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9 Smart Ways to Keep Your Family Seated Together on a Flight

By Sandra Nygaard

10.10.19

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U.S. airlines tell families they will try to seat them together, but they’re not required to do so.

Photo by NadyaEugene/Shutterstock

U.S. airlines tell families they will try to seat them together, but they’re not required to do so.

Flying with kids can be challenging enough. Finding out that your seating assignments have been split up only adds unnecessary stress. Here’s how to make sure your brood stays together while up in the air.

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Lisa Doughten will never forget her family’s trip to Turks and Caicos in February 2019. Not because of the white sand beaches or the cloudless skies, but because of the stressful flight they endured to get there. 

Although she’s a seasoned traveler who purchased her row of seats well in advance, at check-in she discovered that her family would be scattered across their United Airlines flight. “I was shocked,” said the Pelham, New York–based mother of three- (now four-) year-old twins.

No one volunteered to change seats after several announcements at the gate, but flight attendants managed to negotiate some switches on the plane so Doughten could sit with her children. Her husband was assigned behind them. “It’s so stressful to start your trip like that,” she said, recalling the distress of asking strangers to change seats. “It’s outrageous that the airlines expect families to do that.”

Why it happens

It seemed this scenario would be a thing of the past after the Families Flying Together Act, an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Bill, was passed by Congress in July 2016. The bipartisan law required carriers to ensure that children under the age of 13 would be able to sit next to a family member at no additional cost. 

But airline industry officials argued that these demands would effectively re-regulate airline prices and services. A significant blow was dealt in the summer of 2017 by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which determined that the low number of complaints did not warrant instituting a formal policy. The DOT recently reviewed the data again for this year and determined that the low number of family seating complaints through June 2019 suggested no new changes were necessary. 

Seat assignment shifts are not uncommon, as a simple change in aircraft can alter the seat map. But rather than adopting an official protocol to protect families, the majority of major airlines, such as American, Delta, and United, instead merely provide online travel tips and assurances that they’ll try to keep parents and children together. Because the same airlines also charge premiums for reserved seating and set aside a number of prime seats for corporate and elite travelers, families are often the ones left scrambling. 

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“The airlines tell passengers it will work out, but they’re not required to fulfill that promise,” said Rainer Jenss, president of the Family Travel Association, an industry group focused on family-friendly travel. “So much of this comes down to the airlines not doing the right thing because it’s not enforced. They need to take the lead and establish an official policy.” Jenss is currently working with a member of Congress with the hopes of introducing another bill by the end of the year that would dictate that families must be seated together.

Until then, these tips from travel experts can help you keep your clan together in-flight.

Book early

We all procrastinate or wait for last-minute deals. But the longer you wait, the narrower your choices. The best time to book your airline tickets?  “I generally find that at three months in advance, seat assignments usually still have good options,” says Brett Snyder, founder and author of the airline industry blog crankyflier.com.

Avoid Basic Economy

The Basic Economy fares recently introduced on major airlines may be cheaper, but they come with a cost: the right to choose a seat when making your reservation. “The easiest way to solve the issue is to pay the premium,” admitted Jenss. “If you can afford to spend a little extra, you’ll have a better chance of keeping your family’s seats together.”

Travel during off-peak times

Because flights are more expensive and more crowded on holidays and school breaks, if your travel dates are flexible, why not trim your budget and expand your seating options? “Flying at off-peak times definitely does both,” said Maryann Jones Thompson, founder and editor-in-chief of the travel blog Roam. Translation: Be aware of breaks on the school calendar. If you don’t have much flexibility in terms of when your kids are off, consider flying on the actual holiday, or just after it. You might also opt for the less popular first and last flights of the day.

Know an airline’s policy before you buy

Schedule and price shouldn’t be your only guide to picking a flight. Review the family seating policies available from the DOT and choose the airline that balances your destination and your needs. For instance, Southwest has on official family boarding policy that allows adults traveling with children six years old or younger to board early. AirCanada has an official policy that seats families close together. Certain other airlines, such as Alaska and Hawaiian, block a limited number of seats to accommodate families. 

Select window and aisle seats

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Think of it as a game of Monopoly where you scoop up the desirable real estate to use later for bargaining. If you can’t book a cluster of seats together, reserve as many aisles and windows as possible so fellow passengers will be more apt to trade, advised Kristin Maxwell of family travel blog Kids Are A Trip. “Having a decent seat to swap is always easier,” she said. “Even the most sympathetic travelers won’t want to trade you for a middle seat.”

Look for early warning signs

“Pay attention to every communication that comes from your airline,” said Thompson. “Something as simple as a flight time or aircraft change are red flags that your seating may be impacted, so make sure you’re still sitting together.”

But even if you don’t hear from the airline about aircraft changes or delays, review your seat assignments a few days before your flight. Then check in online at home 24 hours prior to departure so you can confirm your seat assignments, and you’ll have enough time to phone to plead your case if your family isn’t together.

Arrive at the gate early

A crowded boarding area and a long line of requests to solve is not the ideal moment to expect results from a gate attendant. Instead, arrive an hour early and make sure you’re one of the first to ask for seating changes. 

Speak out on social

There’s nothing that will stir the sympathy of the Twitterverse more than a desperate parent, so if you still have time at the gate, broadcast your story. Like most industries, airlines don’t want negative press. “And they especially don’t like anything negative out there on Twitter or Facebook,” said Maxwell, adding that complaints can go viral in minutes. “The quicker they can nip it in the bud, the better it is for everyone.”

Appeal to your fellow passengers

Even when you’re on the plane, there’s still a possibility to make a deal and switch seats if you enlist the help of flight attendants and passengers directly. “If you explain that your child gets restless or has anxiety while flying, they may be more willing to help,” said Maxwell. And if that doesn’t work, offer to purchase a cocktail, food, or Wi-Fi as motivation to change seats. Hey, desperate times.

If you followed the rules and tried every tip to no avail, don’t take your suboptimal seating assignment sitting down. File a complaint directly with the DOT. (Remember, it says there are not enough complaints for it to take action?) Then appeal directly to the airlines. “The only way airlines will change is if consumers put pressure on them and demand action,” said Jenss. “This is an ethical issue as much as a legal one.”

>> Next: How to Take Your Kids out of School and Travel

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