5 Ways to Get a Better Airplane Seat for Free

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Older couple talking to airline agent at the airport
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The worst part of spending hours sandwiched between a screaming child and a loud snorer who keeps slumping into your personal space is that you paid hundreds of dollars to be in that position.

And the airline wanted extra for an aisle or window seat.

Maybe you’re OK with that and refuse to pay seat selection fees and other egregious charges on general principle. But you don’t always have to suck it up.

Here’s how you can sometimes score a coveted seat without feeling swindled for it.

1. Check in early

Woman frustrated with her phone's battery life
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Keep the worm — what the early bird really wants is the best seat!

If you’re among the first to check in for your flight, you’ll have the widest selection of seat assignments available to the people who aren’t paying extra.

In general, you can check in up to 24 hours before your flight’s departure time. One simple strategy is to set a phone alarm that will go off 24 hours plus a few minutes before your departure.

That reminder will give you time to get the airline website pulled up on your phone, tablet or computer just before online check-in opens and snap up the choice seating assignment. You can still print your boarding pass at the airport.

In some cases, depending on the airline or your fare class, you may not be assigned a seat at check-in. When that happens, you’ll want to arrive at your departure gate early to speak with an agent and ask to confirm a seat assignment.

2. Fly Southwest

Southwest Airlines
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Southwest is famous for two big things: not charging for your first couple of checked bags and not playing seat referee. Passengers pick their own seats as they board, at no additional cost.

Other carriers can charge as much as $105 for seat selection, each way.

This does mean that earlier boarding groups have better odds of getting the seats they want. This means you should follow the prior tip: “The earlier you check in, beginning 24 hours before departure, the lower your boarding group and position will be,” Southwest says.

3. Join loyalty programs

Couple with a credit card
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Many airlines have programs designed to make you consistently book with them so you can rack up perks and points toward free travel. You usually don’t have to pay to join, although infrequent travelers may not see the point(s).

For instance, the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program awards you “A-List Status” by flying 25 flight segments (one-way trips) in a calendar year, after which you keep it for the rest of that year and the entire following year. A-List Status provides priority boarding privileges, among other things.

American Airlines AAdvantage members can use their miles to reserve specific seats.

Airline-branded credit cards can help pave the way to these perks, particularly if you sign up while there’s a valuable promotional offer.

4. Take less crowded flights

Airplane flight attendant
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Red-eye and midday departures are often seen as inconvenient so some people avoid them even when they may be the cheaper option. The same goes for midweek flights.

If you have somewhat flexible scheduling, you may be more likely to get your seat of choice on these flights.

Early morning flights have an added bonus: they’re less likely to suffer delays, according to Travel & Leisure.

5. Flying with kids? Just ask

Happy mother and daughter on a plane
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In June 2022, the U.S. Department of Transportation formally requested airlines “do everything in their power to ensure that children who are age 13 or younger are seated next to an accompanying adult with no additional charge.”

This came after a high number of complaints that children were being separated from their parents on flights, and the department says it will take additional action if asking nicely doesn’t improve the situation.

So if you book a flight for your family and adjoining seats aren’t available or aren’t assigned to you, contact the airline and ask if they can accommodate you. They may be willing to make a little extra effort these days.

If they’re not, you can file a complaint. You can do so through this webpage at the Department of Transportation, which also provides tips on booking and links to the practices of each major airline.

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