When David Masunaga flew on United Airlines from Honolulu to Paris recently, a passenger traveling with his young son asked if Masunaga would switch seats. As is often the case these days, the father and child couldn't get seat assignments together, and Masunaga, who teaches high school math in Hawaii, was presented with a carefully curated bag of snacks as a thank-you for trading.
"It was wonderful," he says. "I had lots of stuff to nosh on while waiting for my connecting flight."
Finding seats together when you fly isn't easy these days unless you pay sometimes exorbitant fees for "main cabin extra," "economy plus" or other "preferred" economy seats.
What's causing this? Many U.S.-based airlines hold back a large number of standard economy seats even if the flight is half-empty. They do this in part to accommodate their best customers (if you have status in a frequent-flier program, you can usually get first crack at those coveted aisle seats) and in part to earn extra revenue from people willing to pay for the extra legroom seats at the front of economy class, or to pay for any seat assignment at all.
On some heavily trafficked flights, if you book close to departure you might find only scattered single seats available in the "regular economy" section, but lots of seats in the "plus" section for an upcharge that can cost $50 or more each way. Even if you book far ahead, even if the flight isn't sold out, only middle seats or premium seats are shown as available.
And it's not just parents with small kids. What about someone traveling with an autistic adult or with an older passenger suffering from dementia?
Some tips to get seats together
• Book as far ahead as possible. Almost too obvious to mention; this isn't always possible but it helps.
• Enter your child's age when making a reservation. You won't get a discount, but one major airline told me that if a child is 12 or younger, its computer system will attempt to place the accompanying adult in an adjacent seat the day before departure. Other airlines may do this too.
• Speak to the airline. If you can't find seats together online, call the airline to see if representatives will open up adjacent seats.
• Get to the airport very early. If none of the above worked, speak to the check-in agent. The earlier you do this before departure, the better your chances of snagging a seat that might be held back for elite-status passengers.
• Change plans or airlines. Choose flights offering seats together, even if that means changing plans or buying a more expensive flight.
• Fly on Southwest, which doesn't offer seat assignments, but gives priority boarding to parents with kids 4 or younger and people with special needs.
• If none of the above worked, bribe someone to switch. A Starbucks gift card, a round of drinks or a movie pass might do the trick.