Switching seats on a plane? Why I often say ‘no’ to swapping seats

by Feb 28, 2023Planning

People On The Plane Looking to Swap Seats

I often say “no” to swapping seats on a plane. I do get asked to switch seats on a plane often enough, and sometimes, though infrequently, I am the one doing the asking. There is an etiquette to seat swapping to keep the skies friendly.

Last year, on a flight home from a photography assignment in Alaska, I was already seated and comfortable when a couple got on board holding hands, just before the doors closed. They looked frazzled, but dutifully took their seats, the man was next to me at the window, the woman a few rows back on the aisle. They didn’t ask, but I offered to switch seats so they could sit together. The woman was shocked.

“You’d do that?” she asked. Of course, I told her. And here’s why: My aisle seat and her aisle seat were essentially the same. If I moved to her seat, she moved to mine. She got to sit next to her partner, and I got to pick up some very valuable karma points. It was essentially the same seat: on an aisle, still toward the front of the plane where I prefer to be, and in the same class I had booked.

Most of the time, though, I am the one saying “no” to a last-minute seat-switching request, and it’s not because I am a jerk. At least I don’t think I am. I have been known to voluntarily give up a seat in first class to a military veteran, or to someone I perceive needs more care, to go sit in that person’s economy seat. It doesn’t hurt that in each instance flight attendants took notice and treated me like a king in economy for the duration of the flight. But that is my choice. I was never asked. And where you sit in a plane, together or not, is often about planning and choice. Not always, but often enough.

Flying is stressful enough, and seats choices aren’t often free

First, let’s see if we can agree on one thing: The airlines, as a collective, continue to make flying rather unpleasant and stressful for everyone. Delayed or canceled flights aren’t even the half of it. Want a snack other than pretzels and water when you are flying? You’ll have to pay for it. Want to travel with more than one piece of luggage? You’ll have to pay for it. Want a specific seat with more leg and elbow room? You’ll have to pay for it.

Which is why it doesn’t matter if you are a mom with two kids or a couple on a honeymoon. If you ask me to move, I’d like you to make that request with one thing clearly in mind: When I book a ticket for a seat on a plane, I have chosen my seat carefully and booked far enough in advance that I had seat choices. I paid for and value the location of my chosen seat. I work hard to get my preferred aisle seat. If you are going to ask me to move, in most cases I will consider doing so only if I can get a seat that is equivalent to or better than the one I paid for and reserved.

Want me to move from my aisle row in premium economy to a middle seat in regular economy so you and your traveling companion can sit together? I’m sorry, but that is not a reasonable request to make.

Wondering if I might move from a seat in business class to a premium economy seat simply because you got a last-minute upgrade, but your wife didn’t (stunningly, this has happened to me). Really? The way I see it, you have two options in this case — Option one: You offer the person sitting next to your wife in premium economy your seat in business so you can sit next to your wife. OR, option two, you move your wife to business class and you sit in premium economy. Anything else is just not a reasonable request to make of anyone. And these days flying is about being reasonable and courteous, not expecting others to bend to your whims.

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When my wife and I travel together and only one of us gets an upgrade, I know it will always be her sitting in business class since I would have it no other way. And she certainly would not have the temerity to ask someone seated in business class to move to my premium economy seat because, well, we want to sit together.

Now, I do understand that life happens when traveling. Flights get delayed or canceled, airlines change aircraft, and sometimes you end up on a flight not of your own choosing, sitting rows apart from the person you are traveling with, in a seat not of your choosing. I get it. It has happened to Therese and myself more than once, and it will certainly happen again in our traveling lifetime.

But here’s the thing: We don’t get angry at fellow passengers. It’s not their fault we are now in different seats than planned and now we are not sitting together. We do our utmost to make the best of the situation. Sure, we too will sometimes ask for a reasonable swap if the seat is comparable so we can sit together. But we will never ask someone to take a seat that is worse than the one they are already in, ever. And, if the person says “no,” we smile, say “we understand,” and that is that. I mean, life apart for a few hours really is OK.

Swapping seats on a plane with passengers boarding

Guidelines for making a seat exchange request

If you are the person asking me to exchange my seat for another, here are ways to improve your chances of me agreeing.

  1. Be polite and don’t get insistent or try to guilt trip me. If I perceive that you are acting entitled, rude or brusque with your request in any way, I guarantee you my answer will be a firm “NO! “
  2. Acknowledge that moving from the seat I am already settled into will be an inconvenience. And having to move my carryon luggage from the overhead above my reserved seat to the seat you are now asking me to sit is also an inconvenience. If I agree, offer to help move my things.
  3. Be grateful if I say “yes.” Say “thank-you.” A lot. On a recent flight to Chile, my wife was asked to switch seats so a couple could sit together. It meant Therese was moving from an aisle seat to a window — not her preferred choice — but the seat class remained the same. She actually went to look at the other seat first before accepting – her right really since it was a long overnight flight — and only then agreed to the swap. The couple not only expressed extreme gratitude, but upon arrival, the woman also thanked Therese with a gift of a premium dark chocolate bar she had in her carryon. These kind of interactions make it far more likely Therese will consider a future seat exchange request in a more positive light. Good karma helps everyone.
  4. Do not get angry if I say “no.” Understand I paid for my seat, planned in advance, and chose it for a reason. My travel comfort is no less important than yours, and I should not suffer for your lack of planning. Please respect that.

Get the seats you want by planning

Don’t wait until the last minute to book a flight if you can help it, and don’t just book the cheapest ticket, where the airline assigns you a seat at the gate, and then expect passengers will just move to accommodate you.

For some reason, it appears that increasingly passengers who don’t plan ahead or seek to book the cheapest tickets possible are also believing other passengers who did plan and pay extra will be willing to make themselves uncomfortable if asked. Budget travel and last-minute flying is fine, if you accept the consequences and don’t try to transfer that burden to a passenger who has planned and paid to sit in a specific seat.

If you want to ensure you get a specific seat, and you want to ensure you and your significant other, children, or friends are sitting together on a flight, there is good news. Almost every airline these days allows you to select your seats upon booking, for a fee, depending on your status. If, for some reason when you booked you were not able to select seats, take the time right then to call the airline or its partner to get your seat assignments taken care of. And barring that, simply check in early enough and request your seat assignments then.

You don’t get to sit in my seat without asking

Fortunately, since my wife and I are often in early boarding groups (the one perk of flying too much), we rarely encounter someone I will call a “seat-jacker.” But it has happened to us in the past, and there are numerous accounts on social media about someone simply taking another person’s reserved seat because they seem to feel entitled.

So, there is one more thing I would very much like you to understand: I expect to sit in the seat I reserved. If, when I board, you are sitting in my seat, I will ask you politely, but firmly to move. It would be a far better approach for you to sit in your assigned seat, and then ask me if I would be willing to swap seats with you.

Swapping Seats Flying To Buenos Aires Michael

That’s me, on a packed flight from Salta to Buenos Aires, looking back at my wife.

Ask before you board if your seating needs are important

Perhaps you are traveling with your kids or a family member you need to sit with for health or other important reasons, but now you are not together. Take the time to ask about seating changes at the gate. Patiently and calmly explain your situation to the gate crew and ask if there is anything they can do to help you. I have heard countless gripes from families who complain the airline did not seat parents with children, but if you pay for the cheap seats and cannot choose seats, you don’t always have a choice. If your seat is important for reasons like this, pay for your needs and make advance choices. Assuming last-minute accommodation by the airline or others is not always an option.

A parting thought on airplane seat swapping

I’ll leave you with this final thought: The seat assignment printed on your boarding pass is yours and yours alone. Unless a member of the flight crew instructs you to move, you are never required to give up your seat or exchange your seat with another passenger. Whether you agree to exchange your seat for another on the plane if asked by a fellow passenger is entirely up to you. Sometimes, it is the right thing and the compassionate thing to do. And sometimes it is not. Just always keep any negotiations regarding a seat exchange polite and civil. Travel is stressful enough without adding to it over a seat choice.

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9 Comments

  1. Jason Engelage

    I was on an airplane once and got up to use the restroom moments before the seatbelt sign came on so I took a different seat three rows up from the lavatory and no one cared. if anyone had said anything I would have used the seatbelt sign as my excuse for doing so. Both were window seats, so I had the one I wanted both times.

    Reply
    • Michael

      If the seats were not booked / occupied by someone else, and they were in the same class as you booked, typically all is good. Count yourself fortunate.

      Reply
  2. DBN

    I agree with almost all of this. Except the “Equal or better” part.

    Equal is NOT SUFFICIENT. It can only be for a better seat. Seats that appear equal on paper often aren’t in reality. The equal seat may have a customer of size next to it. Or be broken. Or have a broken entertainment system. Or a drunk person in the seat next to it. Worse, it may be equal in terms of window to window or aisle to aisle..but it may be further back, or worse, further up causing me to have to swim upstream to get my bags. Or perhaps it’s near the toilets. Either way, “equal” is not enough incentive to get unsettled and move.

    As such, if everything is fine where I am, I won’t take the risk in swapping to an “equal” seat. No good deed goes unpunished, and I hear plenty of stories of people who tried to be helpful, only to regret it in hours long misery.

    “Equal” is not enough to play unite the couple. Want seats together? Book them together. Got hosed by the airline? Then take it up with the airline. The failure to plan won’t become an inconvenience on my part. Your bad luck and unfortunate situation won’t be transferred to me. It will remain your problem and shouldn’t be dumped on someone else.

    Your relationship will survive if you are seated together or not. Solo travelers are not obligated to accommodate couples.

    As such, if everything is fine where I am, I won’t take the risk in swapping to an “equal” seat. Unless you are offering to get me out of a bad situation like a middle seat, or into a good situation like First or Business class, I am staying put. And I am not offering you reasons why. No explanations are owed. It’s my seat and that’s that.

    Reply
  3. Nuala Galbari

    Always ask a crew member to make a change request. There are some security reasons, airline requirements and physical or other reasons why a seat change may not be permitted. As noted, you should never be impolite and always discuss the request quietly, without disturbing other passengers. If half the airplane passengers decided they didn’t like their seats and cause problems, the flight would never depart. Please consider others at all times.

    Some reasons you may not be able to change seats:
    1. You may not be fit to operate an emergency exit window or door.
    2. Airline or FAA regulations usually prevent you from switching from coach to first class, unless you have a first class ticket.
    3. If you are pregnant or have a baby on your knee, there are seats that will not be suitable.
    4. If you have a medical or other condition, you may not be able to sit in certain seats.
    5. If a passenger suffers from claustrophobia, the middle or window seats can exacerbate the situation — so please do not be selfish, and inconsiderate of such things; a passenger often books a seat with such considerations in mind.

    There are other reasons that may not be obvious to you. Often, passengers are kind-hearted, such as this author, and offer to let another have his seat. A passenger who does not travel well may have booked a
    seat near the bathroom for this reason.

    Please try to consider others.

    Contact your flight attendant with any request. The F/A will usually try to help, where time permits. Causing an issue
    during the boarding phase of a full flight is both disconcerting for others and for the flight crew.

    Thank you for your consideration.
    Former flight attendant/trainer.

    Reply
    • Michael

      Thank you so much for adding this comment. Very good advice!

      Reply
    • DBN

      Honestly, one doesn’t even need a reason to keep what is theirs.

      Reply
  4. Betsy Winn

    Hear, hear! If I am on a long flight, I want, and will pay for a window seat. Do not ask me to switch unless it is for another window seat. My comfort is as important as yours.

    Reply
    • Michael

      Thank you for your comment Betsy.

      Reply
  5. Z

    A very good topic to write. I too like the isle seat. My seat mates won’t like it if I get sick know them by sitting next to window.

    Reply

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About The Author

Michael Hodgson

Adventurer, curious traveler, photojournalist, and lover of gin. Winner of multiple gold, silver, and bronze medals from NATJA for travel writing & photography excellence -- earning medals every year since 2018. Gold medal winner 2021 to 2023 in the IFWTWA Travel Photography Awards, Best in Show award winner in the 2023 photography awards, and winner of the Excellence in Journalism award in 2022. Winner of a Juror's Award and Best in Show in the 2023 California State Fair photography competition. Still searching for the perfect gin and tonic.