I Pulled The “One Spouse In First, The Other One In Coach” Trick. What Do You Think?

One of the most controversial etiquette questions is whether it’s alright for spouses to split up when they fly, with one person in a premium cabin and the other one flying coach?

I’ve written about this for years and always concluded that it’s rarely okay to buy tickets in a different cabin, but that when an airline offers only one upgrade it is ok to take it. There is no reason you should both have to suffer! And in a good marriage no spouse would wish economy on the other one! I leave it to you, though, to decide which one should take the seat.

I finally had the opportunity to experience the choice for myself. My wife, daughter, and I flew from Austin to Las Vegas – and we split up into different cabins.

  • When we booked the tickets, there were two confirmed upgrade seats (“C” inventory) available.

  • The regular coach fare booked into a class that allowed me to apply Business ExtrAA (BXP1) upgrade certificates and confirm them in first.

I wasn’t going to buy first class. That was about $400 more. Instead, I booked basic economy for about $119 and selected an exit row aisle. My wife and daughter were in one cabin, I was in a different cabin, and I’d chance an Executive Platinum upgrade.

As the upgrade window opened just over 4 days to departure, there were seats left but.. no upgrade. The day before travel there were two seats left. The morning of travel there was still a first class seat for sale, and I was first on the upgrade list. But a few hours later that one seat was gone.

I pulled up the seat map and I was alone in my exit row. The row across from me had someone in the window, but an empty middle and aisle. I swapped myself into that aisle seat. My bet was:

  • That two people could come along for an exit row, they would be equally likely to wind up in my row as the other one. And I wanted an empty middle seat!

  • But if I took the aisle, there’s just be an empty middle seat in my row – and there would be an entire empty exit row. That would be where passengers get seated, in all likelihood.

And that’s exactly how things worked out – a group of two passengers wound up in the exit row I’d been seated in, and I wound up with an empty middle seat next to me in the exit row. To be honest, an exit row with an empty middle is basically as good as domestic first class on American. I still get a free cocktail, and the meal probably wouldn’t be worth eating.

I didn’t clear the upgrade, so my wife and daughter sat up front without me. That was fine. On the way back we were all up front, and my daughter made me promise to sit with her since my wife sat with her on our outbound.

Lucky at One Mile at a Time says that if you can’t all be in a premium cabin together, then sit in coach “I’d rather that both of us just sit in economy, because economy is a bit more tolerable if you’re at least next to someone you like.”

That’s fair – and I’ve done my share of short haul coach travel with my wife and daughter, for instance using Barclays AAdvantage credit card $99 companion tickets (which aren’t upgrade-eligible). But my own view is, two first class seats are available, why not put my wife and daughter up there?

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Personally I would always let my late Bride enjoy the “”bump” to business class when those situations came up.
    There were also the occasional situations where we couldn’t sit together in coach. When that happened, after we got to cruise, I would take out a business card and write on it ‘To the beautiful blonde in 22D…do you want to meet for a drink or dinner after the flight”? I would hand it to the F/A and asked her or him to please bring to the psgr in 22D. They would of course read it and I could see their eyes light up and I would get the thumbs up sign and moments later “My Bride” would have the drink/dinner request. A short time later they would bring me back the card with her note accepting the invitation.
    They never figured out we were actually happily married to each other!

  2. I have no problem sitting apart and will give my wife any upgrades, as she often works on the flight plus has a bad back. I’m not going to book us in different cabins when paying cash, but if awards work out that way, I’ve had no problem booking it that way. One F, one J on JAL, she get’s the F. If I happen to find space on the return, she’ll swap with me. (Although I’ve heard the return is superior.)

    When you get right down to it, if only one seat/upgrade is ever available, I’m going to let her have it. Back and work issues just dictate that. The better shape she arrives in and/or gets more work done, the better off we’ll both be at our destination. YMMV.

  3. If there is only one seat up front my wife gets it. That’s how I’ve stayed (happily) married for almost 30 years.

  4. What does it matter whatI think? If spouse and spousal unit agree to the terms and conditions, it’s all cool.

  5. My wife would tell me to sit up front and let her sit in coach because I’m close to 6 feet tall and she is a foot shorter. I would feel guilty, though.

  6. If there is only one seat up front my wife gets it. But that has only happened twice in the last 15 years. Giving her a single upgrade (she never has been an elite flyer) when we fly together makes for a true gentle husband, an important trait to keep any wife happy.

  7. The kid is an interesting comment. I love my kids to death. But I’d rather be in economy by myself than in first with the 3.5 year old.

  8. I don’t really see how this is an ethically right or wrong question. There are plenty of valid reasons for one spouse to sit up front and one in coach, such as is evidenced in the comments above (husband wants to give the good seat to his bride, husband has long legs so should have more leg room, wife has bad back, etc.). As long as the couple is fine with it, there’s no right or wrong to it, and as long as each spouse cares about the needs and comforts of the other, it will work out just fine.

    Its just the selfish pigs who think they deserve something nice more than their spouse does that give this situation a bad rap.

  9. The most natural thing is to give my wife the first class seat while I sit in coach.

  10. Interesting perspective! This is definitely one of those travel decisions that can spark some debate. I believe it all comes down to the dynamics of the couple and their mutual understanding. Some may see it as a fun way to enjoy premium perks without spending a fortune, while others might view it as unequal. Personally, I think communication is key. If both partners are on the same page and one genuinely doesn’t mind sitting in coach while the other enjoys first class, then why not? However, if it’s a source of tension, it might be worth rethinking the strategy for the sake of the relationship. Travel is about making memories together, after all.

  11. Take turns. It probably won’t happen just once in your life. Sort of like the possession arrow in basketball.

  12. The men who automatically give the upgrade to their wife are so whipped! Do I need to say it again? Super whipped! The logical and rational way to determine how gets the upgrade is by who is the bigger, taller or fatter spouse. Bigger body…… bigger seat! Geeeeese, grow a pair!

  13. I didn’t think you were allowed to sit in the exit row if you are travelling with young kids on the flight. I get a message every time I select seats on AA that I am not allowed to sit it the exit row because I am travelling with my kids. I am assuming you were on separate reservations but I don’t think that should matter – other than the fact that AA wouldn’t automatically flag it.

  14. My take away, BXP1 for aus-las, heck no unless you have millions of bus extra points. I use mine for transcons for “better” value

  15. @ Gary – You should have paid the $400. Given that you are earning revenue-based EXP status, why not?

  16. This is just the opinion piece (and survey) that won’t die.

    Everyone has different philosophies, and nobody is “right” or “wrong” until our society as a whole comes up with rules or mores aboutt his. You’ll notice different people ave different values and that will prevent that magical coming together with one “right” opinion.

    To the gentleman who calls his wife a bride, I get the respect you’re trying to show, but a bride is a role taken during a ceremony, as is groom. Following that ceremony the role is wife and husband, or exes or whatever works out. Your bride does not fly in F unless you’re getting married aboard that aircraft.

    It sure would be nice to learn how to get the whole family upgraded, but that’s becoming worse/harder as each day goes by and all the airlines are turning their programs to mush.

  17. @Gene – I have already requalified for executive platinum months ago, and why would I give AA so much extra money on a 2.5 hour flight?

  18. @ Gary — Months ago, wow! If you qualified via credit card spend, you gave them much more money in opportunity cost already.

    Why pay the extra? To sit with your family! And for the food and champagne! 😉

  19. All this carrying on over a 2.5 hour flight. Is it not possible to sit in coach, not be served a meal, go without alcohol for a short time, and survive??

  20. @Ehud

    “Bride” remains an appropriate third person term of endearment for as long as a couple is married, and even if the wife passes.

    You’re correct that “Bride” is formally correct only on the wedding day, but most terms of endearment aren’t technically correct.

    I’m confident (but can’t say for sure) that my sweetheart’s cardiac muscle does not taste like sugar, nor is she a “baby.”

  21. Ehud and Greg…
    My “Bride” and I were married for 29 years before she passed. Over those 29 years I was asked numerous times ‘you have been married xx years so why do you still call her your Bride’?
    My answer was the same each and every time….
    “Is there ever a point in time when she is not my Bride”?

  22. Two couples flying Newark to Asheville in an Embraer last month. I get called at the gate and they tell me I have been upgraded to First. Just me, not my wife. I passed. Two hour flight and I felt the other couple would think I was total asshole. Seemed like the right thing to do,

  23. This is one of those classic topics which reappears frequently and invites a diverse range of opinion. Another is giving up one’s seat so family can sit together.

  24. @Joe United – My wife earns a shit-ton more money than I do, and she doesn’t mind that I don’t. She’s also hot and I adore her. You lose you fat loser.

  25. Years ago, I treated my parents to a holiday trip from the UK to USA flying BA. My partner was also with us.

    When it came to the return overnight flight from Boston to Heathrow, as my parents were flying onwards through Heathrow, I pointed out that that meant that we all had to book in separately.

    As I was very tall and needed leg room.I was mindful that my partner and I had a good chance of getting exit row seat upgrades, but then when I asked about that, instead I was surprised that we were given upgrades to business class because of our status. However, how on earth could I now explain this to my parents without it appearing that that was always my intention, which it was not.

    I decide to keep quiet about it, and just hoped that, as it was an overnight flight, they would not even notice as we all slept, as we would be called for boarding at different times and turn different ways on boarding, so would not meet again until getting off at Heathrow.

    So, imagine my surprise when sitting in our seats waiting for takeoff, when my parents passed us by in the business cabin, albeit on the far aisle, with my mother shouting “YOOHOO, We have been upgraded to First”. Somehow my mother, after boarding, had negotiated the upgrade on health grounds! Ever since, I daren’t ask about it as I feared opening up the discussion.

    At least my dilemma was over, so thank you BA.

  26. When that happens to me (and it has happened a number of times), I always ask the FA as we step on board the plane if it’s ok for my wife to take my seat in first class. They always say yes of course, and what a good husband I am! The downside: because I’m taking her coach seat which shows in her name, the FA in coach doesn’t offer me a free snack, etc., nor EXP recognition (which I don’t care about).

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