These Airlines Will Let You Buy an Empty Economy Seat for Less Than You Might Think
Qantas recently made its “neighbor-free” seating program available for as little as $143 on flights to and from North America. These airlines offer similar, more affordable empty seat options.
For many air travelers, sitting in a cramped economy seat for a long-haul flight isn’t exactly their idea of a good time. But a handful of airlines are making it easier to snag some extra space in economy, thanks to what are generally referred to as “neighbor-free seat” offerings.
Most recently, Qantas expanded its “Neighbour Free” seating program in late October to several international flights, including on some of its U.S. routes (many of which have a flying time of upwards of 15 hours). The program enables passengers flying economy to keep the seat next to them empty, with fees starting at around $28 each way for flights between Australia and New Zealand. Neighbor-free seats on longer-haul flights between the United States and Australia start at around $143.
Many airlines implemented seat-blocking programs during the pandemic, in which they blocked the middle seat to allow for more social distancing, typically at no additional cost to passengers. But as demand for air travel has roared back, and public health concerns diminished, carriers have—predictably—been selling middle seats again for a while. Most major U.S. airlines will offer passengers who need or want extra space to simply book an extra seat at full price. For instance, JetBlue provides specific step-by-step instructions on how to book an empty seat on its website, as does United, and Delta.
But some international airlines offer the option at a more nominal fee. Fees to guarantee the coveted empty seat next to you vary according to carrier and length of flight and can range anywhere from around $30 to $100 (or higher).
How empty seat offers work
On certain flights with available capacity, airlines allow passengers in economy to bid or pay a fee to keep the empty seat next to them empty. Depending on the airline, passengers can make the booking themselves through the carrier’s website; some airlines also reach out to select passengers ahead of time with the offer. Reservations are subject to availability (in other words, if the airline can sell the seat for a full fare, you’ll have a neighbor after all, and your fee will be refunded).
However, such offers have mixed reviews from some aviation insiders. Jakob Wert, editor in chief of International Flight Network, a Germany-based aviation trade publication, told AFAR he doesn’t view the programs as “very useful” for travelers. “I guess it depends on the price, but . . . you still don’t really have a guarantee” for an empty seat next to you, Wert says.
Still, for passengers who want to snag some extra space in economy, such offers can be just the ticket for a smoother flight. Alice Ford, a Los Angeles–based adventure filmmaker, spent $120 to keep the seat next to her free on a recent 13-hour flight from Jordan to the United States, an offer she described as “no less than wonderful.”
“I ended up with both the window and middle seat so I could spread out a bit more and didn’t have to worry about moving an entire row every time I wanted to get up and use the bathroom or stretch my legs,” says Ford, who adds that she’d certainly “do this again” if it was available.
Here, a look at airlines offering neighbor-free options, along with the details on how to book them.
These airlines allow passengers to purchase an empty seat at a discounted price
The Abu Dhabi-based carrier well-known for top-notch customer service is allowing passengers in economy to savor some space with its Neighbour Free offer. Passengers can bid on up to three additional neighboring seats from 72 hours before the flight via the website (similar to how you can bid on an upgrade with several airlines). An Etihad spokesperson did not specify a price range but told AFAR: “The charges are dynamic and vary by route and seasonality in line with our fares; it also depends on the number of seats that you opt for.”
Bookings for an empty middle seat start at $10 on this German low-cost carrier but can go up depending on how full the flight is. Passengers can make the reservation during online booking via Eurowings’ website, or visit the ticket counter at the airport. In addition, bookings for the extra seat must be made for all flights in the reservation, not for individual flights.
The flag carrier of Fiji launched its delightfully named “My Bubble” seat offer during the pandemic, and it’s still a go for travelers who want to spread out a bit. Starting at 72 hours and all the way up to four hours prior to their flight, passengers can purchase up to two seats via the website, and a confirmation will be sent via email. A few caveats: Group tickets or tickets purchased using rewards, redemption tickets, or other discounts are not eligible. In addition, My Bubble purchases are nonrefundable (sorry to, ahem, burst your bubble), except in cases where the airline ends up selling those seats. While the airline doesn’t provide pricing, a recent report from Executive Traveller revealed that a My Bubble seat offer for a flight between Australia and Fiji was priced at $48.
The Seat Select Neighbor-Free offer is available on certain Philippine Airlines flights for less than $30. Passengers simply check availability ahead of time, select the number of seats they want to purchase, and wait for an email confirmation from the airline.
Qantas’s recently launched Neighbour Free offer is currently available in economy class on the majority of the airline’s Australian domestic flights, as well as select international flights. From 48 hours prior to departure, eligible passengers will be sent an email invite to reserve a neighbor-free seat. Available seats can be reserved all the way up to one hour prior to departure for domestic flights and up to two hours before departure for international flights. As with other programs, the neighbor-free seats are subject to availability. Fees start at around $28 each way for flights between Australia and New Zealand and from $143 for long-haul flights between the United States and Australia.