Getting the Short End of a Seat Swap — Reader Mistake Story

May 11, 2018

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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Neal, who forgot to ask one important question when another flyer wanted to exchange seats. Here’s what he had to say:

A few years ago I was traveling from Chicago to Portland, Oregon on American. I had an aisle seat just in front of the wings, with a woman and her daughter also seated in my row. A flight attendant asked if I would mind switching seats with the woman’s husband so the family could sit together. I had chosen my seat several weeks in advance; the family had waited, which is why they were seated separately.

Everybody was watching to see if I would do the kind thing, which I did. The problem was that the husband was in the middle seat all the way in the last row against the wall of the aircraft restroom. It was absolutely the noisiest seat on the plane; I literally had to shout to say something to the person next to me. I couldn’t stand the noise, so I stood in a doorway the entire flight. I will never again give up a seat unless I can at least get something comparable to what I have.

When a fellow passenger asks if you’d swap seats, your response should almost always be either “no thank you” or “where are you seated?” Offering someone a substantially worse seat without any compensation is a clear breach of seat-swapping etiquette, and Neal’s mistake was neglecting to find out where the husband was seated before agreeing to switch. You might feel pressured to say yes in order to be nice, or if you’re being asked by a flight attendant. But so long as you’re only being asked (and not instructed by the crew) to move, it’s perfectly reasonable to politely decline with no further explanation.

Airlines are making a lot of money from fees for add-ons like seat selection, and as a result, more seats are being blocked off during the booking process. If you’re having trouble finding the seats you want, there are a few solutions. You can lean on elite benefits (including better seat selection and upgrades) that extend to companions traveling on the same reservation. Similarly, some airline credit card benefits can improve your seat assignment at check-in. Beyond that, checking in as early as possible will generally improve your options. But if all else fails and your group really must sit together, it’s probably worth paying extra to do so when you book.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank Neal for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.

Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured photo by tanyss/Getty Images

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