Travel Debates is a series in which our editors weigh in on the most contentious issues that arise in-transit, like whether you should ever switch seats on a plane or if you should check your work email while on vacation.
You’re sitting in an aisle seat. You picked it out special—probably even paid extra for it!—so that you can have that smidgeon of extra room. And you feel a tap on your shoulder. “Excuse me,” says the face smiling down at you, eyes pleading, “I was wondering if you would trade seats so that we [them and your neighbor, between whom you are now sandwiched] could sit together.” They’ve come from the back of the plane, a middle seat like their compatriot.
This is how they get you, and to many a split-second predilection for agreeability results in several hours of discomfort and burgeoning bitterness. Should you switch seats when asked? It might depend. Is there a defenseless child involved? Is the seat on offer of equal or better quality? In either direction, and everywhere in between—as has been the case for recent reflections on the propriety of checking one’s work email while on vacation and the presence of toddlers in business class—it should come as no surprise that we have an editor that feels strongly.
“Here’s a travel tale of mine that irks me now as much as it did when it happened, four years ago. I was traveling solo, headed to Rio de Janeiro for the first, and possibly only, time in my life. I’d heard of Rio’s epic, Eden-esque fly-in appeal; that the city’s beaches, blue ocean, and jagged emerald hills are as spectacular to see during your descent as they are when you’re on the ground. So I booked myself a window seat and made sure it wasn’t over that horrendous view obstructer that is the wing (tip: always do this if you can). Before takeoff, a lady walked over, and asked that she take my seat so she could sit next to my seat mate, her husband. What she offered me would be two rows back, in the middle section, away from a window, and next to a family with three kids under the age of seven. The magnum opus of bad seats. I felt awkward saying no, so I agreed—and spent the flight shooting the woman, her shoes off, legs stretched over her hubby, the evil eye and feeling (maybe a little too) sorry for myself. To make it worse, she and her husband were from Rio, so that view that was a one-time-only for me didn’t even register with her. It comes back to one simple rule: Unless you can say, objectively and unequivocally, that you are offering this stranger an upgrade (and of course, assuming it isn’t a necessary request, i.e., you and your small child would be separated otherwise), you can’t ask to swap seats. Period.” —Erin Florio, executive editor
“I take pity on children seated separately from their parents, and even I as the youngest represented here remember and yearn for a time when seat assignments weren’t always made with such cruel randomness. So let me say first that I will always trade seats with a parent who wants to be beside their own child (this comes with the added benefit of getting away from the child). Otherwise, unless I am in the middle and being offered an aisle seat, it’s unlikely that I will trade. This is because I lack empathy on the matter—never in my life have I found myself on a plane and thinking, “Oh gosh, I wish I was sitting next to somebody, anybody, and talking to them.” Plane rides are not social hours, they are something to be suffered through in solitary silence. Sleep, watch a movie, read. You do not need a seat beside your lover or friend. Use the time for self-reflection or take a benzodiazepine”. —Charlie Hobbs, editorial assistant
Have a Seat
“I am easily persuaded to change a seat—by attendants trying to ameliorate a tricky situation for a family, or by individuals taking matters into their own hands. Often it’s a like-for-like trade, but on a few occasions, and I say this with only a touch of regret: I have been persuaded to give up a better seat for a less pleasant option—and if you travel economy like me, you’ll understand that even within the slim pickings, there is a clear hierarchy. But I genuinely believe you build up some great karma by being flexible. There’ve been plenty of times when others have been just as generous to me. Especially on long haul flights—when seat choices matter the most—I like to think of it as: We’re all in this less-than-ideal situation together, so let’s see if we can think as a team! It’s worked so far…” —Arati Menon, articles director
Back before I had regulated myself to basic economy, when I was choosing a great window seat on every flight, I always felt a pit in my stomach whenever someone would ask me to swap seats. But I learned to just treat it as any other transaction—I’d ask what they were trying to trade (another window seat, I hope?), and hear them inevitably make their case (were they separated from a family member who had never flown alone, maybe?). When I have swapped, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that not only are the other passengers usually very gracious about it, but flight attendants have also thanked me (sometimes with free glasses of wine). Unless it’s a really uneven trade (like, sorry, I’m most likely not taking your middle seat on a red eye, sir), I’m usually happy to trade. As long as you get all the details first, you can make a call based on the new seat. That said, if the trade feels off, stand firm in saying no—the worst thing to do is swap and resent the choice for the rest of the flight.—Megan Spurrell, senior editor