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What to Do When Your Seat Assignment Sucks

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I hate early morning flights – and they are even worse when your seat assignment sucks.  That seems to be happening to many these days with fully booked flights – someone has to sit in the dreaded middle seats or back rows of the plane.

Last week I was nursing my Starbucks in the Admirals Club at 6 am and trying to overcome five hours of sleep when I got a text from one of my colleagues about her seat assignment for our 7 am flight.


Ouch! She didn’t quite requalify for her American Airlines Gold status last year, falling short of that by a few segments (ouch!) so she’s lost the once-held privilege of selecting better seats in advance without paying for them.

Too late for “easy” fixes. On a full Dallas-Fort Worth to LaGuardia flight at 7 am, it was time for emergency intervention.




Yep, too late.

So what should my colleague have done? Besides, of course, time travel to 2013 to avoid losing her status (which would have lessened the chance of this being an issue)….

  1. Never leave seat assignments to chance.  On a full flight, it *might* be better to grab a less desirable seat at booking than none at all.  I use a subscription service (Expert Flyer) to help me figure out what the “real” seat map looks like as the one the airline shows you rarely matches the actual reservations seat map.  In fact, they may purposely only show you a couple of less desirable seats with the hope that you’ll pay more for a better seat.  These services are also useful in determining which flights might be fully booked so I can attempt to book a flight where I have a better chance of getting a good seat to begin with.
  2. Start monitoring the flight for better seats to become available.  Just because there was not a decent seat at booking doesn’t mean there aren’t still unassigned seats – they just may not be released by the airline for assignment yet.  Or they may be currently occupied by elites who are awaiting an upgrade.  A great way to find out when a better seat becomes available is to set a Seat Alert via Expert Flyer to tell you when a more desirable seat has opened up.
  3. Take advantage of upgrade processing times.  For example, on American those windows are 100 hours out (Executive Platinum), 72 hours out (Platinum), and 24 hours out (Gold/non-elite).  So savvy travelers know to start checking for open seats around those times to grab seats vacated by upgraders.  However if your flight is out of a hub, you might want to start checking slightly earlier as thru passengers (those beginning their travels in another city) will start getting processed first and may affect the buckets as their upgrades go through depending on how an individual airline processes upgrades.  Most elites will originally book premium seats (exit rows or seats in the more desirable parts of the cabin) and their original seats will go back into assignable inventory as their upgrades are processed.  But it’s important to move quickly as others may have the same idea you do!
  4. Consider paying for a better seat in the cabin.  Many airline will hold their more desirable seats for booking at a slight premium.  If a flight is looking full and better seats are not available closer to departure, this may be your best chance of securing a good seat.  Some airlines (such as Alaska) will even offer paid upgrades at check in.  But move quickly – check in as soon as you are able (usually 24 hours before the first flight) and if you receive a good offer, don’t think about it too long or it may disappear.  I’m often asked whether you can still check in early if you have luggage or don’t have access to a printer – YES, definitely do.  Then go to the counter to drop luggage when you get to the airport (many airlines may actually have drop off counters that eliminate waiting in line) and use a self-serve kiosk to print your boarding pass.
  5. Keep in mind that the agent has no incentive to give you the best seat available.  In fact, they may not if you don’t ask – so if your boarding pass comes back with a less desired seat, ask for what you prefer.  This is where it helps to study the seat map in advance so you know which letters correspond with which seats and which rows are less desirable.  A great site to study your seat possibilities with is Seat Guru which will give you feedback about possible issues with various seats so you can pick the best one for your needs.
  6. Or hold your luck for the gate.  On a full flight, the gate agents will have the authority to assign all seats, even those premium ones.  If they flight is full and those seats still are not, someone will be assigned to them.  Be polite and let the agent know you are hoping for a better seat than the one you are assigned.  If you are flying with someone else and willing to split up, let the agent know that as well.  Often they will make last minute switches in order to keep a parent/child together or to accommodate an exit row switch when the person who has booked it is ineligible.  In those cases, agents will often turn to someone who has already volunteered to make that switch.  They may hold your boarding pass – if that is the case, you may need to hold off on boarding while they sort out seat assignments.  (Holding off on boarding, especially if you don’t have a large bag to stow in the overhead, is never a bad strategy if the gate agent knows you are waiting out a better seat – just be sure and get on when final boarding is called!)
  7. If all that fails, do the best you can to make the best of your seat assignment.  You *might* get lucky and find another passenger willing to switch, but let’s face it – we’ve all been there and no one likes the guy who gets on board and offers to switch his back of the plane center seat for a premium aisle.  But definitely keep listening for anyone who waited to get on board before making critical switches (to sit with children, for example) and you may find a last minute seat swap.
  8. If not, get on board and make the best of it.  And next time, follow these steps and hope for better results.

Oh, and if you DO get the better seat or get upgraded, don’t gloat.  My punishment for not dispensing advice on seat assignments sooner?  I ended up in a center seat at the back of coach on a delayed return from New York.  Five hours later, I was much more empathetic to her plight!

Have I left off one of your critical steps to try?  If so, share your advice in the comments….


  1. In general, I’ll disagree with #1. On those full flights, I find most gate agents are loathe to deal with seat change requests, so if you’ve chosen a middle seat, that’s where you’ll likely stay,. But if you’re unassigned, then they have to put you somewhere, and there’s a good chance that will be a premium coach seat that was either vacated by an elite or that had originally been a paid option only.

    There are times when it’s better to have even a bad seat assignment. Involuntary Denied Boarding is very rare, but when it does happen, those without seats are the likeliest candidates, so if your trip is critical (catching a cruise, overseas connection, etc), you may not want to risk being seatless. You also can’t check in online without a seat assignment, so if you think your airport arrival might be close to the check-in time cutoff, then grab a seat. But if where you sit is a primary concern, I think for that aspect, you’re always better unassigned than in a bad seat,.

    1. I think for Suzy Traveler who may only fly a few times a year, picking a seat assignment when she books her ticket in advance is still a wise move. I’d never advocate for JUST doing #1 and then hoping for the best at the airport though. I always strongly suggest continuing to check for a seat as well as knowing what seats are actually open. If there are tons of aisles but you can only see centers because of no status, that’s a good reason to unselect the seat and gamble at the airport. But if a flight is fully sold (which requires a bit of research to speculate), some seat assignment is better than no seat assignment. After all, Suzy no-status Traveler is going to be the person who least wants to be stuck in the airport because she got bumped.

  2. Okay, so I have stopped accruing on SQ and now have 1K on united. This however has resulted in me getting slotted into middle seats on SQ (even with *alliance G status). question for you oh dear friend… should I start to accrue on SQ just to maintain my seats (but the redemption program suck, which is why I have shifted to UA).


    1. That’s a really good question… and one a bit outside my wheelhouse as it’s Star Alliance related.

      May I offer this up to the readers for comment?

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