Is there anything I can do to get us seats together on the plane?
September 10, 2012 3:32 PM   Subscribe

Tips for getting seats together on a flight that is already booked.

As I mentioned in a previous question, my family is going on a Disney vacation soon. Although the trip was booked a month or so ago, the airplane tickets were just purchased and I have a problem.

(Before I hear from everyone who says "Why would you take kids on a plane?! You are a jerk!" - we have flown with the four oldest in the past and they have been great. We bring plenty to keep them busy and are not the passengers from hell from your horror stories. And we are traveling from Oregon to Florida, so driving is out of the question.)

I will be flying with my wife and our five kids - ages 11, 9, 5, 2, and 11 months. I just went to pick seats, and there are none available together. Seriously - the only seats they would let me choose from were middle seats.

I called the airline and they told me they were unable to make any changes, but would forward our information to the airport so they could accommodate us on the day of the flight. She refused to even give us seat assignments, saying "It wouldn't matter because they'll just change things that day." I balked at this idea, but the agent said "They really will get you seats together if you just wait until the morning of the flight."

Is this really going to work? Does anyone else have experience in a similar situation? Do any airline employees have any tips to help us? Even if we let the older kids sit by themselves, we would need at least two sets of two seats together. Ideas?

I know we can wait until we are on the plane and then ask people to switch seats, but if they truly assign us all middle seats, we won't have much bargaining power...

And it's American Airlines, if that makes any difference.
posted by tacodave to Travel & Transportation (40 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It should work. There are generally a number of travelers who change their tickets, are moving alone, will change seats in the kiosks in the airport, etc. It'll be fine.
posted by xingcat at 3:34 PM on September 10, 2012

Yes, talking to an agent at the airport when you check in is your best bet. It'll be fine.
posted by Fig at 3:38 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

There aren't even seats that are available if you pay a little extra?

There are a few seats that are held for assignment by the airport. You may be able to get some of these. I would suggest checking in online as early as possible to see if any additional seats have come available. Then get to the airport as early as possible to ask an agent if there's anything they can do. The airport agents have more ability than the reservations agents.

if they truly assign us all middle seats, we won't have much bargaining power...

If all else fails, this is true, but some people would rather sit in a middle seat rather than next to your unsupervised two-year-old.
posted by grouse at 3:39 PM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

They'll need to figure things out for the two youngest, and they will the day of. Other people will probably help you out for your older three -- but if they don't (they once didn't for my sister when she was about 5), well, your kids will be fine -- you can go and talk to them during the flight, and in fact my sister's seatmate kept her more occupied than our family would have.

Do get to the airport early, though. The more time you have, the more room there is for last minute changes. If there's online check in, do so the very second you are allowed to, sometimes seats free up then.
posted by jeather at 3:40 PM on September 10, 2012

No one wants to sit next to your unsupervised children. It might not happen until you actually get on the plane, but if all else fails, the flight attendants will ask people to move around until you have seats together.

Ask at check-in. Ask at the desk at the gate. Ask again when you get on the plane.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:42 PM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

The gate attendant has been able to move things around on a booked flight so my husband and I sat together, although a family of 6 is more tricky. If economy is indeed fully booked/overbooked, it's possible that they will upgrade some people to Economy Plus/First Class, shuffle y'all into their seats, and then slot stand-by tickets into the middle seats that you see as being available.
posted by muddgirl at 3:44 PM on September 10, 2012

The key here is to be a squeaky wheel. Call again 1 week before, 1 day before, a couple hours before and then arrive early at the airport.

Right now make sure you are in as many aisle seats as you can get, these are easier to trade than a middle. Also try to get them as close as possible. Worst case you will need to ask people on the plane to switch. Most people will as long as the seat they are moving too isn't stuck in the middle...which is why "banking" aisle seats is a good idea...

Good luck..

It probably does make a difference if it's an American Airline. I was told by a nameless non-american airline on an international flight that my 3 year old would have no problem in a middle seat well separated from Mom and Dad. Almost everything else about the international flight was better than an American carrier, but the customer service aspect wasn't as simple as the US carriers...

One other hint - call and order the kids meals if there is meal service...
posted by NoDef at 3:45 PM on September 10, 2012

Given that more and more passengers are paying extra to sit in an aisle or window seat, I wouldn't count on others being happy to trade their seats for your middle seat. Are there no premium/reserved seats left that you can pay extra for?
posted by lalex at 3:46 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, no matter what you pick online, you're ultimately at the mercy of the check-in. But get there early - very very early.

You may have to split in half and be several rows apart, because it's much less likely you're going to get 7 seats all touching than 3 and 3 and 1 nearby.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:46 PM on September 10, 2012

Your goal should be to get the 2 youngest sitting with mom and dad or possibly on your lap (how long is the flight?) and the 5 year old sitting with the 11 year old. There is little chance that you'll be able to get more than 2 seats together.

Go to the airport as early as humanly possible. Be as nice as you can to the staff. You might have a shot at check in.
If that doesn't work, try the gate agent.
But once you're on the plane, people are bound to be kind to you. They don't want to sit with your kids.
posted by k8t at 3:53 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, just to clarify, as others have noted, when I say 'together', I don't mean 'you and your wife and all five of your kids in a couple of rows'. More likely it will be you and your wife separated, each with a couple of kids. The 11 year old may end up just sort of nearby one of you, but sitting in one of those middle seats.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:56 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get on the plane with a handful of $20 bills, just in case.

"Trade seats?"
"No, thanks."
"Twenty bucks?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:02 PM on September 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

Wow. Lots of responses already.

To clarify - I don't need six seats together. Having the three youngest be near us is the key, the two older ones can fend for themselves.

And to reiterate - we don't currently have seat assignments. The agent said it would be redundant. I'm just assuming when we arrive they will look at the computer, think "All we have are middles..." and try to fix things. Unfortunately, the gate agent will probably assume that I'm an idiot who didn't plan in advance. But there's no way to avoid that.
posted by tacodave at 4:06 PM on September 10, 2012

This may be a marketing strategy on the airline's part to get you to pony up xtra $ for seats together requiring you to purchase the more expensive aisle/window seats if they are available. They started doing this at the beginning of the summer. I was flying with my 14 month old and we were seated 10 rows apart, no number of phone calls could get us seats together, although I would have spent the $25 or whatever extra to be done with the hassle. Even the ticketing agent couldn't help, it wasn't until we got to the gate. The poor gate agent, he had at least 2 other families he had to deal with. We finally got seats together, last row on the plane, last people on the plane. I knew they wouldn't let us on the plane w/out seats together, so I wasn't stressed, but it was annoying....

Is your 11month old flying on your lap or does he/she have a tix? Babies with their own seats have to sit in a window seat so their car seat doesn't interfere w/anyone else getting out of the plane. Beyond you getting a middle seat next to the baby, I don't know that I would count on getting seated together, based on my experiences flying with my son this summer. They will probably seat the 2 year old with you, etc. but the older kids may end up in other rows....
posted by snowymorninblues at 4:09 PM on September 10, 2012

When I haven't had a seat assignment, it's meant the flight is overbooked and I'm getting bumped. In your shoes, I'd be trying to get any seat assignments now, and trust that your seats will be moved together on the day of the flight.
posted by thirteenkiller at 4:11 PM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

we don't currently have seat assignments

Can you get seat assignments on their web site? It is better to have an undesirable seat assignment than no seat assignment.
posted by grouse at 4:12 PM on September 10, 2012

if they truly assign us all middle seats, we won't have much bargaining power...

They will not make your infant or your two year old sit alone, guaranteed. The gate agent will work with the flight crew to ensure this.

If it were me and I was trying to problem solve this I would at least get online and reserve seats for myself and the family to at least see if the middle seats I could get would be sort of near each other. This means if the flight is in some sort of oversold situation they won't be glaring at you as the people who don't have seats. But people miss flights or don't make connections for all sorts of reasons and I would not flip out too much. I would do what other people have suggested

- arrive early
- be prepared to be conciliatory about this (you don't have to go all out, but even some little thank you something would be nice)
- talk to the 11 year old about maybe being in a seat by themselves or with their younger sibling, talk about what that might mean and how everything is going to work so there are no surprises

I am one of those folks who is almost always a single person traveling alone and would give up my seat for a family traveling together but certainly wouldn't mind if someone bought me M&Ms for my trouble. I'm sure there are a lot of people like me, do not be too worried about it.
posted by jessamyn at 4:12 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree that the gate agent is your most valuable ally here. May I add, though, a reminder of the supernatural power of a ziploc bag of a few delectable homemade chocolate-chip cookies? Or, since you're in Portland, the chance to select from a big box from your favorite donut shop? This is for the check-in agents, gate agents, flight attendants, people in switchable seats nearby, and people who end up sitting next to or near your family, just for fun. You can generate a lot of love and smiles and accommodation -- even among the people who decline -- with the surprising offer of something fresh-baked and sweet. You'll get much more than your $5-or-$50 bucks' worth.

(Also, have some scratchpads and have your kids aged 2-11 draw some cute pictures of airplanes, or whatever else they like (or let people take a picture next to one of one of kids with a note the kid made for the stranger's partner saying "----> LOVES YOU XOXO"), and pass them around. Seriously! I've done hundreds and hundreds of hours of easily-annoyable business travel and these kinds of things would make my day/week/month.)

Hope you all have a wonderful trip.
posted by argonauta at 4:14 PM on September 10, 2012

Airline seat fees: Family togetherness suffers

Don't worry about the gate agent thinking it's your fault, they know there's nothing you can do about it.
posted by snowymorninblues at 4:14 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would keep calling/checking online as well, it may be that as the flight gets closer they release more of the window/aisle seat assignments to be purchased.
posted by snowymorninblues at 4:15 PM on September 10, 2012

Even if you book flights way in advance, you're not going to get seats together. These days, the airlines very rarely show anything but a middle seat as available when you pick seats ahead of time online. They save the aisle and middle seats for "premium" higher cost tickets. Joe Schmo who buys the cheapest seat doesn't even see them as an option.

(Source: part of my job involves booking flights for my employees, and I book at least two flights a week, typically more. This is something I've seen happening more and more over the past year.)

Leave it until you get on the flight. I'm pretty confident this will be fixed for you day-of.
posted by phunniemee at 4:20 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was just able to get two people seated together by asking nicely at the gate. We did this twice, on international flights, on full planes. It helped that I had mileage status, but my colleague didn't and they still seated him next to me. Definitely easier to accommodate 2 people than 6, I know, but I think you'll be able to enlist the staff at the airport to help you out.
posted by gingerbeer at 4:21 PM on September 10, 2012

Another perspective, as someone who travels alone quite regularly. In some cases, I would be totally happy swapping seats to help you out. But in other cases, I've paid extra, booked far in advance or used points/status to get a particular seat. And I wouldn't be willing to move in that case, even if offered goodies. Depending on my travel schedule, the length of the flight, etc., which seat I have makes a huge difference in my comfort, which is why I go to some lengths to get the seats I do (and yes, often I fly first class just for this reason, but not always).

Please don't make the assumption that people will always be willing to move - it's fine to ask, but understand if people don't say no.
posted by primethyme at 4:21 PM on September 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

In my experience you NEED to have some sort of seat assignment - even if they are middle seats scattered throughout the plane. The times I've traveled and had no seat assignment prior to, I've been bumped. Get some seat assignments now even if they aren't together. That will be worked out by the gate agent before boarding. Get seats now!!
posted by Sassyfras at 4:27 PM on September 10, 2012

I was coming back in to say what thirteenkiller said. Without seat assignments, I'd be more concerned about one or more members of your family being bumped from what seems to be a fully-booked flight.

When did you book these tickets? i'm pretty sure you can cancel without penalty for 24 hours; I'd be researching to see if I could find better options.
posted by lalex at 4:29 PM on September 10, 2012

Don't assign seats. Go online and check in, which you can do 24 hours prior to your flight, and try to get seat assignments then. If anything is going to open up, that's when you'll most likely be able to find out and change your seat assignments yourself.

If you go to check-in and find there are still no seats available at that time, you don't have to complete check-in and can just go to the airport early and try to get someone at the check-in counter to help you. I suggest you try online first because I know that when you are travelling with kids, you don't really like to have them waiting around the airport any longer than you have to!

Are you only visiting Orlando while in Florida? Where are you staying? Let me know if you want to meet some manatees over on our East Coast. We have Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice hanging out at our local docks quite often.
posted by misha at 4:35 PM on September 10, 2012

I have no verified source for this other than a gate agent when I was in the same position, but the agent told me that they hold a row of seats for families or those travelling with handicaps that are not released until the day of the flight. On this airline, a day was not 24 hours before, but the morning of the flight. Those seats are only available to agents at the airport. After that, we got our family nice seats (bulkhead) by going out to the airport right when the airport opened even though the flight wasn't until the afternoon.
posted by procrastination at 4:37 PM on September 10, 2012

I fly with kids (seriously who would grumble at you about that?? wtf?) out of Portland and I don't always have seat assignments, and I always get assigned seats with the kids on the day of.

Nobody is going to make any of the little ones sit alone, and I have never heard of half a family getting bumped from a flight.
posted by lilnublet at 4:38 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

some people would rather sit in a middle seat rather than next to your unsupervised two-year-old.

I fly a lot. This week a harried looking businessman came up to my row, where a blonde woman was sitting in the middle seat. He said, "Are you Alison? I believe we're switching seats." She said, "Oh, that's so kind of you, thank you!" and moved back several rows to the aisle seat, where her husband was changing her infant's diaper in the businessman's assigned seat. She gave him a (fairly subtle) low five as she slipped into the row, where they now had seats together.

I found it caddish behavior, but hey, it worked.
posted by arnicae at 4:48 PM on September 10, 2012

With me, you'll get a lot farther with politeness and a lack of assumption (e.g., please don't be sitting in my seat when I get there, definitely don't try telling me I'm in a different seat). If you had some sort of adorable kid plane drawings to bribe me with, I'd take a middle seat even for one of my longer flights.

If you didn't, I'd consider moving, but I'd think about the fact that with AA, as with Delta and Frontier, you can get a window or an aisle assigned ahead of time with either a modest fare bump (on the order of $15-20 dollars) or by flying so dang much you have special status with them. For those who would rather not pay extra, they have you wait until the day of for the seat assignment. I'm sympathetic to the expense of traveling with kids, but the reality is that if I paid my extra $20 for a window seat, and you didn't, you're essentially asking me to pay for your seat.

Consider calling AA back and asking how much it would cost to have two window seats (so you can have one adult with each of the two smaller kids that you indicated above were a priority to sit together), you'd only have to pay the price of two nicer seats to make it work out.
posted by arnicae at 4:53 PM on September 10, 2012

[Folks, this is not a referendum on general airplane etiquette, do not make it one, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:54 PM on September 10, 2012

A ~1990* anecdote: my ex and I arrived at the last minute for a flight on Southwest (no reserved seating) with our 9 month old daughter. There were many empty seats, but none were adjacent, and no one offered to move. A flight attendant took my daughter from my arms and held her up saying "Who wants to sit with this cute little baby?" That prompted a few people to volunteer moving and we ended up with 3 adjacent seats at the back of the plane.

*I don't know if post-9/11 security issues would allow this.
posted by she's not there at 4:55 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd call back a few days before the flight, specifically at 99 hours, 71 hours, and 23 hours prior to the flight. This is because most airlines auto-upgrade their frequent flyers at 100, 72, and 24 hours prior to the flight, meaning that some coach seats will open up at that time. This is assuming that you are flying an airline that has a business class or first class cabin. Calling back at least gives you a chance that you'll get another agent that can help you.
posted by bedhead at 5:43 PM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Talking to the person at the gate is how this is handled. They aren't going to have an infant by itself, regardless of where other people's seats are scheduled to be.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:57 PM on September 10, 2012

My answer has already been given my multiple others above, but I just felt the urge to chime in. This is a big bone I have to pick with the airline industry. This is one thing that the they do very poorly, in my opinion. We are a family of 6 - my wife, four kids (all single digit ages) and me. Never, not once, not even in a dream, have we been assigned seats all together before we got to the airport. This goes for international flights, small puddle jumper flights, or cross country flights. Why, when I purchase all six tickets together, wwwwaaayyy in advance, with multiple kids on the same reservation, can't the airline figure out that we would like to sit together? I could do better sometimes if I just bought the tickets separately! No clue, complete lack of common sense if you ask me.

Ok, now that thats off my chest. What has worked very well for us in the past is a few steps. You can call daily until your flight, I hope that works, but it hasn't for us in the past. What has worked is that you check in online as soon as you can (24hrs ahead of departure). Then you get to the airport on the day of your flight early enough that most of the seat assignments haven't already been made (not crazy early, but don't expect them to bend over backwards 30 min before your flight) and ask them nicely to find seats together. Most airline employees are nice enough to work with you. They realize that you want to sit with your kids. While you may not get all seven seats together, they will work with you so that you get two blocks of seats.

Backup plan in case the above doesn't work - on the plane, be ready to trade seats, have two or three ways to split up your family so that you are flexible enough to take other passengers' offer to trade seats. This surprisingly works very well. Your desire to sit next to your kids is only outweighed by others' desire not to sit next to a strange kid. Make this work for you. Two sets of two seats (your minimum per your question) is easy to get - most passengers will gladly help you out.

Good luck, I feel your pain. And good for you for taking your kids on a flight, and for thinking ahead to keep them occupied. Enjoy your trip!
posted by defenestrated at 6:47 PM on September 10, 2012

My experience with American Airlines specifically is that you need to secure a seat assignment before the day of your flight. No seat assignment means you're the first to be bumped if the flight is overbooked. They don't check the order that people bought tickets. If they overbook the flight (and they frequently do), you lose the game of musical chairs. So grab some seats online even if they're all middles so that you are sure you have them.
posted by SakuraK at 9:29 PM on September 10, 2012

Here's a thread on FlyerTalk about getting seats together on AA. The consensus seems to be you have a decent shot of finding seats yourself once upgrades start to clear a few days before the flight and that showing up early with no seat assignment is the way to go if that doesn't work. (I was actually googling to figure out if airlines can bump part of a reservation. If not, there's no upside to them bumping six of you rather than one or two of somebody else, particularly because I assume you don't have a direct flight.)
posted by hoyland at 5:57 AM on September 11, 2012

I just went through this in August with my family of four. We were not assigned seats and, as a result, could not check in on-line the day before our flight. I called AA and spoke with an employee, explaining that my youngest child has a disability and is only 5. Under no circumstances can my child be seated with strangers. The agent worked to get permission due to the disability/age of the child and was able to secure 2 seats together. One was assigned to my child and one to me. We were told that the rest of our party would receive seat assignments when we checked in.

We arrived early at the airport and checked in. Two of us had seat assignments. Two of us were given special passes to get through security despite not having seat assignments and thus no boarding passes. We were told the seats would be assigned at the gate.

We got to the gate and had to wait for an agent to arrive there and go through their other tasks before our seating issue was addressed. We were eventually assigned two seats that were together. My husband and one child ended in a couple of rows behind me and our second child.

The whole process caused me worry, but we were not bumped and were able to sit as together as we needed to be. Good luck on your travels and go in with a ton of patience.
posted by onhazier at 6:14 AM on September 11, 2012

Thanks, everyone, for the great advice. I wish I could be like Oprah and say "You get a car! And you get a car! And YOU get a car!"

Instead, I'll just give you my gratitude.
posted by tacodave at 3:09 PM on September 11, 2012

This happened to us on a family trip this summer. We made sure to check in and select new seats online at the earliest possible moment (24 hours before scheduled departure), and were lucky enough to find two seats together then. We probably could have waited and had a gate agent find us seats the next day, but finding them earlier saved us some worry.
posted by mbrubeck at 5:38 PM on September 11, 2012

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