Flight Attendants Reveal the Right Way to Swap Airplane Seats

Swapping seats is more common than you may think—here's how to do it the right way.

Every product is independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

After learning the travel secrets in order to get the best airfare possible and then figuring out the best day to buy plane tickets, it’s time to book your flight. However, sometimes it’s not possible to find seats in the same row with your family and friends, which leaves you in row 13B and your friend in row 21C. It seems to happen more often than not, but what’s the best way to ask a random stranger to swap seats? No matter what, these are the 18 things you should never do on an airplane.

“If you’d like another seat after boarding the plane, ask the nearest flight attendant if it’s OK to move,” Jacqueline Whitmore, former flight attendant, etiquette expert, and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach, told Reader’s Digest. “If the seat is not a premium seat (one that requires more money), it shouldn’t be a problem.” When you walk onto a plane, here’s what flight attendants first notice about you.

As far as timing goes, Whitmore says it’s best to ask flight attendants about swapping your seat before the boarding doors close. Otherwise, wait until the plane has reached a comfortable cruising altitude. No matter where you end up sitting, make sure you know the worst spot on the plane for your carry-on luggage.

However, if you’d rather not get the flight attendant involved and would like a more do-it-yourself approach, here’s what to do. “If you can handle it on your own, then do so. Most people will swap seats with you if you want to sit with your family,” says Whitmore. “However, if you want a window seat and the window seat in your row is occupied, then you may ask a flight attendant to find one for you. Keep in mind that this should have been done with the gate agent before you boarded the plane.”

During the boarding process, make sure you’re aware of what’s going on around you. Like emergency exits, the closest empty seat may be closer than you think. “One thing most passengers don’t think about on airplanes is to simply stand up and look around as boarding is almost finished.” Betty Thesky, a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline and author of Betty in the Sky With a Suitcase: Hilarious Stories of Air Travel by the World’s Favorite Flight Attendant told Reader’s Digest. “Lots of times there are empty seats toward the back of the plane, while everyone is smushed together upfront.”

It’s important to keep in mind that if you ask a fellow passenger to move, they may end up saying no. “As a passenger, you are perfectly within your rights to ask another passenger to move seats, just be aware there is a good possibility they will say no, especially if they will end up with a less desirable (middle) seat,” Thesky says. Here are 10 little etiquette rules for flying on a plane.

It’s one thing if a fellow passenger asks you to swap seats, but something else entirely when a flight attendant asks you to move. “Flight attendants move passengers for a variety of reasons (families who want to sit together or passengers with short connections are the most common reasons),” says Whitmore. If you’re worried about moving to a seat that’s worse than yours, you don’t need to be. “If a flight attendant asks you if you will switch seats, try to be as accommodating as possible. You may end up getting an upgrade or a better seat. Flight attendants will do their best to put you in a comparable seat, not a worse seat.”

If you’re ahead of the curve and trying to change seats before your flight, there are still ways to change seats instead of waiting until the last minute. “Depending on the price you paid for your ticket, you can change your seat on the airline’s website,” Thesky says. “A good tip is to continue to check the seat map especially the closer you get to departure, as seats will open up as other passengers with lots of miles get upgraded.” To avoid having to change your seat in the first place, it might help to consider which seat on the plane is best for your individual needs.

Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com