The airline travel experience has changed considerably in the last few years, with most flights being fully booked or nearly so. One result is that families are finding it more difficult to be seated together. Of course, if you are traveling with your grandchildren, you'll need to sit with them, especially if you are traveling without their parents.
Being sure of your seat on an airplane requires playing the airline's game.
Before you book, go to the airline's website and investigate seating policies. What you discover may change your choice of airline.
Paying Extra for Special Seats
Most airlines allow you to choose seats at the time of booking, but some charge for the privilege. Others will let you book certain seats for free but may charge you for other, more desirable seats. If you are looking for seats online and finding mostly single center seats, that may be because some of the seats are being held back as premium seats or preferred seating, and others are already booked.
Fees to secure your seats can be relatively low, or they can be high enough to add significantly to your cost of travel. Sometimes they come with priority boarding or other amenities. If you are traveling with grandchildren, you may feel that it's worth the extra money to have seat security.
Even if you book seats that are together, you can end up being separated.
Seat assignments get changed, for example, when airlines have to switch planes or combine flights. Seat changes are, however, less likely to happen if you have paid extra for your seats.
Who Can Help, Who Cannot
Sometimes instead of booking online, I opt to talk to an actual person. An airline employee may have information that you cannot see online, such as how many seats are actually open but are being held for premium customers.
They won't share that information with you, but they may give you good advice based on that information. A good travel agent may also be able to help you make appropriate decisions.
You should be aware that travel services such as Orbitz and Expedia do not control seat selection. Airlines control seat selection. If you book through a travel service and select a seat, it will usually be entered into the airline's system and everything will be hunky-dory. But if anything does go wrong, the travel service will not be able to help you.
Taking Your Chances
If you are lucky enough to get seats together without paying for them, don't relax too much. Checking in online exactly 24 hours before your flight is scheduled to depart will allow you to be sure that your seat assignment hasn't changed and may even allow you to select better seats. Also, doing the earliest possible online check-in means that you are less likely to get bumped if the airplane is overbooked.
In order to be certain of your seats, you should also arrive at your gate early, which is easier said than done when traveling with grandchildren.
One of the most common travel mistakes that grandparents make is failing to allow enough extra time when traveling with children. One expert says to build in an extra half-hour of time for each young grandchild who will be traveling with you. If you do this and you have a bathroom accident or a grandchild meltdown, you won't miss your flight.
If You End Up Separated
If the unthinkable happens and you end up separated from a grandchild, an appeal to the flight attendant may work. The attendant will usually ask other passengers to switch seats to accommodate your needs. It's less likely to work, however, if you are the last to board the plane. And those who paid to secure a seat are likely to dig in their heels if asked to move.
On a recent flight that I made without grandchildren, my husband and I boarded the plane only to find someone else in a seat assigned to us. The individual ignored our request to move. The flight attendant didn't want to make an issue of it, asking instead if we would mind taking a different seat. My husband and I ended up sitting apart, which wasn't really a problem. If I had been traveling with grandchildren, however, it would have been an problem. This scenario happens frequently enough that it has a name -- seat poaching. Again, if you are the last to board, you'll get less cooperation from staff in reclaiming your rightful seat.
Open Seating Dilemmas
My husband and I like to fly Southwest Airlines for several reasons, but its open seating policy makes it somewhat risky for travel with grandchildren. Still, Southwest is workable if you know the system.
Seats are first-come, first-served, so you want to be in the A boarding group if at all possible. You obtain the coveted A assignment by being ready to check in the instant that it is exactly 24 hours before your flight. You should already be on the website and have your information entered and be ready to hit the trigger.
That strategy used to be sure-fire, but now Southwest offers a couple of ways for passengers to get around the system. The existence of those options means you either join them or risk B or C group boarding. The cheapest way to secure a seat is to purchase EarlyBird Boarding, currently costing $12.50 per person per flight. You can also get priority boarding by purchasing Business Select, but you will pay 2-3 times the cheapest fare. One more option is to purchase Upgraded Boarding on the day of travel, which will give you an A1-15 boarding spot. It will also cost you $30-40 per seat, and it isn't even available on every flight, because those slots may already be taken by Business Select customers.
If one of your grandchildren is 6 or under, you can utilize Family Boarding, which means that you will board immediately after the A group. You will still run a risk if you are boarding a continuing flight with passengers already on board. In that case, there may not be a block of seats available after the A group has boarded.
Normally, flight attendants will help seat a family together, but I am told that it is against company policy at Southwest Airlines for flight attendants to get involved in seating issues. I suppose that because of the open seating policy, there would be an unending stream of requests, and the airplane would never take off.
Go Ahead and Fly
I would not want this lengthy discussion to cause any grandparent to decide to pass on the joys of traveling with grandchildren. If you are traveling with a large family group, you may not all be able to sit together, but the chances of a young grandchild having to sit far away from any other family member are really quite small.
To repeat my continuing theme, travel is an adventure, which means it comes with challenges. And, yes, booking airline seats is one of them.