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28 January 2021
A family of four could spend up to £240 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.
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 airlines below 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.)
To give you a head start, we've compiled a table of when online check-in opens for 14 big airlines. 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.
|Air France||30 hours before departure||Yes||Yes|
|American Airlines||24 hours before||Yes||Yes|
||24 hours before
||Yes||No if you have a basic hand-luggage-only fare (1); yes for all other ticket types (2)|
|Easyjet||30 days before||Yes||No|
|Emirates||48 hours before||Yes||Yes|
|Flybe||36 hours before||Yes||No|
|Jet2||28 days before||Yes||No|
|KLM||24-30 hours before (varies by destination)||Yes||Yes|
|Lufthansa||23 hours before||Yes||Yes|
|Norwegian||24 hours before online (short-haul), 3 hour before at airport (long-haul)||Yes||No|
|Ryanair||48 hours before (3)||No – you'll be 'randomly assigned' a seat||No|
|Tui||7 days before (4)||Yes||No|
|Virgin Atlantic||24 hours before||Yes||Yes (and if you check a bag, you can choose a seat for free even before check-in opens)|
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 for, 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.
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:
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...
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 June 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".
In March 2018 Ryanair doubled the cost of its cheapest standard seat reservation from £2 to £4 (though it has since reduced it to £3), 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.
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.
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 recent trip to Budapest, 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.
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 or anywhere else in the EU, or if you're flying to an airport in the EU (including the UK) on an EU airline.
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:
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.
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.
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 Plus fare includes a reserved seat, priority boarding, two cabin bags and airport check-in, starting at an extra £24. Yet you'll only save if you need ALL the extras – so if, for example, you only really want to bring two cabin bags (from £6) and to choose a seat (from £3), it can work out cheaper to buy these 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.
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 and Qatar Airways 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).
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.
See more ways to bag yourself a flight upgrade. For 20+ tips including why you should dress to impress and how to pick the right flight to maximise your chances, see our How to get a flight upgrade guide.
And finally, here's a reminder of why all the above is so important...
The cost of paying to choose your seat is, er, soaring. Eg, with Easyjet you could now pay £29.99 to reserve a seat with extra legroom, up from a maximum of £16.99 in 2016.
The table below shows how much you'll pay to reserve a seat at the point of booking if you're travelling on a standard economy ticket, and how that price differs for standard seats, 'preferred' or 'premium' seats – for example, those nearer the front of the plane or in rows of two – and seats with extra legroom.
Some airlines are tight-lipped on exact prices, and won't give full info, and prices can vary depending on the destination and when you're travelling. It may also cost more to add seating after you've booked or at the airport (some airlines won't let you reserve seats at the airport at all – always check to avoid being caught out).
|Air France||£9-£18||£27 for twin seats or seats near the front||£9-£63|
|American Airlines||Depends on destination, date and fare||£3-£109||£16-£220|
|British Airways (2)||From £7 (short haul) (3)
From £20 (long haul) (4)
|From £30 for twin seats||From £50 (long haul only)|
|Easyjet||£1.99-£8.99||£7.99-£24.99 to sit near the front or over the wing (5)||£12.99-£29.99 for a front-row seat (5)|
|Emirates||£10-£25||£20-£65 for preferred seating
£25-£105 for a twin seat
|Flybe||From £6||n/a||From £9 (exit/extra legroom seat)|
|Jet2||From £6||n/a||From £12.50|
|Ryanair||From £3||From £7 for a seat at the front||From £7|
£8-£18 for adults
£4-£8 for children
|£10-£75 for an 'extra space seat'||£10-£75|
|Virgin Atlantic||From £30 (6)||n/a||From £49 (7)|
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