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One of the questions I get/stories I hear with some regularity, relates to families trying to get seats together on the plane without paying extra to do so. This is an issue that won’t effect some readers of this site who have elite status with one airline or another, but for many readers who don’t hold elite status (including me), this is a very real issue. What has happened over the last few years is that more and more airlines are reserving sections of the plane, or “premium” seats scattered around the plane, for elite flyers or for those who are willing to pay anywhere from around $10 – $100+ extra per flight for the privilege of siting in a “nicer” coach seat. Some of these seats, like those in E+ on United, really are better in terms of legroom. Here is a picture I took on a recent flight where I did have an E+ seat.
However, some of the seats, like the ones that American sells at a premium, are the same seats, just sold for additional cash (or reserved for elites). As you can likely see, there really is a decent amount of legroom that comes with the seat. However, just because it is a better seat doesn’t mean that families are chomping at the bit to pay a few hundred dollars more per flight to all sit together in these nicer seats.
My friend, Scott Mayerowitz, wrote a story for the Associated Press on this very topic. The article just came out today and can be found here. My experiences very much mirror what he reports in the article. I fly United 80% of the time, and can get seats together for our family together without paying more as the E+ seats are primarily just at the front of the economy cabin and in the exit rows. We can get seats together toward the back of the plane for no additional charge – assuming we aren’t booking at the last minute. However, when I recently flew American Airlines from Houston-Dallas-San Fransisco, the experience was quite different. The majority of the seats throughout the plane were labeled as premium seats. Most of the seats that were available as “complimentary assignments” were middle seats. A family of four can’t very well sit together if only middle seats are available. In fairness, I was able to get an aisle seat eventually, but it required being diligent about checking for an open seat.
In my own very unscientific example, I looked at two flights that I have booked in about two weeks. One is my own flight from Houston – Washington DC on United. Look at all the premium seats in blue still available vs the complimentary seats shown in white. Of course, families with young children couldn’t sit in the exit rows regardless of whether they were white or blue. The Economy Plus seats on that flight range in price from $41 – $69 additional dollars per seat. For one traveler, that isn’t so bad. Multiple by four, and for many families and that is a very large expense.
Here is a shot of my parents’ upcoming American Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Dallas. The blue middle seats are free, but be ready to open up your wallet for anything else. Luckily, I got them free seats together a couple weeks ago, but their third traveling companion had to be split from them as there were not three complimentary seats available together.
As a final visual example, here is a United flight from Cleveland to Houston that I have booked later this summer. As you can see, there are many white (aka “free”) seats available toward the back of the plane. This is what it usually looks like when you can plan in advance with United.
In fairness, the few times I have changed flights at the last minute and not had seat assignments together, United has been nothing but helpful in making sure we sit next to our toddler. I have been upgrade to E+ for free, and I have also just traded seats on board when we weren’t assigned any seats together on a completely full flight. Yes, they really will assign a one-year-old a seat by herself. From what I hear, other airlines do try to help with this problem in a similar fashion, but traveling with little ones can be stressful enough without worrying about whether or not you will be able to sit together without paying hundreds of more dollars. Of course, you can avoid this seat assignment issue all together by flying on Southwest where there are no seat assignments.
For the times when you are on airlines who assign seats, and have large sections devoted to “premium” seats, here are my recommendations:
- Book as early as you can and make sure you get seat assignments when you book
- Check the seat assignments as the flights get closer to make sure everything is still in order (Expert Flyer can be your friend in this regard as you can set “seat alerts” and be notified if a specific seat next to yours opens up)
- As elite flyers start getting upgraded to first class a few days before departure, check daily to see if better seats are available (this is the method I used to use a ton on Continental or on United flights with no E+)
- If you can’t get seats together at booking or check-in, alert the gate agent upon arrival to the airport to see if they can assist. Let them know you have young children (if you do).
- Be ready to trade seats on-board. Let the flight attendant know, but be ready to do the negotiations with other passengers yourself. Be kind and offer to buy them a snack or drink on-board, if you can, for their inconvenience. (We always offer, but no one ever takes us up on it)
- Stay calm – your toddler or infant will not end up having to sit by themselves. However, that doesn’t mean your whole party will end up together either.
- If it will save stress, pay extra to sit together if you can. Some extra dollars may save you a bunch of hassle and stress, so do at least consider that option.
My final recommendation is to get elite status with at least one airline if you fly a good amount each year. My parents will never have elite status. They fly an average of 2-3 times a year and almost all of those trips are on miles. That means they don’t count toward elite status. The last several years I have also not had elite status as I have flown on miles and points the majority of the time. However, this year I am already cruising quickly toward low-tier elite status (25,000 miles flown) with United, and should end the year with at least mid-tier status (50,000 miles flown) with United. Assuming I hit mid-tier Gold status, I will be able to secure two E+ seats when I book my ticket with United. That doesn’t cover all of us, but it cuts our costs down by 2/3 for E+. Those who are Platinum and above with United get eight E+ seats when they book their tickets. I actually think my husband will also have at least low tier status with United by the end of the year – though that only gets you E+ at check-in. Similarly with other airlines, elite status will typically enable you to reserve the premium seats without an additional charge, but top tier elites may be higher on the pecking order than lower tier elites depending on the airline.
This method won’t work for everyone since not everyone flies on paid tickets enough to have elite status (and I am certainly not advocating booking a ton of mileage runs for this purpose), but at least become familiar with the elite benefits on your airline of choice and see if it makes sense for you. Elite benefits may not be what they used to be, but for families who want to sit together without paying a surcharge, having elite status is becoming more and more important.
What has your experience been with getting seats together as a family on various airlines? Have you ever had to pay more to sit together? Have you ever had to trade seats on the aircraft to sit next to your infant or toddler?