How to Avoid Onboard Fistfights and Still Get the Seats You Want

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

Here’s my advice for how to ensure your family can sit 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. 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 is the 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. Also, MONEY. When in doubt, money probably helps. Of course, nobody wants to pay extra money, which is why so many people don’t get seat assignments in the first place. However, if you absolutely MUST switch so you can sit with your family, never underestimate the power of our wonderful former presidents Andrew Jackson or Ulysses S. Grant (depending on your financial situation) to help “convince” people to trade their seat.

  2. I often need to trade seats. I often fly with others, and do not always purchase first or business class, so I use the complimentary upgrades. On most airlines I need to have the two (or four) of us on different record locators to use our complimentary upgrades.

    I am always shocked when I ask someone who is sitting in an aisle in domestic F if they would like to move up to the aisle directly in front of them and they refuse? I have people that say they don’t like the aisle in the bulkhead or the opposite, that they prefer the aisle in the bulkhead of F over the row behind. I never press it I say OK.

    Flying international business I find it much worse. Unfortunately I find it almost impossible to find advance American Airline system wide upgrade space on trans-Atlantic flights. Especially on the 777. (In fact on expertflyer I don’t think there exists a single trans-atlantic “C” space on ANY flight from 5 days from now until the end of schedule.) So even though I book 6-12 months out, I am playing the last minute lottery. On the plane I ask once, and realize that if they say no, that is the price I pay for being a Ex Plat and using a SWU which is why I still have 8 in my account. (Hopefully my February flights will clear and I won’t have 8)

    In International business people have the strangest reasons for saying “no” to switching. Someone was worried about their meal order, another like to sit on the right side of the plane not the left etc etc etc.

    Because I understand the struggle I myself have made it a personal quest to always switch even for a worse seat. I have even switched when I was flying alone and had a paid J ticket DFW-LHR and was sitting in an aisle seat and someone asked if I would switch with his wife for one of the so called dreaded middle seats in J on the 777. I said I sure no problem.

    You would think the only way to get your seat choice is to pay, but even then you never know.

  3. Greg… great comments! It is good karma to help others out and forgive them if they seem unreasonable. Less stress for you and those around you on the plane might be better than a couple of inches of leg room.

  4. I often find the FA and passengers trying to sit together thinking they have a right to impose on everyone. Usually getting suckers to give up aisle seats for middle seats. And they are not particularly pleasant about. I have no problem if even trade. But not otherwise. I have seen people move to rows with kids or heavy people or middle seats to accommodate . And believe me, people asking for changes are often add ins flying free or otherwise. Most times just say NO

  5. @Points with a Crew I totally agree! I did a dummy booking on AA this week and was shocked to see regular economy seats with ***s next to them! Since when did the mighty “New AA” become Spirit?

  6. Meal orders do get mixed up after post-boarding seat changes – and that’s not an inconsequential issue. I’ve had to go hungry on a QF flight after switching seats to accommodate a split up family. My pre-ordered special meal went to the family’s teenaged child (even though I gave the FAs a heads up beforehand) who didn’t waste a second to unwrap the entree and start eating it. The parents simply shrugged, they’d gotten what they wanted and couldn’t care less about whether I ate or not. The FAs were apologetic but I couldn’t really blame them.

    If you’re booking your family on four separate PNRs to use SWUs and still expect everyone to be seated together, how is the person who refuses to move to accommodate your “upgrade strategy” being unreasonable? You want a certain seat in a certain location to accommodate your entire traveling party on split PNRs, either stop being cheap and pony up the cash or stop calling the people who refuse unreasonable.

  7. Most of the article is good, but you still say it’s creepy to want to sit next to your wife. I want to sit in the seat I paid for and reserved, thank you, and the fact that your wife is in the next seat is irrelevant. I did not book your wife into the seat next to mine. Please don’t come to me with that argument. On the other hand, if you politely offer me a trade to an equivalent or better seat, I’ll most likely courteously accept.

  8. I’ve had several times in which schedule, aircraft or other changes have made us lose our pre-assigned seats on even international flights when I was traveling with my kids. It’s actually remarkably easy to get people to switch with you if they’ve been put next to one of your kids (in my case, young kids; I suspect this’d work less well if it was a 17 year old) that’s been marooned from the group: just bluff! Ask once if they’ll switch, and if they say no (I used to live in China, and many Chinese passengers seem to be superstitious about their seat number), just act as if you really intend for them to sit next to your child for the duration of the flight. Give them instructions as if they’ll really need to be seated next to a stranded toddler they don’t knoe, and get the FA and explain that he’d need to really watch this stranger with my two year old to make sure nothing funny happened (because they’d be potentially liable if it did), and then walk away. This always got either the FA or the unwilling seat swapper’s attention (especially if my kid was now crying that I had to leave her with a stranger in a strange place, and if my kid and the passenger don’t share a common language, even better) pretty quick. I’ve never made it back to my seat without a swapped seat assignment.

  9. Britt, I hope a) your comments are in jest or b) otherwise, that I never have the “pleasure” of sharing a cabin w/ you.

  10. Britt, I’m usually very nice and accommodating, but don’t even try to pull that disgusting stunt on me.

  11. I think the single best piece of advice here is that if your seat assignment is important to you, then make sure you get it in advance and don’t expect others to give up their seat for you. You must work on the assumption that they, too, went out of their way to secure that seat, rather than assuming that they don’t care. I get asked to switch on almost half of my flights (and I fly a lot). I used to always feel bad and accept, and then spend the entire flight regretting that I gave up my favorite seat that I had booked months ago to enjoy. It’s the sort of stuff therapy is for! Now, I will only accept a trade in very special circumstances. Poor planning on the other person’s part is not one of them.

  12. Flying to Hawaii with my girlfriend a few years ago, we had paid for seats together (2 on the side in a 2-3-2 configuration), and for whatever reason at check-in she was bumped 15-20 rows back on the other side of the plane. The man sitting next to me graciously agreed to move after I offered to buy him a few drinks, and even more graciously didn’t drink me into debt en route.

    Thanks again sir!

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