Switching seats on a plane is a hot button topic for a lot of travelers.
Whether you are switching with a stranger or just trying to swap seats with a friend, there are certain factors that you need to be aware of in order for your plan to go smoothly and to avoid confrontations.
In this guide, I’ll talk about how to properly ask someone to switch seats with you and also how to politely tell someone no. I’ll also give you some tips on how to swap seats with a friend or family member to make things easy.
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Call ahead of time
If you’re flying a premium cabin on a well respected airline, you might be able to call ahead of time to figure out your seating situation.
For example, when we booked the first class suites on Singapore Airlines I noticed that one passenger was occupying one of the suites that could be shared.
This meant that Brad and I would be in suites that were not adjoined and because that traveler was a solo traveler it wasn’t a very efficient use of the cabin features.
So I called Singapore Airlines to see if they could contact the passenger and see if they would be interested in changing seats.
I fully did NOT expect my request to work but somehow Singapore Airlines worked their magic and arranged for the seat swap a couple of months before departure.
I would not expect this to work every time but it is worth a shot when flying in certain premium cabins.
Ask the agent at check-in
If you’re not crazy about your seat or you want to inquire about other options you can do so whenever you arrive at the check-in desk.
Medical exceptions aside, a check-in agent is usually not going to move anybody’s seat for you but it could happen.
But even if they don’t relocate others, they might be able to find you a newly opened seat or perhaps a seat that was not available to choose online.
This could help you avoid having to ask another passenger to swap seats with you.
Depending on the type of ticket you purchased and the airline’s same day change policy, you might also just be able to inquire about other flights. Perhaps you can depart an hour or two later but with better seats?
Ask the agent at the gate
Sometimes you run into a less than happy check-in agent that only seems interested in doing the bare minimum (checking you in and checking your bags).
If you get the sense that they are not helping you as much as they could or they are just being not very fun to deal with then consider heading to the gate and inquiring with an agent there.
They may be able to help you with changing seats although they probably will not get involved with calling up on the passengers to give up their seats.
Be sure to arrive early before boarding though because they will be too busy to help you once boarding begins.
Ask a flight attendant
Getting a flight attendant involved with your seat swapping pursuit is one of the best routes to go.
If you are shy they can facilitate the requests and other passengers might be more likely to honor the request of a flight attendant (although it is debatable).
Unless there are weight or balance safety issues, I don’t believe a flight attendant can force another passenger to switch seats with you, although there are some horror stories out there of tyrant flight attendants.
Be sure to ask a flight attendant that is located near your seat for assistance rather than bombarding a flight attendant at the entrance of the plane.
Explain your reason (briefly) and be transparent
Your odds of getting someone to switch seats with you will probably increase if you can provide them with a very short and reasonable (and preferably honest) explanation for your request.
For example, you want to keep your family together or perhaps you are taking care of someone, those are generally good reasons for wanting a seat switch.
Just try to avoid getting too long-winded with your explanation and avoid sounding overly pushy or sob-storyish (spare other passengers your personal drama).
In addition to providing a good reason for swapping, make sure you also are 100% upfront about where exactly your seat is and what type of seat it is.
You also need to disclose relevant details like if there is a crying baby next to the seat, stinky passenger, etc.
Don’t ever poach a seat proactively
The number one tactic to never do (because it is a jerk type of move) is to sit in a seat that is not yours with the expectation that the original seat holder will switch with you when they show up to their seat.
This not only causes confusion for people but it’s actually pretty rude.
Also, you will likely rub someone the wrong way or simply piss them off to the point that they will not want to switch seats with you (even if they would’ve been open to it before).
The much better strategy would be to stand near their seat and make a request when they arrive to that seat before they store all of their belongings.
If you can clearly and calmly articulate the perks of the seat you can provide them with (e.g., “the seat is just two rows back and is the exact same type of window seat”), that will be an exponentially better route to go than simply taking their seat.
Don’t trade for a worse seat
Sometimes it’s very clear what constitutes a worse seat like asking to swap a first class seat for an economy seat.
But you need to be very conscious about both the subjective and objective value of a seat when requesting a seat switch.
First, be aware that many passengers place a high value on a particular type of seat such as a window or aisle seat.
For me personally, I’m a window seat person and not having the window as an outlet is a pretty huge deal to me.
For others, having direct access to the aisle could be worth a lot to them, especially if they have some sort of digestion concerns or plane anxiety by the windows.
Other people might place value in sitting in a bulkhead, emergency exit row, towards the front of the plane, back of the plane, etc. Don’t assume that just because you don’t care for a seat that others will feel the same way.
Also, a lot of times people pay extra money for different seats within the economy cabin.
They could be paying for a little bit of extra legroom or to sit towards the front of the plane. And this is important: the amount that they paid could be different from the amount someone in the adjacent seat paid.
Asking another passenger to essentially cover the cost of your seat upgrade while losing out on their paid benefit is a major ask. Some might even say it’s inconsiderate to put a stranger in a position to deal with that scenario.
If you’re asking someone to switch with a seat that appears to be of equal value such as a seat directly behind them then consider maybe adding on a little incentive.
Maybe offer to buy them a drink or give them a bag of chips or something along those lines. Heck, even $5 can go a long way.
The best way to motivate someone to switch seats is to offer them a seat that is better than what they have.
If you can offer them a change from a middle seat to a window or aisle or perhaps extra legroom you have a lot more leverage.
Don’t get upset if people say no
If you ask to switch seats with someone, even if you have a very legitimate reason, don’t get upset or rude if they refuse.
Once again, you don’t know what type of value they are putting on their seat or what type of situation they may be in.
For many nervous travelers, they’ve just gone through the hectic experience of arriving at the airport, going through security, boarding, and are now anxiously awaiting take-off.
By adding an unexpected seat request swap, you could be throwing them for a real loop and they could be more prone to an outburst type of response if they feel you are getting rude with them over their decision to not grant you their seat.
So if they refuse your request then just be polite and move on to another passenger if you can.
Don’t say “yes” for others without asking
If someone is requesting to swap seats with you and other people in your party make sure you don’t just say “yes” on impulse without first checking with the other passengers.
This is something to consider if you’re flying with other people, even if it is someone you know very well like your spouse or another family member.
Don’t ever agree to swapping seats with others unless you have consulted with the other passengers in your party.
How to say “no” politely when asked to switch a seat
If someone asks you to switch a seat and you want to say no but are afraid of coming off as rude or inconsiderate, first of all, just know that it’s completely reasonable for you to decline the request.
You could just say, “Sorry, not interested in switching.”
But if you would like to also provide a bulletproof excuse (that no sane person or flight attendant should push back on) here are some that you can use:
- If they are offering you a window seat tell them that you get anxious sitting by the windows or that you need direct aisle access to visit the bathroom.
- If they are offering you an aisle seat tell them that you have plane anxiety and need to sit by a window to be calm or if you are a larger frame let them know that you get hit constantly due to your wide frame.
- If the seat is towards the back of the plane let them know that you have a connecting flight and you need to get off the plane quickly or tell them that the back of the plane receives more turbulence and that makes you anxious.
- If the seat is near a wing tell them that you get anxious sitting near the engines.
You could tell them that you paid X amount of dollars for your seat but be prepared that some people might counter your offer by paying you that amount.
So unless you’re open to receiving payment in exchange for swapping seats try to keep their counter options limited with your excuse.
My usual go to excuse for staying at my window seat is that I get aerial photography shots for my travel blog which is my full-time profession. It’s 100% true but you can use this excuse to help you lock down a window seat if needed too.
How to avoid seat swapping issues
If you want to minimize people asking you to change seats or others poaching your seat there are a couple of things you can do.
First, you can get a seat in the emergency exit row. This will make you a “no sit zone” for kids and families with kids. Therefore, you can avoid getting asked to move so that a family can sit together.
You can also board quicker. The quicker you get into your seat and store your belongings, the less likely someone is to poach your seat.
Print out your boarding pass on paper. If a gate agent decides to screw with your boarding position at the time of boarding you will have your original seating position which you can use to help claim your original seat. This may or may not work.
And finally, if you are in your seat jamming out to your headphones and not making eye contact with passengers coming through you will probably be less likely to be bothered.
Swapping seats with a friend
If you are trading seats with a friend or someone that you have a relationship with, it’s going to be a lot easier.
For example, if you are feeling like an angel and have seats in first/business class but you want to give up those seats for friends or family sitting in economy, most airlines should allow you to trade your seats without a problem.
You could notify a crew member about what you’re doing but you could also just have them sit in your seats and you sit in their seats.
This means that when it is time to board the first class passengers could simply head to the boarding group where the economy passengers are boarding.
This way, you can have the airline scan your boarding pass that belongs to you and then you can swap boarding passes with the other passengers while walking on the jet bridge.
This will avoid having to get redirected to a different seat during a busy boarding process.
Also, if a crew member sees someone from a lower cabin enter the business class or first class cabin during boarding they are likely to question them and if for whatever reason the airline is not on board with the seat swap, your plans could not work out.
Switching seats between economy and premium cabins during the flight is often problematic so it is best to handle this during boarding.
If you’re flying an international flight, especially on a premium airline, it’s not uncommon to get individual attention as a first class passenger.
For example, you might get welcomed with a “Hello, Mr. Johnson.”
So in that situation if you are switching with someone else it’s probably a good idea to let the flight attendant know that the two of you are switching positions.
Switching seats can get a little nerve-racking sometimes. But you can increase your odds of a successful seat swap if you start trying to work out a solution as soon as you can. Also, if you remain polite and aware of the exchange of value you are offering you’ll find that you’ll be successful more times than not.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.