What To Do When Your Seats Aren’t Together

How to get seats that work for your family without losing your cool

A major travel controversy has been  sparked this week by a blog post entitled, “US Airways Hates Families and Kids”.  They probably don’t, but that’s beside the point.

If you’ve taken more than a handful of flights with your kids (especially award travel), this has probably happened to you:  you buy your ticket (or redeem miles), and then find out you can’t get seats together.  Maybe you even knew your seats sucked going in, but figured you’d get preferential treatment as a parent traveling with young kids.

If only it were so easy.

So now it’s the day of your flight.  You’ve called customer service a bunch of times, but you’ve still got seats sprinkled all over the plane.  What should you do?

seatstogether11.  Forget the ticket counter

The agents at the ticket counter can’t help you any more than customer service could.  They’re just looking at an extremely uncooperative seating chart.  Keep your powder dry for the gate agent.

2.  Be the first one to the podium

When the gate agent shows up, be the first one to approach him or her.  Politely explain that you’ve already checked bags , but that you don’t feel comfortable boarding the plane and rolling the dice that someone will be nice enough to trade with you unless you’re within at least a row or two of your kids.

If at all possible do not cry or make threats.  You can ask to speak to a supervisor, but it probably won’t change things.

3.  Ask about seat upgrades and/or paid priority boarding

United has Economy Plus.  Southwest has EarlyBird Check-in.  All planes have business class.  Could your family sit together if you paid more?  Maybe.  In a perfect world you wouldn’t need to, but unfortunately we don’t live in that world.

I was on a United flight from Denver to San Jose two days ago in which the first 14 rows (those with extra legroom and extra price tags) of the plane were virtually empty while the flight attendant was forced to reorganize things in the back to accommodate me and another family.

4.  Be realistic

If you’re traveling with two parents and two children, don’t expect to sit all together.  If the gate agent manages to get two pairs of seats for you, take them and be grateful.  Yes, it’s a pain to share snacks and entertainment from 15 rows away, but you can make it work.

seatstogether25.  Bring cash

On a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii two years ago (a notoriously oversold route that’s tough on families without good seat assignments), we had four very bad seats—no two were together.  I brought four crisp $50 bills, and was planning to bribe or shame people into switching seats with us if necessary.   Luckily the gate agent hooked us up, so it didn’t come to that.

So, should you board a plane with spread out seats if you’re traveling with kids and hope for the best?  Only you can answer that question.  I wouldn’t.  Can you board the plane and get off if things don’t work out to your satisfaction?  I don’t honestly know.  Any flight attendants out there want to weigh in?



  1. says

    Honestly, we’ve often rolled the dice and just boarded the plane. Maybe it’s just how Europeans are but NEVER has anyone refused to switch with us – even when all of us were given the dreaded middle seats.

    I think if you keep your cool, are really nice about it and involve the flight attendants as a last resort, things tend to work out.

  2. Chris says

    Good tips, although, I think the degree of success depends more on the character and disposition of the airline person you’re dealing with, and less on technique. Certainly, keeping YOUR cool is essential.

    It’s absurd the way airlines handle seating for families, but they also know they have passengers over the proverbial barrel. And these days, if you make too much of a fuss, you’re likely to get booted off the plane, if not arrested.

    Last summer my family and I traveled to Europe, and we were seated separately. The airline wouldn’t budge on re-seating. It was through the benevolence of other passengers that we solved our problem.

  3. says

    Great article.
    I would say it depends on your kid’s ages + personalities. My now 9yo would sit next to anyone + tell them his + our life stories. My older son (now 13) hates to sit next to someone he doesn’t know.
    Would I do it? with kids over 8, I can totally make it work – easy-peasy if I’ve already got snacks pre-distributed in each child’s carry-on bag. For kids younger than 8, probably not. We had multiple experiences where BA sat us all separately on a 747 when my boys were much younger. As it turned out, in every case, the stewards shuffled passengers to allow at least two of us to sit together. (And anyone flying BA should know that now you’ll have to pay extra at booking to be able to choose your seats).

  4. says

    Great tips! It really does suck if your kids have to sit alone – I know I would be nervous the whole flight.

    We usually book non busy routes and check the seat chart before booking the flights to make sure that there is at least one adult with the kid(s).

    In the past when we have had to ask people to switch seats they are usually pretty good about it – especially if it means that they won’t have to sit next to a kid for the whole flight!

  5. says

    For the most part, I like your tips. Thanks for sharing. I get where you are coming from for #3 and #5, but these are pretty useless to me in this economy. I might be able to bribe a seatmate to change seats with a candy bar or magazine, but $50? No. And a couple of upgrades to first class is pretty much completely out of reach, too.

    The important thing is, the blogger’s story with US Airways ended OK, and these stories usually do, but it makes me very tense thinking about ending up in that situation.

  6. says

    Yep, we’ve never had problems w/ having nice passengers switch seats with us. I do always try to ensure we have seats together when we book our flights — thought sometimes you just can’t book them when on short Aspen to Denver flights. Then again, the plane on that route is often the size of a sardine can, so if one kid had to sit 5 rows from me, I could likely hand her a tissue from my seat anyway.

    Love your idea to bring cash. Would likely do the same on an overseas flight.

  7. says

    Reasonable advice from an obviously reasonable traveler!

    The ideal situation is, as you pointed out, to try to get it resolved prior to getting on the plane.

    But if your find yourself stuck there, asking a flight attendant to help will be fine. We may not have an immediate solution, and often we have to wait till other people are on board to see what we potentially have to deal with, but give us time and space to solve the problem and we will. Usually things escalate at this point when a parent starts screaming that the child can’t sit alone, even though we’ve just said, let me see what I can do.

    I would NEVER let a young child sit alone. I want to solve your problem. Treat me as part of the solution, not the problem, and I’ll make it work.

  8. says

    I’ve never had a situation where I couldn’t sit next to my kid, and I wouldn’t fly if I couldn’t sit next to him. Period. I know what you’re talking about with the flight to Hawaii because that happened on a flight to Honolulu from San Jose. The problem then was that you couldn’t pick seats ahead of time, the airline would let the agents at airport assign all seats. So of course, there was an irate agent at gate and frantic people trying to sit all together. We had no problem getting seats together though (only 3 of us). But bigger families couldn’t all sit together. So you’re #4 advice would come in handy for them. As a side note, that airline co. to Hawaii changed its policy, because on our last flight, we got to pick seats when we booked.
    The truth is that I have tons of award miles I want to redeem for summer travel, but I’m nervous about using them for this one mayor reason. It is unfair that I have to roll the dice or get cheated out of using my hard-earned miles just because I fly with a kid.

  9. Tamara says

    It has been my experience that the flight attendants are super helpful. Maybe because my kids are quite young and I would think it is obvious a preschooler cannot sit without a parent for all sorts of reasons. I have watched them helping other families as well and telling passengers that she will pick someone and tell them to move if no one volunteers.

    I think some people think it is the family’s fault they don’t have seats together but really there are all sorts of reasons it comes out that way and seems to usually be the airline’s fault. But not the flight attendants either. So don’t blame the flight attendant or the family.

  10. says

    As a former agent, customer service manager, flight attendant and next stop is pilot the one thing that that women do in this situation is something they did without knowing it.

    1. Mom has a different or uses her maiden name when they make reservations. This is one of the biggest problems when parent travel and then get seperated by seat selection. the computer systems the airlines use only sees pairs, goups and singles so when the children’s name differ from the parents the computer automatically seats them differently. hopefully the agent catches it and makes the change and most parents don’t even know it happened.

    2. When making a reservation to fly and children are on the itinerary and if they are under 12 years of age, for boys the parents MUST put MSTR (Master) in front of the boys name and MISS in front of a girls name when the reservation is first created. This tells the computer system that these passengers are children and it will not seat them in emergency exit rows and it will make adjustments to keep the children together or paired up with adults as best as possible in the same reservation.

    3. Parents should check-in to the flight at the gate, even if you have done your ticketing at home. The agents need to see or know that there are children flying in your party. Let them check your tickets to see if there is anything that may cause a seating issue once your on the plane. At least the sooner they know the sooner that the agent can start working on a solution or moving passengers around to accomodate your family either in pairs or in the same row together.

    As a parent you need to plan for the worse case scenarios when flying with the kids and then adjust accordingly. This will keep the stress levels to a minimum!

    I too have written about this in my blog and I have 23 years of airline experience from on the ground and on the plane!

    Plan ahead and enjoy your flight!


    For more tips checkout my blog:
    Airline Travel…What You Really Need To Know!!!

  11. Kimberly says

    Great post, Jamie. Thanks for raising this issue. When my husband and I travel with our two young children, we find that we are often split up. While not ideal, we can at least guarantee one parent with one child. Unfortunately, we also encounter difficulties in getting even those seats together. These are often flights where I have booked seats in advance (double-checking the day before) and then I get absurd comments like “the aircraft has changed, so the seat selections are no longer valid”.

    I find it very frustrating that flight attendants place the burden on the customer to ask fellow passengers to switch seats. I believe this should be part of their job, at least in the case of accompanied minors or disabled individuals. For me it’s a security issue, how can an airline honestly place a young child so far away from at least one parent? In an emergency, who is to take care of that child? I have come to expect virtually nothing from airlines today, particularly US carriers, but I do feel strongly that they have a duty to ensure that young children booked with accompanying adults are seated with at least one of those adults.

  12. says

    Great tips and I think it will happen to more frequently for families.

    I did use tip #3 on our recent flight to San Diego. Our flight got changed and my assigned seats were gone. By the time, I tried to get our seat assigned online, I couldn’t find any seat together. So I opted to pay extra ($10 per seat) to get at least 2 of us (one adult and one kid) to sit together. In hindsight, I guess we could have waited and roll the dice. But both my husband and I are not very outgoing person and hate to bother other people. In general, I think both passengers and flight attendants are very helpful and probably would try to help resolve the problem.

  13. says

    We were talking about this on Twitter yesterday. Heather Poole suggested that if you can’t get seats together, you should try for aisle or window seats so you have a stronger bargaining position.

    Personally I think that it’s a child safety issue and flight attendants should have the power to move people. If the airline forces a parent and child to separate, I would argue they are legally liable for that child. I don’t know if that’s been tested – previous cases have been about unaccompanied minors.

  14. says

    I’ve actually found that it’s nice, sometimes, not to sit together! Now that my daughters are older (8 and 10) they are totally okay sitting by themselves, as long as they aren’t too far away. I met a man once with 4 children who purposefully had his kids sit away from him and his wife because he said they acted so much better around strangers! Tee hee.

    But when I’ve been with a small child and got on a plane, someone has inevitably moved. People on the plane have usually been nice to us about doing so and when I’m traveling by myself for work, I always try to accommodate parents (and help out moms traveling solo).

  15. says

    Ok my 2 cents….why is it even legal for a child to sit apart from a parent? It is not safe or OK for a child to sit apart from a parent. I can imagine all sorts of scenarios where it isn’t safe, not all of them to do with air safety. I understand if the whole family travels that they might not be able to sit together. And sure, we can arrive at the airport with time to spare so it is easy for the airline to organize the seating. But young children (under 12?) should sit next to an adult they know will advocate for their safety. The airlines have NO excuse not to sit children and parents together. Shame on the airlines for allowing these situations to arise!

  16. says

    I had a similar situation flying some airline from Singapore to Australia – luckily we were only one row a part – but with a 1 year old it was not easy and lugguage was a major problem.

    luckily our hotel experience was much better at Swissotel Sydney

    “Positive: The service personnel were very welcoming and helpful”

    “Friendly, efficient service at a good price”

  17. says

    I LOVE it when I don’t get seated all together. I like to call my “section” the “study hall” and the kids sit with me and read. With my husband, Bill, it’s games and soda and all the good stuff. I’m even happy with the arrangement on the few times I’ve gotten stranded in coach when he’s been upgraded with a kid or two. As long as I’ve got a book in hand, I’m a happy traveler.

  18. says

    When my now-5-year-old daughter was about 10 months, we flew from PDX to DC for a wedding. Unfortunately, the seat assignments we got when we bought tickets disappeared when they changed which kind of plane we’d be flying on. We’d bought her a seat because we wanted to be sure she had one, but unfortunately we were all assigned by the computer to different rows. Part of me was tempted to see what would happen when total strangers learned that an infant was assigned the center seat in a row away from her parents. :-)

    But of course the gate agent bent over backwards to reassign us so we were together. Honestly, at the time, I don’t think I could have coped with the baby on my own if my husband was seated far away from us, so I’m grateful people volunteered to let us sit together.

  19. Rhonda says

    To Jane:

    It is 100% legal for children as young as five to fly on a plane thousands of miles away from from a parent/guardian, as an unaccompanied minor. There’s NO valid reason that same child – or even one somewhat younger – can’t fly on the _same plane as_ that adult, separates merely by some rows of seats.

    “Ok my 2 cents….why is it even legal for a child to sit apart from a parent? It is not safe or OK for a child to sit apart from a parent. I can imagine all sorts of scenarios where it isn’t safe, not all of them to do with air safety.”

  20. says

    We had seat sets of 3 together 1 apart both ways on a recent trip. No problem. I got the single on the way there and enjoyed my book and my husband planned to enjoy his magazines on the way back. Unfortunately it didn’t work out so well for him! Another family with 2 kids younger than ours (maybe about 3 and 5) happily chucked their kids into my husband’s row and continued on to sit together in a row farther back. While they completely ignored their kids for the whole flight, my husband had to deal with their yelling, squirming and spilling orange juice on him. He fumed but said nothing (OK- he said a few things to me later)- I would have insisted that one of the parents switch with me.

  21. Wm. says

    I have a different perspective. We were sitting behind a partition in coach on a flight to Italy from New York, so we had extra legroom. A guy sitting next to my wife (I was on the aisle in the center section) stood up and said, “I hate to do this to you guys, but can you switch with my wife and one of my kids further up-cabin?”

    Normally I would consider it, but the extra legroom was something I wanted to hold onto. Just as important was his stance that we were somehow bound to accept his request just because he wanted something. His attitude and approach were all wrong.

    I told him to go where his wife was and do a swap, but of course he wanted the extra legroom, too, so he ignored that. He cajoled, had a fit and finally threatened me, which I didn’t take very well. We kept our seats.

    If people don’t get what they want it doesn’t mean that I am obliged to give up what I have, especially if you approach me like a punk and do not understand the meaning of the word no. Politeness and decency go a long way.

  22. janine newbury says

    Any advise??

    I have just booked 5 flights from England to US and back in August, I am travelling with my husband and 3 kids age 3,5 & 7 on US Airways.
    4 flights have us seated together, the 5th flight has no allocated seats, I went online to book seats together and there are only 3 seats available to select on the aircraft, there are 5 together but these are for preferred customers and I cannot select them. I have emailed the airline but heard nothing back.

  23. CB says

    Hi – I always thought that airlines were legally obliged to sit children with parents. My children are 6 and 4 years old. The 6 year old has a broken arm in plaster. None of us is seated together.
    I will refuse to fly if I am not seated with my children. I cannot believe that the airlines are not legally obliged to seat young children with their guardian. We are flying Ryanair but the tickets were by no means cheap!


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