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How to Find Airline Seats for a Family Group

Although many business travelers fly solo, families travel in couples, at a minimum, and often in larger groups with kids. Arranging travel for families is usually easy when you’re paying for your tickets—airline and online travel agency websites allow you to book for a handful of people—but finding frequent flyer seats for a family group can be a major challenge.

Even when you’re paying for your tickets, you occasionally run into a problem: The display for your first choice flight and fare may tell you something like, “Only two seats left at this price.” If that happens, you have several choices:

  • Search for other flights that might have the seats you need at the same or close to the same fare.
  • Check to see if the flight you’re considering is also listed as a code-share flight on a partner airline.
  • Try a different online ticket search system. Inventories differ—if you’re on the airline’s site, try one of the big online agencies; if you’re on an agency site, try the airline.
  • Consider calling the airline’s reservation office—you’ll pay a fee, but a good reservationist might be able to “find” some inventory that isn’t displayed online.
  • Consider using a travel agent. Agents can sometimes get airlines to free up group seats that you couldn’t do online at all. You’ll pay a fee, but agents may have access to seat inventories you don’t find online. As an added bonus, an agent might be able to get advance seat assignments even if you’re on fares that don’t usually qualify.{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}In general, some combination of these techniques almost always works, at worst requiring only a few minor compromises.

The situation is totally different for frequent flyer seats, especially at the lowest restricted award levels. Finding even one seat anywhere close to the day and time you want to fly—and on a decent schedule—is tough enough; it’s extremely difficult for a couple and nearly impossible with larger family groups. Here, you have three alternatives:

  • If you can’t find seats on your primary airline, try a partner line or another airline in the same alliance. These days, the biggest lines are all in partnerships and alliances of some sort, and you can usually book partner line seats through your primary line’s website.
  • But that’s also a tough challenge, and more likely your only solution will be to split the family into groups of two or even singles. First, try flights at different times on the same day, maybe on different routings, maybe on two or more partner lines. If that doesn’t work, try for some seats a day ahead of or behind your primary date.
  • If you can’t get all the seats you need at the lower “fat chance” award level, take the ones you can get and spend double or more extra miles for seats you still need at the higher “decent chance” award level. Or if you can get all but one or two seats at the lower award level, consider buying cheap tickets for the rest of the seats.

Any time you can’t easily arrange the award trips you’re looking for, call the airline’s frequent flyer reservation office. Sure, you’ll pay a fee, but in my experience, those agents can often work out acceptable itineraries that you never find online.

A long-time reader who takes two kids to London every year has found that splitting into two couples is the only way he can use his miles efficiently. Usually, he says, he can find low-level award seats on two separate itineraries, for the same day, and on the same airline. But he sometimes has to book on two different days. Still, that’s better than using double miles or paying. Try it.

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