Airplane Seat Switch Etiquette & Survey Data — Can You (and Should You) Change Seats With Someone Else on a Flight? (2024)
Few things cause as much discomfort as when a stranger asks to switch seats on a flight. Their seat is probably worse than your current seat, and you need to answer quickly. Having been on both sides, I sympathize with those asked.
This article will provide tips on what to do when someone asks you to switch. It will also detail proper etiquette for asking someone else to switch as well as when to ask a flight attendant if you can move to an empty seat.
Table of Contents
Reasons I Would Consider Switching Seats With a Stranger
Never feel obligated to switch seats. In all likelihood, you booked early enough to pick a good seat. You may even have paid more money for your seat. You are not responsible for somebody else failing to pay more so their group can sit together.
As someone who pays more for an aisle seat towards the front of the plane, I rarely want to give it up. Here are reasons I may consider it, however.
So a Family With Young Kids Cant Sit Together
Young children should not be separated from their families on flights. At the minimum, they should be next to at least one parent or responsible adult. Separating a child essentially forces a stranger to babysit the kid for the flight.
That is probably the main reason people ask to switch seats. While I would consider it, I am not blindly switching. For example, I am not moving from my aisle seat in the front of the plane to a middle seat in the back. I would move to another aisle seat or a window seat, but it has to be a reasonable request.
That is an airline issue, but it is getting better. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently urged U.S. airlines to sit children 13 and younger with an accompanying adult for free. United Airlines recently announced it will let children under 12 sit with an adult for an additional cost. Frontier Airlines and American Airlines announced a similar policy, but it includes children under 14.
Assuming other airlines follow, you should get fewer requests when flying from families with young kids.
So Someone Can Sit With Their Caretaker
I view this like I view the family switching request. I will consider switching as long as the seat is not a massive downgrade. I am sympathetic to those with special needs, but I am not responsible for their seating arrangement.
If Their Seat is Comparable to Mine or Better
Here is how I rank plane seats from best to worst.
Some people may rank the window over the aisle, but most people agree the middle seat is the worst. Even though I prefer the aisle to the window, I would still consider it in a swap.
Also consider these things.
- Class Level from Best to Worst (First, Business, Premium Economy, Economy)
- Front or Back of the Plane
- Proximity to a Lavatory (negative for most people)
Take those into consideration when offered a seat swap. You should always accept a switch if you are in economy and they are in first class. Maybe you are in the middle seat and they offer you a window or an aisle. Those are circumstances I would always switch with no questions asked.
Other situations are trickier. I may switch to a middle exit-row seat if I am in an aisle seat in the very back of the plane. Exit-row seats have more legroom, and some are considered premium economy and include free alcoholic beverages.
If their seat is comparable to mine (in the aisle a few rows forward or a few rows back), I may switch. It depends on the reason. Did I already find overhead bin space? Did I settle into my seat?
Recent Survey Results on Switching Seats With a Stranger
Under which circumstances would you give up an aisle or window seat you paid for to switch to a worse seat such as a middle or back of the plane?
Here are the results:
- So a family can sit together. — 35.06%
- So a couple without children can sit together. — 10.20%
- Both. — 29.23%
- Neither. — 25.50%
As the results show, most people would consider moving to a worse seat so a family can sit together.
Reasons I Am Probably Not Switching Seats With a Stranger
Here are reasons I am probably saying no immediately to a seat switch request.
So a Couple Can Sit Together
This includes couples with no children. Unless they offer me a considerable seat upgrade (economy to premium economy), I am not switching seats. That includes switching to a comparable aisle or window seat.
The couple could have paid to sit together. If they booked late and no seats were available next to each other, they can deal with sitting apart for a few hours.
In the unlikely event I am in the middle seat between a couple, I would switch to the window or aisle if asked.
If a Single Person Asks Me
There is likely no scenario where I would say yes to switching seats with a single person. Their only reason for moving would be to score a better seat.
If Their Seat is a Downgrade
As previously detailed, I would only consider a slight downgrade so a family with kids can sit together or someone can sit with their caretaker. I am saying no to any other downgrade requests, regardless of the reason. That means no moving from an aisle seat to a middle seat in the back.
Asking Someone to Switch Seats With You
I rarely ask another passenger to switch seats. When I do, I always have a good reason with a comparable or better seat to trade. Additionally, I avoid making a few critical mistakes.
Have a Good Reason
Wanting to sit with your kids is a valid reason. Wanting to sit with your significant other is not a valid reason. People are much more likely to agree to a switch if your reason involves kids or someone who relies on your care.
I am guilty of having asked other passengers to switch seats so I could sit next to my girlfriend. We always book the window and aisle and hope no one books the middle seat. On the rare occasion someone is in the middle, we offer the aisle or window seat, which many would consider an upgrade.
Offer a Comparable or Better Seat in Return
It’s worth repeating; No one wants a middle seat in the back of the plane.
This one is much more important than your reason for switching. Your seat must be appealing. Do not inconvenience somebody else with a crummy seat so you can sit with your group. I recommend only offering comparable or better seats. While I am a bit of a hypocrite for asking people to switch seats for my girlfriend and me, I am at least offering them a seat upgrade.
Are you in first class while your family is in economy? Assuming your wife has not already killed you, no one in economy is going to say no to your switch request. Do you have a middle bulkhead seat at the front of the plane? Some may see value in it and give up an aisle or window seat further back.
The point is your seat must have some kind of value.
What Not To Do
Here are things to avoid when asking another passenger to switch seats.
- Do Not Sit in the Seat You Want
- Do Not Be Persistent in Asking
Never sit in somebody else’s seat before they board. It is rude and likely to be very off-putting to the other passenger. Wait until they arrive at your row and then ask.
You also need to take no for an answer. Drop it if someone says no to your request. You are not entitled to someone else’s seat, so do not pressure them after they say no.
Asking the Flight Attendant to Switch to an Empty Seat
You’re in a middle seat in the back of the plane, and the doors close. You notice there are a ton of empty seats towards the front of the plane. No one else can get on the plane, so those seats will be empty for the entire flight. Here are your options.
- Switch Without Asking
- Ask the Flight Attendant to Switch
I do not recommend switching without asking. Flight attendants know which seats are empty. They will probably catch you quickly and ask you to move back to your assigned seat.
Instead, you should ask the flight attendant to switch. If the empty seat is in the same cabin as you are in, they may let you switch. It depends on the plane’s weight distribution and if you moving would affect it.
If the seat is in an upgraded cabin, they are probably going to say no. For example, premium economy seats cost more than economy seats. First class seats cost more than business class seats. They may allow you to pay for the upgrade on the flight, but they are not going to let you switch for free.
Yes, as long as both parties agree to the switch.
It depends. I recommend only switching if the new seat is comparable to or better than your current seat. If it is a family asking you to switch, I may take a slightly worse seat so they can sit together.
No, do not do that.
You can, but the flight attendant is probably going to make you move back. Instead, ask before moving.
It depends on the person, but most people agree the middle seat is the worst. Comparable seats are an aisle for an aisle or a window for a window in the same area of the plane. Think about what you value in a seat. Is being near the front of the plane important to you? Would you sit in a middle seat if it includes extra legroom?
The Vacationer’s Final Thoughts
Use common sense when considering a seat switch. Do not let anyone pressure you to switch. Never accept a significant downgrade. When asking someone else to switch, make sure you offer them a good seat in return. If they say no, do not be persistent.
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