When you buy a ticket for a flight, airlines often conveniently fail to spell out all the other fees you’ll be responsible for, like the price of a crappy boxed meal, spotty wi-fi, and often, an actual seat assignment.
While checking in online for her JetBlue flight, our managing editor, Virginia, was recently faced with the dilemma of whether she should pay $US90 for a seat assignment just to guarantee herself a window seat; otherwise, she’d risk heading to the airport and relying on the whims of an airline attendant to grab a preferred seat.
“Is this scam new?!” she asked the Lifehacker staff. And judging by a few of our responses, it’s hardly a unique experience with airlines — I’ve also been in this uneasy position, faced with the option of buying an aisle seat to calm my fears of being saddled with a middle one or somehow being bumped from my flight altogether.
Why does this happen? Well, the obvious answer is that airlines likely understand this fear and use it to their advantage to make a little extra money off your ticket. (For more practical reasons, airlines may also block off sections of seats to make room for those with elite status, airline crew or those passengers with specific needs, like families and children so they aren’t separated.)
And truthfully, your options as a passenger are limited; yes, you could buy an upgrade and guarantee a particular seat for yourself. You might benefit from this, if, say, you want to be absolutely sure you’ll be sat in an aisle seat. Or if you just feel like having a little extra legroom and are able to pay a premium for it.
But if you’re willing to give up the absolute guarantee of an aisle or window seat, don’t give in. Why? Well, chances are you are not the only passenger in this situation. If you wait to receive an assignment, you might just receive an aisle or window anyway. (And if you are given a middle seat, you can then use this as an opportunity to buy an upgrade if you like.)
Depending on the airline, if you’ve just purchased a flight and don’t have a seat assignment, typically, you should wait until 24 hours before your flight when your check-in window opens (and blocked seats become available). Often, an airline will automatically assign you a seat at this time — which could very well mean a window or aisle seat — saving you from having to fork out a little extra cash on a premium seat.
If you don’t have a seat assignment after check-in begins, just wait until you arrive at the airport. I’ve had this exact situation happen on a flight and received an aisle seat assignment at the airline counter. (A customer support rep confirmed to me that you are guaranteed a seat on a flight, even if you don’t reserve one in advance.)
If you’re wondering whether you’ll score an aisle seat, consider your departure and arrival cities and when you’re departing; if you’re flying to or from a popular travel destination, the odds that you’re stuck with a middle seat might be higher. If your travel dates fall along weekdays, you might have better luck than travelling on heavy travel days like on Sundays.
And if you have specific needs, try contacting your airline by phone to inform them that you require special accomodations; depending on your exact needs, they may try to find you the best available seat. (I had food poisoning right before a 14-hour flight from Tokyo; I contacted the airline to inform them, and while they could not assign me a seat at that time, I very conveniently ended up with an aisle seat next to a restroom—which may have just been due to pure luck.)
And always, always download your airline’s app. You might be able to snag a better seat using the app, without having to wait in a long line at the gate.