TPG Points Lab: How to boost your chances of getting a better seat by 91% or more

Sep 27, 2019

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The Points Lab is TPG’s newest team, dedicated to using data and leveraging technology to create resources, tools and analyses to help readers more effectively and efficiently use their points and miles. After covering Lufthansa first-class award availability and Marriott peak/off-peak pricing, today we’ll analyze seat alerts in ExpertFlyer.

Airline seat selection can be a frustrating endeavor. Window or aisle? Preferred seat or standard seat? Pay extra or not? Should I not even select a seat and hope to score a great one at check in? In many cases, your ideal seat may not be available when you go to book. And who has time to manually check a seat map multiple times a day leading up to a flight in the hopes that a better one opens up?

Fortunately, there’s a way to do this automatically: ExpertFlyer (which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures).

Today I’ll take you through exactly how to set seat alerts for upcoming flights and share some data on just how successful these alerts tend to be. Spoiler alert: they’re quite good.

In This Post

Overview of ExpertFlyer

Before we dive into the data, let’s start with a quick overview of ExpertFlyer. The platform is free for anyone to join, but it also includes two tiers of paid membership that unlock expanded features and functionality. Here are the three member levels:

  • Free subscription: Includes one seat alert at a time
  • Basic subscription ($4.99/month): Includes four seat alerts at a time plus the ability to search for award and upgrades across dozens of airlines (limited to 250 queries per month)
  • Premium subscription ($9.99/month or $99.99/year): Includes unlimited searches across flexible dates plus a total of 200 alerts, covering seats, flight availability, awards/upgrades and aircraft changes

You can even try the premium service for five days by signing up through this link — though again, anyone can get a free subscription in order to create a seat alert.

How to set a seat alert

Once you’ve signed up for a free subscription, now it’s time to set a seat alert. Here’s how to set an alert.

1. Gather your flight information.

Before you can set an alert, you’ll need to gather the details on your flight so the site knows what to search. Here are the pieces of information you need:

  • Departure airport name or code
  • Arrival airport name or code
  • Date
  • Airline name or code
  • Flight number
  • Class of service

2. Login to your account.

3. Click the link at the left or icon at the right to create a seat alert.

4. Enter your flight details, then click Search.

5. Name your alert and select your criteria at right, then click Create

When you’d want to get a better seat

There are a handful of times when you may find yourself in need of a better seat, including the following scenarios:

  1. Your preferred seat type (aisle or window) isn’t available.
  2. You’re stuck in the middle seat — and are fine with any other seat type.
  3. You can’t find seats together for you and your spouse/friend(s)/family member(s).
  4. You’d prefer a seat in a different area of the plane (like closer to the front for ease of deplaning or closer to the back for restroom proximity).

In any of these cases, the seat alerts feature can help get you out of your existing seat and into a better one.

Let’s take a look at a concrete example of one such circumstance. Let’s say that you were flying American Airlines Flight 227 from Orlando (MCO) to Los Angeles (LAX) on Friday October 25, 2019 — a flight that’s roughly four weeks away at the time of this writing. Given the length of the flight, you don’t want to be stuck in a middle or window seat when you need to get up to stretch or use the bathroom, so you’re hoping to grab a spot on the aisle. Unfortunately, there are no more standard aisle seats left — only paid ones:

To set up an alert, login to your ExpertFlyer account and click Create Seat Alert from the homepage. Enter the search criteria for your flight:

  • Departure airport name or code: Orlando (MCO)
  • Arrival airport name or code: Los Angeles (LAX)
  • Date: 10/25/2019
  • Airline name or code: American Airlines (AA)
  • Flight number: 227
  • Class of service: Economy

The site will then pull up the above seat map. From there, navigate to the right-hand side, enter a name for your alert, and then check the box for Any Aisle Seat. You’ll notice that the seat map will highlight the applicable seats in gold:

Note that if you try to set an alert for a seat type that’s currently available, a pop-up box will notify you of that:

Once you’re finished adding these details, click Create. You’ll get an immediate notification that your alert was successfully created.

Once ExpertFlyer locates a seat that matches your alert criteria, you’ll receive an email notification. At that point, it’s up to you to access your reservation directly with the operating airline and select the seat. Try to do so immediately, especially if your flight is departing in the next 24-48 hours. Open seats tend to get snapped up quickly at the last minute, so you’ll want to maximize your chances of actually selecting it.

Note that you could opt to include premium, paid and/or blocked seats in your search, which could be a decent option for elite travelers that could snag those for free. And remember that you’re limited to just one alert at a time with a free account. However, you could purchase additional alerts for $0.99 each. This is also what you’d need to pay to activate the three additional alert settings above — exit rows, two seats together or specific seats.

This is where you might consider upgrading to a Basic or Pro membership, which will unlock 4 or 200 alerts (respectively) and allow you to choose those additional settings. If you’re concerned about the cost, ask yourself this: How much is getting a better seat worth?

And if you’re worried about paying for a service and coming up short in your search, think again …

How frequently are seat alerts successful?

Don’t want to be stuck in a middle seat? ExpertFlyer can likely help. (Photo by Katie Genter / The Points Guy)

Here at The Points Lab, we wanted to get some details on how often these seat alerts are successful. After all, if there’s only a 10% chance of getting a better seat, why would you want to pay extra for a service?

To get an idea of how likely it is that an individual alert is successful, we took a look at all alerts that had at least one search associated with them from August 1 through September 24, 2019 — which totaled 29,706 unique alerts for 111 airlines. We then identified how many of those individual alerts were successful at least once.

Here’s the most important takeaway from what we found: 91.4% of individual alerts were successful at least once during this time frame. In other words, historical data indicates that you have an over 90% chance of successfully locating a seat you’d prefer by leveraging ExpertFlyer.

There are several things that could explain this incredibly high success rate:

  1. Passengers get upgraded.
  2. Passengers change flights.
  3. Passengers change seats.
  4. An airline changes the equipment type to a plane with more seats.
  5. An airline blocks seats that are then opened up in the hours (or days) before departure.

In any of these cases, a seat that fits your criteria could become available, giving you the chance to have a much better flight.

Let’s dig a little bit deeper into the data to see what other insight it holds.

Success by airline

Let’s start by looking at the 20 carriers with the highest number of searches during this eight-week period — which together made up roughly 80% of the total search volume. Here’s a breakdown of the overall success rate (across all classes) with these airlines:

Airline Total success rate % difference from overall rate
Air Canada 87.8% -3.9%
Alaska 96.3% +5.4%
American 93.4% +2.2%
ANA 98.7% +7.9%
Asiana 93.1% +1.8%
British Airways 99% +8.3%
Cathay Pacific 94.3% +3.2%
Delta 91.8% +0.4%
Emirates 98% +7.2%
Hawaiian 93.9% +2.8%
Japan Airlines 97.8% +7.1%
JetBlue 98% +7.2%
Korean 98.1% +7.3%
Lufthansa 62.6% -31.5%
Qantas 96.8% +5.9%
Qatar 93.5% +2.3%
Singapore 96.3% +5.3%
Thai 98.1% +7.3%
United 97.4% +6.6%
Virgin Atlantic 96.3% +5.3%

As you can see, the vast majority of these 20 carriers fared better than the overall average. The three major U.S. airlines — American, Delta and United — saw success rates of 93.4%, 91.8% and 97.4%, respectively. The top performer was British Airways, with a whopping 99% of its 3,879 alerts coming back successful.

Only two of these airlines rates that were lower than the average. While Air Canada’s 87.8% success rate was just a few percentage points below the overall number, Lufthansa came in at just 62.6%. What’s incredible about this number is that it’s entirely due to economy-class alerts. The carrier had a total of 327 seat alerts for economy, and just 18 of them came back as successful at least once — a dismal rate of 5.5%. In looking at the data, there’s no clear indication as to why this came back the way it did. It simply appears that this eight-week search window just had a terrible success rate, something to keep in mind if you’re planning to set a seat alert for Lufthansa economy.

Success by class

We see similar success rates across all classes of service. When we look at the entire set of data points, here’s how successful alerts were for specific cabins:

  • Economy: 90.6%
  • Premium Economy: 93.5%
  • Business: 93%
  • First: 88.5%

I’m especially surprised that first-class alerts had such high success rates, given that these cabins are (by definition) smaller than any others — in many cases by a massive amount. If you’re looking for a specific seat type in a six-seat, first-class cabin, there are simply fewer possible options to open up than you’d see in another class that may have 15, 30 or hundreds of seats, so the fact that nearly 90% of those alerts came back as successful is incredible.

And let’s be honest: The difference between first-class seats is marginal as it is.

Bottom line

ExpertFlyer can have a ton of utility for advanced flyers, as you can set alerts for awards and upgrades on dozens of airlines. However, it’s also a fantastic tool for casual travelers as well thanks to the seat alerts feature — something that’s available to even free members. If you find yourself stuck in a less-than-ideal seat on your next trip, sign up for a membership today, as historical data shows you have a roughly 9 in 10 chance of finding a better one before you take off.

Featured photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy

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