Do You Have to Switch Seats If Someone Asks?

May 23, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Several years ago, I was getting ready to fly to another city and had just boarded the plane. I had paid for an upgrade to an Economy Plus seat, because I like the extra legroom.

(Note: If you want to be able to board early, get a little extra legroom, and make sure you get a space for your bag in the overhead bin, upgrade to Economy Plus. You also get to choose your seat, ensuring you get your preferred seat. Totally worth it!)

I had booked my ticket and selected my seat two months earlier because I’m rather particular about which seats I get and don’t get. I’m a big guy, so I prefer an aisle seat. When the day came, I boarded the plane, found my seat, and settled in. This was a 5-seat row, with three seats on one side and two on the other.

Several minutes later, a grandmother and her two younger granddaughters came in. The girls, 9 and 11, sat in my row, and her grandmother was across the aisle in the window seat; her seatmate had not arrived yet.

“Would you switch with me?” the grandmother asked. “I bought these tickets, but I didn’t think they would split us up.” Airlines often split up passengers and charge fees for seat selection so you can sit together.

You may be asked to switch seats on a plane, but you don't always have to do it.“But I paid for an upgrade so I wouldn’t have a window seat,” I said. I felt like a bit of a jerk. After all, the woman wanted to sit with her granddaughters, which I understood. But there’s no point in paying for an upgrade if you’re still going to get stuck in what you tried to escape from.

I wasn’t sure what to do. It wasn’t like these were tiny children who needed adult supervision. And it’s not like she was at the back end of the plane. But I wondered if I was being selfish. Where was the line between “you should have selected your seats when you bought your tickets” and “when people ask for help, you help them?”

The day was saved, however, when the woman’s seatmate showed up. The grandmother explained what was going on, and the other woman agreed to switch with her so I could switch with the grandmother. Problem solved!

Should You Have to Switch Seats?

We were fortunate in this case. The seatmate was more than willing to be accommodating. She told me she actually preferred the window seat, and she was short enough that the legroom didn’t make a difference to her.

But there are other cases where two people traveling together want to sit together for the plane ride. And even though they’re going to spend every waking hour together for the next several days or weeks, they can’t bear to be more than 30 feet apart for a few hours.

In a recent travel etiquette article on SmarterTravel.com, Caroline Morse Teel tackled the question, Do you have to switch seats if someone asks?.

In short, Teel says no, you’re not required to switch seats (unless you’re specifically asked to do by the flight attendant), because you might be giving up a good seat for a terrible seat. As she said:

Even if you feel like being a good person, don’t agree to anything until you check out where the replacement seat is located. My stance is that the person looking to swap should always offer a seat change of greater or equal value to the person they want to switch with.

For example, if a couple is seated in two window seats and they want to be together, they should trade one of their window seats for a middle seat. If someone is asking you to switch your emergency exit row aisle seat for their back-of-the-plane middle seat, you can decline without feeling guilty. Simply explain that you selected the seat during the booking process and would prefer to keep it. Be polite but firm. You don’t owe any further explanation for your decision.

However, bear in mind that you might be sitting next to a very grumpy person for the next few hours. But they’re the ones who are seeking to inconvenience you, and you’re only choosing to not be inconvenienced for their sake. That’s not your fault or your problem.

What if you want someone to switch with YOU?

So what if the shoe’s on the other foot — or the plane’s on the other tarmac; this is a travel blog, after all — and you want someone to switch with you?

First of all, ask the other person if they would like to switch. Don’t just plop yourself down in the other seat so you can ask once they show up. The example on SmarterTravel came from a person who said she showed up at her seat and found the other person already in it, so she felt pressured to make the switch.

Don’t be that person though. Go to your already-assigned seat and ask the other person politely. Some people will get their hackles up if they feel they’re being pressured, or if you’ve already “stolen” their seat, and they’ll complain to the flight crew. You’ll be the one in the wrong, so you’ll be forced to move anyway and it can be embarrassing.

Second, be prepared to be generous. Remember, if you’re in an upgrade section, the other person paid to be there, so this isn’t just a question of buying someone a coffee or lunch. Some of those upgrades can be a couple hundred dollars, so you’d better make it worth their while.

Third, if the other person refuses, that’s their prerogative. Remember, you’re asking them to do you a favor, and it’s perfectly within their right to refuse. Sure, they’re being selfish, but it’s not like your request was for the greater good either. So be prepared for them to say no and don’t get upset with them for it: It’s going to be a long plane ride already, and you don’t need the tension and stress.

Have you ever been in this situation? How did you handle it? Do you have any other travel etiquette questions or your own stories? Share them with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream, and be sure to connect with us on Instagram.

Photo credit: Christian George (PublicDomainPictures.net, Creative Commons 0)

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