period is usually announced by the pilot and goes something like this: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Captain ‘John’ from the flight deck. We have started our initial descent into the ‘(insert destination)’ area.” This is when you want to start watching for your target.
Another good research tool is a plain, old Google search. There are other people who have asked the same question. Try something like “which side of the airplane to sit on flying from ‘A’ to ‘B’ ” where A is your departure destination and B is your final destination.
Take note of frequent fliers to a particular destination. They will sometimes say things like “I have been flying to NYC from Atlanta every week for the past 6 months. Most of the time, sitting on this side will show you the city”.
I will say, while I do google this information, I trust it way less than the FlightAware website. People forget which side of the plane they sat on, or haven’t flown to that destination but are “experts” with flight paths. Except for they get turned around or don’t take into consideration that flight paths change. So, while it can be useful, be careful with this source of information.
1. Keep in mind that there is NO guarantee on any of this. Your flight can even change en route for a number of reasons.
2. Be specific with your flight search including both your departure destination and your final destination. DON’T choose just any flight into NYC on FlightAware or only google “which side to sit on flights into NYC”, but rather “which side to sit on flights from ATL to La Guardia”.
3. If the arrival destination has more than one major airport, use airport codes with both FlightAware and internet searches. The airport you fly into can sometimes nix the option of your target view altogether. Examples of such cities are New York and Los Angeles. You can find any airport code here.
4. If you have an entertainment screen at your seat, use the flight tracker on it. Zooming in on the destination will show you the most updated path the plane is going to take. While this won’t help you choose your seat ahead of time, it will help you find your target during flight.
I know this sounds like a whole lot of work for a flight. Your first couple of flights might take some time, but after that, you will get used to how the process works. And believe me, the satisfaction you get when your target comes into view and you get that dream photo…it’s priceless!
I hope this tutorial helps to land you that glorious view. Even if it’s just to take in the sights and not necessarily for photography, it’s most definitely worth it! If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or contact me here.
Be sure to check back as I will be sharing photos and flight path information to my frequented destinations soon!
‘Til next time…