Seats on a Plane: How to Make Sure You Can Sit Together During the Busy Holiday Travel Season

It can be really hard to get seats together for flights during the holidays. Flights are full. More families are traveling together so more people are trying to sit together (compared to solo business travelers). And more and more airlines are holding back the number of seats they assign for ‘free’.

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). 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 isthe one that is ‘least bad’.

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. Unless you are a high value customer, it all comes down to 5, 6 and 7. 6 is the main one…your ability to negotiate.

  2. Also, if possible, aircraft selection. 2x2s and 2-4-2s are a lot easier to work off of than 3×3 or 3-3-3 IMO.

  3. I love #6. Someone should definitely be questioned if they want to sit next to your underage child or spouse.

  4. Suppose somebody is holding all middle seats and they want me to trade my aisle seat for one of their middles. You’re actively RECOMMENDING that one of the methods they should consider is to impugn my character & motives for wanting to keep my aisle seat until the public shaming somehow convinces me that I should give in to the bullying?


    In that scenario, they have control over where their spouse and their kid(s) sit out of the seat assignments that they have secured. They can seat themselves next to me to protect their family members from my impugned character & motives.

  5. The one time I was asked, I swapped my seat to let a couple sit together, but if someone were to question my motives or character for saying no, I would sit in a middle seat before I would switch with said person. I’m right there with PH.

  6. If someone has chosen a particular seat in advance, then they are under no obligation to other passengers to move for the other passenger’s convenience.

    People can politely ask if a passenger is willing to trade, and they can either agree or politely decline. Questioning their “character and motives” is just sick.

  7. What you’re saying someone who’s happily picked their seat and it just so happens that your spouse and kid are sitting next to them should have their character impugned just because you’re too cheap to pay for advance seat selection? I think you need to rethink that one, Gary. Also most folk tend to respond better to polite requests than insults.

  8. Aren’t you always likely to sit next to someone else’s spouse or child? I’d suppose 75 percent of the people on the flight are someone’s spouse or child.

    I am always willing to exchange seats for like quality or better quality. Anyone impugning my motives or character for wanting to sit in the seat I reserved, rather than trade for their middle seat near the toilet, is really the one who is rude and out of bounds. The rest of the advice is good, but #6 stinks.

  9. I am not actually impugning anyone’s motives, I am offering a narrative for parents to use if folks are unwilling to switch. 😉

  10. I’m sorry Gary but that is a vile tactic for parents to use to get their own way. I can’t believe that anyone would condone it, let alone encourage it.

  11. I’m sorry and that makes it OK how? I think you need to admit you’ve got it quite wrong here.

  12. I am normally quite open to trading seats, as I just imagine myself in the other person’s shoes. I have even traded my aisle seat for a window, but in biz class only. However, in economy all bets are off and I agree with the others, there is no way I would trade for a worse seat.

    People love to tell tall folks to suck it up and pay premium seat fees for more legroom so I fail to see why families and couples shouldn’t pay for their seat preferences either.

  13. Gary, we all make occasional mistakes — no shame in recognizing and retracting when you realize that you made a mistake. What would be a shame and a disappointment would be if you thought you needed to defend a mistake just because it was your mistake. To make clear, I would indeed have a problem with somebody who thinks part of their standard toolbox should be to impugn my character & motives, and therefore I have a problem with somebody recommending that others incorporate such a tactic into their standard toolbox.

    I’m actually generally fairly cooperative when it comes to exchanging seats in order to reasonably accommodate families who may have been separated through no fault of theirs and despite their best reasonable efforts up to that point (even incorporating that they might not have done everything possible before boarding the plane because they are not experienced travelers). It’s an I’m-going-to-get-my-way-whatever-it-takes attitude that I would object to.

    As to motives for staying put, probably my favorite seating situation in a full-to-capacity 3-3 economy cabin would be a well behaved small framed child with a book sitting in the middle seat with one of their parents sitting in the window seat and my having the aisle seat. I get more space for my wide shoulders and elbows that way. I would not exchange my aisle seat in that situation with the other parent unless they had an aisle seat to offer with a reasonable middle seat occupant. There are enormously long threads on FT (and probably on MP, too) where people describe their legitimate yet highly varied reasons for preferring certain seats. I don’t wish to have my motivations for wanting to keep my seat assignment publicly impugned and presumably

  14. I mostly travel solo and have been asked countless times to change seats. With reasonable requests, I’m fine with moving but I do resent the social pressure to change my carefully selected seat just so a couple can sit together.

    Just happened 2 times when traveling for Thanksgiving. The first time I said no because the people were very late in boarding the plane and I had no interest in doing a switch at the last minute. I said “Sorry but it’s a little late for that now.” Would have switched if they have boarded earlier and I wouldn’t have felt like I was delaying push back because I wasn’t reseated yet.

    The second time, I did not have a choice. I got on board in First and someone was already in my seat and said they hoped I didn’t mind switching from 4A to 4D. I said I did mind. What upset me was… in front of a full First class cabin… I was put on the spot and “had my character impugned” when someone rudely took my seat without the courtesy of asking me first. However, I did not make the husband move even though my seat was now next to an extra large person who I had to climb over to get into my seat. Fair… I think not and to top it off my character was the one being “impugned” after someone took my seat!

    And to clarify… this has happened to me so often as a solo traveler that I have a seat selecting strategy. When selecting a seat I look at what seats are already filled and select one next to filled seats. If it’s a 2-2, I’ll pick the pair where 1 seat is already reserved because it’s a good indicator a solo traveler will be seated next to me and I won’t be asked to move. On a 3-3, I’ll pick a seat where 2 others are already filled next to each other because there’s a good chance traveling companions are seated there and I won’t be asked to move. Sometimes it works but not all the time as per my recent experiences.

    So Gary… please give the solo travelers a break because we’re the ones who take the brunt of the attacks on our character. Just because we’re not traveling with a companion or kids shouldn’t mean we have to bend over backwards to make everyone else’s travel experience more pleasant than our own.

  15. Gary, I’ll raise your Robert Ellickson (of “Order Without Law” fame, a book about how people largely govern themselves by means of informal rules, i.e. social norms) a Ronald Coase (author of “The Problem of Social Cost”).

    A couple years ago – the last time I found myself stuck in a middle seat in Y – all it took was a $20 and the young gentleman in the aisle seat happily switched with me. For a 5 hour transcon, it was money well-spent. Granted, this is but one anecdote, but if a family really wants to sit together on a long flight and lacks coveted aisle seats to trade, stopping by an ATM and picking up a handful of Jacksons is not a bad idea.

  16. I stressed on the phone that we needed to sit together, so I was assigned 4A/4B. Perfect. When I checked in, I got 4A and 5F, with no explanation why. We sat four seats apart, and my wife is not a great flyer. VERY disappointed in American Airlines. After calls and e-mails, American Airlines gave me 2,500 points, which is $150 and 27,750 points short of what I paid to upgrade to first class.

    Picking your seats doesn’t mean much to American Airlines. I had someone track the history to the day before my flight, when my seats were switched. If anyone has any similar horror stories, I’d love to hear them.

  17. I am not going to give up my assigned seat for a family simply because they are family. It’s not my problem. It’s yours. Don’t make it anyone else’s. And if I picked that seat, I am entitled to keep it. You can question my motives as a “tactic” all you want, but I will see through it because I have heard it all (threats of kids throwing up on me, threats of frequent trips to the lav, threats of constant crying) and will stay in my seat just to spite you.

  18. this is my 1st flight to hawaii with my partner. i have fear of flying and our seat assignment came and we oth are in the same row at opposite end both of us have windows. we would like to sit together because i need her supprt. how likley is it that we could trade one of the widow seats to some one for the middle seat next to me.

  19. It’s all about profit these days…..& not so much about service.
    What did they do many years ago….They tried to look after you without emptying your bank account in the process.
    I even remember many years ago a man from British Rail turning up at our door to collect a big ” Tea Chest” with all our holiday stuff in & the next time we would see it was in our cottage on St Martins on the Isles of Scilly..
    So in the end that would have been 2 train trips & 2 steam ship trips & 2 boat trips …ALL PART OF THE SERVICE !!!!! times have changed….& for the worst.
    All these companies need to stop profiteering to such a huge level….it’s just pure greed & not needed…Then again look at Hollywood & Sport….Just the same.

  20. This is the airlines fault. All seats should be randomly generated.. however when purchasing multiple tickets those seats should be clumped together. This is common sense. People purchasing single seat tickets get sat next to other single ticket people. This is the airline milking people for more money and creating more useless conflict amongst its customers. I stopped flying a long time ago, it’s less stress to drive.

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