Can Families Sit On Planes Together Without Paying More?

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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?

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.


  1. […] The first is about families trying to get seats on a flight together.  I think she makes some good points in the post, especially about trying to get some level of elite status with an airline.  For me, this is one of the reasons I’m pursuing lifetime status with multiple programs.  I want to be able to retain these benefits in the future. […]


  1. Gee I would pay more not to sit next to my toddler. Actually if an airline didn’t seat me with my wife and child and we were all on the same booking, I don’t think I would fly with them ever again.

  2. I’m thinking isn’t there a legal issue here for the airlines by separating a minor child from its parent or guarding?. My friend has a severely handicapped adult son, he cannot speak, or communicate as to where strangers could understand him. The airlines were always trying to separate them. I finally told her to tell them he’s disabled when booking the flight. That seems to so the trick.. He’s protected under disabilities laws. I would think, or hope, a 3 year old would be protected under the law.

  3. Kitty, I think their argument is that no one NEEDS to fly unless their in Alaska or something. Still sucks, but I think the best solution is something like Amtrak does where certain rows are reserved for groups only, at the very back of course (where they used to stick the smokers fwiw).

  4. why can’t children sit alone?
    As long as you know where he/she is seated, isn’t that enough?
    I remember when I was young, I sat alone in coach while my dad, mom or both, sat in Business, coming to visit every once in awhile. Most of the time on flight, I was sleeping, and the FA usually kept an eye on me.

    • A young child 10 or older sitting along might be a little stressful for them; however if you are close by it should be. My concern is what about a 4 year old or a 6 year old?

      If there is an emergency will the passenger next to them help? Put on the oxygen mask? Get them out safely? Who would want the responsibility of taking care of someone else’s child!!!
      Additionally, what if the child has an accident or gets plane sick, will the passengers next to them clean up the mess? Console them? Comfort them and assure them they will be alright?

      With all the technology the airlines have to track us, and maximize their profits, couldn’t they show a little compassion and assist a father and his daughter on a flight and seat them together.

      Lastly, the unthinkable of someone touching my child especially on a night flight when the cabin lights are dimmed…I can only imagine the law suit for such blatant negligence when something does happen!!!!

      Airlines know better and don’t care!!!

  5. I have switched for families before. However, I decline when they ask me to switch out of my sweet E+ seat on United for a random middle seat in the back of the plane so the family can sit together. Yes, this just happened again this past weekend.

  6. I’ve had no problem booking seats together, but like you I fly United out of Houston 90% of the time. Just booked 4 award tickets on the same row to MSP and back in August for 100,000 miles and $20!

  7. Shane: I totally agree that I would love to sit apart from my 4yr old sometimes. 😉

    Mark: If the child is a teen, sure. But otherwise its a safety issue.

    This happened to us on Southwest when we had a 25 min layover and didn’t make family boarding. The flight attendant asked one person to move so that I could sit next to my son. Most people are willing to accommodate.

  8. My advice: be sure to check back on your seat assignments if anything at all changes with your schedule. Recently United made a 5 minute time change on a single leg of our flights to a Aruba. In the process, seat assignments for all FOUR legs were dropped.

    Instead of having the cluster of aisle seats together that our family of five would prefer, we have no seat assignments for several legs. I planned ahead (we booked this last July!) and it will frustrate me if we’re all spread out in center seats for 4 1/2 hours!

    The United rep assured me that because we’re traveling with children, they’ll do their best to accommodate us at our 24 hour check-in window. So I’m going to be up at 6am on Friday, like I would be if flying Southwest, to try to get seat assignments. Sigh.

  9. A few weeks ago I flew with my wife and three kids (6,4,2) from Soeul to Chicago. I was surprised that even three months before the flight Asiana couldn’t get us seats together. On the plane a lady was kind enough to switch with my wife so she could sit by our 2 year old. However, our 6 year old and 4 year old had to sit by themselves across the row from me where I was in the middle (I could see them, but not help them with their food or movies). I was surprised that there is nothing to guarantee that a family flying for 12+ hours wouldn’t be rearranged to sit together with young kids.

  10. @Mark – I wouldn’t be too worried about my 5 year old if he was in visual range. But my 3 year old needs someone to sit by him. He’s a great flyer, but I have a feeling he wouldn’t be if mommy or daddy weren’t right with him.

    We recently had this situation on a MCO-AUS flight on Delta. I checked back several times, but there was nothing. I went to the check-in counter the night before the flight (we were staying at the airport hotel) and a Delta agent spent 10 minutes working things around so each of our children could have 1 parent with them. I was very appreciative. I’ve negotiated with pax on the plane, too, and have always had good luck with people being willing to trade seats.

    I would think the airlines are risking themselves if they put a small child by him/herself and anything happens to them.

  11. Thanks for the great post – those are very good suggestions for families. I think most airlines would love to accommodate all families (most airline employees have families too!) but it can get tricky. They can’t kick non-family passengers out of their seats to accommodate families with toddlers. Otherwise those non-family passengers would be protesting just as loud.
    So take MommyPoints advice. We’ve taken similar steps with our family and have never had problems in 13 years of travel with kids.

  12. @Shane, I know that equipment changes and other things happen, but I agree the airline needs to make every effort to keep a family together – especially if that is how they were booked in the first place.
    @kitty B, I am not aware of any law or even FAA regulation about families sitting together. I think a reasonable regulation would be that any child under the age of 5 must be seated next to a parent or guardian. Age 5 is when they technically could fly as an unaccompanied minor, so it is a logical cut-off to me.
    @DBest, even rows reserved for groups at the back is better than no rows at all. 🙂
    @Mark, like others said, it depends on the age of the child. My two year old needs me next to her to help with entertainment, bathroom issues, food, etc. I think age 5 is a logical cut-off below which a parent or guardian must be seated next to a child.
    @JLope, eek being asked to go from E+ to a back middle seat is a bit much. If the airline was asking for that much of a favor, they should give something in return. I would probably do it if I didn’t think the family was going to find another alternative, but I would then ask the airline for some compensation.
    @Sean, congrats on getting the award flights you wanted! UA is pretty simple if you plan ahead (though I have had some issues with seat assignments related to merger issues).
    @Jennifer, I agree it is the age of the child that really comes into play here.
    @Anita, yuck, I know the feeling. I have my fingers crossed that it works out for you. I have had some recent seat assignment issues related to the CO/UA merger and things going haywire.
    @Craig, that is a long time – especially for a four year old. I’m glad you have good kiddos, but that is asking a lot of a young kid.
    @Up&Away, the things we do for our kiddos. 😉 That is great you were able to go to the airport the night before to try and get some help. Family travelers really do have some unique issues.
    @DL, I’m glad you liked it. I have found airline employees to be very gracious is wanting to help, if they can. I agree you can’t displace non-family travelers at the expense of family travelers, so it is a tough situation on full flights. Some advance planning can ward of 80%-90% of the problems, and for the 10%-20% of the time when there is an issue – just work with the airline, other passengers, and be patient.

  13. Great blog entry, Mommypoints; even though it doesn’t much pertain to me. As a senior citizen, I am pretty good about swapping seats unless I am feeling sickly that day.
    I am always interested/concerned about young kids flying without adult supervision. I had an aisle seat from PHX to ATL; the other two seats were two kids about 8 and 6. I incorrectly assumed they were with adults sitting somewhere else. Finally the youngest one asked me for money. At that point, I began to ask around as to who these kids belonged to. No one knew. I couldn’t tell that even the FA knew these kids were alone. After the FA spoke with them, we all finally settled down to a nap.
    But I think one of the first things child predators seek is a child who has an interest in something (like money) that the predator has.
    It was not a good airline experience for me.

  14. While I empathize with large families (belonging to one myself) I just don’t see any justification for not paying the up-charge for premium seats (to be with your children for Pete’s sake)or inconveniencing someone who may have also paid an up-charge for the seat so that a family of five or six can sit together.

    Obviously it never hurts to ask but to expect that people who have planned ahead to accommodate you is rude.

  15. I think this is another example of airlines bullying passengers and trying to get away with as much unethical acts as they can to make extra money. They’re starting to resemble insurance companies denying coverage. I refuse to pay them for anything “extra” unless I have absolutely no choice. Paying a premium to board before everyone? Extra leg room? Come on, what’s next, a quarter to go to the bathroom? Sorry for the rant, but it’s getting ridiculous. I think at the very least the Federal government needs to step in and say, wait a minute, you have a paid ticket, you have the right to check in one bag free of charge and not get trampled over inside the cabin by people trying to get their entire closet to fit in the overhead compartment. Our flight was delayed two days ago because people wouldn’t sit down trying to fit all their stuff in the overhead compartments and the attendants were upset about it. I’m thinking, “this is all your fault”.

  16. I would argue that even more important than the seat assignment is the extra legroom you get on E+. When you’re traveling with young people, they have A LOT of gear. DVD players, coloring books, their own snacks; traveling with my 4 year old is like being a roadie to a rock star. We always pay for the E+ if for no other reason than needing the room to store all of this stuff around us!

  17. Here’s some thing else, I love little C and think she’s adorable but I don’t want to baby sit her on a four hour flight while her mom is @ the back of the plane drinking cocktails and napping. Lol! Obviously children need special attention on take off and landing, with beverages , and little snack crackers, touch down and or personal or emotional situation that arises. Its just crazy to think that the airlines would even think of shoving these responsibilities off on strangers.. I wouldn’t even consider separating a parent until the kid was at least 12. And who’s what kind of weirdo your baby could end up sitting next to.

  18. Great post – I’m always glad to see ones like this, as they differentiate your blog from all the other deals blogs out there!

    This is frankly one of my biggest frustrations flying with a child. I usually book early enough in advance that this isn’t an issue. If I do book last minute, it is often on Southwest where family boarding between the A & B groups ensures that I can always snag a row with my child. But equipment changes happen, or flights are cancelled or missed due to delays. And in those situations, I’m generally the most stressed already and the seat issue just adds insult to injury.

    Also, more and more airlines seem to be reserving massive sections of the plane that require $$ to secure a seat assignment. AirTran, for example, always charges something to passengers traveling on discount coach fares for the privilege of getting ANY seat assignment in advance. In my experience, the cost has always been reasonable ($10), so I just bite the bullet for the peace of mind. But I wouldn’t do it at a cost of $30 or $50 or more per seat.

  19. I’ve talked with several people about this before. Friends of our were told by the airline that legally they had to sit them next their kids (but I’m not sure the age cut-off). If there is an emergency where the masks come down, someone has to be able to help the child.

    Personally, I’ve never had any problem with sitting near our kids.

    One of our friends suggested saying this when trying to get seats next to each other, “Hey, I’m fine with us not sitting together, but I’m not sure the other passengers will be fine with sitting next to my unattended child.”

  20. @Victor — I would never expect someone who paid extra for a seat to switch into my no-frills seating assignment, and I certainly don’t need my whole family to sit together. But, I do expect to be able to sit next to my young child for safety/security/practical reasons. We’ve split up 2 & 2 several times before (1parent + 1child).

    When my kiddos are older I’ll be glad for them to sit by themselves wherever there is an available seat. I’ll be in 1st class enjoying some rewards for schlepping all the stuff through airports all these years! 😉

  21. Last year when the merger of CO/UA target date was announced, I status matched from AA gold to CO Silver (bottom tier). I was shocked when I was only able to prebook seats for myself and one other pax on CO. This is one place where AA has it all over UA (I believe it’s up to 7 on 1 record locator that can preselect seats).

  22. Everyone who is outraged that airlines nickel and dime us need to consider how this came about. People search for the cheapest fare, often even choosing the flight that is merely 1 or 2 dollars less. Then are surprised when the airline starts charging extra for this and that to make up for the fact that the “basic” fare is below break even.
    Years ago, AA took out a row of seats from economy, as nearly everyone was complaining about being “packed in like sardines”. They heavily advertised their “extra space at every seat”. Then eventually put those seats back in, when they discovered that passengers wouldn’t pay a few dollars more for non-cattle car seating.
    Airlines now use the same advertising scheme as the Cruise Lines. I have seen cruises listed at $150 for 3 days. Think for a moment, there is no way they can pay even for diesel fuel at $50 a day, much less food, crew, insurance, entertainment, maintenance. You are going to be hit up for extra charges constantly when you book a trip at below cost for the provider.
    Why do airlines charge extra for luggage, exit row, E+, meals, drinks? Because you will fly their competitors if they charge even a few dollars more. The only way for the airline to survive is to charge extra for everything.
    The airlines didn’t create this situation where people book strictly on price, not on quality of product and service. WE did…

  23. We booked 2 months in advance, but couldn’t pre-assign our family of 5 to be together on AA. The only seats available are the ones on the middle section.
    The reason we booked early and are doing the seat assignment is so that we could attend to our children when they act out or need something especially during take offs/landings/delays etc. I don’t understand why the airlines would separate the family if it can cause chaos/inconvenience for the people who will be seating next to the child. And I agree with KittyB, in this day and age, you just don’t know who your child will be sitting next to.

  24. We recently traveled on United Airlines and they expected my three-year old son to sit alone. We booked the flight 8 months ahead and paid extra to upgrade and secure seats together, but at the last minute they cancelled our flight and booked us on an overbooked flight. While you might think people will willing switch seats, that’s not always the case. We had to beg people to switch so my three-year old wouldn’t be forced to sit alone, get scared and cry so hard he would throw up on people… NOT so family friendly. The ticket agent just kept saying, “sorry, there is nothing we can do”.

  25. We recently travelled with United Airlines and we were faced with the same problems. Our young children were expected to sit alone at opposite ends of the plane on a night flight. I was not comfortable with them sitting between two men they didn’t know. The thing that worried me most was what would happen in an emergency? Would another adult take responsibility for my child? As a parent it’s your duty to care for your children and In my opinion this treatment from the airlines is totally unacceptable. We pay a lot of money to fly and deserve better.

  26. Paying extra for a premium seat and being sat next to an unaccompanied youngsterwill bite United. I try to avoid them now. Just put the families together.

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