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While we like to think we’re pretty savvy travellers here at TPG UK, from time to time, we all have a travel experience we would rather forget. We will be bringing you some of our team’s personal travel experiences each week — both successes and mistakes.

This week, Senior Writer Ben Smithson shares his strategy for seat selection on low-cost carriers and how it failed badly on a flight to Spain:

“I fly low cost carriers around Europe regularly and rarely pay for many of the ancillary cost options in order to keep costs down. One thing I never pay for on a one- or two-hour flight is seat selection, which can be almost as much as the flight itself.

Of course I don’t want to end up with a middle seat in the last row, so I have a bit of a strategy to snag a decent ‘random’ seat without paying through the roof for it. This strategy is that because so few people pay for the best seats on the plane (like the front few rows and exit rows) because of the high cost, these are allocated to passengers at the last minute once all of the cheap seats have been allocated.

I’ve tested out checking in online as late as possible in the period where most passengers who have checked in online have already done so (and been allocated the undesirable seats or paid a small fee for a half-way decent one), but before passengers physically check in at the airport and are sometimes given the choice of any remaining seat. For most airlines this window is around six to two hours before the flight departs (depending on the airline).

The cityscape of Bilbao, Spain. The Nervion river crosses Bilbao downtown, hosting in its margins the traditional and modern buildings of the city.
The cityscape of Bilbao, Spain. Photo by Getty Images

I’ve had good success with this on the likes of EasyJet and Norwegian, where I’ve scored a window seat in Row 2 or 3 without paying for it. So on a recent flight from London Gatwick (LGW) to Bilbao (BIO) with Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling, I put this strategy into place. I’ve had terrible luck with Vueling in the past — it’s my least favourite European airline — so I should have known my luck would run out.

What I failed to realise is that while Vueling does allow passengers to be allocated a random seat for free when checking in for their flight online like other airlines do, they only allocate a small number of seats for this purpose. Once all those are allocated to passengers, all other passengers must pay to select their seat when they check-in, whether they want to or not.

By the time I checked in online around five hours before my flight departed, all the free seats were long gone and I was forced to pay for one of the remaining seats. The flight was a little over an hour in length, so I didn’t want to put upwards of 18 euro for a seat in the first few rows. I settled for a middle seat mid-way back in the plane for 10 euro.

The flight passed quickly, but I spent it cursing myself for paying for a bad seat I didn’t even want.”

Featured photo by picture alliance/Getty Images.

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