We fly so much that one day I decided to look around at the planes and also check out the back of the in-flight magazine until I could tell the difference between the big planes. The big planes were super easy and I picked up some more tricks on telling the difference between planes.
Here is a visual guide to telling the difference between planes, as an infographic. But if you’re the reading type, I wrote out in length the details below. Once you know these tricks, you too will be plane-spotting like a pro.
An infographic by Drew and Caroline at Travel is Free
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Not everyone loves infographics as much as we do, so I decided to write up my opinions on the tricks I use to tell the difference between planes.
The fact of the matter is that I learned most of this stuff from being in airports a lot. I made it a habit to check the back of the airlines magazine to help me study the differences. I’ve heard of other tricks, but I’ll stick to the tricks that actually work for me.
There are just 2 double deckers.
Double decker planes are unmistakable and they’re huge, so we’ll definitely start there.
Airbus 380 – This is a full double decker and it’s the biggest commercial plane.
Boeing 747 – Only the front half of this plane is a double decker and I think it makes it unique.
When you see the A380… you know. It’s huge. But to me the 747 is equally noticeable when you see the horn. I’ve compared it to a hornbill we saw in Malaysia. Both are only used for very long haul flights, and the 747 is more common – although a lot of airlines have started retiring the 747.
The other big’n – Boeing 777-300
I think of the A380, 747 along with the 777-300. They are all giants, but the first two are double deckers and the 777-300 is just really long.
Also, airlines often make multiple versions of a plane. So the 777 that American Airlines usually flies is a 777-200. The 200 series is shorter, and the 300 series is longer. 777-300 is abbreviated to the 773. And the newer 777-300er is abbreviated the 77w.
The first two are distinct because there is only one full double decker, and one half-double decker. The 773 is distinct because it is much longer than the next batch of planes we’ll talk about. But the best way I noticed for distinguishing the 773 from the slightly smaller versions is that it has 5 doors. If you count 5 doors, you know it’s a 777-300.
Midsize long hauls
Most commonly if it’s not a super long haul that requires one of the first three planes, it requires one of these next planes. The last two times I flew across the Atlantic were on the Airbus 330 and Boeing 777-200. Although, now a lot of long-hauls are starting the new Boing 787 “Dreamliner”.
Now when you’re at the airport it’s hard to tell if the lone plane your looking at is a giant plane, midsize or small. You think you would just be able to look at it and tell it’s a midsize… but I at least am not that good yet.
So the first thing I look at for single decker planes is how many doors it has, still. If it has 4 doors you know you’re talking about this bracket of airplanes:
Does that make sense? If it has 5 doors it must be a 773. If it has 3 doors, it must be a smaller regional plane. But if it has 4 doors, how do you tell the difference?
A340 – this one has 4 engines, which is unique for this size. However, it’s a little less common than the other planes. But at least we have a distinguishing feature.
But what about the 772, A330, 787 and 321?
Boeing vs Airbus
Let me pause for a second and talk about how to tell the difference between Boeing and Airbus. After all, if it has 4 doors and just two engines (one on each wing) we know it’s likely the A330 or 772. So if we can find the differences between the companies, we can tell the difference between the planes.
Boeing noses have sharp points, and in general Airbus planes have rounder noses. Although there are some exceptions to the Airbus noses, most planes have that look.
The double decker planes showcase the nose differences most dramatically.
Although subtle, can you see the difference in how round the Airbus nose is?
It’s hard to tell the difference between the windows of the cockpit, but if you’re close enough they are usually pretty distinct.
Airbus cockpit window:
Boeing cockpit window:
The Airbus window is more square, and the Boeing slants. The infographic points this out well.
Lastly Boeing tails are slightly further back towards the end of the plane. The Airbus’ tails are generally more aligned with the fin tail that sticks up.
4 door planes
So now if we see a midsize plane, like an A330 or a 777-200, we can find distinguishing boeing-vs-Airbus type features. Unfortunately though, this a tough example. in this case the A330 is one of the Airbus planes that has a sharp nose, and the 772 tail isn’t too different.
But if you can see the windows of the A330 and 772, they are classic brand features.
Also, remember that we can rule out the A340 because it’s the only 4 door plane that has 4 engines.
A330 vs A321
Okay but how do we know if we’re looking at the A330 or A321? Both have 4 doors!
That’s true and it is hard to tell the difference simply because it’s not obvious what size to look for. That being said, the A330 is a lot bigger and taller. It’s not a trick but if you’re good enough to narrow it down, context clues might be able to tell you which one is the long haul version.
But the easy way to tell the difference in A330 and A321 is that the A330 has a pointy boeing-like nose, and the A321 doesn’t. So if you can see the windows to tell it’s an A330 and not a 772, then you can see the nose to see it’s sharp.
Airbus windows with a sharp nose are the A330 or A340… but the A340 has double engines.
If you need another trick, the A330 has double the back wheels, and the A321 has one set of wheels. Big planes double the wheels in the back, and smaller planes don’t. Do you see the double back wheels here?
777-200 vs 787
The 787 dreamliner has a distinct nose as it’s flat on the bottom all the way to the point. Another thing is that the 787 not only doesn’t have square corner cockpit windows (like the Airbus would), it’s pointy like a diamond. Just by looking at these two features in the front you can instantly know that this 4-door Boeing is a 787.
3 Door planes
- Boeing 767
- Boeing 757
Both these planes used for mid range flights are 3 door planes (with two little emergency exits) – the 757 and 767. The quickest way to tell the difference is the n0se, just like the 772 vs 787, but with 3 doors.
The 757 nose is flat all the way to the front. But the 767 angles up to a similar pointy nose.
Smallest Boeing vs 2 door Airbus
- A320 (and smaller version A319, and A318)
These small 2 door planes used for regional flights are near perfect examples for distinguishing between Boeing and Airbus. The 737 has a pointy nose, slanted cockpit corner windows, and a tail wing that sits further back.
There are of course more planes but I wanted to go through the popular Boeing and Airbus planes that make up all of your mid to long haul flights, and most of your regional and short flights. These are the ways that I learned to tell the difference between planes and if you can keep it all straight, I imagine it will work for you as well.