A couple of weeks ago the New York Times carried a trend piece on arguments over seat swapping onboard.
I suppose if desires to switch seats are a trend, it’s a function of:
- Fewer seats available for advance assignment, as airlines want customers to pay for ‘premium’ seats (more and more seats are designated as somehow premium even though they aren’t better)
- Full planes, so fewer seats left for assignment at time of booking.
Nonetheless, it amazes me how many people don’t secure advance seat assignments, usually on international flights, and this is for people who really care where they sit.
Seriously, Assign Seats in Advance…
I find that most people on US domestic flights do have seat assignments in advance, at least where airlines allow seat assignments (or allow them without a fee). Most of the time a lack of seat assignment in advance is due to no ‘free’ seats being assignable at time of booking, and then seats are usually assigned at check-in. (Check in online a day ahead if you don’t have a seat assignment, or better yet use Expertflyer’s free seat alert function to know when the seats you want open.)
Of course there are people buying their tickets late, or getting upgraded late, where they’re traveling together and can’t get seated together.
Make Sure Your Request to Change is Reasonable
I think there are legitimate and less legitimate requests. The basic principle is that if you want to switch make sure you have a good seat to offer. If you can’t get two seats together, try to get an aisle and especially an aisle with extra legroom. That’s attractive trade bait. Avoid asking someone to trade down.
On the last flight of my honeymoon years ago, the final (cross country) flight home I had seats next to my wife far in advance. I checked in to find that an air marshal had bumped one of us out of the pre-assigned seat. So I certainly wanted to move. That turned out to be difficult since the air marshal couldn’t have cared less, and most of the cabin was taken over by former Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn’s entourage.
Most people won’t much care if you’re trading aisle-for-aisle or window-for-window. Trading up is the most attractive. If you have a bulkhead window seat in first class don’t expect a non-bulkhead aisle passenger to switch. You’re asking them not just to accommodate you but to make themselves materially worse off for the duration of the flight. It seems that a request like that ought to at least come with a sweetener.
How to Make Sure You Get the Seats You Want Without Onboard Conflict
- Confirm your seat assignments when you book your tickets. Do not wait to call later, or until check-in.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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!
- Trade with another passenger. Nobody else really wants to sit next to your kids, now matter how cute they are. It’s hard for them to argue that they should sit next to your spouse or underage children, since that’s creepy.
- 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.
- 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’.