Best Practices: Strategies for Avoiding the Middle Seat Part 1
September 18, 2017
by Joseph Lipman, President
There's nothing for irritating than being wedged into a middle seat on a cross-country flight, especially when you've paid an outrageous fare and the people sitting next to you are paying super-saver rates.
Snagging premium seats at bargain fares is an art. While a good travel agent can improve the odds you'll get one, ultimately you can do things even the best agent can't. All it takes is a little time and effort - and it's worth it to stay out of the center seat.
Theree's no real mystery - frequent flyers - those with status - get the best seats. The most importatnt thing travelers can do is ensure you have elite status on your preferred carrier - and if you fly a lot, on at least two carriers. It may even be worth forking over a few hundred dollars at the end of the year for an unecessary trip if you're close enough to the next level - the higher your status, the better chance of a good coach seat - or a first class upgrade.
Free Enrollment + Free Benefits = Better Seats
It costs nothing to enroll in airline frequent flier programs, and there's no downside to doing so. Don't assume you'll never accrue enough miles for a benefit. It takes only minutes to sign up, and you'll have access to valuable information - starting with real-time airplane seating charts.
Even the casual flyer, who takes three or four trips a year, can attain elite status by concentrating on one airline and taking advantage of special offers.
Airlines reserve their best seats for their best customers - those who fly at higher fares of who have attained status in those ubiquitous airline mileage loyalty programs. Take a proactive approach; read the fine print, study the various airline websites, or at least those for your preferred carriers' programs. A few minutes invested each month can yield surprising returns.
Be sure your numbers are entered in each reservation, whether business travel booked through an online agency. Avoid actually booking travel directly through a corporate travel department, or personal travel, even if booked through an online agency. Avoid actually booking travel directly through the airlines' sites though. An independent agent, whether live or an online automated site, can save major dollars by providing unbiased information and more options.
Always Check In Online
Above all, check in online whenever possible before your flight. When you check in online, you have one last chance to see if any desirable seats have been opened up by the carriers. You'll also have a chance to sign up for direct e-mail or voice communications from the carrier. Airline automated systems mean you'll usually know about any last-minute changes even before your agent does.
That information is especially important if you're out of town, traveling on a weekend, or during bad weather, when live agents may be unreachable. Ever tried to reach an airline or a 24 hour service on a weekend during a blizzard? Sometimes an airline website is your best bet for up-to-the-minute information. And if you have elite status, your call is going to be answered on the "priority line" faster than anyone without status.
Even Southwest, which has a "no reserved seat" policy, caters to business travelers by assigning passengers who pay full fare to be the first that board ("A" Group"). That means optimal seat selection.
Another Proactive Strategy
Even the best travel agent usually can't clear seats on airlines when you don't have status. But most carriers release at least some seats for early check in 24 hours before flight time. Some carriers upgrade frequent fliers 24, 72, or even 100 hours prior to departure. That means frequent fliers holding the best coach seats can vacate them to be upgraded.
The chances of snagging a desirable aisle or window seat are best at these times.
Finally, check the status of seats very early in the morning - computer programs run overnight when demand is slower.
In Part 2, we'll have more valuable information about how to gain status and "Avoid the Middle Seat"!