How to Ensure Your Family Has Seats Together on the Plane

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We are just weeks away from the busy holiday travel season when tons of families will hit the skies…yes, I said just weeks away.  Crazy.  Many of those families that will be lining up at the airport are ones who don’t travel that frequently, so it can be an extra anxiety ridden and stressful experience for anyone that either isn’t prepared or simply doesn’t know what to expect.  This is totally understandable as there are so many nuances for everything from getting through security, to the boarding process, and more.

The Most Important Logistic for Flying Families:

seats together on the planeThe one thing that most young traveling families worry about in advance of their trip is whether their infant or toddler will be the one crying though the flight.  That’s a legitimate concern, but it’s not the one that you can do the most about ahead of time.  The logistic that traveling families should be most concerned about ahead of their trip is whether the have seat assignments together. 

This isn’t a new issue of course, but I read a post this week about a mom (presumably flying on Southwest) that had a very unfortunate experience.  I highly recommend you simply read the post, but the gist of the situation was that a family of four was flying on a flight that did not offer advance seat assignments.  The eight-year-old son is a very nervous flyer, but was adequately prepared to fly sitting next to his mom.  They had boarding passes in the early boarding groups (A?), but for whatever reason when they checked bags they somehow got bumped to a later boarding group (B?).

Boarding started late and the boarding process sounded a bit frenzied.  There weren’t two seats together, and while the eight year old got more and more terrified (like, shaking terrified), no one gave up their seats so the mom and boy could sit right next to each other.

The mom became upset and frazzled, and the flight became way more stressful than it needed to be.  Here’s a quote from her post:

It’s such a helpless feeling to watch your frightened child—your terrified child— and not be able to hold him. To comfort him the way he wants. He was trying to be strong, but he was so, so very scared.

Again, I encourage you to give that post a read, colorful language and all.    There is also a more bird’s eye view of the story as it relates to airline seating policies.  Not only might it reinforce how important seat assignments can be for families, but also plant the seed to help a flying family in the future.  More on that in a minute…

How to Ensure Your Family has Seats Together on the Plane:

There is no way to 100% ensure your family has seats together, but there are ways to dramatically increase the odds of success.  Here are ten tips on how to ensure your family has seats together on the plane.

1.  Internalize that it is your job to make sure your family has seats together, not the airline’s job.  Whether or not it should be that way doesn’t matter.  Make it your mission to secure seats together for your family, and keep an eye on your reservation until you are safely buckled in and ready for take-off.

2.  Make sure you get seat assignments together at the time the reservation is made.  If you aren’t able to do this at the time of booking online then immediately call the airline and secure seat assignments over the phone.

3.  Check your reservation again shortly after it is made to ensure your seat assignments “stuck”.

4.  Make flight bookings for your family well in advance, if possible, as last minute reservations are more likely to have problems with seat assignments due to the plane already being full of passengers.

5.  If you can’t get complimentary seat assignments together even after talking to the airline and explaining your “small child” situation, then be ready to open your wallet.  Often times there will be “premium economy” seats available for sale even when the complimentary economy seats are already assigned.  This is not the time be frugal in my view as the dollars it costs to secure seats together for your family are well worth skipping the stress that you may face on the day of your trip when you may be begging for strangers to take pity on you and trade seats.

6.  Monitor your reservation at least monthly leading up to the trip to be sure that your seat assignments haven’t changed.  This is especially true if your reservation has a schedule change or an aircraft type substitution, as that is when seat assignments can often go askew.

7.  If you are flying Southwest (who does not offer seat assignments), seriously consider paying the extra $12.50 per person for Early Bird Check-In.  This way you are automatically given a boarding group 36 hours in advance, and it will almost always be in the A group.  Otherwise, be sure to check-in exactly 24 hours in advance to get as high of a boarding number as possible.  Families with children under 5 can board during “family boarding” between the A and B groups.

8.  The week of the trip is a great time to try and snag seats together if you don’t already have them as elite flyers get upgraded out of economy or travelers change their plans.  The 24 hour mark is another very good time to check the seat assignment map, though I don’t recommend waiting this long to secure seats together if having them is imperative for your traveling success.

9.  Plead your situation to the gate agent before boarding and flight attendant at the time of boarding, but be nice and don’t blame them for your seats not being together.  It is not their fault that your seats are separate and you are relying on their help.  If the plane is full they may not be able to get you seats together, but even getting something decent to barter with, such as two aisle seats, can really help.

10.  Beg fellow passengers in a nice and sincere way on-board.  If you have gotten this far without seats together then something really went wrong, and you are now relying on the generosity of strangers.  Hopefully you have an aisle seat or similar to barter with.  If you are asking someone to trade an aisle for your middle at the back of the plane, be ready to sweeten the pot.  Offer an on-board drink, a gift card, or even cash.  I’m serious.  Desperate times should call for bribery and many thank-yous.

Help a Traveling Family:

Even if a traveling family follows all of that advice and more, life happens, and they can end up boarding with seats 10A, 17E, and 24B for their young children.  That has happened to us.  If the flight is full, that family will be relying on the generosity of travelers like you and me to help.  I know that you probably did everything in your power to secure the most comfortable seat possible for your journey, and trading 8C for 24B stinks, but if you are able, please consider doing so every now and then if it will help a young family stay together.

A couple of hours of a less-than-ideal seat for you, can make all the difference for them.   I hope they thank your profusely. I hope the flight attendant rewards you with some extra drinks or snacks, but if they don’t, let me thank you on behalf of all of the traveling parents out there.  Seriously, thank you.  Sometimes it will just come down to one traveler helping another, and as the busy holiday travel season approaches, please consider being the person who saved the day, not that person who wouldn’t make eye contact with the pleading mom and her young kid.

I promise to help a traveler in need the next time I have the opportunity, and I hope you will too.

 


Pingbacks

  1. […] How to Ensure Your Family Has Seats Together On the Plane: Mommy Points has an impressively comprehensive and well-written post about the logistics of getting seated with your kids on your next flight.  It is harder than you might think!  (Read my tales of woe on American and Delta, and my happier experience on Alaska).  The bottom line — you have to be proactive at every step of the process.  Don’t give up and monitor those reservations constantly. […]

Comments

  1. Really great points, especially #1! I get that sometimes things happen and sometimes you can try your hardest to make things happen and it still doesn’t work out, but I do think it’s frustrating when people expect the airline to take care of them when with a little bit of planning they could have made it happen themselves.

    It is a little tricky on airlines like Southwest, but if you are traveling with children 4 and under, you do get to board between the A and B sections, which in my experience is early enough that you have a pretty good shot at sitting together.

  2. We are also headed to NYC for Thanksgiving, and after reading your post and I sighed and ponied up the extra money for main cabin extra to ensure we are seated together. I know DH will appreciate the legroom, and think traveling the Sunday after Thanksgiving will be stressful enough as it is. I bought the tickets many weeks back and there was no way the American reps would seat us together, no matter how I pleaded.

    We’re traveling to Hawaii over Christmas – another insane time – and the Alaska rep got permission from her manager to free up four seats for us to sit together. It’s those little things that make Alaska’s service so much better than the others. We go to Hawaii often and I plan to use Alaska from now on.

  3. We are also headed to NYC for Thanksgiving, and after reading your post and I sighed and ponied up the extra money for main cabin extra to ensure we are seated together. I know DH will appreciate the legroom, and think traveling the Sunday after Thanksgiving will be stressful enough as it is. I bought the tickets many weeks back and there was no way the American reps would seat us together, no matter how I pleaded.

    We’re traveling to Hawaii over Christmas – another insane time – and the Alaska rep got permission from her manager to free up four seats for us to sit together. It’s those little things that make Alaska’s service so much better than the others. We go to Hawaii often and I plan to use Alaska from now on.

  4. Points With a Crew, agree totally it is a balance of the traveler doing everything then can, the airline being reasonable, and then in the worst case scenario a generous stranger earning some Travel Karma.
    sfmom, such a bummer to have to spend that extra cash, but I bet it will be worth every dollar and then some. You absolutely made the right call in my book. Have a great trip!

  5. I read the article in question and have to say the woman in question along with her foul mouthed supporters have probably set back the family cause with their carry on. Her story has so many holes in it, who has ever heard of going from being in the first boarding group to suddenly being last to board? I didn’t know that any airline only did 2 boarding groups. Of course our heroine had given up her seat on multiple occasions to a family. She alleges she is an experienced traveller but based on her claims that seems unlikely. However to top it off her son who is absolutely terrified to fly is dragged along on a non-essential trip. She also finds time to have a dig at the lady who did swap seats but left her bag behind under her sons seat. I see no gratitude for anything rather just a bitch against everyone else.
    The bottom line is don’t make your infompetence my problem. I find it amusing that families expect other travelers to bend over backwards to accommodate their needs. Families and their behavior when traveling have bought this on themselves. We are all tired of families prebiarding with one child and 6 adults. Poorly behaved children being unsupervised by adults has worn out much of the goodwill.
    If u want seats together pay for them just like very other passenger. Why do families think they should get a free lunch and have other subsidies them.

    • Vicky, I agree families should be proactive in preventing problems. Many do, which is one reason this doesn’t happen more often. I don’t know more about the story than you though I do believe IT glitches can happen. I don’t think it is at all unreasonable for a parent to want to sit next to their child. It is a shame that sometimes it is on other travelers to make that happen, but at the heart, it is a very reasonable goal, as is boarding early as to not slow down others. There are bad apples in every demographic, but I would hope that would impact the general attitude toward traveling families in general.

    • I fly a lot since I have owned a manufacturing business for the past 30 years. I have seen just about every kind of human behavior on a plane and in the terminal. We should remember that families usually pay for their own tickets out of their own pockets and try to navigate the system as best they can. Most business travelers fly on the company credit card and know all the tricks to seating assignments and upgrades. All that being said, I usually volunteer to give up my aisle seat to help keep a family together when the situation comes up. In exchange, I nearly always get the dreaded center seat in the back.

      I suggest we give up our privileged seat once in a while….even if it comes out of or “own pocket” and not the company’s. Be prepared to accept a crying baby that sits behind you without a scornful face or heavy sigh. Let a soldier or sailor or Marine have a good seat. Talk to an elderly person travelling by themselves. For most of us it is a four hour endeavor in the cabin and then we can go back to our lives.

  6. @Vicky That is possibly the most insensitive post I’ve ever seen. I’m guessing you don’t have any children.

    If there was a way to pay for assigned seating, yes, they should have ponied up the extra money for it. I know I always do when traveling with my family of 5. With that said, if I’m not traveling with my family and anyone (especially someone with a child) asks me to switch seats, I’m more than willing to do so. I’m 6′ 2″, and I’m pretty sure I can survive a few hours in the middle seat.

    In the case of the story, why wouldn’t you give up your seat? A terrified child is going to make for a miserable flight for anyone within a few rows either way. Is having your window or aisle seat that important to you? If so, that is one of the most selfish things I’ve ever heard.

    • Cripes, Kevin, could you be more hysterical in your hand-wringing? If that was the most insensitive post you’ve ever read, I can only surmise that this is your first time using the internet.

  7. This is all good…until you get on a LH flight bought on discounted econ UA stock. With the new LH price gouging rules, they still don’t support advance seat assignments if you didn’t buy the ticket on LH stock, even if you *offer* to pay for them.

    At least BA has conditions that allow children to be seated with their parents if seats aren’t available.

  8. Karma is all fine and good, but bullying strangers is no solution. I was recently on a very full Southwest flight where a mother and child were amongst the last to board. The steward got on the p.a. and instructed those with an empty seat next to them to raise their hand. Only after someone complied did he announce that this “volunteer” would be taking a middle seat in the back to allow the family to sit together, in exchange for a free drink. They worked out a more acceptable deal, but I find the public shaming to be unwarranted. It’s up to the airlines and the families to find solutions, not their fellow passengers.

    • Oh man, that is not right. 🙁 In our case, the FA made the announcement asking if anyone was willing to move and, if so, to please ring their call button. When no one did, she flat out said to me that there was nothing she could do. I am glad she didn’t force anyone to move to accommodate us. Thinking out loud here….I honestly can’t remember the last time I was on a flight with light loads and empty seats. It use to be pretty common and I miss it.

  9. Happened to our family of four a few weeks ago on our way to Orlando for Fall Break. I had our Early Bird check-ins on Southwest in the A group, just like always. We are normally checked in and sitting around the airport twiddling our thumbs with wayyyyy too much time to kill before we board. Not this Saturday! Some perfect storm hit Phoenix and the line for baggage check-in at Southwest was backed up down the terminal like I’ve never seen it. Agents were commenting on all the travelers. It took us over 30 mins to check our bags. After making it through security we took off running for our gate. (No time for coffee, breakfast or a potty break before boarding) A motorized cart driver took pity on us, stopped and said “come on!” As we were approaching our gate I hear the announcement that anyone holding a boarding pass for our flight should be on board. I had tip money out for our cart driver but was so frazzled I jumped off and never gave it to him. Ugh…

    We make it onto the aircraft and, of course, by this time there weren’t four seats together, not even two, just singles. Two of the empty choices were middles between two men. There was no way our 10yo shy daughter could handle that, so I asked a FA for assistance. She made an announcement to see if anyone would be willing to move and no one wanted to do so. The plane was jam packed with families headed to Orlando, and I get it. It was then that a VERY KIND Mom offered to give up her aisle seat and move into a middle seat in the exit row so that our young daughter could sit in her aisle seat across from her own daughter about the same age. I am telling you, I about started bawling! That woman sat in a middle for the four hour flight to MCO because she told me she wouldn’t want her own daughter sitting between two strangers. As I sat in the middle between two men, the man on the aisle told me that after we got going he would slide across the aisle where his young kids were sitting and would sit with his youngest daughter on his lap for a while so that our daughter could come up and sit with me for a while. And he did!

    I am here to say that I was teary from the kindness these strangers showed me on that flight. I gave a shout out to them on my FB page and thanked them profusely during the flight and after. I will always remember their kindness!

    It was very stressful to be separated, and I pray it never happens again. I also hope to never make a meal off of cheese crackers either…what was I thinking by not packing snacks? I was thinking we’d have time to get a bagel and coffee, that is what I was thinking!) I will be glad to be hanging around the gate with time to spare from now on!

  10. Ok, I’m going to be a little bit of a devil’s advocate here. I’m a Mom to 3 kids. We fly Southwest all the time. By flying Southwest, you have to be prepared for the possibility of not sitting together, as things can go wrong (late connections, etc.). If you are not ok with this possibility, DON’T FLY SOUTHWEST. Of course we like to sit together, and we plan for it. But things have gone wrong, and we have been in a situation where we couldn’t all sit together. And we lived to tell about it! Understandably, a child under 5 years old will likely be very upset about being with “strangers,” but an 8 year old? Having your child sit between two men on a flight is somehow equated with letting the kid drive off in their white van. Too many travelling families seem to think that they are somehow exempt from the rules or should be given special treatment. Most all of our flights are on SW points, which means each person gets a separate confirmation number, which means check in has to be done one at a time, which means our boarding numbers are not sequential. When we line up, each of us stands where our number tells us to. Kids 5 and older can handle standing apart from you for a few minutes. I have seen many families like this all go stand at the spot with the earliest number, which is wrong. If a family cannot find seats together on the plane, and a stranger wants to help out, that is awesome and I would do it if I was travelling alone. But they should not be guilted into it. Sitting apart is really and truly not that big of a deal.

  11. Jason, I’m guessing you have already checked out this thread for some ideas, but if not….http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/united-airlines-mileageplus/1575270-no-lufthansa-advance-economy-seat-selection-united-ticket-stock-8.html
    You bring up a great example though of how it isn’t always super simple and immediately jumping to “the parents should have X” is really a narrow view.

    In general, I have to admit that this discussion (both here and elsewhere) really makes me a bit sad. I agree forcing someone to give up their seat is not the best solution, but when here is a plane full of 100+ people, all of which are unwilling to help keep a parent with their child, well, that is a sad reflection of society. Drawing an arbitrary line at some age be it 4 or 5 or 8 also seems like a bad idea as every kid is different, and it is impossible to see what is going on inside their mind by looking at their size. I don’t see it as asking for a super special request to want to seat a parent and child together.

    Of course, this isn’t reserved just for families, I saw it happen on a flight recently with a lady who had a huge knee brace and crutches and she was having a very hard time getting back to her seat, and there is no way she would fit anywhere with her extended leg other than the aisle. No one was trading with her to give her the bulkhead or similar for the 2 hour flight. I absolutely would have, but I had a window several rows back which wouldn’t have helped. She could have hurt her leg the day before for all I knew, so no way to plan for the seating issue. She ended up in the exit row of all places, which clearly was a bad idea for everyone on board.

    How so many of us got so protective over our own extra few inches of comfort as to preclude helping someone else just baffles me. I get that planes are full, seats are small, and nearly everyone seems on edge when traveling these days, but that doesn’t excuse the behavior I am seeing and reading about (and yes, families can absolutely be the ones behaving poorly, too). I don’t think anyone should be a martyr that gives up their seat on every flight, but if we were all a bit kinder in the air every now and then, that is all it should take.

  12. I wish we all had more compassion for each other. We can’t know what situation any family was in that led to them not being able to have seats together. Yes, some will be and are due to poor planning on their part. But there are situations where you have to travel on short notice and there is no way you can get seats together. I was in this situation just last week. A family member died in a tragic accident and we had to find our way to upstate NY in a very short time frame. My husband and I were traveling with our 3 year old son and the trip required 2 flights each way. I booked our flights on points and was assigned seats together on 2 of the flights. For 1 flight I ponied up the $$ to secure 3 seats together. I had no problem doing that given it was last minute (leaving in less than 48 hours). On our longest leg home we all had seats in different places. I called AA and they could not do anything about it and frankly didn’t seem to care. I continued to check online and nothing opened up. I was seriously stressed which I really didn’t need given all the other stress dealing with losing a loved one. When we arrived at the airport to check in for our flights I mentioned it to the check in agent and she was somehow able to work some magic and got us all checked in together. I was so grateful. Had she not been able to I was fully prepared to ask passengers to take pity on at least me and my 3 year old to get seats together. I don’t think any 3 yr old should have to sit in a seat alone. I make it my job to keep him occupied and he is an excellent traveler at this point but he needs his Mom or Dad.

    So I think we all need to remember that we don’t know how anyone got to be in the position they are in. Have some compassion and in most cases I think there can be a reasonable solution for everyone.

    • Chrissy, absolutely. The most frazzled and seemingly unprepared traveling families I have even seen (that I have been able to chat with due to seat proximity) have all been traveling due to a family emergency. You just never know, and you can rarely go wrong by offering something as simple as a seat swap to help someone out.

  13. Does anyone (with frequent SW flying) know about what percentage of people are in boarding group A of an entire flight? I always check in (with any airline) at early as they will let me (a peace of mind thing), but it’s good know that each individual person has to check in? Thank you for any insight.

  14. I once gave up my seat so a mother and child could sit together on a Southwest flight to Orlando (on the first request, without being guilted, because seriously, why wouldn’t you?). The FA thanked me and then informed me that I would be drinking free for the entire flight. I only had 2 drinks, but they were so strong I was seriously buzzed when my friend picked me up from the airport.

    Have to say, she was in the wrong for not figuring it out sooner than on the plane, but what the heck is wrong with people? I can’t fathom not giving up my seat for a small child to sit with a parent. Guess my momma raised me right.

  15. If we can’t get all of our seats together, we usually snag one desirable seat (e.g., an aisle in the emergency exit row or economy plus) knowing that will be an easy trade. We never try to trade middle seats, but in your example above would have traded 10A with the person who was sitting in the window seat next to one of our middles. Also accept that only ONE parent has to sit with the kid even if it’s more convenient for you all to be together. With a little bit of planning, unless there are IRROPS or you’re flying an airline that doesn’t assign seats (which is risky with children and we’ve only done it once), this stuff shouldn’t happen on a regular basis. And having elite status also helps get this stuff sorted out when things go wrong.

    • Karen, yes it helps so much when you have something good (aka an aisle seat) to offer as a trade. Can still be tricky sometimes if a couple or other family are seated together in the row you want to get into, but it does make it better for sure.

  16. A few months ago my mom (54) fell while helping my brother move into his new apartment.. We were in WV and home is FL. We had no idea she had actually broken her hip.
    Thankfully, gracious people including the airline.. Helped me carry my 100 lb mlmget my mom on the plane, someone have up their first class seat so she didn’t have to walk.. So she could fly home to the doctors..
    It’s sad that there are so many not so nice stories.. But kind strangers, helped me get my Mom home in a terrible situation.

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