Splitting Cabins When Traveling With Someone?

Filed Under: Advice, Travel

I’m sort of surprised by how often I see people split cabins on planes. In other words, you have a couple traveling together, and one person is seated in first/business class, while the other is seated in economy.

I suppose that in general there are three ways to handle this:

  • One person just sits in the premium cabin for the whole flight, while the other sits in economy
  • The person in the premium cabin downgrades to economy to sit with the other person
  • You split up the amount of time you spend in each cabin, so one person takes the premium seat for the first half of the flight, while the other person takes the premium seat for the second half of the flight

It’s rare I see the third option happen, though on my economy flight from Los Angeles to New York on Thursday, that’s what the person in the aisle did.


The lady was traveling with her husband, and for the first 2-3 hours of the flight she was yapping nonstop with the person in the middle seat. Then the husband showed up halfway through the flight to swap seats, and he yapped with the lady in the middle seat for the next 2-3 hours.

The poor lady in the middle seat was a good sport, as she had basically the same conversation with the husband as she did with the wife. And then for landing the wife took the economy seat again, and they continued their conversation where they had left off a couple of hours prior.


There are some chatty people, but it’s the first time I’ve seen someone chatting nonstop on a transcon flight.

Now, I suppose that was one of the fairer approaches I’ve seen to splitting a premium seat.

It made me think about the approach I take when it comes to a situation where I’m traveling with someone and only one upgrade clear:

  • I always offer the premium seat to the person I’m traveling with.
  • If they reject, I’d much rather downgrade and be seated in economy. I usually want to spend time with the person I’m traveling with, and beyond that, I find economy is more enjoyable/comfortable when you’re traveling with someone, since you’re sort of limiting the chance of having a terrible seatmate, etc.

But I guess bigger picture I try to avoid situations where that could happen:

  • If I’m traveling with someone and it’s important to me to be in a premium cabin, I’ll use miles or an upgrade instrument to confirm the upgrade.
  • If it looks like the upgrade won’t clear, I’ll take myself off the upgrade list if that’s an option, or just swap the upgraded seat aboard.
  • When booking award tickets some people will book one seat in first class and one in business class, with hopes of a second one opening in first. I’d rather book two in business and then hope two first class seats open up, because if they don’t, it’s not a big deal. At least I’m seated with the person I’m traveling with (keep in mind you can’t generally visit someone seated in a higher cabin).

Bottom line

While I think I value flying in premium cabins as much as anyone, for me part of the fun of travel is who I’m traveling with, and that includes on the flight. Ultimately I’d rather sit in a lower cabin with someone than separately in a higher cabin. Though to not be wasteful, I’ll also always “offer” the higher seat to my travel companion.

How about you? What’s your philosophy when it comes to being split up between cabins?

a) Whoever got the upgrade keeps it, and that’s that
b) You offer the upgrade to your travel companion
c) You just downgrade and would rather sit together in a lower cabin

Curious what you guys do in these situations!

  1. Last month, while travelling with my wife and daughter, I was able to upgrade myself and daughter. Of course I let my wife have the seat and I took the first row MCE. We switched so that my wife can use the rest room and I watched my daughter, when my wife returned, she went to the MCE seat while I remained in the F seat with my daughter. About 3 minutes later, the FA told me I had to switch back with my wife. I don’t know why it mattered, but I didn’t argue and just switched back.

  2. Hi Ben,
    America airlines only releases one seat per date in business class to Europe. Do you have any tips for 2 people to handle this situation?

  3. I think this happens a lot more on AA because they don’t give complimentary companion upgrades to ExecPlats, and ExecPlats *don’t even earn 500 mile certificates* in order to upgrade a companion. Besides buying certificates, what other option is there really to avoid situations like this? Not much.

  4. This happened to me in 2 occasions. In both, I offered my partner the upgrade first, but she refused both times and I chose to remain with her. The first time, I boarded the plane upgraded but went to my original seat beside my partner. When the person with the boarding pass arrived, I looked at my partner and she still said no. I then gave away my upgrade (it was a BA London-Rio de Janeiro flight, and the upgrade was from economy to premium economy). The other one was on a LAX-JFK on the new AA airbus, from economy to business, and I just flatly refused it.
    About chatting on a flight, I once almost had a nervous breakdown. A Chinese man and Chinese woman, who did not know each other before boarding the plane, decide to chat nonstop 10 out of 13 hours of the PEK-ORD daytime fligh on economy AA. I felt helpless since they were sitting behind me but weren’t talking loud, and there was no empty seat, except for the one beside me. But again: it was non-stop. When I told the flight attendant my “situation” they offered me free whisky (a lot!) so that I could try to sleep. I couldn’t. truly felt ill as I am sure this is a torture technique used in a bloody dictatorship somewhere in the world.

  5. I often travel alone. But if I am traveling with someone and I get upgraded, you damn right I take it! Likewise, if they get upgraded, I expect them to take it.

    But then again, I also don’t get the whole “need to be” with your travel companion. For example, I would never take a middle seat to be next to someone. I would always take the aisle even if it meant being in another part of the plane.

  6. I once checked in on a Brussels Airlines flight from Berlin to Brussels. Me and my partner both had economy tickets, but at the check in counter I got an upgrade to premium economy. The flight was overbooked and there was only one seat left in ‘normal’ economy, and one seat in premium economy. Sitting together was no option. As I am a miles-collector and my friend isn’t, we decided that I’d take the premium economy seat for the miles. One a one-hour flight from Berlin to Brussels the extra services don’t really make the difference.

  7. If I am traveling domestic I always make sure we travel together wife and family, i dont mind going in economy with them if i cant get premium for all. When traveling internationally my wife and I always seat in Premium, if I can get my kids in premium that is a bonus if not they travel economy

  8. On a DL flight from JFK to LHR I got upgraded and my wife did not, no options available to snag one for her. She was sat next to somewhat of a prick who without knowing what seat I was currently in, was very combative at the idea of switching and eventually said no. Unbeknownst to him my seat was in business, needless to say the look on his face was priceless when I swapped with the kind woman on the other side of the aisle and informed her I was in business. Enjoy.

  9. I may be wrong, but I think most airlines discourage this practice, if not prohibit it altogether. It’s unfair for others, uncomfortable and tacky.

  10. Gib,

    I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make by asking someone to switch seats without telling them what they’re getting in return. You ask me to switch seats, and no, I’m not going to do it unless I know what seat you’re offering. Sure I’ll take your J seat, but I’m certainly not taking your economy middle.

  11. +1 Alan. Fortunately, my husband of 24 years agreed with us.

    If it’s someone with whom you rarely spend time I can see the point, but a spouse?! Geez people, take the premium seat.

  12. Most of my miles are/were on business flights so when I am traveling with the family, I will offer a single upgrade to my spouse. It doesn’t really make much difference to her really, she doesn’t drink and can’t sleep on an airplane.
    On one particular occasion both of us were upgraded on a flight to PUJ with open seats in F, I convinced the FA that my daughter back in Y was ill and needed to sit with her mother. She was upgraded in-flight and hasn’t look back since!

  13. So, way back in 1997 ….. I fly to Hawaii in FC on Delta. A few days later, my wife flies over in Economy on Delta. Different work schedules were the reason.

    SO, we were both on the same plane heading home. Just before the meal service, I wander back to Econ and the wife wanders up to FC. She enjoys the much nicer meal, etc. Just before the dessert course, she and I again change seats.

    The flight attendants were all smiles and encouragement, and 100% helpful and enjoying the opportunity to be so helpful to a retired veteran and his wife.


  14. We had 2 seats in first and 2 seats in economy. It was a cross country flight and we intended to switch half way through the flight. We were told that we couldn’t switch. This was Delta, so I am not sure if it varies by airlines.

  15. Back several years ago when I lived in Dubai and had the highest tier at that time (Skywards Gold, before they introduced Platinum), I was traveling with my family (wife and a 2 year old) on an A380. This was a 12+ hour flight and they gave me a complimentary upgrade for me at the gate, but not my family. My wife and I agreed that we’d split time up top – I’d take the first 6 hours and she’d take the next 6. They also allowed my family to visit me in the lounge area in the upper deck which was nice. During my leg, I found the business class cabin very empty and was looking for an air hostess to get some reading material… I wandered into First class… Saw that it was empty, so I took a seat in one of pods and closed the sliding door… Chilled out for an hour or so before I decided I didn’t want to get in too much trouble!

  16. It’s happened with my wife and I a few times. When I’m traveling for business or on my own, I’m all about getting the upgrade. When we’re together, I’m not, since I know she won’t get one. When I clear and she doesn’t, I let her take the upgrade or, if it’s a short flight, I’ll throw back the upgrade.

    Once though, when we were first married, I took the upgrade. She’s NEVER let me forget it.

  17. How ironic as I’m sitting in coach right now while my partner enjoys his F upgrade. We joke about it all the time but I would never expect him to give up an upgrade. He’s earned it with 30 years of BIS miles and I’ve enjoyed plenty of premium long haul award travel as a result. This is the first trip we’ve taken since AA and US merged their reservation systems and they now seem to automatically split the reservation and apply the upgrades accordingly. When we did online check in I didn’t see any way for him to decline the upgrade even if he had wanted to do so.

  18. I totally understand why you value sitting together. In our case — I travel a lot. A lot. Fortunately, I get seated on first/ business class most of the time. When travelling together, we always buy coach to save $ and spend more money at destination. Usually I get upgraded and I always give it to my partner. It is just an appreciation I show to her, kind of “thank you” for coming with me and making vacation fun and putting up with me.

  19. Is the partner is a white-knuckle flyer and needs hand-holding? Do you plan on dying romantically together when the aircraft goes down in flames?

    My spouse often sleeps on planes, so when it’s just me and her I couldn’t care less, I want just want to read or watch a movie in peace. Separate cabins? Fine! The more awake spouse gets more benefit out of FC.

    My 3-year old on the other hand, I’d damn well better be seated next to. When travelling as a family we frequently split up as parent+child in one part of the plane, and the other parent+child somewhere else. We do try to get one pair in say Delta C+ and the other pair in a nearby coach row, but if the plane is packed we take what we can get.

  20. I don’t get the “I wanna spend time with my travel mate” deal. If you both got upgraded to Business or First on many planes you may be isolated by the seat design or not even seated in seats next to each other in some cases.
    I would offer my upgrade to my wife but with my (adult) kids I wouldn’t. They are young and tough and likely I’m paying for the trip. Ideally I would be allowed to trade time with my wife on a long trip but that’s not always possible.

  21. I find it terribly annoying when people do “the switch.” If you want to fly up front, buy a ticket. If you want to fly up front with your companion, buy two tickets. Invariably, it’s the person in the window seat who wants to play musical chairs. There is no such thing as half a business/first class ticket. I’ve moved to coach and given some lucky person an upgrade, only to sit with my wife. Not the worst thing ever.

    My particular pet peeve is when people from other cabins constantly visit. Whether that is from Y to J or J to Y. If you want to see someone so badly, pay to sit with them. I do not apply this logic to kids and parents who I believe should feel free to visit within reason. I find the constant visits disrupt service in already narrow isles and increase noise.

    On a recent flight in Etihad F, a man invited his J girlfriend to spend essentially the entire flight in his suite, door shut, spooning. The crew initially kicked her out, but she kept sneaking back. He argued with the crew, repeatedly. Finally, the crew backed down and let her stay as long as the door was open. They shut the door as soon as the light were turned off. I am not prude, but it was a super uncomfortable. They were very loud as well. I try not to be confrontational on airplanes, almost no matter what. I brought it up after the flight with EY and they sent me some generic terrible response. I figured the “cohabitation” would offend some sensibilities on a ME airline. Nope. Had it been delta, I feel they would have diverted had these people failed to comply! Only time in my traveling life that I have wished for that!!!

  22. My partner and I had to do this a few times. We are both AA EXPs and there were a few times when only one of us got upgraded on long haul flights. We just switch seats midflight so that both of us can stretch out and get some rest.

    Of course neither of us are chatty so we usually just keep it to ourselves.

  23. I can see why an airline would not allow splitting the upgraded seat. There are perks that have costs attached such as food & beverage. When the seat is split these perks end up being provided to 2 people, but only one paid for the perks.

  24. Years ago when my wifei and I often were at different elite levels we did the following:

    1. Never purchased joint tickets, i.e. on one reservation. That would “drag down the higher elite traveler” under our favorite airline’s rules.
    2. The above allowed the highest level traveler to have “better odds” for being upgraded. In the old Continental days if one of us was Platinum, they could often get the other passenger upgraded also.
    3. Whom ever was upgraded they sat in the upgraded seat. The other person sat in Economy, no harm, no foul. For that reason we started sitting on the aisle across from each other. That way the non-upgraded traveler never sat in the middle seat alone.

    We still follow that protocol

  25. On our way back from Honolulu to DC on United earlier this year I had first class seats while my girlfriend had economy plus. We discussed that it would be ok, even though it was a bit weird. However just prior to take off, I was given the “opportunity” from a crew member to give up my first class seat for 1,000$ voucher, seats next to each other in economy plus and first class privileges in economy plus (food and unlimited drinks). Needless to say, I took the offer.

  26. I was that chatty someone on a flight to Hawaii. I sat next to an old lady who lived a remarkable life. We talked 80% of the time. It was a daytime flight so I didn’t feel bad.

  27. Back in the old days when I did not know about the miles, I was travelling with wife from ZRH-ATL, I was in the business class (Business related) she was in economy (Tourist). We shared the ride, for the first half I was in the Business and second half in coach.

  28. Guy and Ken make very good points. In addition, aircrafts are unique environments. People can be set-off by the slightest remark / action. Others aren’t even aware of how their actions affect others or could care less. Others still are unfailingly polite. So one buys a ticket and one gets an upgrade – so one takes or leaves it.

  29. I was on the receiving end of this about a year ago. I was flying from Miami to Chicago, and somehow my name hadn’t made it onto the upgrade list even though I had checked the box when I bought the ticket. I was sitting in the left aisle seat of the first row of MCE, and there was a mother and daughter sitting in the two seats next to me (was on a 738). Sure enough, a few moments after I sit down, the father walks back from the last row of first class and asks if I would like to switch!

  30. Anyone else think of that episode of The Middle where the Hecks buy one first class seat and everyone gets a chance to sit in it?

    One time, my parents, sister and I grabbed the last two first class seats on a flight and my parents super-generously gave them to us (we were teens/young adults). The entire flight crew was a zillion times nicer to my parents when they realized that they gave up first class for us!

  31. Hi, Lucky. We’re looking to travel from LAX to HKG on CX F using AA miles in the summer. I’m trying to decide if I should:

    a. book 2 F seats LAX-SFO (AA), SFO-HKG (CX)
    b. Book one F seat LAX-HKG , one J seat – LAX to HKG hoping for an another F seat to open up later

    Of course, am preferring option a but not really sure if another F seat will open up later. I looked at reviews on the SFO-HKG CX flight but not finding much, other than that the SF lounge is poorly rated. If it were you, which option would you choose? Thank you in advance!

  32. sorry, I reread and I know how you feel on the subject matter…but we do really want to experience CX F, so the 2 J seats (to be able to sit together) isn’t an option for us. Thanks again.

  33. For overseas travel if my husband or I separately get upgraded we take the upgrade. For our frequent miserable-in-coach cramped flights to China it’s better for at least one person to be sane upon arrival! If one “needs it” more than the other (need to get work on laptop, bad back, sleep deprived, etc) we swap with the other and we also split the outgoing/return flight upgrades. Luckily it doesn’t happen very much.

  34. I was upgraded on a brand new UA 739 between EWR and SFO. My mom took the seat because she couldn’t remember the last time she’d sat in J. Another time is when I took my brothers seat midflight between LAX and SFO in J

  35. I always offer the upgrade to my partner, I travel in J for work so it is more of a novelty for her. We’re currently on holiday in London and will be in J for all sectors except for the last one. I couldn’t get J with miles for both of us so I’ll be in premium economy unless something opens up before then.

  36. I would rather downgrade myself to sit with my friend in economy if I weren’t able to secure two seats up front. Which is exactly what I’m doing on my next flight.

  37. How is this even allowed given that premium seats also come with benefits like free food and drinks? Can one person eat and drink all they want and then switch with someone who then eats and drinks all they want? I doubt airlines would allow that.

  38. We are the family of four, and splitting cabins on transatlantic and transpacific flights when there are no 4 premium sets available (which is pretty often). The latest trend was that flight attendants restrict visiting, not to mention changing seats. That happens on USA metal mostly, on a contrary to foreign airlines.
    One of the most ridiculous reason was that “people take advantage of the food in first class” ! Where do I even begin in re to commenting on that! DId somebody else experienced that?

  39. If it is not your intent to take advantage of the food, beverages, and other amenities, the person(s) in J or F should visit the person(s) in Y. In either event you are making nuisances of yourselves to the people seated nearby.

  40. Ken, you are under wrong impression that people constantly traveling in J and F are there for free drink or double portion of dinner. Are you an ex flight attendant of AA? Your comment is as harsh as some of those not polite flight attendants, who says that I or my kid in F can not visit my spouse and other kid from J. Though, I totally agree with you that visiting should be from F to Y, not otherwise. People do pay extra to get a good rest.

  41. When I was still working for Miles and More, we had a numerous calls like that:

    A couple wants an upgrade but not for their children, they wont appreciate the difference, the flight attendants can take care of them. My suggestions that most airlines will not allow minors to sit alone while their parents indulge themselves in Business class was not much appreciated. The most funny episode happened when one father called in for an upgrade request. He had a booking for the whole family. First I told him, look we still have four business seats available for an upgrade. After a moment of silence he told me: Look I want for this flight my own time. Please just upgrade me. I will tell them that only one upgrade was available…

  42. @Alan “But then again, I also don’t get the whole “need to be” with your travel companion.”

    What I find amusing is that these same people will often spend hours of time sitting close to each other but with individual earphones in/absorbed in a book etc. not communicating with each other when not on a plane.

    Bar a few specific exceptions (newly weds, something incredible just happened you need to talk about right then, you are separating after the flight etc.) I don’t really get it either.

  43. Ken, I agree with you again.
    Let’s have everybody handcuffed to their seats and silenced, specially during daytime.

  44. After years of reading travel blogs, I always feel like I’m unusual for wanting to sit next my spouse on the plane. I always downgrade myself if I clear the upgrade and he doesn’t. I travel enough for work and am away from home enough that I want to spend all the time I can with him. We share reading materials so it is nice to pass magazines & newspapers to each other.

    And the biggest factor, I’ve spent enough time sitting next to smelly, chatty, drunk, too big for the seat, etc. passengers that I like the fact that I have someone I know next to me!

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