Booking an airfare is much more difficult than it was in the past. Which cabin should you choose: basic economy or main? Would you prefer to pay “a la carte” or the “bundle”? How much would you pay to have a seat?
For families traveling with children, seat selection can be a difficult issue. Families can now pay hundreds of dollars to be seated together on round-trip flights by paying for “preferred” seats. These are the ones near the front, aisle, or window.
Are families forced to pay more for seats? Can these fees be reduced or avoided altogether? Why do they exist?
What is the seat selection fee?
Because they generate a lot revenue for airlines, seat selection fees are becoming more common. According to an industry analysis firm IdeaWorksCompany’s report, Spirit and Frontier made roughly half their revenue from “ancillary fee” in 2020.
Consumers can also be misled by ancillary fees. One 2020 study published in Marketing Science found that those who were charged ancillary fees at checkout ended up spending more than those who knew the total cost upfront. Although it may seem small, a $20 charge to select a seat can quickly add up and make an otherwise cheap flight expensive.
The U.S. Department of Transportation issued a notice in an effort to increase transparency about some ancillary airline fees such as carry-on bag fees. However, seat selection fees have been given a pass so far. This means that they won’t be changing anytime soon.
How do I pick seats
Do airlines have to accommodate families together? No. No. Parents are faced with two choices: Either they spend the money to ensure that the entire family is seated together, or they can skip selecting a seat and risk being separated.
You can choose a seat without paying too much.
You can choose seats in the rear half of the plane. These seats are usually cheaper or free to choose, and they are often the last ones that passengers will select.
Choose an airline that charges lower for seat selection (see below).
Avoid economy fares. These often have restrictions on seat selection and can make it difficult to travel with family.
No matter if you’re flying solo or with your family of 10, seat selection is always an option. Although it might be nerve-wracking to travel to the airport with no confirmed seats, many families do so to save money.
You can skip the seat selection
Although airlines may make it appear that families must select seats to be able to sit together, this is not the case. Gate agents are willing to work with families, even if they don’t have seat assignments, to ensure that everyone is seated together as much as possible. This might mean that the family is moved further back on the plane. However, young children won’t be left behind with strangers for the sake of everyone.
This means that you can avoid seat selection and (usually), remain seated with your companions.
Nerdy tip – Skipping seat selection does not mean that you won’t be able to get one for yourself or your family. This does not mean you won’t get one.
This step may not be as simple as it seems. Many airlines include seat selection in the checkout process. This makes it appear that selecting and paying for a seat is an essential step. Frontier Airlines warns you if you skip selecting a seat. This makes it clear why Frontier Airlines is so great and burys the “no thank” option in the corner span>
You can skip paying these fees if you prefer. Don’t be afraid of the warnings and pop-ups that airlines use to make it appear mandatory.
Which airlines are the most expensive?
Although discount airlines such as Spirit and Frontier are the pioneers of a la carte airfare, traditional airlines have joined the fray to be competitive. Some airlines do not charge the same fees or charge extra for seat selection.
NerdWallet compared several flights across major U.S. airlines to determine the cost of seat selection fees. It was clear that some airlines charge more for seat selection than others.
Southwest Airlines is excluded because it’s an exception: It doesn’t charge for or allow seat selection.
Which airlines charge no fees for seat selection? Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines are both the only airlines that offer seat selection for no charge, even though they may not be at the rear of the plane.
American, Frontier, Spirit, and Spirit all charged over $10 per person for seat selections, even for poor seats. If you don’t want to pay such high fees, passengers should avoid these airlines or the seat selection process.
Be on the lookout for upgrades
Another innovation in airline travel over the past decade was charging extra for “main-cabin preferred” (or similar), seats that provide less than a few inches more legroom. These seats are often similar to regular economy seats, but they can be expensive.
Exit row seats on a Delta flight from Atlanta, Washington to Seattle were $130 each way. That’s $260 more for a flight that cost $358. For long-legged passengers with a longer leg, this 73% markup may be justified, but it is not worth the cost for most travelers.
It’s even more confusing that many airlines offer “premium economy” (or “main cabin comfort”) seats, which can provide benefits such as free drinks or priority boarding. These seats have different benefits depending on the airline. Some airlines offer more spacious, comfortable seats while others provide standard seats with a complimentary alcoholic beverage and snack plate.
These seats are usually not worth the price for children who have short legs or don’t need a cocktail.
Because it is free, airlines want to charge passengers to choose a seat. Many airlines have pushed harder to make “seat selection fees” an optional charge on most fares.
This is a difficult decision for families. It’s not easy to be separated from your preschooler after a six-hour flight. It’s not always so easy. Many families end up sitting together because they don’t have to pay seat selection fees.
Some people find the peace of mind that comes from knowing exactly where their entire family will be sitting is worth the cost. Others prefer to avoid the fee and rely on fellow passengers (and gate agents) to move around.
Risk tolerance is the real issue.