≡ Menu

Travel Disasters: When Your Family’s Seat Assignments are Separated on the Plane

The Travel Disasters series will present solutions, mitigations, and worst case scenarios when your fears as a traveling parent come to pass.  I am of course using the word “disaster” in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion.  I hope to show you through this series that the things you fear aren’t so bad after all, that you’ll be able to handle them when they happen, and you’ll chalk it up to experience.  If you have a fear about travel with kids that you’d like to see addressed in the “Travel Disaster” series, please send me an email (amy@strollerpacking.com).

Travel Disasters: Family Seats are Separated

My family has witnessed this unfortunate scenario a few times in recent months.

In one case, a family was rebooked onto a very full flight after misconnecting.  Their seats assignments weren’t together.  They boarded the plane, asked someone seated in an aisle seat to switch to a middle seat, and then got upset when that person refused.

In another situation, a couple traveling with infant twins were told that they couldn’t sit right next to each other, because only one lap infant is allowed per row.  There were many tears when they realized they wouldn’t be able to sit together on what was probably going to be a challenging first flight.

Having your seat assignments separated definitely can feel like a disaster when you are in that panicked moment.  Fortunately with a little advance preparation and a plan in place, you can make switching seats with strangers or sitting separately a much more calm and even pleasant experience.

Selecting Seats at Booking

The very best way to get seats together as a family is to select your seats at booking.  There are many people who forget to do this.  There are most likely many seats available when you book the ticket well ahead of flight day, and you’ll have your pick of seats.  However, if you wait to select seats until you check-in for your flight, you probably won’t have great options for getting multiple seats together.

If you book through a travel agent or a third party website, like Travelocity or Expedia, you will receive six-alphanumeric-character confirmation codes for each airline that you have flights on.  Pay special attention for the words “operated by,” as you are going to want to call or visit the website of the airline that’s actually flying the airplane.  Due to airline alliances, there are such things as “codeshare” flights.  These are flights sold with flight numbers on a certain airline, but in point of fact, the flight is operated by another airline.  For example, United flight #8879 is sold on United’s website as a Denver-Frankfurt nonstop.  This flight is actually operated by Lufthansa, which means that you will check-in with Lufthansa, interact with Lufthansa staff, and board a Lufthansa airplane with a different Lufthansa flight number.

If you can’t find your six character confirmation code, you can call the airline (the one operating your flight) with the date of your flight and the names of the passengers, and they can look it up for you.

Once you have your confirmation code, go to the website of the airline that you are flying.  If you are flying more than one airline, you will likely have to do this once for each airline.  Look for a place to “view” or “manage reservations.”  You’ll enter your confirmation code and the last name of one of the passengers on the itinerary.  Once your flight information is displayed, look for a way to “view and change seats.”

For reviews on the best places to sit on any given airplane, including hidden items like seats that don’t recline, check out http://www.seatguru.com/.  We’ve found that bulkhead seats (the ones with a wall in front) either at the front of the coach cabin or just behind a mid-cabin lavatory or galley are the best for kids.  There are no seats in front of them to kick and there’s enough room on the floor that they can actually have a small space to get down during a long flight.  On some airlines, the bulkheads require an extra fee to reserve – you can decide if this fee is worth it for you.

For our family of four, we prefer to take seats in two rows (e.g. 8EF and 9EF) vs. seats across the aisle (e.g. 8AB and 8EF).  Taking seats in two rows means that only one kid will be tempted to kick the seat of a stranger, and the other kid will be kicking the seat of his sibling – there’s less to defend, if you take my meaning.  Also it’s easier to hand toys and snacks (and even kids) off between parents this way.

If you don’t get the exact seats you like, keep checking back periodically, especially during the week leading up to the flight.  Many things can happen to allow seats to open up: people cancel their tickets, upgrades clear, etc.

Note that if you have two lap children (God bless you), you will not be able to sit together in the same bank of seats (that is, same row, same side of airplane).  Generally speaking, there is only one extra oxygen mask per bank of seats allowing for only one lap child.  If you have two lap children, do yourself a favor by reserving seats across the aisle from each other or one right behind the other in adjacent rows.  This way you can still sit near each other, even if you can’t share a bank of seats.

Hopefully, this will prevent 90% of seating issues.

Negotiating Seat Changes on the Plane… Politely

Let’s say that despite your best efforts, you check in for your flight, find that you are not seated together as a family, and worse, there are no seats available to switch to.

First of all, don’t panic.  There are several reasons this can happen:

  • You forgot to select seats at booking
  • There was an aircraft change from the original one planned, and the seats aren’t the same on the new one.
  • You ran into delays and were rebooked on a new flight
  • The airline’s computer system simply borked and lost your seat assignments (which is annoying, but can happen)

Regardless of the reason, it doesn’t do much good to complain about it, and most of the time there’s not much to be done until you get on the plane.

You can speak to the gate agent prior to boarding to see if they would be willing to page some people to switch seats.  This rarely happens, so don’t get mad if they won’t do it.  But it’s worth the asking.

So now you are boarding, and your seats aren’t together.  Here are some things to keep in mind to make the process easier and your fellow passengers more willing to accommodate you.

  1. Try to trade like for like.  Window for window, aisle for aisle, middle for middle.
  2. Try to give the person you are trading with a “better” seat.  If they had a middle, and you can give them an aisle or window seat, allowing you to sit in the middle next to your spouse or child, so much the better!
  3. Note that seats toward the front of the airplane are generally considered to be better than seats toward the back.  If you need to trade, offer the person a seat in a more forward row and take the back yourself.
  4. This is ESPECIALLY true when the airline offers “extra legroom” seating.  These rows are located towards the front of the cabin.  Most people sitting here either paid to sit there or have earned the seat by their elite status.  Try not to ever ask someone sitting in one of those seats to move to a non-extra-legroom seat.  If you get placed in this section due to your last minute seat assignment and wish to sit with your family members, promote someone from further back to the premium section and sit in the back yourself, rather than trying to move your family into the premium section and displacing people who are entitled to sit there.

What you are going for here is a win-win situation.  You will win by getting to sit next to your child/spouse/family.  You want the person you trade with to feel that they are winning by getting a better seat.  Or at least, they will get an equal seat and then they get a warm fuzzy by helping a family in need.

If you have a small child, you will need to sit next to them, no doubt.  If you end up with all middle seats, someone is going to have to switch out of an aisle or window and into a middle – that’s just the way it is due to the age of your child.  When soliciting this switch, keep the following tips in mind.

  1. Explain why you need the switch.  This isn’t you wanting a better seat – this is you needing to take care of your child.
  2. Be apologetic and appreciative. Acknowledge that the seat you have isn’t great, and that you understand it requires some sacrifice on their part.
  3. Try to throw the person a bone.  Give them the middle seat that’s better in ANY way – extra legroom, exit row, bulkhead or simply more forward in the cabin.
  4. Carry with you a few $5 Starbucks gift cards or a nice bar of chocolate as tokens of appreciation/bribery.  A little gesture of goodwill goes a long way.
  5. If you’ve done all of the above, and the person still won’t switch, get the flight attendant involved.  You have to sit next to your child, so the FA will need to help negotiate a switch with some kind soul.  Note that this is not “you have to sit next to your spouse” – getting the adults together is not essential.  Making sure young kids have supervision is.

Finally, prepare ahead of time for the eventuality that you might need to sit separately.  Discuss with any adult traveling companion what this will look like.  Who will take which kid?  Make sure that both adults are carrying at least an emergency ration of kid gear: snacks, drinks, toys, and diapers (if applicable) – that way either one will be prepared to handle a kid alone, at least until the seatbelt sign goes off.


Let’s work through some examples to illustrate how this might work.  I’m assuming for my examples that I’m traveling with my family of four – two adults and two toddlers who need supervision.  All four of us have paid seats (no infant-in-arms).

In the following examples, we’ll look at the problem in two ways.  In the first scenario, you are either entitled to or are paying for access to the extended legroom seating (blue seats).  In the second, you are not going to pay for the extended legroom seats and will sit “in the back.”

Seat Map #1 – Selecting Seats at Booking

 Seat Map 1: Select Seats at Booking

Scenario 1, extended legroom seats.  Children under age 13 are not allowed to sit in exit rows by law, so those are out.  We like the bulkhead, but those are full.  We will try to sit as far forward as possible.  So we’ll take 8E/8F for one adult/child pair, and 10E/10F for the other adult/child pair.  We could take 7C for someone and hope that another bulkhead seat will open up due to upgrades, but I don’t usually like those odds.  Normally we’ll just check back periodically – especially 100 hours before flight time when elite upgrades start to clear – to see if we can improve the situation.

Scenario 2, regular economy.  Again, I’d want to sit as far forward as possible.  However, this is a fairly empty flight, and the seat map that this comes from is for a flight two weeks away.  I might try to “block a middle.”  This is a strategy based on the principle that middle seats are the last to fill on any flight.  When they do fill, they will do so from front to back.  Sitting a little further back can actually be to your advantage, as those middle seats will be the last to fill.

I might select something like 29D/29F and 30D/30F.  If someone ends up sitting in the E seat(s), it’s easy to make the switch – who doesn’t want to get out of the middle?  If the flight isn’t full, your middle seat will be one of the last to be given away, and you and your little bean can stretch out with a little more play room.

Seat Map #2 – Full Flight

 Seat Map 2 - Pretty Full Flight

This one is tricky.  Mostly the only seats available are middles.  However, there are a few non-middles, and you could use that to your advantage.

Scenario 1 – extended legroom access. I definitely want to grab 12B/12C here.  Children in car seats are supposed to be in the window seat (if that’s your arrangement), but it’s a heck of a lot easier to get someone to change to an aisle than a middle.

Then, I have two options for the second pair.  I can take 11E and 12E and hope that one of 11D/11F or 12D/12F is a kindhearted soul who will sit in a middle seat instead of an aisle or window.  This is a possibility, and you basically have four chances to trade.  But it’s not an advantageous trade for the other person, which is what you are going for.

If you really want as clean a trade as possible, take 12E and 27F.  Then talk to the person in 27E. There is no reason they shouldn’t want to switch up to 12E – they are many rows further forward in the cabin and they will get extended legroom without having to pay for it. Score!  In this case, I would be sitting quite a ways away from my husband and son, so we’d need to prepare by splitting up the snacks and toys before boarding, and making sure the correct person (me!) has the diaper supplies.

Scenario 2 – regular economy.  This is actually easier than you might think.  Take 27F and 35E.  Get the person in 35F to switch up to 27F (further forward is better; trade window for window).  For your second pair, take 34A and 35B.  Get the person in 35A to trade up to 34A (further forward, however slight, is better; trade window for window).  Now you are all seated in row 35, albeit with two people between you.  On a flight this full, that proximity is a great result!

The one caveat here is that even though 34A is in forward of 35A, it is directly in front.  This may result in their seat being kicked the whole flight by your child, with whom they so graciously switched.  If you have a kicker, you may want seats 34A and 36B, so that the person in 36A gets sent two rows ahead.

Seat Map #3 – Mostly Middles

 Seat Map 3 - Mostly Middles

Even I would be filled with dread looking at this seat map.  However, there are some things that can be done to increase the likelihood that you can make someone happy with a middle seat.

First of all, grab 22C and 24B.  I hope that’s obvious by now – when faced with this type of situation, always grab all the non-middles you can.  Then you’ll ask 24A or 24C to switch forward to 22C.

Now for the tricky part.  For the ultimate in smooth trading, you could consider buying up to an extended legroom seat.  Get that exit row, if you can.  Then take 25E.  From there, you can tell the person in 25D or 25F that, yes, all you have is a middle, but it is an *exit row* middle, or at the very least an extended legroom middle.

If you don’t want to do that (and I’m pretty sure my family wouldn’t), take two middles, say 25E and 29E, and pitch the person in 29D or 29F that row 25 is much further forward, even if they have to take a middle seat.  An emergency $5 gift card to Starbucks and/or a bar of nice chocolate might be an appropriate gesture of goodwill.

As always, if you absolutely can’t convince anyone adjacent to your ticketed seats to switch into a middle, ask the flight attendant for help instead of getting angry with your fellow passengers.  You have to sit with your child, and it’s the flight attendant’s job to make sure everyone is seated safely.


Travel with young kids is exciting and stressful and fun and incredibly taxing all at once.  Getting seated on the airplane shouldn’t be a major event on your trip.  Keep these simple rules in mind, aim for the win-win with your fellow passengers, and keep your cool.  The flight will seem like a small part of your big adventure.

Did you enjoy this article?
Get more!
As a subscriber, you'll be the first to know about new products for travel with kids and get exclusive sneak previews. Plus get our free guide, Raising World-Class Travelers!
Want more out of travel with little kids?
Sign up for the Stroller Packing newsletter and receive the FREE Raising World-Class Travelers guide
We hate spam just as much as you

Comments on this entry are closed.