How to choose a seat on a plane and avoid the costs for it
(NerdWallet) – What was once a simple part of buying a plane ticket has become a mess in recent years. Do we have to pay for more leg room? Should you pay at all? Do you have to choose a seat to get on the plane? These are legitimate questions, and airlines do little to help answer them at checkout.
Here we offer simple and straightforward advice on how to choose airline seats or how to skip seat selection altogether. Airlines have different rules and costs associated with seat selection, but all share many similarities. Mastering this basic but important aspect of flying can make your trip more comfortable and save you a surprising amount of money.
The big exception here is Southwest Airlines, which does not follow industry seat selection conventions.
4 steps to select seats on airplanes
Step 1: Choose an airline with lower seat selection fees
Let’s back up a bit: yes, many airlines now charge a fee to select seats in advance. This is a relatively new reality in the world of travel and is not uniform from one airline to another or even from one trip to another. Therefore, it’s good to know which airlines are charging customers exorbitant fees and which are keeping them low or avoiding them altogether.
We determined this seat selection fee by looking at multiple fares and averaging the cost of choosing a seat near the window at the front of the plane and choosing a middle seat near the front of the plane. ‘back.
- Airlines like American Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and Frontier Airlines charged high fees for the two window seats near the front of the plane and the middle seats near the back.
- Delta Air Lines and United Airlines only charged for the nicest seats.
- Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines charged nothing at all.
So you can save yourself some hassle by choosing an airline with more reasonable rules and fees. You don’t want to end up on the fifth payment screen and find you owe an extra $40 for your seat.
” Learn more: How to deal with expensive airline seat selection fees
Step 2: Skip seat selection if you need to pay
Here’s the tricky underside of seat selection fees: you don’t usually have to pay them, but the airlines really want you to. This becomes especially confusing with basic economy fares, which differ from one airline to another and often do not include free seat selection. But regardless, you should completely ignore seat selection if the airline is trying to charge you.
Here is an example. When you try to book a basic United economy fare, you may find that every available seat is chargeable, even the crappy ones in the back.
You might think you have to shell out an extra $14 on this flight, but you don’t: you can skip the seat selection process altogether and save that money.
Does skipping seat selection mean you might not get a seat at all? Definitely, no. You will likely be assigned a seat at check-in (although you should still skip it if the airline tries to charge a fee) or, at the very least, at the gate.
Again: you don’t have to select a seat to get a seat. You might end up stuck with a suboptimal if you choose to ignore it. It is important to note that if you are traveling with other people, there is no guarantee that your seats will be allocated together if you choose to forgo paying for seat selection, so you will need to take this inconvenience into account in your decision.
Step 3: Weigh the pros and cons of paying to upgrade your seat
Most airlines now offer three categories of economy fares:
- Basic Economy. These fares are very restrictive and generally do not include free seat selection.
- Economy (sometimes called “main cabin”). These are the normal economy fares.
- Economy of the best quality (each airline has its own name). Premium Economy Fares often include perks like extra leg room and a free drink.
Some airlines even offer a fourth category:
- Preferred Economy (or similar). These are usually economy seats with preferential placement, such as near the front of the aircraft and on aisles and windows.
When you purchase one of these fares, your airline will likely ask you if you want an upgrade. Sometimes it will be an interstitial screen during checkout, like this section from Delta:
Most often, this choice will be integrated into the seat selection screen. For example, if you select a Comfort+ (premium economy) seat on Delta, you will see the cost of upgrading to that seat along with some of the benefits.
Do you ever feel tired of making decisions? Don’t worry, here are some simple rules to follow:
- If you’re not 100% sure of your plans, upgrade from Basic Economy Class to Main Cabin for better change/cancellation policies.
- If you must have a window or aisle seat, upgrade from Basic Economy Class to Economy Class or Preferred Economy Class.
- If you need more legroom, upgrade from the Main Cabin (or Main Cabin for preference) to Premium Economy Class.
- If in doubt, do not upgrade. These fees may seem small, but they can add up quickly, especially on return flights.
Keep in mind that different airlines have different names for these different upgrade options.
Step 4: Check that your seat selection is correct
Assuming you selected a seat and didn’t choose to skip it in step 2, you’ll want to make sure it’s a decent and comfortable option. This is especially important on long international flights where the difference between a cramped seat near the bathroom and a bulkhead seat with more legroom can make a huge difference.
Some airlines include seat information during the seat selection process, but remember that they are trying to sell you an upgrade, so take that with a grain of salt. Instead, check out a third-party website like SeatGuru.
SeatGuru includes detailed information about every seat in the fleets of most major airlines. It features a color-coded map that lets you easily spot the best and worst seats on board.
The easiest way to find your aircraft is to use the search tool on the SeatGuru homepage.
Fair warning: SeatGuru is not the most user-friendly site. It’s still so much better than all the competition that it remains the go-to resource for fleet-specific seating information.
” Learn more: What to Look for in Airplane Seat Reviews
Key points to remember
Don’t be overwhelmed by the learning process of airplane seat selection. Airlines did this on purpose to sell their more “premium” seating options. Understanding these basics can save you a lot of money.
When in doubt, keep it simple. Skip seat selection altogether if the airline asks you to pay, knowing that you will always be assigned a seat before takeoff. And don’t upgrade your seat unless you absolutely have to.
Seats are just one of the ways airlines have turned buying air travel into a range of additional fees. Reducing your total cost takes a bit of know-how and navigation, but it’s worth it.
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