When Will You Trade Seats?

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We’ve all been there.

You booked your flight weeks in advance, secured your favorite premium seat, and waited for the day of departure.  On the day of the flight, you lingered a bit in the airline lounge sending that one final email, finally strolling on to the plane to take your coveted throne only to find someone comfortably lounging there.

“Excuse me, but I think you are in my seat?” you politely say.

“Oh right… would you trade seats with me?” the interloper grins and asks, following with any one of a litany of reasons why your seat is needed.


What do you do?

The everyday dilemma

It is the everyday dilemma that plays out on one flight after another.  Airlines are making it more difficult for all passengers to reserve seats (or at least desirable seats) at the time of booking.  Upgrades are clearing closer to the time of departure.  And passengers may simply not be paying enough attention to their own reservations.  The result is that many passengers find themselves separated – by a row, an aisle, or even a cabin.


My own personal view

This question was posed recently in an elite status forum I frequent.  The subject brought about much discussion and even a bit of controversy.

Here was my (somewhat dry) response:

I’ll trade aisle for aisle and non-bulkhead for non-bulkhead. But don’t ask me to trade my non-bulkhead aisle for your bulkhead window.   And don’t definitely don’t sit in my seat and unpack all of your belongings into the seatback pocket, rip open the blanket bag, stow the pillow in the overhead bin, rip into the amenity kit, and start on your pre-departure beverage because I WILL CUT YOU!  That’s just next level rudeness and entitlement and at that point, I do not care what the circumstances are, I will say no on general principle.

Another poster commented “I am guessing that this has happened to you?”  And yes, it has – quite a few times.  And while no, I’ve never actually resorted to violence, I have had to bring a gate agent on board to sort out the mess.

The most extreme example I cited above happened on an international flight on a three-class 777.  I had a fairly coveted window seat in first class – someone came and took my seat, dug into the amenity kit and put on the socks and used the lotion, wrapped up in the blanket, unloaded all of their belongings in the seatback pocket, and had reclined the seat and started sipping a mimosa by the time I boarded.

It turned out that they were in one of the center seats and yes, I did not only make them move, but I made them swap out the amenity kit, blanket, and pillow.  The passenger insisted on having a gate agent brought on board because he *always* has a window seat and cannot fly in a middle seat because he is claustrophobic.  The gate agent had to explain to him that I had actually been booked in first class weeks in advance whereas he had been upgraded at the gate – but he was welcome to move back to his window seat in business class and she could upgrade another passenger instead.

The reality is, however, that I’m regularly asked to trade seats.  And occasionally I’m NOT asked.  That usually makes a difference in how I will respond.

The rules of engagement

If you want to trade seats on the plane, there are a few basic rules of the road:

  1. Like for like:  You are more likely to be successful if you are asking to swap for something that is like what the other passenger already has so they aren’t giving up anything in the process (i.e. legroom, a view, easy lavatory access, etc.).  Some examples of this:
    • Bulkhead-bulkhead
    • Nonbulkhead-nonbulkhead
    • Window-window
    • Aisle-aisle
    • Exit-exit
    • Front of plane-front of plane
  2. Trade up:  If you can’t trade like for like, then be willing to trade up.  Don’t ask someone to move to a crappier seat to help you out.  You are getting the benefit of sitting with your companion so that means YOU give up the exit row or end up taking a middle to get what you want.  Sorry… that’s fair trade.
  3. Shift benefits: If special privileges came with that seat (earlier meal ordering, free drinks, whatever), make certain that the flight attendant knows when you trade seats so that neither party loses out on those benefits.
  4. Don’t be ridiculous unless there is compensation involved: Believe it or not, I’ve actually seen people ask someone in business class if they’d be willing to give up their seat and go to coach so their partner could move up.  If you are going to do that, you’d better be willing to pony up some cash.  (And yes, I’ve actually seen that go down on a plane too… I once saw a guy pay a teenager $400 onboard to move to coach so his wife could move up to business on a flight to Europe.)
  5. Don’t be presumptive: Don’t assume someone is going to swap with you before the deal is done.  Nothing is worse than boarding and finding someone already settled into your seat.  That often makes my decision for me.  It’s generally not in favor of the person requesting the swap.  Stay politely out of the way until they agree to the move.  If you need to stand, do so as unobtrusively as possible.  But do not stow your belongings or use any of the seat amenities.
  6. Don’t be a jerk:  If a passenger won’t make the swap for whatever reason, don’t be a jerk about it.  Don’t talk over them for the duration of the flight or be disruptive.  They may have a valid reason for not moving.  For example, I once refused to give up my aisle seat because my stomach was queasy.  I didn’t want to be locked into a window seat during a meal service! I also once witnessed two individuals trying to guilt trip a Federal Air Marshall for not switching seats.  And I’ve never heard of an otherwise solid relationship not surviving a seat separation on a flight.

What is your opinion on this topic?  Will you trade seats on an airplane?

About Jennifer Moody

Jennifer is a management consultant and avid volunteer. Her career and volunteer duty travels have helped her log top-tier airline and hotel status annually for the last nineteen years. In addition, she embraces the opportunity to maximize her vacation time by planning extracurricular trips that have taken her to over 60 countries and 48.5 US states. Once an "every week" road warrior, she now only travels around 100 days a year. She resides in her native Fort Worth, Texas where she enjoys cooking, gardening, sewing, needlepoint, wine, and playing with her Border Collie/Great Pyreness mix puppy Harley Quinn.

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  1. I’m usually too nice to say no, but there are enough check points in person and online for someone, somehow, to realize that their family of 4 aren’t together or their spouse in the back of the plane.

  2. I’ve never been asked to change seats, though your points just seem like common sense logic. If I were asking someone to move, I’d always start with some bribe offer, whether it’s an on-board meal, movie, wifi, etc., or just a $20 (this assumes an even trade…I would, of course, up it if I were looking for a less-than-even trade). I feel like starting with an offer and not just a request (or worse, demand) will soften up the person in the seat I want.

  3. I once boarded to find someone sitting in my seat, a “1” on a 1-2 e145. I began to ask him to move, and his nearby traveling companion told me that my seat-stealer was deaf. What was I going to do; argue with a deaf guy? So I begrudgingly sat in the deaf guy’s assigned seat across the aisle.

    Just before pushback, a flight attendant comes up to me and begins talking to me in a very strange tone of voice / body language, like she thought she was talking to a 3 year-old. After just a few words, I point across the aisle to the deaf guy and say “I think you’re looking for him.” Clearly she was aware of the disabled passenger on board and was checking on them before departure.

    I don’t know what’s worse: that I didn’t get my seat, or that this flight attended thought it was right to talk to a fully grown man like a 3-year old because he was deaf.

  4. I never swap anymore, on principle. I have flown too much, been asked too many times, and been hosed by the deal more than once.

    The only swap I could see myself doing nowadays is one into a higher class of service. But that has never happened to me..and I have been a frequent flier for 20 years (average of 2 flights a week). I am usually in F or Biz anyhow.

    The fact is, there are ways for even non status pax to pick their seats well in advance. Most airlines allow it at booking. If you are too cheap to pay the extra 20 dollars for that, you deserve to accept the fates that befall you. A failure or unwillingness on your part to plan ahead does not constitute an emergency on my part.

    If it was irregular ops or some logistical screw up on the part of the airline, I am sorry. That sucks. But that’s still YOUR problem. Get the cabin crew to sort it out for you.

    Most of the reasons people cite are hardly worth it. Separated adults? Please, you are grown ups and can be apart for a few hours. Children? Squeezing out a few carbon copies of yourself doesn’t entitle you to priority over me. Get the crew to sort it out. Ask someone else. Upgraded couples? Standby?
    Just be thankful you are on the plane at all or that you have an upgrade.

    The fact is, there is a competition going on. It starts when the flight is released. It is competition for the best seats, the earliest boarding group, the upgrades..if I am in a seat you covet, it’s because I won it. Even when I am in coach, I promise you I paid extra or used points to get that exit row aisle and am not going to give it up short of you giving me an F seat. I beat you to it. I won. And just like in a marathon, I am not going to run back into the race after passing the finish line just so I can give my medal to the guy in 23rd place because he reaaaallly reallly wants it. I am not giving up my front row seats at a concert because someone who really really likes the band cheaped out and got seated behind a pole in the nosebleed seats. Sorry. Not sure why this doesn’t seem to extend to airplanes.

    Many advocates of swaps go on about common courtesy. I should point out that common courtesy is first and foremost not bothering, burdening, or inconveniencing total strangers for petty reasons of your own. Take the seats you are given and shut up.

    Saying no to someone’s request is not a failure of courtesy. Being told no and becoming indignant, disruptive and demanding of further explanation is discourteous and counter productive.

    So 99% I say no to swaps..and not only do I say no, I ONLY say no. It’s not followed with an explanation which I don’t owe and I am not about to give the guy an angle by offering an excuse. I don’t have to justify keeping what is mine.

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