An airplane ride isn’t usually that long, it’s fine to be separated from your travel companion unless that companion is a small child.
There are times though that it really does matter to most of us. I got bumped from my pre-reserved first class seat on one segment of my honeymoon by an air marshal. No one wanted to trade places onboard, most of the flight was taken up by people traveling with the late Jennifer Dunn, a lobbyist who had been a member of Congress and Chair of the Republican Conference. Finally one of the members of her entourage did swap.
There are things we can do to maximize our chances to sit with people we’re traveling with, or just get a better seat.
- Consult Seatguru. If you’re not familiar with the aircraft you’re flying, and which seats are best, consult Seatguru — find your airline and aircraft type, and their seat maps will show you which seats are desirable, have extra legroom, immovable armrests, etc.
- Check seat maps when buying your ticket. If seat assignments matter, make sure you check what seats are available to you (either for free or for a fee) before purchase. Then select seats at time of purchase, don’t wait until later to do it.
- 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. One thing I like about Award Wallet is that it will tell me when there are changes to a reservation, including my seat assignment.
- 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).
- Use Expertflyer.com. 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).
- Choose ‘trade bait’ seats as a second best. If I’m traveling with someone, I want pre-assigned seats even if there aren’t two seats together. That way I can at least get one ‘better seat’ that I can use as trade bait. I don’t want to wind up with two middles and try to get someone to give up their aisle for it. I’ll avoid the bulkhead in first class (no underseat storage, usually less desirable) but take the bulkhead in economy (more legroom, more desirable despite lack of underseat storage).
- Choose a row with empty middle. In coach, if I have my complete choice of seats, I’ll take an aisle and a window with open middle. On the off chance the middle stays open, we get more room. If it gets taken, we can always trade with the person in the middle (no one likes a middle). Worst case they only want the aisle, and will hold out (keep their middle) to get it.
A seat isn’t just a seat. I try to approach my travel with both strategy and thoughtfulness, and all of this is just habit and second nature at this point so it doesn’t actually take much effort. But I wanted to tease out of my own brain exactly what it is that I do in case it’s helpful to any of you, and in case you had any different strategies of your own.