Airline Seat Assignments Not Always Guaranteed

FareCompare recently received the following question about airline seats:

"This happened to me [and others], previous seat assignments, booked when tickets were issued, were no longer valid."

No Guarantees

Yes, this happens – in fact, FareCompare is unaware of any airline that absolutely guarantees passengers will always get the seats they select, although such changes do not seem to be particularly common. And yes, airlines tell you seat selections are not guaranteed (see 5 tips below for getting the best seat).

Listen to air travel expert Rick Seaney's best tips on where to park your hindquarters.

Find a cheap flight now (then worry about your seat)

Read the Fine Print

Somewhere on most airline websites (and it can be hard to find), you'll see a disclaimer about seat selection. For example, this was found on American's website:

"American accommodates the seating requirements of customers with certain types of disabilities. This could result in the occasional need to change another individual's pre-assigned seat, with bulkhead seats being particularly subject to reassignment. We appreciate your cooperation in these special circumstances." – American Airlines

A similar caveat from Delta (in near-identical wording):

"[There is] the occasional need to change another individual's assigned seat, with bulkhead seats being particularly subject to reassignment. We appreciate your cooperation in these special circumstances." – Delta Air Lines

What airlines don't want you to know about legroom

No Guarantees for Premium Seats, Either

But say you pay a fee for a premium seat – surely that selection is guaranteed, right? Not necessarily, says United:

"An Economy Plus purchase reserves a seat within the Economy Plus seating area. Specific seat assignments are not guaranteed." – United Airlines

Note: Spirit Airlines makes you pay to reserve any seat. If you decline, you will be assigned a seat by computer at check-in. This can be difficult for families who wish to sit together but FareCompare has strategies to make family seating easier.

Airline policies for early boarding for families

Tips for Getting the Seats You Want

Some tips for getting – and keeping – the best possible seat:

1. Fly less busy days and times: Planes are packed these days but your chances of getting the seat you want improves somewhat if you fly less popular days including Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. Overnight or red-eye flights usually have better seat availability, too.

2. Keep checking seats: Once you book your tickets and reserve the best possible seat, keep returning to the site to check your selection; if it's changed, re-select the best available. Keep returning to the site as better seats are often freed up closer to departure.

3. Last-minute check: As soon as online check-in opens – usually 24 hours before departure – immediately check-in and review your seat options for better locations.

4. Don't be afraid to ask: Get to the airport a little early to speak with the airline gate agent about the possibility of making a change (and a little courtesy can go a long way with such requests).

5. Be loyal: Work hard on attaining elite status which comes with a variety of perks including better seat selection.

Anne McDermott
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