If airline seat assignments matter – 6 tips travelers really should know.


Seat assignments, even when family travel is not involved, are often the most important factors in making or breaking a trip. On a short flight it may not matter, but spending several hours in discomfort is no fun for anyone.

Someone has to sit in those middle seats, but here are six tips to assure it’s not you.

1. Choose a flight with decent available seats to preassign. This one may sound too obvious, but as a travel agent I routinely deal with travelers who care deeply about where they sit, but will choose a slightly earlier or later flight with no preassignable seats, over a flight that does have available seats. They seem to figure something will open up or they will be able to work it out at the airport.

As an agent, I’ll keep checking back for a good client; and, anyone who books directly can keep checking on their own. But, it’s not a guarantee. I’m not suggesting travelers alter a flight time by several hours. However, often a small change will yield good options, especially if you are flexible with airlines.

2. If Southwest Airlines flies the route you want, book them and pay the relatively small early boarding fee. While the most expensive “Business Select” travelers usually get exit rows, being in the regular early boarding group should guarantee, at the very least, an aisle or window.

3. Consider paying premium seat fees. In some cases, premium seats are actually better seats — as with United’s Economy Plus. In others, it may just be a so-called premium location. (Yes, it’s annoying just to pay for a regular seat towards the front of the plane, but at least it eliminates the worry.)

4. Some travel agents have special arrangements with airlines for preferred seat assignments. My agency, for example, has several such contracts. Find one of those agents.

There will be a ticketing fee and, in some cases, an additional fee because of the extra work, but it will still be less expensive than paying the premium seat fee yourself.

5. Once you have seat assignments, double check them. Check back at least a week before departure and again the day before. Also, check your seats ANY time there is a schedule change.

For an example, on a trip I booked with my husband in March, United changed the return flight time by only 15 minutes. Even though the aircraft was the same, our seats, when I checked online, had disappeared. Fortunately, I was able to grab the same seats back, but they wouldn’t have been there for long.

6. Check in on time. And, get to the gate on time. Advance boarding passes help. But when the airlines say, “Be in the boarding area 30 minutes prior,” they mean it. They can and do give seats away.

Personally, when I have checked bags, I often reprint my boarding pass at the airport, just to make sure my seat assignment hasn’t changed. (Several times in the past year it has.)

I’ve seen many, many travelers yelling at the poor gate agents claiming they’ve had seats for months or paid extra for seats, and those seats are now gone. Once the computer decides someone has missed the cut off, there’s not much that can be done.

In addition, if there are any last minute aircraft changes, be in the gate area before the last minute. You don’t want to have done a lot of work to get the right seat and still end up losing it.

  • Bill

    number 1 on this list is probably the key one that most people miss – if you have a family of four with two small children, stop choosing a flight without seats to pre-assign just because it is the cheapest option. instead, choose a flight where you can get four seats together at the time of booking. although it is no guarantee the seats wont change, i would say in 98% of the times i have flown in the past year my seats DID NOT CHANGE. i am tired of families who think they are entitled to preferred seats just because they are a family – families who think they are more valuable than a single traveler who did book and reserved the seat he wanted. it happened yesterday again when i was shamed into giving up my premium aisle seat in economy plus for a middle seat in economy minus – the person in economy minus did not want to give up his aisle seat for a middle seat in economy plus, and it somehow became my problem. i moved to not delay the flight – and no gratitude from the family. this insanity has to stop…it is just another example of people wanting more for free. flights are full these days – every flight i am on is almost at capacity. seats are not going to magically open up the day of for you and your family.

  • MikeABQ

    Bill, I agree with you 100%. It’s the ingratitude that bugs me the most. If I give up my aisle or window seat so you and your precious cherubs can sit together then at the very least I’m owed a genuine “thank you” from the passenger for whom I’m making the move. I, too, have moved in an effort to avoid a delay; on a short flight I can live with a middle seat but on a longer flight, no thank you. And yes people — flights are full. Don’t assume that just because your flight is at an “off peak” time that it won’t be full. (Saturday nights used to be the best time to fly as planes were empty; now they are full.) Travelling with kids? Plan ahead people!

  • janice

    Bill, amen. I can’t refuse to sell someone a ticket, but it makes me crazy as both a travel agent and a frequent flier when someone won’t accept my suggested flights with seats, because I know it’s probably going to be an airport hassle.

  • TonyA_says

    Seems to me it is the family who is delaying the flight, not you.

  • TonyLima

    My wife and I have a better solution: don’t fly at all. Until the TSA ceases its pre-boarding molestation procedures, we will avoid the airways as much as possible. But, speaking as someone who once traveled a lot for business, these are six great suggestions. Some of us — probably everyone who commented here — learned many of these lessons the hard way. Nice job, Janice!