Don’t Pay For Seat Assignments – 5 Tips to Get That Premium Seat for Free!

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Airline seat assignment tips
Don’t get stuck with that terrible seat!

Seat Assignments – A New Revenue Generator

I flew US Airways back from Hawaii on Wednesday and noticed a disturbing trend. Well actually, I began noticing it well before Wednesday and you probably have too. In an effort to generate revenue from seat assignments, airlines are opening up an absurdly low number of seats for “free assignment” ahead of time.

Since I (have/had) elite status with US Airways, I was able to book myself into an exit row ahead of time on my flight from Hawaii, but I happened to be at the ticketing desk in Lihue for about an hour trying to work on a voucher issue (more on that later). During that time I watched about one hundred people check-in for their flight.

Splitting Up People on the Same Booking?

More than a few people who were booked on the same itinerary were given middle seats away from each other. This is because US Airways tries to sell seat upgrades and makes it difficult to select decent seats ahead of time. I lost count of how many times the check-in agent said, “Well you can get a Choice Seat for $99.” Crazy!

While there isn’t much that non-elites can do to get a better seat assignment ahead of time, I do have a few suggestions. Please don’t pay $99 just to get a seat that you should have been assigned ahead of time. (By the way more than a few people did pay!)

Airline seat assignment tips
Don’t pay for these seats!

Airline Seat Assignment Tips:

  • Check your reservation often – I have found that airlines will open up new seats periodically. I recommend checking your reservation every week or so to see if any better seats have opened up. On a recent flight my wife was flying alone and I was only able to get her a middle seat when booking the ticket. I then checked back two days later and a single window seat had opened up. Not perfect, but better.
  • Ask nicely when checking in – Some airlines allow the check-in agents to give you better seats. (Or better seats may have opened up since you last checked.) In general check-in agents can’t give you premium seats, but it can’t hurt to ask nicely.
  • Go to a lounge – If you have access to a particular airline’s lounge through a credit card or other means, it never hurts to ask in a lounge. These agents are generally more knowledgeable and will help if they can.
  • Ask at the gate – Every airline has a cut off point where they stop charging for preferred seats. For example, US Airways (and American I believe) stop charging one hour before the flight. Once that time has passed, all of those previously unpurchased seats should be available for “free assignment”.
  • Ask the flight attendants – Many times those “premium” seats are the last to fill up. If some of them go empty, it never hurts to ask a flight attendant if it is ok to move once boarding has finished.

These tricks even work on carriers like Frontier and Spirit, although they generally won’t give you exit rows at all. Of course, you can always fly on Southwest and deal with their “unique” boarding process. I personally don’t like it, but I know some of you do.


I generally don’t worry about seat assignments when flying without elite status since I am 98% successful getting a decent seat. Normally I am able to secure an exit row or at the very least an aisle where I can stretch my legs.

Did I miss anything? Do you have any suggestions? Let me know in the comments.

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  1. Thanks for sharing these tips. I flew JetBlue last week and I was surprised to hear the flight attendand say to a passenger that they could “upgrade” to the exit row seat by paying the fee, onboard. JetBlue does not seem to free up the paid premium seats an hour prior to the flight or even after everyone boarded the plane. Anybody has had this experience?

    • Yeah unfortunately some airlines are getting stricter about it, but it really depends on how full the flight is. It never hurts to ask once on board if you can move after takeoff or after the boarding door is closed. Sometimes they will allow it.

  2. If you’re assigned a middle seat, call the airline and ask to have your seat assignment removed. You can always get a middle seat in the back of the plane, but by waiting, you might be assigned an aisle or window in the preferred section.

  3. I wouldn’t call what I do a ‘trick’ per se – but with just cause you can be upgraded to some of the better seats for free. Being handicapped means that airplane aisles & I don’t get along, and often I end up falling flat on my face tripping over my leg. United upgraded me to E+ for an upcoming trip – even on the terribly small ERJ segments. However, airlines DO usually require visual proof of a handicap in order to keep those seats, but for me that’s not hard to do.


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