7 ways to keep families together on a plane, without going broke


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

  • Arizona Road Warrior

    “So why is this such a big issue?”  Because the # 1 “illness” in the US is narcissism.  It is all about me.  Look at all of the people who are writing how great they are, how great they are doing, etc. on their Facebook pages.  Look at most of the TV reality shows, it is all about me, me, me.  These are the same individuals who want to force other passengers from their choice seats, premium seats, etc. because it is all about them.

  • Arizona Road Warrior

    I look for flights where I can book three seats together.  If I can’t do that, I will look for flights where I can book two seats together.  Depending upon the length of the flight, I will look for flights that I can upgrade my family to FC by using miles so it doesn’t matter if the seats are not together.  If I can’t book three seats together, I will book window and aisle seats and it has never been a problem in trading a window or aisle seat for a middle seat. 

  • DCTA

     We have those and UA. and also DL.  BUT just as a note to everyone – not all agencies have this, it really is only those that have a large corporate travel business as well as leisure.

  • DCTA

     ARW – right on the nail!!!!  I find people are pretty oblivious to everyone else around them – it’s all me, me, me!

  • Anonymous

    My only problem is BA since I cannot assign seats for passengers WITHOUT STATUS. (Of course I have a problem with UA after the merger but that is understandable).

  • Janice

     btw, thanks Frank!

  • Janice

     DCTA is right, BA normally sells preassigned seats.. But agencies who do a lot of air, or are part of a larger agencies, may have contracts allowing free BA seat assignments.  For a family, especially a big family, it may be worth finding one of those agencies.

  • Vaid

    You know, I always buy seats together, but they often get split up by the airline, and when I get the notification, it’s already too late — I spend hours on the phone with the airline only to be told, “It can only be dealt with by the gate agents.”  So, before you all assume that a family is split up only because they tried to save a few bucks, consider the possibility that the family GOT seats together and the airline *&^%ed it up.  Plus, the idea (which is come up a bunch in previous comments) that it’s our responsibility to keep checking and re-checking the reservation is absurd.  We paid for a specific service, it should be the airline’s responsibility to live up to the service they sold.

  • BobChi

    A few weeks ago I was flying home from abroad on a foreign carrier. As I was sitting in the gate area, an agent came to me and asked if I’d minding switching seats so that a family could sit together. I said “Sure,” and she gratefully took my boarding pass away. A few minutes later she was back, thanked me for my willingness to switch, and gave me the new boarding pass: “I apologize for the inconvenience, but I don’t think you’ll mind. Just don’t tell anyone.” I looked at the pass. Row One, First Class.

  • bodega3

    According to the carriers, you paid for a seat on the plane, not a seat assignment. Don’t shoot the messenger, it is something I have dealt with my entire career in getting people reassigned if we had seat assignments at the time of ticketing. You do have to stay on top of it. If you are a DIY’er, check several times a week on your reservation. The earlier to catch a change, the better chance of getting things straightened out.

  • bodega3

    You have to stay on top of your reservation and not wait until you go to get your boarding pass to see the seats have been changed. For DIY’ers, you should check several times a week until your day of departure.

  • bodega3

    Our first class seats were changed due to an equipment change, so you should always keep on top of your reservation. The earlier you note the change, the better the chance of getting yourself reassigned.

  • Elle Emme

    Wow. My dad worked for Continental when I was a child, and one thing that was ALWAYS drilled into me by both my mom and my dad is that you are always on your best behavior as a non-rev, and you take whatever seat they give you and are grateful that you’re getting on that flight. It utterly blows my mind to hear stories of non-revs acting like that!

  • bayareascott

    So you assume that the agent KNEW the family was going to harass you. That agent was attempting to solve a problem, and apparently did not chastise you for saying no. So you are blaming the airline for the out-of-line behavior of a fellow customer. That is your right, but it is still part of the problem.

  • bayareascott