Photo by leocha
Full disclosure, my son is now 24. So, family seating issues are no longer a potential crisis. However, since we traveled a great deal when he was small, I understand (most) parents don’t want to be separated from their toddlers and young children.

For that matter, almost all other passengers and flight attendants on a plane prefer children be under the direct supervision of their parents. (I know, some parents do adopt the, “What, me worry?” attitude regarding their offspring’s antics. This post is not targeted towards them.)

The real problems arise when for whatever reason, families don’t have seat assignments in advance. That’s when families need to rely on gate agents or the kindness of strangers to sit together.

Personally, I have no problem switching to help families or even adult couples out. One aisle to another, one window to another. However, where I do have a problem is when someone wants me to give up my window seat for a middle seat or my extra legroom seat for a seat way in the back. I think many travelers feel the same way.

Sometimes these things aren’t the parents’ fault. There may be an equipment change, for example, or a missed connection. But often, families will book the cheapest airfare, where there are no pre-assigned seats, and figure it will work out, regardless of how much it annoys or puts out their fellow passengers. Other times, families will do everything possible to keep from forking over hundreds of dollars extra in seat-reservation fees for seats together.

Here are a few tips for families who do want to sit with their children without paying seat-reservation fees. These tips will minimize stress, maintain your dignity and won’t incur the wrath of your fellow passengers.

1. Look for flights that have seats together. Travel agents can easily see seat charts, and many online booking sites will allow travelers to see the seat charts before paying for the flights. (Domestic carriers now have to let you cancel within 24 hours of booking, if there’s a problem.)

2. Consider Southwest Airlines. With the open seating, any family who checks in right at the 24-hour advance time should be in at least an early enough boarding group to get seats together, although they may be in the back. With Southwest, passengers have to take some personal responsibility. For families who want more choice, or cannot check in 24 hours in advance, Southwest’s $10 priority boarding fee is one of the lowest in the industry.

3. If you have elite status, use it. This might seem like a no-brainer, but I have talked to passengers who booked holiday travel on an airline they never use because it was a little cheaper, when their regular carrier would have not only given them free checked luggage, but also preferred seat assignments. The total cost of travel is what matters, not only the airfare.

4. Look for a travel agent with preferred access to seats. These may not be available on all airlines. For example, our agency has free preferred seats on both American and British Airways. Travel agent relationships with other carriers can be a big help in a pinch.

Of course, agencies that have these preferred deals will charge a service fee for booking tickets, but the fee is usually much less than it would be to pay for the seat assignments.

5. Keep checking back up to 24 hours prior to departure. Most carriers have some changes in their seat maps before departure, especially in the last week or days before departure as frequent flier upgrades are confirmed.

Again, some travel agents will keep checking for you as part of their service. But, this can be done with online bookings, too. A client who had booked a personal trip direct once asked my “secret” when he ended up in a middle seat. The secret? Persistent repetition; even if it takes a couple of minutes each time to check, that effort will seem like nothing compared to a six-hour flight with bad seats.

Or, use ExpertFlyer, a free app that keeps checking seats for you.

6. Take scattered windows and aisles. If you or your agent finds scattered seats that include aisles and windows, take them. It’s going to be MUCH easier to find someone to trade with on board if you tell someone with a middle seat, “You can have my aisle/window if I can sit with my kid.”

7. Get to the gate early. If all else fails, and sometimes situations dictate last minute bookings with no seat assignment, get to the airport, especially the gate, early. Seat assignments are given away when passengers don’t check in by a set time, and the gate agents have control of those “new releases.”

Tell the agent your family-seating problem, being as polite as possible (“I’ll never fly your airline again,” doesn’t qualify.) If you are a family of four or more, offer to split up, one adult per child, which will be a lot easier for the gate agent to find than four seats together.)

None of these tips is guaranteed to help on any given flight, but they will improve your odds. And remember, regarding family travel, the kids do grow up. This, too, shall pass.

Photo: © Leocha