How to Make Sure Your Family Gets Seats Together on a Flight

Mar 25, 2019

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You’ve probably seen the scene from Home Alone 2 where Macaulay Culkin boards a plane to New York City and the rest of his family is on a completely different flight heading to Florida. While you may have thought to yourself that there is no way this can actually happen in real life, unfortunately, it kind of did — and it was largely the fault of Spirit Airlines. The situation highlighted several issues, and one of them is the importance of getting seats together with your family on the plane.

In April 2018, a mother traveling with her son and daughter were set to fly home to Michigan. On their Spirit Airlines flight departing Tampa, the 15-year old daughter was assigned a seat in a different part of the plane due to Spirit Airlines’ random seating assignment policy for those who don’t pay extra for advance seat assignments. Because the daughter was older than 12, the airline was not required to sit her with her mom (only children ages 12 and younger are required to sit near a parent based on the Families Flying Together Act, although the FAA is still not truly enforcing this act).

Don't assume you have seats together - check and recheck (Photo by BraunS/Getty Images)
Don’t assume you have seats together – check and recheck (Photo by BraunS/Getty Images)

Prior to departing Tampa, the 15-year old girl was removed from the flight by a Spirit Airlines employee to make room for another passenger. The girl was essentially being involuntarily bumped from the flight and was told she would board the next flight to Detroit. Despite the daughter telling the employee that her mom was on the flight, the airline reportedly never asked the mom for permission or even informed the mother that her daughter was removed. The mother ultimately did not find out more information about what happened to her daughter and her whereabouts until her daughter landed in Detroit hours later. As you can imagine, this mother is now suing Spirit Airlines for $75,000.

While Spirit will allow you to pick your seat assignment when you book your flight, that privilege comes at an additional cost. In fact, as we reported on TPG, there are concerns that some airlines may be purposely splitting up families to generate more revenue and force families to pay a fee to sit together.

While this is definitely an extremely out of the ordinary story, being separated from your family while flying is not a far fetched scenario. Fortunately though, there are many ways to ensure your family can sit together on your next upcoming flight:

1. Book your flights well in advance

If having seats together is a top priority, then you’ll want to book your flights as far out as possible. This will ensure that there are still plenty of seats available together before the plane starts to book up with other passengers. If you end up booking at the last minute, try calling the airline to see if there are any open seats not visible on the seat map. Many times airlines block out certain rows so there is a good chance that there still might be seats available for you and your children if you ask. If the first agent you speak with isn’t able to do anything for you, ask for a supervisor.

 Book far in advance so there are still many seats available

If you haven’t flown with kids in a while, be aware that the number of seats on the plane available for free assignment has shrunk in the last couple of years. Many airlines now label otherwise normal rows of seats “premium”, even though they really aren’t. This increases the importance of booking early as there simply aren’t that many seats available for free assignment — on this United 757 only the last seven rows can be reserved for free.

2. Prepay for a seat assignment

These days, many airlines are requiring you to pay more if you want an assigned seat. If you happen to be flying Frontier, Spirit or any low-cost airline that does not provide seat assignments, strongly consider paying for that seat assignment while booking your family’s flight. While paying extra fees can add up, this can help ensure your family is seated together and relieve the anxiety leading up to your departure. Keep in mind, though, that your seat assignment is technically never guaranteed. Flight changes and aircraft swaps happen and your originally selected seat can automatically change without you being fully aware. This means you need to keep an eye on your reservation up until you are actually seated on the plane with your seatbelt fastened.

3. Do not book Basic Economy Fares

Over the past few years, many airlines have started to introduce Basic Economy fares. While Frontier and Spirit are known for their add-on fees, DeltaUnited and American Airlines have now entered into the low-cost carrier pricing model, where some routes charge a discounted fare known as “Basic Economy”. On these fares you will not receive some of the amenities that you were once used to, such as selecting a seat assignment when making your reservation. For these fares, you will not be assigned a seat until you check-in for your flight, which means there is a very good chance your family will be scattered across the aircraft (though many airlines say their software works to keep families with young children together whenever possible). To make sure your family can sit together, stay clear of these fare types.

4. Purchase Early Bird Check-In

You probably already know this, but Southwest Airlines does not have assigned seats. Instead, they have an open seating policy where you can pick any available seat upon boarding the plane. When the plane is ready to board, you line up based on your boarding pass. Numbers A1-A60 board first, followed by B1-B60, and then C1-C60. The earlier the boarding pass number, the more seating options you have. Boarding positions are given out based on check-in time.

You are able to check in 24 hours prior to your flight’s departure time, so having a fast finger exactly at the 24-hour mark to check yourself into your fight is extremely important. Additionally, for $15 – $25 per passenger per flight, you can purchase  Early Bird Check-In, where Southwest will automatically check you into your flight and grab you a boarding pass 36 hours prior to departure — a full 12 hours prior to general check in. While this option by no means guarantees you an “A” boarding position, it definitely gives you a leg up.

Image by Summer Hull / The Points Guy
Image by Summer Hull / The Points Guy

With that being said, if you are flying with children 6 and under, you are able to board with Family Boarding. This group boards between the A and B groups, which is a great position to be in. If you fall into this category, you don’t have to worry about spending the money on Early Bird Check-In since you are able to board relatively early in the process.

Bottom Line

Taking a few steps to ensure your family doesn’t get split up is definitely recommended to alleviate a stressful flight situation. If all else fails, you can always plead and beg for other passengers to switch seats with you. Having kids sitting by themselves is never beneficial for anyone and hopefully other passengers or flight attendants will be courteous enough to keep families together.

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