Can No Seat Assignment Be Better than Picking a Middle Seat in Back?

When readers shared their own travel tips and several really stood out as worth highlighting. Some I even disagree with, like this one from Shaun

If a plane seat map looks full (and has no good seats left anyway), don’t select a seat or call to de-select one. You’ll end up with a seat request card and get a seat assignment at the gate. More often than not, a bulkhead will open up because they are blocked off for people with disabilities, etc, and aren’t always used.

To be sure this is usually how things will work out. If you have no elite status and don’t want to spend money for a ‘better’ coach seat assignment (that may be more legroom, or may not be a seat closer to the front or an aisle) then if you don’t have any seat assignment at all and the seat map fills up you may end up with that ‘better’ seat for free.

Elites who were assigned to those seats for free will clear their upgrades. Some seats may be blocked for airport assignment and those are frequently better seats, that could be unblocked for top elites or full fare passengers. They could go to you.

But that is a risky strategy indeed.

If you do not have elite status and you do not have a seat assignment, you are the one most likely to get left behind.

Sure, an overbooked airline will ask for volunteers will to take compensation in exchange for giving up their seat and traveling later. And there are often such volunteers. But there aren’t always.

Priority for getting one of the seats that opens up will generally go to higher elite status passengers. Without status you’re at the bottom, if there are a shortage of volunteers then you could wind up out of luck.

Sure, the airline is going to owe you compensation for involuntary denied boarding. But you may not want that. You may want to get where you’re going.

To me, a seat assignment is usually better than no seat assignment if you’re a passenger without elite status. If the better seat matters to you, consider whether it matters enough to pay cash for — because taking a chance with no seat assignment is still paying for the better seat, just in the risk-adjusted cost of not getting onto the flight.

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It can really be a crap-shoot… I got lucky in September on a BA flight – LHR-BWI — we were booked in Premium Economy, only one seat available to select, so we opted not to select seats – at LHR we ended up getting bumped up to Club World. A nice surprise.

  2. To me, the opportunity cost is low enough in 99% of these situations to make it a good strategy. Unless you get IDB’d (which I just feel like happens so infrequently), the worst possible outcome of not choosing a seat assignment beforehand is equal to the best possible outcome–a middle seat in both cases. But by holding off choosing a seat, you keep open the door that something else is going to open up, and that’s worth it to me.

    Unless I 100% had to get where I was going on that flight, I would probably take this route.

  3. The same thing happened to me this weekend in London, because I had a tight schedule upon arrival and was also unable to check in online for my international flight to Vancouver, I had no set assignment in economy. I was worried, but hoped for the best: ended up getting a bulkhead seat with no one beside me on Air Canada, which was a Godsend! It was perfect…and I didn’t have to arrive on an absolute time schedule, so it worked for me,as I could have stayed another night in London with compensation if needed.

  4. I have to agree that this is a good strategy, but I would tweak it a little.

    1) If a DBC is unacceptable to me I will probably wouldn’t have chosen the flight without a good seat in the first place.

    2) I would add to this strategy to *know the Elite upgrade time frames down to the minute*, and look for seats at those exact times.

    A DBC is usually an okay circumstance, and you can sometimes talk them into an upgrade along with the cash. You may even get a qualifying hotel stay out of it.

  5. I’ve read that on JetBlue this tactic can result in getting an Even More Legroom seat for no extra charge because all the regular seats have been assigned.

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