How do I sit with my kids on a plane?

If you haven’t heard about the infamous airline separation algorithm yet, here’s what you need to know: It’s a seat allocation program that allegedly keeps families apart on the plane, prodding parents into paying more for advance seat assignments.

Makes you wonder: How do I sit with my kids on a plane without having to pay more?

No worries. I have a few strategies that will keep you and your offspring happily together. They include choosing the right airline, a few tips for getting seats close to one another, and some practical troubleshooting advice.

Family travelers give the airline industry an average grade of C+, according to research by NYU. So no, most airlines are not family-friendly, and from what I can tell, they are not about to improve. And don’t even get me started on flying with babies.

All of which brings me to this family separation algorithm. The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) investigated the way airlines allocate their seats and found some airlines were intentionally separating families. “Airline seating practices are clearly causing some confusion for consumers,” said Andrew Haines, CAA’s chief executive, in what is surely the understatement of the year.

It’s not too hard to connect the dots. If they’re doing it in Britain, you can be reasonably sure they’re doing it elsewhere.

Erysse Elliott on Delta Air Lines in 2017.

How to keep your family together on a flight

No doubt about it, airlines love to play musical chairs with their passengers, a game that pressures travelers to pay extra for assigned seating. And you’ll probably find yourself asking: “How do I sit with my kids on a plane?”

No one knows how many families get separated on flights. No one even knows for certain how much money the U.S. airline industry makes from seat reservation fees, since the government doesn’t require them to report those figures.

But I do know there are thousands of frustrated passengers out there. Leisure travelers vacationing together don’t want to be separated or are traveling with young children who need attention.

In 2016, Congress passed a law requiring airlines to seat families with children together without charging them more. But the Transportation Department hasn’t written the required regulation and seems unlikely to do so anytime soon. Airlines claim they seat families together whenever possible, but they’re also motivated by the fees they collect through reserved seating.

I’ve been separated from my kids, ages 12, 14 and 16, and at the risk of sounding like a contrarian, I don’t mind. A little time apart can be a good thing.

But I know other parents who wouldn’t or couldn’t be separated from their kiddos. Maybe their children are younger or have a special need or just don’t like being alone. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the separation algorithm must be foiled!

Iden Elliott flying in Alaska in 2017.

A checklist for sitting with your kids (if you want to)

Many airlines like to leave you with the impression that you don’t have a seat on the plane if you don’t pay for a reservation. That’s not true. If you don’t pay extra for a reservation, you’ll receive a seat when you check in. It might be a middle seat next to the galley, but trust me, you’ll still fly.

Airlines allow you to register any special needs when you book your ticket. That’s one way around the algorithm. For example, Delta Air Lines publishes a page on travel with kids that has useful information about seating. Calling a few days before your departure can yield positive results.

Even if you don’t have seats together, don’t panic. Airlines want you to freak out and immediately shell over a seat reservation fee. Resist the temptation, even if you’re traveling with kids.

Start by talking to a gate agent, who is empowered to override the algorithm. Your first real opportunity to find a seat together comes at the gate. Gate agents have a lot of flexibility in moving seats around. This time, money isn’t their primary motivator — it’s getting everyone in a seat in time for departure.

If that doesn’t work, ask a flight attendant for help. Crewmembers will often try to reseat passengers when they see a separated family or even a couple. And if that doesn’t work? Then ask a fellow passenger to switch. It might be in their best interest, especially if you’re flying with young children.

Erysse, Aren and Iden on an Emirates flight to Dubai in 2017.

How we do it

I’ve found some airlines more accommodating than others. Southwest Airlines, for example, is pretty family-friendly with its open boarding policy. Check in 24 hours before your departure for an early boarding group. We’ve also had good luck with Hawaiian Airlines and international carriers like Emirates.

Even if you’re on a carrier with a rumored separation algorithm, there’s a workaround. A “please” and “thank you” can overcome the program and land you in a seat next to your friends or family. If that doesn’t work, try a bribe. I’m only kidding. But you might offer to buy a passenger a drink in exchange for trading seats. That’s also been known to work.

If sitting together is really important, you might have to pay the price. Unfortunately, that’s exactly why the airlines use a separation algorithm. I refuse on principle, but if none of these tips work, you might not have that luxury.

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook
Posted in Away is Home

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Enterprise

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.