(Yeah that’s just a fancy way of saying that your flight’s seat assignments can be tricky, especially when traveling as a family or a group.)
You are always better off when you have a sassy travel agent like moi plan your travel and in your corner when things go awry. But guuuurl we are not magical and airline seating policies are just as frustrating for us as they are for you.
So, if I can’t always get the airlines to see things our way, I can at the very least give you a little bit of insight as to why you perhaps can’t get your seat assignments until you check in or arrive at the airport.
Airlines are Running Their Own Little Fiefdoms
Whether you buy an airline ticket on your own or through me as part of a vacation package, you are subject to the airline’s “Contract of Carriage” or “Conditions of Carriage,” which spells out what the airline will and won’t do for you. In particular, most airlines’ contract of carriage regarding seats are pretty similar and say something to the effect of, “we cannot guarantee that you will be able to sit in any particular seat,” and/or “we can change your seat at any time, even after you have boarded the aircraft, as we may need to do this for operational, safety or security reasons.” (Those examples are pulled directly from a certain international carrier’s actual Conditions of Carriage.)
Those general provisions give airlines wide latitude for them to fill in the gaps with the following types of policies (which they often do):
- Charge for selecting seats at any time between reservation and check-in.
- Charge extra for selecting “premium” seats in your cabin, like exit-row or bulkhead seats.
- Holding back seats for preferred customers (e.g. customers with elite status in the airline’s loyalty program).
- Oversell flights (this is a WHOLE other can of worms that we’ll reserve for another day).
What You Can Do
1. Don’t Panic
The fact that airlines have monetized seat selection is indeed rage-inducing. But just because you don’t see a lot of available seats on the seat maps, don’t immediately panic and think you’ll have to spring the extra cash for a “premium” seat since that looks like all that’s left.
First off, airlines often hold back certain seats for certain tiers of customers in the airline’s loyalty program; if they’re not snatched up, then the airline will often release the seats around check-in time. Second, although an airline doesn’t have to guarantee you “any particular seat,” it does have to guarantee you a seat. So, if by the time check in comes around and all that is left in your cabin are the “premium” seats, then the airline needs to seat you in one without charging you extra.
2. Traveling as a Family
This can be trickier. Back in 2016, Congress included in the FAA Reauthorization Bill a provision that tasked the FAA with creating rules that required U.S. airlines to ensure that families were seated together without being charged a fee. However, the FAA has yet to finalize the rule. Thankfully, some airlines (including some international carriers who wouldn’t necessarily be subject to the rule) have their own policies in place that require some form of this, which is something to look for or discuss with me when we’re working on planning your family’s trip.
3. Join ALL the Airline’s Loyalty/Rewards Programs
Yas gurl, I’m mostly serious on this one. ALL. THE. PRO. GRAMS. Well, within reason.
It costs you exactly $0.00 to join an airline’s loyalty program and you just need to put up with their constant emails (which might clue you in to a gorgeous sale, at which point you contact me and we build a vacation around it! Werq!).
Airlines don’t want you to shop around for the best deals, they want you to fly with them and them only. That’s why they reserve so many perks—like holding back seats from the general flying public or allowing early seat selection at no cost—for their most loyal customers.
You don’t need to sign up all at once. But if your next vacation has you using a new airline, then sign up for their loyalty program, link your flight reservation to the program, and accrue those miles momma! A few long haul flights just might get you into a new tier status that could be enough to garner some perks and/or mitigate some costs on your next flight.
Now go forth my darlings, fly, and avoid paying extra for selecting seats!