Airplane seating arrangements can be complicated, especially when you’re traveling with others — some airlines charge to assign seats, some airlines don’t assign seats in advance, some people may book last minute and not be able to reserve seats together, etc.
There’s only so much that airline reservations agents and gate agents can do to seat people together, so often if you want to sit together, you may be relying on the kindness of strangers. In this post I wanted to share my general philosophy on switching seats with other passengers — what’s the best way to go about asking, and under what circumstances do I agree to switch seats?
When should you switch seats with others on airplanes?
When it comes to onboard seat swaps, I have a few thoughts both for the person asking to switch seats, and for the person being asked to switch seats.
If you’re the one asking to switch seats:
- Try to be as fair as possible — ideally ask someone to swap comparable seats, meaning an aisle for an aisle, or offer them a better seat, like an aisle seat in exchange for a middle seat
- Don’t take someone’s seat without asking — if you want someone to switch seats, ideally don’t actually take their seat without asking first (which comes across as presumptuous), but rather try to approach them as they get to their seat
- It can never hurt to ask, and tone matters — there’s something to be said for the way in which you ask someone to switch seats, as there’s a big difference between saying “yeah I took your seat but you don’t mind switching, right?” and saying “is there any chance you wouldn’t mind switching seats with XYZ, we weren’t able to get seats together?”
- Accept no for an answer — someone made a decision to assign a specific seat, so if they deny you, don’t badger them or be rude if they say they’d like to keep their seat
If you’re the one being asked to switch seats:
- You should never feel pressured to change seats — ultimately you assigned a seat and are entitled to sit there, so don’t feel pressure to change seats
- Recognize there may be reasons people couldn’t sit together — try to be compassionate, as you don’t know what others are going through; for example, people could have booked a flight last minute because they’re headed to a funeral
- Be polite — I think this should be true for just about any interaction in general, but respond politely, and if you’d like, maybe even explain why you prefer the seat you have (for example “I like an aisle seat because I go to the bathroom often,” “I like a window seat because I like looking out the window,” or “I don’t want to be in a bulkhead because I have a bag that I want to keep at my feet”)
My policy on switching airplane seats
While I don’t think you should feel like you have to switch seats, I still will in a vast majority of cases. My philosophy is quite simple:
- I’ll always honor a seat change request if it’s a similar type of seat (a non-bulkhead aisle for a non-bulkhead aisle, a bulkhead window on one side for a bulkhead window on another side, etc.) and I’m not traveling with someone
- While I generally prefer window seats, I’ll almost always agree to switch to an aisle seat (or other non-horrible seat) if the person is polite about their request, and if I feel like they have a legitimate reason to ask for the request (in other words, not just that they like a window seat more than I do, but rather that they’re traveling with a loved one)
- At the end of the day I’m fortunate to travel as much as I do, I recognize a lot of people have less vacation time and travel may be even more special for them, and if I can allow a couple or family to sit together by slightly inconveniencing myself, that’s a small price to pay to make someone else happy
Ironically I’m too sheepish to ask others for similar seat change requests. I’ll politely ask others to make a switch to an identical seat in another row, but personally I couldn’t bring myself to ask someone to switch their type of seat.
The one exception is when I’m traveling in economy with someone, where I typically book an aisle and a window seat, hoping the middle seat stays empty. When it doesn’t stay empty, I’ll offer the person in the middle seat the window or aisle seat, and I’ve never been turned down. I think that’s fair, and a win-win.
But please, folks, don’t be ridiculous, like that time I flew MIAT Mongolian from Ulaanbaatar to Frankfurt, and was asked by a passenger if I could move from business class to economy class so that a woman could sit next to her husband. That’s just greedy — the correct etiquette there would be to ask the person sitting next to your husband in economy if they want to sit in business class.
On just about every flight there are several people looking to switch seats, to be able to sit next to travel companions. I think it’s perfectly fine to ask others to accommodate this, though don’t be surprised if you’re rejected. If you’re going to ask others to switch seats, try to be as fair as possible, and swap for a comparable or worse seat, rather than for a better seat.
Personally I try to be very accommodating of seat change requests. Life is short, and I want to do what I can to help people spend as much time as possible with their friends and loved ones, even if it’s just a few hours on a plane. That being said, I don’t count on the same courtesy in return. If I’m traveling with a friend or loved one and it’s a “reasonable” swap I’ll certainly ask nicely, but there are no hard feelings if they don’t honor it.
I’m curious to hear what OMAAT readers think — what’s your policy on airplane seat swaps?