Best Practices: Strategies for Avoiding the Middle Seat Part 2
September 19, 2017
by Joseph Lipman, President
Yesterday, we covered some of the top strategies for avoiding the middle seat. As a quick review, Summit recommends:
1. Choose a preferred airline and do everything possible to attain elite status, qualifying you for "preferred seating" at time of booking.
2. Use your frequent flier number when making reservations and check with your carrier's website frequently to see if seats have opened up.
3. Starting 72 hours out, airlines open up preferred seating as top tier fliers are upgraded.
4. Don't rely solely on your travel agent to get seating, you can call the airlines and often get premier seating as an actual passenger (especially with status) whereas agents are not able to clear seats blocked by the airline.
Read Communications from Your Airline Website
Over the past decade, many carriers desperately seeing business travel dollars offered double qualification points on flights, making it much easier to qualify for elite status. A traveler could purchase a single qualifying ticket to fly from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, or from New York to Hong Kong, to achieve entry tier elite status in one trip.
Other carriers, including JetBlue and United, have long offered online opportunities to purchase exit row and other "premium" seats for anywhere from $10-$100 per segment. This option is particularly valuable when flying low cost, one-class International airlines, which often operate with very tight seating. These seats can turn an exit row seat into "poor man's first class".
Subscribing to business traveler sites such as seatguru.com or seatexpert.com are especially helpful when trying to make sense of online seat maps - or when trying to find out which airlines are offering special bonuses.
Since signing up for frequent flyer accounts costs nothing, there's no reason not to enroll yourself in each program, even if you're not planning to fly a lot.
Using Online Booking Services
While corporate travelers can sometimes use their corporate travel departments for personal travel, the cost involved means individuals often turn to online booking services to avoid booking fees.
While better than obviously prejudiced airline booking sites, there are some things online booking sites don't do as well as airline sites. Getting you out of middle seats is one of those things!
When purchasing a ticket through online services, travelers without status often find they are unable to reserve any seat at all, even wheni planning months in advance.
Travelocity, Orbitz, and Expedia websites can request the seat you want, however the airlines ultimately have control. That's where joining a frequent flyer program and entering the number when booking becomes critical.
Without a FF account, the chances of actually landing a confirmed seat assignment before showing up at the airport at flight time are slim.
We also advise keeping a close watch on your airline PNR, or Passenger Name Record, on the airline's website, even if you're not a frequent flyer. Always have a profile with each airline AND travel agency you use, as it will automatically indicate your preference.
Travel agents, including Summit Management Services, are usually willing to call the airline to haggle for a seat if you are a frequent flyer, but as a direct customer you can often do more yourself.
If you have an International flight involving several airlines, such as a connection on United form Newark to Paris and then Air France from Paris to Nice, you may need to call or log on to each airline website separately. You will need each "Locator Confirmation" to get the appropriate reservation and seat informaiton online. This is particularly confusing if you've booked on one carrier and you're trying to use partner airline Frequent Flyer numbers on other airlines. It's worth the extra effort to avoid a center seat.
Day of Departure Strategies
On your morning of departure, if you still don't have a seat assignment, a call to the airline may, in some cases, shake loose a seat IF you can call more than 4 hours prior to flight time. Of course, you may receive the dreaded pronouncement that the flight is "under airport control", and in that case, all you can do is show up as early as possible.
If all else fails, try to arrive at the aiport early and request your preferred type of seating
First, try going to the counter agents for preferred seating, especially if there is a relatively short line. Counter agents appreciate friendly and relaxed customers, and if a good seat is available, it can often be yours with a smile.
If the line for check in is long, consider using the check in kiosks. Many of them give you the opportunity to ourchase premium or upgraded seats at check in - often at surprisingly reasonable prices. And don't forget to check to see if business class seats are available at check in for international flights; we've seen business class seats offered for sale in places like Tokyo and London for as little as $350 - about 10% of the rate that would be charged for guaranteed premium seats!