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child on plane for airline family seating.

How to Sit Together on the Plane Without Paying Extra

With the rise of basic economy and budget airline models that charge extra for seat selection, it’s become a lot harder for groups, but especially families with kids, to secure seats next to each other. And that’s a sore spot for many parents who travel: Once a child is above two years old, they’re typically no longer considered a lap-seat infant. And of course, small children want to be with their parents—so should you have to pay more just because you’re a family if not enough free, consecutive seats are left? Airline family seating policies vary by airline, but the problem has apparently become so widespread that the Department of Transportation (DOT) is addressing it, though not guaranteeing you won’t have to pay for it.

The DOT has a new section on its Aviation Consumer Protection website focused on airline family seating. It provides general guidance about how best to arrange family seating if you want to sit together, along with links to family seating policies of the nine largest U.S. airlines.

The department advises family travelers to file a complaint if they experience “a problem” with securing seats together, but stops short of saying that families should be able to sit together without paying. Here’s the DOT’s series of common-sense recommendations:

Before booking, understand your airline’s seating policies: And know that “Many airlines allow consumers to reserve seats next to each other without paying an additional fee.”

Book tickets as early as possible: “The earlier you book your family’s travel, the more likely it is that you will be able to reserve seats that are next to each other. If you tried to book your tickets early, and seats are not available together, contact the airline through reservations to ask whether additional seats will become available later.”

Keep all family members on the same reservation record: “Airlines generally know travelers belong to one party only if all the passengers are on the same reservation record. Airlines assigning or reassigning seats give priority to parents and children on the same reservation.”

After booking, if you can’t initially be seated together, contact your airline and ask it to accommodate your family: “Discuss with the airline your concerns about a child being seated alone.  Even if the airline is unable to seat the whole family together, they may be able to assure you that each child is seated next to an adult family member. If you booked parents and children on different reservations, contact the airline as soon as possible to ask if the party can be put on the same reservation record or have their reservations cross-referenced in the booking notes.”

If you book through a third party online agency, verify reservations and seat assignments directly with the airline: “If you did not book your travel directly with an airline, obtain or confirm your seat assignments directly with the airline as soon as possible before the day of travel.  This can be done either on the airline’s website or over the phone by contacting reservations.”

Confirm reservations and seat assignments again before you leave for the airport: “You may wish to confirm your seat assignments before you would normally go to the airport as your seat assignments could have changed after booking due to an aircraft substitution with a different seating arrangement.  If your seat assignments have changed, you can contact the airline to ask for help.”

Arrive at the airport early to leave enough time to make last-minute adjustments, if needed: “Airlines will do what they can at the airport to help families who self-identify to their agents as needing to sit together.  Even if the airline is unable to seat the whole family together, they may be able to assure you that each child is seated next to an adult family member.”

After traveling, report any problems to the DOT: “If you should have a problem during your trip, you may file a complaint with the airline or DOT. The feedback you provide to the airline may influence the way an airline interacts with families traveling together.  … The Department also sends every family seating complaint it receives about an airline to that airline. Airlines must respond to written consumer complaints. Your comments or complaint will be reviewed by the Department and the airline.”

What the DOT has not done is implement any rules requiring airlines to seat families together. And it’s evidently up to you to pick the correct airline and cabin class that won’t charge you for seat selection, and even then you might need to work with the airline to make sure you’re seated together. Here are the airline family seating policies, according to the DOT, for nine airlines:

If you’re traveling with children, it’s wise to avoid budget airlines like Spirit—which always charges for seat selection—altogether if you’ll need airline family seating.

Editor’s note: SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon contributed to this story.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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