Why Do People Select Seats Together When They’re Traveling Together?

When you book a flight you have the option, in most cases, to select your seats. Not everyone does this, which is something I’ll never understand in cases where seat assignments are free. But I also don’t think the choice people make are logical when they do choose seats.

If a row of 3 is open (and there’s no extra charge for seat assignments or the charge is the same) why do people seat themselves next to their travel companion – even if they want to sit together? Why wouldn’t they choose a window and an aisle seat, leaving the middle open?

  • If the plane isn’t full, a middle is the most likely seat to remain empty – especially at the front of the plane, extra legroom which usually costs more, and at the very back of the aircraft. Assigning an empty middle between two people increases the likelihood that passengers get extra room free, an empty middle to share.

  • If the plane is full and someone is seated in that middle, then trade them an aisle or window for their middle, almost anyone would take that deal. (Some might even offer to sell that better seat for a modest amount! Or ‘buy me a drink on board and you can have my aisle seat instead of your middle’.

Of course you can also buy that extra empty seat if you wish on most airlines. Yet almost no one does this, either.

Or just assign two aisle seats across from each other you’re still sitting together, with no passengers in between you, and you’re guaranteed that space.

If you don’t like the seats that are available, that you do assign yourself, you can set a free email alert for a better seat. Virtually no one does this, either. (By the way here’s how to know which seat is best.)

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. Due to my status I am able to select PE or MCE seats at booking for free. The middle seat fills up about 95% on my flights so if my husband is traveling with me I book us in aisle and aisle

  2. Nailed it. When we have to fly Kettle Class we always take aisle seats across from each other. Duh!

  3. Sometimes the person in the middle refuses to trade, which makes for an awkward situation.

  4. Because it’s a low-class move and causes extra work to get everyone seated in the end. It’s like booking Southwest and only buying early bird boarding for one person and trying to save the seat. Again there is nothing wrong legally in doing this but don’t be all pissed off and venting to people on Twitter or what not if someone doesn’t want to switch.

  5. I have never understood the rabid desire to sit immediately next to your traveling companion. I routinely select aisle seats across from each other, but if we are in completely different rows, it makes no difference to me.

  6. @Robert D – agree completely. Unless you are traveling with a small child what is the issue. After 32 years of marriage my wife and I have no problem no sitting next to each other. Not sure why some couple are so clingy. Really sad IMHO

  7. Two on the aisle, usually across the aisle, though often times, we’ll do one in front of the other, me in front, because SO hates it when someone reclines fully, even in 1st, and there’s work to do on the laptop. When in real J seats TATL, we’re usually nearby, but rarely next to each other. Different sleep schedules. That cabin that turns into a bed for two is our idea of hell.

  8. aisle seats across from each other seems best to me. You’re going to be with the person at your destination. You can handle a few hours 2 feet apart. Or, as I’ve one with a GF before, random seats for a 90 minute flight to Vegas that had us leave a couple of hours early. Two extra hours in Vegas was worth the non-trauma of not sitting together on the plane.

  9. @Robert D and AC, I like sitting next to someone I know if possible because I know for certain that they are aware of my version of plane etiquette. Not everyone wants to hear about your life, your family, your career, or anything else some folks tend to ramble on about.

    I’m one who can appreciate if a person sits down, shuts up, puts their headphones on, read a book, whip out their iPad or laptop, sleep and snore even – I don’t care as long as they don’t talk to me because I don’t care to get to know them. I usually don’t find many people fascinating enough to want to listen to them or their story…unless I’m getting paid very well to do so.

  10. @2808 Heavy – what makes you think I talk to alone on a plane? Don’t get me wrong I’m not anti-social but never initiate the conversation. I’m perfectly fine flying in silence and occupying myself. Those that can’t separate themselves from their spouse are mentally ill. Personally my wife and I go on trips alone (also great one together like 2 weeks in Italy recently). I like casinos and she likes beaches. At time they overlap but not all the time. Couple that can’t be apart have a lot of issues IMHO

  11. We do exactly what you are talking about. Near the back of the plane (maybe the next to last row), because these are the seats that fill up last. We’ve never had anyone not want to swap out of the middle seat.

    With our kids we do this too. Nobody wants to be seated between a parent and their kid.

    Probably a quarter of the time one of the seats will be empty.

  12. My partner and I both like the window. In economy I’ll book us the window and the seat next to it. In solo-seat business class we’ll book windows one behind the other.

  13. AC, folks who tend to take issue with someone wanting to sit next to another person even though such choice doesn’t affect the person making the assumption that one is mentally ill, could also fall in line with your version of mentally ill, no?

    Why do you care who someone wants to sit next to? Minding your own business cost absolutely nothing but folks still seem to struggle doing just that. So would it be safe to assume that one who has the ability to mind his own business but chooses not to for absolutely no reason than to hear him or herself talk, could be labeled as mentally ill?

  14. “ Or ‘buy me a drink on board and you can have my aisle seat instead of your middle’ “

    Sorry Gary, I read your blog religiously every day but this is the tackiest thing I have heard in a long time.

    Such a gross example of how so many Americans (and certain other cultures which I wont identify here since I’ll only criticize my own) think in the “me, me, me” instead of being community minded and thinking in the “we”.

    Is every last thing a game to see what can be extracted from it for personal gain?

  15. We always sit aisle-aisle when travelling and Air NZ definitely allows this. I think you need to click an extra button to select seats separately

  16. As it happens, I bought my first empty middle ever last week. (It took a half hour on the phone with the United Premier Desk while the poorly trained agent figured it out, but to be fair, it was New Year’s Eve and I’m sure supervisors/internal support people/senior agents were fewer.)

    The premise of the article is “why would one of two people sit in a middle if one doesn’t have to” whereas for me the question is “what to do have to do to make a cross country trip with a connection without either of us having to sit next to a stranger in economy.” And what United were charging for domestic first class, in miles or cash, was so outrageous I refused, but I might cancel the empty seat and redeposit the miles if it looks like we might clear for upgrades.

  17. I don’t strike up a conversation with a random person sitting next to me, although I generally will say “hello” when they are seated, or a polite smile. You never know when it may become necessary to speak to the person in-flight.
    Kinda awkward to do that it you have studiously ignored their existence up to that point!

  18. Gary also thinks it’s completely cool to have one member of a group board early on Southwest and scatter articles of clothing around to save seats for the C-listers in the party.

  19. I ate a sandwich today; as always, no lettuce. I hate lettuce. Lettuce makes me think of very bad things…

  20. Window/Aisle: I was seated behind a couple that did this on a recent flight but must have been on separate PNRs. They refused when the gate agent asked them each to trade their seat (for a better seat) so a couple that paid for seat assignments but were seperated due to an equipment change could be re-seated together. All happened in front of me while I was gait checking a bag. Then they didn’t even remember the guy when he sat down between them. They asked him to trade to window or aisle but he stayed in the middle out of spite. I agree with DaninMC, option A is low class.

    Aisle/Aisle: my wife and I did this a few times before our son was born. It led to me being hit on by other passengers right in front of her. That was funny until it wasn’t.

  21. Weather made me reschedule a flight years ago from Palm Beach to Newark. Only seat open was a middle seat. I ended up sitting between a couple who obviously hoped I wouldn’t be there but would not switch. The wife brought food for them and they spent hours passing food back and forth over me. Talk about uncomfortable and obnoxious!

  22. “Sometimes the person in the middle refuses to trade, which makes for an awkward situation.”

    That’s never happened to me. But after reading this article if someone offered “buy me a drink on board and you can have my aisle seat instead of your middle” I would laugh in their face and refuse out of priciple.

  23. This is an asinine take. Who wants to deal with a negotiation over seating everytime they fly? Why would I want both my wife and me in an aisle so we’re both getting up everytime one of our neighbors has to use the facilities? Or getting bumped by the drink cart?

    Also, you obviously know that many status programs offer up any remaining extra leg room seats to elites at check-in. Meaning if you’re in the extra leg room section if economy, chances are fairly high that middle seat will get booked.

    There are lots of valid and extremely obvious reasons couples book seats next to each other.

  24. Dude the empty middle trick doesn’t work in extra-leg room economy. If the plane is not full, these seats will be assigned to non-revs. If the flight is full, it’ll be assigned to a basic economy rando who is more likely to be annoying than the seatmate who paid (money or status) to be there

  25. Nothing to do with clingyness. I’d rather sit next to someone I know (and can abuse later if they bother me–haha), not to mention possibly having a COS (had that once on a 2 hour flight that was delayed 2 hours so for 4 hours I had to sit leaned over).

  26. It’s kind of amusing that AC is clearly triggered by other people’s intimacy but he thinks they’re the ones with the mental health issues.

  27. Also agreed that empty middle without paying for it is unlikely to work, I literally cannot remember the last non-full flight I have flown on.

  28. Good to see so many reasonable comments. Expecting the person who is assigned to the middle to move is always a gamble. To have to ask someone to do you a favor is uncomfortable for a lot of people. There’s also people who think they have to sit in their assigned seats.

    I have done this on occasion and my SO’s anxiety levels were high.. So I stopped. However when I travel alone I pick an aisle seat where the window is occupied with a middle empty to improve my chances of an empty seat between.

  29. I do the aisle/window thing routinely. One funny incident years ago on EI, LHR-DUB. The person in the middle seat declined the swap to the window, expressing a desire for the aisle instead.

    In the middle she stayed ;).

  30. @CK And nonetheless, it engaged you. Could have just scrolled on by, but, no, you took time out of your finite existence to say something that is, in itself, quite dull!

  31. I remember a little while back seeing a guy that probably needed three seats to fit comfortably in… he was quite big. Anyways he was assigned the middle, couple on either side of him, they both offered for him to switch with either- he said he had been assigned the middle as was sticking to it. So literally the entire flight the man and woman were leaned over at a 45 degree angle as that was how much he spilled over into their seats. I was directly behind, laughing but also choking from the chicken smell. I can only assume that the two of them will never eat any poultry product again for the rest of their lives as I’m sure the smell was much stronger roght beside him. Play stupid games… they won a stupid prize…

  32. @StevenS, I’d be getting up to “use a lavatory” every 15 minutes if I were in your situation.

    @paul, come to think of it, I’d do the same if I were the lady seated between you and your companion.

  33. It’s very simple: Because it’s very simple. I board the plane, I take my assigned seat next to my SO. Done.

    Also, the least pleasant thing about flying isn’t the middle seat—it’s the other passengers.

  34. I’ll skip the flight before o sot on a middle seat…. *But* if ihaopened to be in one, i would certainly trade it for free. If someone said “buy me a drink for my seat, I’d think they were ridiculous and I’d keep my middle seat just to spite them. YMMV.

  35. I regularly read and participate in other travel blogs/Reddit discussions but just found this article today through a Google suggestion. I have to say I feel like I need a shower after reading this.

    First off, not everyone’s sense of self satisfaction involves what seat they sit in. I would 150 percent prefer to sit next to my partner in any seat than sit separately on a flight. I don’t care about windows or aisles, although I am bougie and always fly premium when I’m booking the tickets, my partner not so much. In my former marriage, over ten years of traveling together, we never sat separately if we could help it. It’s just tacky and reeks of self importance. I travel to be with my other half not some stranger. Referencing the trading and bartering comment portion of the article… eww. Stick to Spirit, I’ll wave from First Class Delta or JB Mint.

  36. My wife has a lot of anxiety and needs the window. I always sit in the middle next to her. So if I have various flight options, sometimes I’ll select the route with a configuration of two seats on the side of the plane.

  37. I prefer a window seat, I like the view. I also enjoy the company of my husband. We don’t fly frequently and, when we do, it’s generally for a vacation and we’re happy to spend time together. Folks don’t understand why couples like us are so “clingy,” I don’t understand how you’ve allowed your relationship to degrade so far. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy travelling on my own, but if we’re adventuring together, I want to be together.

    I enjoy spending time with my husband…. It’s far more likely that, if I play these silly games, I’ll get stuck next to an annoying person (which is a far bigger issue for me than space.)

  38. My SO prefers a window seat. I prefer an aisle. We book this way and on occasion the middle is empty. If it is occupied we don’t ask to trade as we each keep our preferred seats.

  39. Most people aren’t so selfish. They know the airline needs to sell as many seats as they can, so they’re trying to think about what’s best for them, and for the group

    Adjoining aisles makes sense, At least you’re leaving 2 seats together on each side for those who want to be paired but aisle and window ensures bad experience for a middle seat. If they are travelling with others, they are forced to separate, when a little consideration wouldn’t cost you much

  40. We just did this on both ways IAD-TLV. Both flights ended up full, both times we offered the middle person to switch (we offered window or aisle, no drinks involved), and both were happy to take window. Was our travel agents idea. It confused the flight attendants about meals (we had kosher, others regular) but everyone ended up as happy as can be in a full plane.

  41. Because, after 30 plus years of marriage we still really enjoy each others company and when she chooses to sleep the flight, she can rest on my shoulder. Not clingy, worried or anything else. Just prefer each others company to that of a stranger.

  42. I agree with the comments above, selfish people do things like this to make it awkward for other people. These are the same folks that take Southwest and put a bag in between and refuse to make eye contact even though the announcement has said many many times “this flight is completely full and all seats will be filled.”

    There was a (large) couple on a pretty long flight who were doing that in a bulkhead seat. I didn’t give them an option or ask, I (also large) just sat in between them. As the saying goes, play stupid games win stupid prizes and their stupid prize was me who was willing to wedge myself in because I wanted the leg room. I received glares from them the whole flight but f’em they could have sat together if they had been the least bit considerate of others to begin with.

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