Oh, seat assignments. They are the stuff of nightmares for parents flying with small kids. If you travel with kids, you’ve probably heard a horror story from a friend or experienced a tough situation yourself.
“Can you believe that the airline tried to seat my toddler 18 rows away from me?” Yes. Sadly, yes I can.
Up until my most recent trip, I had luckily dodged the seat assignment bullet. Frankly, it’s pretty amazing that I’ve done more than 100 flights with babies, toddlers, and little ones and hadn’t had the issue yet. There are a few reasons for that (keep reading to learn how you can improve your seat assignment success ratio too).
But first things first. What on earth went wrong this time?
Our Seat Separation Saga
On our most recent trip returning home on a 6 hour flight from Cancun to San Francisco on United Airlines, I was that mom who suddenly found my toddler was indeed seated 18 rows away from me. In Cancun, I arrived at the airport only to find that my family of four (including our 6 year old daughter and 2 year old son) were given seat assignments scattered haphazardly all over the plane. No one was together.
When we booked our tickets back in early September nearly three months before the trip, I tried to get seats together as I usually do. I found that there were only two seats available for pre-assignment that did not require paying an extra fee, even though the plane was far from full. Both were middle seats. That obviously wouldn’t work. I could buy United’s Economy Plus seating (which was showing as 90% empty) for my entire family, for the low, low cost of $90+ per seat, but that was ridiculous. Economy Plus seats have extra legroom but I can guarantee you that my 2 year old doesn’t need extra legroom. All we wanted was to sit together somewhere. Anywhere. It could be the worst seat on the plane and I’d be happy.
I tried numerous times to try to snag seat assignments as the weeks approached for our trip, but no luck. I figured I’d check in online right at the 24 hour mark, as a lot of seats often open up at that point when elites are upgraded to business class and to the Economy Plus seats. But when I went to check in, the United app wouldn’t allow me the option to even get boarding passes, much less seats.
We arrived at the airport 2 1/2 hours before our flight hopeful someone at United could work something out. The line for bag check was a mile long. When we finally got to an agent, she worked mightily to get seats for us but couldn’t make it happen on what had become a totally full flight. She managed to assign one of us to an exit row, knowing it would be a prime seat someone would swap for. This entire process took nearly an hour and a half, meaning we were actually getting pretty close to flight time by the time we made it to security.
We raced through security. I then ran ahead to try to enlist the further help of the gate agent in solving our seat assignment dilemma. I was very polite, but I was met with an obvious and immediate eye roll and loud sigh. I’m already not much of a United fan and this kind of no-can-do attitude makes me angry. The agent cursorily attempted to help me but mostly ignored me and said I should just switch with passengers on the plane. At the last minute, he managed to get my two year old and me in two middle seats across the aisle from each other and was betting on the other passengers in the row (who appeared to be a family traveling together) to switch.
The clocked ticked down without any further resolution, and we finally boarded dead last. Luckily, the family with older kids in our row was happy to make a switch, putting me next to my 2 year old son. We then found a solo traveler who would take our exit row seat so my 6 year old daughter could sit with my husband. Disaster averted. But it was stressful and tiring and frustrating and worrying.
The entire situation potentially pits passengers against one another during the already hurried and stressful boarding process. Usually human kindness and decency win out, but the airline should be the one handling this customer service issue – not fellow passengers.
Can I Stop this from Happening to Me?
If you are a less frequent traveler, I’m guessing you desperately want to know how you can prevent this from happening to you. The short answer is that you can’t. Not really. Airlines are separating families more and more. They are leaving it up to gate agents and even fellow passengers to arrange last minute emergency swaps to keep a young child next to a parent. It shouldn’t be this way.
I can tell you why it is happening much more often. First, airplanes are simply flying much fuller than they ever have before. There’s less room for rearrangement when there are no empty seats on the plane. Second, airlines are reserving more and more of their seats for elites or turning those seats into premium seats with perks like extra legroom. That leaves fewer “cheap” seats in which to seat the families together if they don’t want to pay that fee.
Finally, more and more families are flying these days than they did in the early days of air travel. Rearranging multiple groups of 4 or 5 is simply harder than making swaps when most flyers are individuals or couples. I see this problem the most often during holiday travel periods or to and from family vacation destinations where there are many more families on flights.
Even with all of this, there are definitely ways you can improve your seat assignment success ratio. As much as I fly, I’ve been pretty successful (this trip, notwithstanding). That’s because I know all the tricks for making sure my family doesn’t get separated. I work hard to get seat assignments that work for my family and not inconvenience others.
Here’s what you can do to improve your chances of sitting together as a family:
- Fly Southwest: The seat assignment problem is nearly non-existent on Southwest. Southwest has open seating where families of young kids (ages 4 and under) can board between groups A & B when seats together are almost always available for the taking. Problem solved. The legacy airlines’ tone-deafness to the problem is one of the major reasons that Southwest gets much more of my business lately.
- Get seat assignments when you book: On most airlines, you can view seat maps and book your seats as you book your tickets. If seat assignments are crucial to you, look for flights that are less full and that have plenty of open seating. Book the assignments you need then and there. Of course, this isn’t always possible if you need to book a last minute trip or are traveling during a busy holiday period, but it’s something.
- Monitor your seat assignments: One of the major reasons families are separated is because airlines change things after you book. You may think you have seats with your children, but if an aircraft swap happens, those seats are often reassigned. If you book tickets far in advance, I’d recommend monitoring your reservations every month or two to watch for this issue.
- Be persistent: If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. If you can’t get seats at booking, try calling the airline to see if a phone agent can help. Check every few weeks to see if the seat map has opened up. Try again at 24, 48, and 72 hours before flight time when elite upgrades are often processed. On flight day, arrive early at the airport and try to arrange a switch then. Sound exhausting? Well, it is. But it is the price airlines are making families pay.
- Pay the extra fee: I hate to encourage families to shell out even more money to these airlines just for the privilege of sitting together, but sometimes that is the only way to success. That said, even those premium seats aren’t guaranteed, but gate and phone agents will usually be much more willing to help you if you’d paid premium pricing.
- Kindness counts: The prospect of being separated from your little ones on a long flight has probably stressed you out. Take a deep breath and be nice – whether to the gate agents and to fellow passengers if you are asking for a swap. People will be much more willing to help you if you keep your cool. Bribery (in the form of a free drink coupon to a fellow passenger) works too.
Good luck and happy travels!
Friday 3rd of January 2020
I don't understand why people have a problem with paying for seat selection. Especially parents.
There is a REASON it no longer costs 2000 dollars to fly coast to coast: Ticket prices are lowered and the losses are offset by ancillary fees like seat selection, bags, meals etc. Unless you WANT to pay 1980's prices on trans US flights, be grateful and pay it .
Secondly, as parents, you should be prepared to pay more. For everything in life. You need to pay more for groceries. Pay more for clothes. Pay more for movies. Why are planes considered different? You have to pay to get your kid a ticket into the movie theater, as well as buy one for yourself. Again, why are planes different? Have kids? That's the deal. Kids are expensive. You knew that going in.
You need to stop complaining that you are not getting what you refuse to pay for in the first place.
Monday 31st of January 2022
@Sarah Winston, do you think people have unlimited amount of money? Should we castrate people that are too poor to pay more for seats? To visit my family I need to take 3 different flights one way, with 3 kids at 90$/seat thats 450$ one way extra. With kids there are a million other better things I can spend that money on like college fund or extra activity for them to experience during vacation. On top of that buying seats does not guarantee you those seats.
Friday 27th of October 2017
This just happened to me. I found out my daughter needs surgery very soon, but it is only available in L.A. and Chicago, so I scheduled the consult a week out and booked a ticket for myself and a second ticket for my 17 month old daughter who is too big and too difficult for me to handle as a lap infant by myself. There were to economy seats available and only a few premium economy seats... all middle seats. Guess somebody is getting stuck next to a screaming toddler in a middle seat rear facing carseat. I'm not negotiating. I'm sorry, but it's not my job to make other people happy. That's the airline's job. Hopefully, the flight attendant will realize very quickly what a HUGE mistake they made seating a fussy baby between two strangers.
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