Airlines always seem to have one more trick up their sleeves for adding fees to the cost of airfare. Anyone who has flown in the past few years knows that some airlines now charge for basics, like carry-on bags and a printed boarding ticket. Yet one sneaky charge is often ignored by even savvy travelers: seat selection fees.
On the surface, there’s nothing complicated about these fees. Some airlines will let you select a specific seat for a markup on the base cost of your ticket. However, the way the fees are presented is often misleading, making it seem like you must select a seat and pay the accompanying fee.
A seat selection chart from Frontier Airlines.
This approach, in which companies add fees throughout the checkout process, is called “drip pricing” by experts. And research indicates that it's an effective sales tactic, both for confusing customers and driving up overall prices.
But here’s the thing: You almost never have to pay these fees. Here’s how to avoid — or at least minimize — these pesky fees.
Ways to avoid seat selection fees
Skip seat selection altogether
Though it might sound scary, there's one weird trick airlines don’t want you to know: You don’t have to select a seat. On most airlines, you'll get assigned a seat at check-in or at the gate if you don’t already have one.
Some airlines make it seem like you must (or at least should) select a seat during checkout. Frontier Airlines even has a graphic interstitial page telling you why selecting a seat is such a great option.
Don’t fall for it. You can always skip seat selection and save the money, but do keep a few things in mind:
- Skipping seat selection doesn’t mean you won’t get a seat on the flight.
- You might get stuck in the middle seat if you don’t pay for one.
- Even if seat selection is free, you might want to skip it if only lousy seats are available (see the "upgrade hack” below).
Pick an airline with lower seat fees
Part of what’s so confusing about these fees is how inconsistently the industry is applying them. Unlike change and cancellation fees, which most U.S. airlines recently abolished, many airlines seem to be increasing the upcharge on selecting seats.
But some are charging much more than others.
According to an analysis of airline fees by NerdWallet, Alaska and Hawaiian Airlines charge the least for seat selection, while Frontier and Spirit Airlines charge the most.
Airlines with modest seat fees (less than $10 each leg):
Airlines with high seat fees ($15-plus each leg):
Southwest Airlines doesn’t technically charge for nor allow seat selection in the same way as other airlines, so it's excluded from this data. But you won’t get charged a seat selection fee on Southwest during checkout, so it’s also a good option.
Roll the dice with an upgrade hack
As a regular, non-frequent flyer, it’s hard to get your seat upgraded these days. Yet skipping seat selection sometimes offers the opportunity to get bumped into premium seating.
Here’s how it works. Airlines now offer a “premium economy” fare or similar. Sometimes, all of the good seats — including the exit rows — are considered premium. The airlines try to charge extra for these seats, but if nobody takes them and the flight is full, they have to assign them to somebody.
Specifically, airlines will assign these empty, better seats to those passengers who haven't selected a seat. So if you put yourself in this pool, you have a chance of scoring an even better seat than those who paid extra for advance seat selection.
Of course, there’s a potential downside: You could very well get stuck in a middle seat in the back of the plane rather than getting upgraded. But if you notice that your flight is full and not many passengers have upgraded to the good main cabin seats, skipping seat selection altogether can be an expert-level travel move.
Don’t pay for advance seat selection
Airlines are playing the same game. They want to show the lowest fares possible on search results, then upsell you during checkout. This drip-pricing tactic is a pain for passengers. Charging for seat selection is one way airlines try to make a buck at the last minute.
Know your options and avoid their trickery. Skip seat selection altogether or fly an airline with limited seat fees, like Alaska, Hawaiian or JetBlue. Each charges little or nothing for choosing a seat. Worst case, you’ll end up in the middle seat. Best case, you’ll get a seat with extra legroom.