Airline seating

How to sit together for free on British Airways, Easyjet, Virgin and more

A family of four could spend £250+ extra to guarantee they sit together on return flights – yet unless your heart's set on particular seats, it's usually unnecessary. Here's how to sit together for free on a basic economy ticket.

  1. Check in ASAP and you can (usually) sit together for FREE

    Airlines rely on the fear factor to convince you to cough up for allocated seating – passengers worry if they don't pay up, they'll be split up. Yet while this does apply to Ryanair (see full help dealing with it below), it's not a general rule. Here's the key point to understand:

    With most airlines, if you DON'T pay and just check in online as early as you can, you WILL get to sit with the rest of your group – as long as seats are still available.

    All of the major airlines bar Ryanair told us their seat allocation systems will always try to seat groups on the same booking together. So check in as soon as you're able to and you should get to sit together, as long as there are seats available next to each other that haven't been snapped up by folk who paid to reserve. 

    Of course there are no guarantees – for that, you'll have to pay. But if you're willing to take a small risk to save some cash, this is a no-brainer. Also note a few airlines let you select a seat for free after booking, without waiting for check-in.

    So once you've booked your flight, find out when check-in opens and set yourself a reminder to do it as soon as you can (even if it's the middle of the night) – you have to move fast to nab those empty rows.

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  2. ... or risk waiting until the very last minute if you're a solo traveller

    While as a general rule the best way to beat airline seat charges is to check in early, if you're travelling alone and want a specific seat, sometimes it's best to use the opposite tactic.

    Even if a flight is full, airlines often don't manage to sell their pricier extra-legroom seats, meaning they can be the last available before take-off. We've heard of travellers who have checked in at the last minute being automatically assigned the best seats, which they would have had to pay as much as £50 to reserve beforehand.

    Remember this is a gamble, not a guarantee – there's always a chance the premium seats will be sold and you'll be left with a dreaded middle seat. Yet if you're feeling lucky, this is a risk that can pay off.

  3. Travelling with the family? The kids ARE usually guaranteed a seat next to at least one adult

    Most parents will consider sitting next to their children to be non-negotiable – even if it doesn't make for a relaxing flight. So airline seat charges can be a particular issue for families worried about being split up. We've campaigned on this before, highlighting the so-called 'family tax'.

    The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the aviation regulator, says airlines should "aim to sit parents close to children" – if this isn't possible, they should not be separated by more than one aisle or more than one seat row. It also says parents should not have to pay to avoid a situation where their child is seated in a different part of the aircraft.

    However, these are guidelines, not firm rules, so it's not set in stone. In practice, most airlines guarantee that children WILL get to sit next to at least one adult in the party, even if you don't pay and forget to check in early. Here are some airlines' policies:

    • British Airways, Tui and Virgin Atlantic all guarantee that children under 12 will be seated with at least one adult from their booking – although the rest of the group might be split up. British Airways also lets you choose your seat for free if you're travelling with a child under two. Tui and Virgin warn children may be seated behind their parents, or be separated from them by an aisle.

    • American Airlines guarantees children under 15 will be seated with at least one adult from their booking.

    • Air France guarantees that children between two and eleven years old will be seated beside one of the adults from their booking. When booking for yourself and a child over two years old, you can choose your seat.

    • KLM says children under 12 will be allocated seats next to an adult from their booking.

    • Jet2 and Norwegian say their systems always try to seat children with adults from their booking, though they can't guarantee it. Jet2 adds that, if it's not possible, it'll seat them no more than one row away. Easyjet says the algorithm in its booking system places families together "99% of the time" and staff will ask other passengers to move to accommodate them if separated.

    With Ryanair though, as ever, the rules are different. The good news is that children under 12 are guaranteed to sit with at least one adult in their party. The bad news is this is because at least one adult travelling with a group of under-12s MUST pay for seat selection. See more on Ryanair's rules below...

  4. With Ryanair the rules are different – if you don't pay, you WILL almost certainly be split up

    Ryanair's notorious for its seating policy, which infuriates many passengers. It 'randomly' allocates seats for those who don't pay for one – and as a result it's become nigh-on impossible for groups to sit together without reserving seats.

    An extreme example of this came in 2017 when MSE revealed that 15 members of a hen party on a flight to Ibiza were seated in 15 separate rows – with every single person in a middle seat. Ryanair insisted then, as it has ever since, that seats for those who choose not to pay are "randomly allocated".

    Ryanair's cheapest standard seat reservation is around £4.50, and unfortunately there's no sure-fire way of avoiding this – if you want to have a decent shot of sitting together, you'll have to pay.

    Travelling with kids? At least one adult MUST pay

    If you're travelling with children under 12, it's compulsory for at least one adult in the group to pay for a seat reservation. You can then reserve seats for free for up to four children.

    If there's more than one adult in your group, the other adults don't have to reserve a seat – but they'll be seated elsewhere if they don't.

    You MIGHT be allowed to swap seats before take-off

    If you don't pay and are sat apart from your group, there's an outside chance you might get lucky and be allowed to swap seats.

    Ryanair is very clear this isn't officially encouraged. It says: "For reasons of weight, balance and safety, and to prevent delays during boarding, we advise all customers to sit in the seats they have been allocated. Since all of our seats are allocated, the issue of swapping seats simply doesn't arise."

    Yet on a trip to Budapest, ex-MSE Callum found he WAS able to swap before take-off on both of his Ryanair flights.

    My girlfriend and I didn't pay for seats so were sat rows apart on both flights – but on both flights we were allowed to switch seats and ended up sitting together.

    On the flight out there were some empty seats and the air hostess let us move before take-off. And while the flight back was completely full, they made an announcement just before take-off giving passengers five minutes to switch seats with anyone who was willing to swap.

    For more ways to beat Ryanair's extra charges, see our 20 Ryanair tips.

  5. If you have a disability, you'll usually be allocated or allowed to select a seat for free

    If you have a disability or reduced mobility, have difficulty with communication or social interaction or are elderly, you have a legal right to special assistance when you travel. This applies on any flights out of the UK, on EU or UK airlines heading into the UK, and on UK airlines heading into the EU.

    If you think you need special assistance, you can declare your disability to the airline. The CAA told us that while airlines can challenge your claim for special assistance, this rarely happens.

    While there aren't specific rules on seating reservations, airlines do have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for you, so they should help if you have special seating requirements due to a disability.

    Crucially, you need to contact your airline in advance to tell it about your requirements. This should be done as early as possible, and no later than 48 hours before you travel.

    Here are some of the big airlines' policies – see the CAA website for more info:

    • British Airways will allow you to select a seat free of charge.

    • Easyjet, Emirates, Norwegian, Jet2 and Ryanair say you'll be allocated a suitable seat free of charge.

    • American Airlines and Tui refused to tell us what their policies were and instead said you'll need to call them to discuss your needs.

    Importantly, all these airlines say you'll also be able to have a companion sit next to you – and, again, this is free of charge.

    If you have a disability, there may be some seats you can't sit in, for example next to an emergency exit.

  6. Special fares and add-ons can include 'free' seating – but check carefully if it's worth it

    Gone are the days when you flew economy, business or first class. Now airlines offer a range of tickets with different perks and price tags – some of which include a 'free' choice of seat.

    You can also sometimes get 'free' seats if you add extras after you've bought your ticket. For example, Ryanair's Family Plus package includes extra baggage and free seat reservations for kids under 12.

    Always do the maths – the savings may not add up

    While a ticket or add-on with perks may sound good, always do the sums to work out if the perks you'll use would actually be cheaper bought separately.

    For example, Ryanair's booking process prominently offers you the chance to pay for a reserved seat, extra carry-on bag and priority boarding by choosing the 'Regular' fare (typically £21-£23 per person, per flight). But we found that opting for the 'Value' fare instead, then manually adding seat reservations, cabin bags and priority boarding, can often slash the cost. In one case, we found a family of four could save almost £100 on return flights simply by booking the extras separately.

    On the other hand, a better ticket or add-on can sometimes be worth it. For example, when we checked off-season Norwegian Air flights from Gatwick to Alicante, we found you could upgrade from a LowFare to LowFare+ ticket (which gets you a checked bag and seat reservation) for £23.

    Given simply checking a bag on the same route would cost £25, if you were planning to check a bag anyway, this is a neat way of reserving a seat for free while saving a couple of quid.

  7. A few airlines let you select a seat for free as soon as you book

    While much of this guide is about beating airlines' extra charges, it's worth noting they don't ALL play hardball.

    In fact, a couple of long-haul carriers will actually let economy passengers select a seat for free as soon as they book – so you can get it sorted straightaway and don't have to wait for check-in to open. We found that Japan Airlines (excluding its 'Basic' ticket) and Qatar Airways (excluding its 'Economy Classic' ticket) do this – if you come across others, let us know in the Airline Seating forum thread.

    Virgin Atlantic offers a similar service to any passengers who check in hold luggage – those doing this can select a standard seat for free at any time. And British Airways will allow passengers who check in a hold bag to select a seat for free once check-in's opened (while hand-luggage-only passengers will have seats allocated for them).

  8. Charm check-in staff for hidden upgrades

    There's never any harm in turning on the charm. Ask at the airport if there are any premium seats going spare – after all, airlines rarely publicise these opportunities, and while there are no guarantees, you might get lucky and score a free upgrade. It's also worth asking if you'd simply prefer an aisle or window seat.

    We asked British Airways if this happens and it told us: "Customers are welcome to ask our colleagues at check-in if any extra legroom seats are still available."

    If you've already paid for standard seat reservations, we've also heard of travellers who have bagged a free upgrade to a premium seat simply by phoning up when check-in opens and asking if there are any 'preferred' seats still available. If you've had luck doing this, let us know in the Airline Seating forum thread.

    Plus, see our How to get a flight upgrade guide to maximise your chances. 

Also see our other MoneySaving travel tips guides, including: 
60+ overseas travel tips | Cheap flights | Budget flight fee-fighting | Flight ticket release dates | Ryanair tips | Easyjet tricks

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