How to Get the Seats You Want on Your Next Flight

I asked readers to share what’s on their mind and one reader mentioned being unable to sit with her husband on a recent trip, and wanted to know how to make that work on future travels.

Now, it can be really hard to get seats together on flights — flights are full, airlines are charging for many of their coach seats (calling them premium when they’re not really different than other seats — perhaps just not in the back or not middles). During the holidays it gets even harder with more families traveling so trying to sit together (compared to solo business travelers).

For most passengers, your ticket doesn’t come with a ‘seat’. Obviously that isn’t literally true, since safety rules require all passengers to be seated. But there’s a limited number of seats on the seat map that airlines will let passengers reserve in advance unless the passenger:

  • is paying the exorbitant full fare
  • is an ‘elite’ frequent flyer doing 25,000 miles or more a year (usually) on the airline
  • pays a fee for a ‘premium’ seat which sometimes just means an aisle or being closer to the front of the plane which is only better in that you can get out from being trapped in a metal tube more quickly.

Here are things that you and your family can do, though, to make the process of travel smoother and secure seating together:

  1. Confirm your seat assignments when you book your tickets. Do not wait to call later, or until check-in.
  2. Check to make sure your seats haven’t changed. Look at your reservation every few weeks. Your seat assignments might not have ‘stuck’ especially if you bought tickets through an online travel agency. Or your seat assignments might have changed somewhere along the way (perhaps there was a schedule change or change of aircraft). Finding this out sooner rather than later increases the likelihood of getting it fixed.
  3. Keep checking back. There may not have been seats you could reserve together for free when you booked your tickets, but that can change. Check bag especially as the day of flight approaches — when airlines upgrade frequent flyers, those passengers are moved out of coach, freeing up seats (although mostly freeing up ‘premium’ seats that those passengers get for free).
  4. Use This pay website will email you when desirable seats open up on your flight (you can set up one alert for free without a paid subscription).
  5. Keep asking (anyone and everyone). Your chances are not necessarily better at the gate or customer service counter than at check-in, but it’s another bite at the apple and if you haven’t asked someone yet to help you then you haven’t annoyed them yet!
  6. Trade with another passenger. Nobody else really wants to sit next to your kids, now matter how cute they are (and anyone willing to, and unwilling to trade, can have their character and motives impugned until they are uncomfortable enough to change seats – somewhat tongue-in-cheek advice I’ve given in the past and taken significant heat for). It’s hard for them to argue that they should sit next to your spouse or underage children, since that’s creepy.
  7. If you can’t secure seats together, at least get as many aisle seats as you can. At least don’t assign yourselves middle seats, those are tough to trade. People will almost always give up middle seats, and aisle seats are the best trade bait.
  8. If sitting together is important, then take that into consideration when making your booking. Look at seat maps before you purchase. Make- sure you know what seats are available to you.

If all else fails, if it’s important to sit together and you don’t want to go through the stress and hassle of dealing with matters at the airport or onboard the plane, then consider the cost of an assigned seat part of the cost of the ticket and buy seating at the time you buy your ticket. That’s not great for the family budget, but neither is being separated especially with young children in tow. Sometimes the best option is the one that is ‘least bad’. Unfortunately, it’s baked into the cake now as part of the cost of travel, so best to know that going in.

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. Great advice regarding trading. Make it as appealing as possible, like getting away from your baby!

    On my last family trip, transcon to Boston, I had 4 business seats, but one of them was far away. I sat my 2 year old in the seat next to the seat I wanted, and when the guy came to sit down I asked him if he wanted to sit next to my 2 year old for 6 hours or if he wanted to swap with me (1 row back).

    The guy took one horrified look at my 2 year old and couldn’t move fast enough to the seat I offered.

  2. Keep asking is a great tip. On a flight BOI-PDX-OGG, we asked in BOI if they had exit row for the PDX/OGG flight. No it was completely full. Landed in PDX, on a whim, asked if they had exit row and low and behold they needed to move 2 out of the exit rows so we scored them. Never hurts to keep asking.

  3. On Delta at least, if you are traveling with kids, call at 7 days before your flight if you are still out of luck in getting seats with your kids. That is when a portion of the unassigned seats are released from being blocked. At that point, the phone reps usually have a little more empty space that their disposal and will work to accommodate families. Worked for me on a holiday flight last year. YMMV.

  4. How about the radical idea of simply *asking* someone if they would mind if you traded seats? It has happened to me at least 3 times (once asking, twice being asked). I have never turned someone away and I have been able to swap.

    On my last trip, a couple was seated in two different rows and they asked if I would mind switching, so I did. Last year a family with a baby had booked in Business Class, not realizing that the seating arrangement was the herringbone pattern and the two middle seats were not going to be convenient. So I switched after I got settled in.

    But then again, I travel mainly in Business Class on a regular basis and I guess it really is a better class of people.

  5. @ Darth: I’ve always made every effort to accommodate switch requests from parents, and still will if the trade is pretty straightforward. As in “My husband is sitting in 4a, can you switch from 5a? ”

    Sadly, anything else now is off the table. The last time I tried to be helpful, the request involved several different fliers from different seat categories and rows. While she was still busy getting the clusterf**k figured out and blocking the boarding process, I bailed, said “sorry friend, game over” and put my headphones on. Another guy started yelling at me while I just smiled and continued listening to my podcast. My wife later told me that loud yelling guy almost got removed from flight for threatening me and the seat shifting lady angered the FA to the point that the FA cancelled the entire transaction. Mostly I travel up front and am pretty amicable, but I will no longer swap my aisle for a window – ever. As you allude, the benefit of affordable travel for all is that all can now afford to travel — for better or worse. Sadly, this truth has caused me to adopt a defensive posture.

    While I like the fact that I can now afford to fly across the country to attend a ball game, I also have fond memories of air travel when people treated each other as if they were lucky to be invited to the gala ball.

  6. @ Darth — Gary covered you suggestion under #6 (“Trade with another passenger”).

  7. @TravelingRabbit. How you do you know it wasn’t you he didn’t want to sit next to? 😉

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