Family Travel

Preferred seating stinks – How to get seats together on a plane (maybe)

One of the most stressful things about family travel is figuring out how to get seats together on a plane. One thing that’s made this even more difficult is the move by airlines to charge more and more for “preferred” seating. The Miles to Go podcast got me thinking about this on their episode with Brett Snyder, the Cranky Flier, a few weeks back. Ed and Brett spent some time talking about the ludicrous nature of preferred seating. 

Getting seats together as a family
For me, TSA’s got nothing on worrying about seat assignments stress wise

Brett, who is generally a fan of the a la carte model, wrote a pretty great post panning preferred seating. I highly suggest you check the piece out. He uses a great (albeit cherry picked) example of a flight where every seat left costs money or is a middle seat (in a 4 seat row no less). Here’s my favorite quote:

One of the touted benefits of buying a regular economy ticket is that you get seat assignments included.  But you don’t.  I mean, sure, you can get yourself a couple middle seats, but you’re probably better off just saving money and buying Basic Economy.  Let them randomly seat you in whatever is left at the time of check-in.  It couldn’t be much worse.

This hits families extra hard. You debate whether to pay for seats or be at the mercy of the airline and fellow passengers to get to sit together. I know Dia wrote that she does nothing and it’s always worked out, but I think things have changed over the last three years. It definitely hasn’t been working out for our family. This preferred seating thing is so stupid you end up with these kinds of dumb situations:

C’mon, now. I’ve had three flights in the last two years or so where I could only choose middle seats for my family. We ended up split up on all the flights and on one flight I had to ask a stranger to switch seats. Now that our family has grown, I expect things to only get worse.  

Preferred Seating
The green seats are the exact same as the “free” ones. You pay $33 to sit one row closer to the front??

My solution that will probably never happen

Ideally you’d empower flight attendants to move people around to ensure people with kids 8 and under (or whatever cutoff) sit together. Except – since you made people pay for their “preferred seats” (which, by the way, aren’t even economy plus or anything with extra legroom or benefits) – you’re asking people to move from seats they paid for! This is all so, so dumb. 

But enough ranting. I’m trying to stay positive here, so let’s take a look at what tips I use to ensure the best change that we get seats together. And sincerely, I would love to hear tips people have as well. Though let’s try to refrain from saying “fly Southwest exclusively” :). (I finally tried Southwest. It was fine.)

1. Book early

I hate recommending this since you don’t usually get the best prices when you book early. Domestically, I think 4 weeks out is generally the sweet spot. But if you book early, less of the “preferred” seats will be taken and you’ll have a better chance of getting seats together without having to pay. Of course, you’ll have to weigh whether paying a little bit more for the flight (probably) outweighs just paying for preferred seats. 

In my mind, I’d rather deal with paying more than the stress. But paying more for “preferred” seats just makes me mad, so I’ll swallow booking early and possibly paying more for the original ticket.

2. Book different seat types near one another

If you can’t get seats together, my next recommendation is to get as many people in your family in the same row as possible. Then, for the others, book different seat types (aisle/middle/window) nearby. If you can’t pre-book the same row for your family, you’re going to have to rely on the kindness of strangers no matter what. (FWIW, we actually prefer being in two separate rows).

Since you might need to ask someone to move, it’s easier to ask someone to exchange aisle for aisle or window for window. If you can somehow get a window or aisle but need a middle to be near your family (unlikely), that’s usually fine since people like getting out of middle seats. Either way, pick seats that will be easier to exchange with other guests.

Getting seats together as a family
Its not the worst thing to be in two separate rows, but I still like being close by

3. Get status

Having status in a frequent flyer program really helps. For some carriers, you can get the economy plus and preferred seats for free. As a family traveler, this is one of the few things I actually value about status (though I still don’t chase any status outside of Jetblue). Even lowly silver status helps a lot. Delta, United, and American all offer some sort of complimentary upgrade to preferred or plus seats at check in. For a family, if you fly certain airlines regularly, it might be worth chasing at least minimal status. If you fly Delta a lot you can spend your way through a co-branded card. While getting status isn’t ideal, at least it will ensure you get to sit with your young kids. 

4. Check in with the gate agent as soon as possible

Gate agents, obviously, don’t want you sitting apart from your young kids. As soon as you get to the gate, check in with the gate agent and see if they can help you sit together or closer together. Ideally, they might even open up preferred seats for you, but at the very least as people move around they will keep an eye out. By the time I’m at the gate, I’ve basically resigned myself to the fact I won’t be sitting with my family – but a gate agent can definitely help.

Airplane Seats

5. Trust in the kindness of strangers

When you’re traveling with very young kids like we do, strangers will help you out. Heck, strangers begrudgingly move seats for adults to sit together. So unless you encounter a very rare situation, people will likely be willing to help you out and shuffle around. The reality is people don’t want your kids to be upset nor do they want to console your kids. We’ve never had too much trouble moving around, but I still always feel bad asking. 

Final Thoughts

To be honest, the longer I typed in this post the more frustrated and angry I got. Why do we let the airlines get away with this? This whole preferred seat thing is BS, but it’s even worse when it splits up young families. Because the airlines want to make more money on “preferred” seats that aren’t actually better or more room, I have to ask random strangers if they would be willing to move. Those random strangers get imposed upon, my family gets stressed, and the flight attendants and gate agents feel in a bind as well. I hope the airlines figure this out sooner rather than later.

Ranting aside, I employ all five of the above strategies and generally have been successful getting to sit with my family. Sure, it increases my stress level, but it all works out in the end.

I’m curious, do you have any tried and true techniques for getting seats together? Let me know in the comments!

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Tired of the stress of trying to find seats together with your group? Tips and tricks for ensuring you can get seats together on your next flight. #familytravel #airtravel

Just an average joe trying to fly his family for less

7 thoughts on “Preferred seating stinks – How to get seats together on a plane (maybe)

  1. Joe, I don’t have young children. And when I did, this wasn’t happening. But I only expect it to get worse, not better.

    Airlines are not the only corporations to have demonstrated that their concerns do not, on any level, include their customers. But they are among the worst.

  2. His AA example may be cherry picked, but there are lots of cherries. As an AA captive leisure traveler, this is par for the course. Even on small regional jets, AA often puts a nominal price on all available seats (I’ve seen $10 several times) to get people to think “It’s just $20 to sit together.” Of course I refuse on principle, and it’s alway worked out. Then again, we are two adults, so there’s not much risk for us to hold out. That said, I get as much value out of EF’s AA seat alerts as I do from award alerts!

  3. This practice is maddening. I can deal with not sitting by my husband. But my children?? Come on. Who will help keep them entertained and safe? It is absurd.

    So far, we have only flown Southwest and have been able to sit together in the back. My preferred config is sitting in front of one another with my youngest kid sitting behind her dad or brother so she is kicking a family member.

    I will book a Delta flight soon and hope we can work it out.

  4. I fly twice a year on United and American or their partner airlines and I used to almost ALWAYS get separated from my son (on RT flights to New Zealand that were very long). He was only 7 at the time. I always showed up at the gate VERY early and they always put us back together. He’s now 9. For the last couple years, after booking award tickets I have started calling the airlines and all partners and explaining in advance that he’s a child that suffers from anxiety and that we can’t be separated. Most airlines seem to find a way to link us – and we haven’t been separated since. I’ve explained to them that it doesn’t make sense to separate us, because then you have to put us back together again – giving the airlines more work!

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