Are airline seating charges worth it?

Photo of Joey TysonPhoto of Joey Tyson
By Joey Tyson

21 March 20186 min read

Empty plane seats with window looking out onto blue sky and clouds

Allocated seating charges are causing confusion among passengers, according to a recent Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) survey. The survey found that consumers flying in groups (more than two people) are unsure if they have to pay to sit together.

And, although the majority of the people the CAA spoke to were aware they may not be able to sit together even if they booked as a group, almost half thought their airline would automatically allocate seats together.

Prices are also confusing. When we looked at the airlines included in the CAA survey, we found a massive difference in charges, ranging from a couple of pounds to almost a hundred.

Andrew Haines, Chief Executive of the CAA, said: “Of those paying, two-thirds spent between £5 and £30 per seat and a further 8% paid £30 or more.”

The CAA believes that UK consumers may be collectively paying between £160-390m per year for allocated seating. It has launched a review of airline’s allocated seating policies following its research.

If you’re confused too, we look at how much the big airlines charge and ask whether this is a necessary extra.

Do you need to pay for a seat and is it worth it?

Airlines are entitled to charge for allocated seating. Like hold baggage, it’s just one of the ways they make money. However, the main concern of the CAA is that airlines could be splitting up groups on purpose, so that they have to pay if they want to sit together – Ryanair was once again in the news recently for its seemingly “random” seat allocation that appeared to split passengers up unnecessarily.

However, according to the CAA survey, just under 50% of respondents were able to sit together without paying a penny.

“As part of the review, we will be asking airlines to provide information on their policies and practices,” said Haines.

“We will be looking into how airlines decide where to seat passengers that have booked as part of a group and whether any airlines are pro-actively splitting up groups of passengers when, in fact, they could be sat together. We will not hesitate to take any necessary enforcement action should it be required at the end of the review.”

To help you decide if seating charges are worth it, we compare prices of some big airlines as well as how likely you are to sit with your group for free, according to the CAA research.

AirlineSeating charge (cheapest to most expensive*)Number of people who flewPercentage who didn’t pay and were separated**
British Airways (BA) £7 up to £2045615%
easyJet£1.99 up to £26.9993015%
Emirates£11 up to £14610022%
Flybe£6.50 up to £1614412%
Jet2.com£7 up to £1834316%
Ryanair£3 upwards61735%
Thomson - TUI£15 to £2538312%
Virgin AtlanticFree in economy. £30 upwards for leg room.131131

* All prices taken from the airlines’ website. Prices are for economy tickets and range from a standard seat to a priority with extra legroom. Each airline defines its seating differently so for more information, check with the individual’s site.

**CAA data: Total sample size was 14,716 adults, of which 4,296 have flown as part of a group where they were the ticket holder in the last year

As can be clearly seen from the table, prices vary wildly from one airline to the next. Low-cost carriers, easyJet and Ryanair offer the cheapest seats starting at £1.99 and £3, respectively. If you were to get these prices, the total cost of booking seats for return flights would be an extra £3.98pp for easyJet and £6pp for Ryanair.

That doesn’t seem much for the convenience of sitting together, however, that’s if you get the cheapest seats. According to the CAA’s survey, there’s a good chance your group will be sat together anyway with easyJet. With Ryanair, meanwhile, you’re more likely to get split up.

Mid-range carriers TUI (£30pp return for booking at the cheapest rate) and Virgin (£60pp, for leg room) have fees that might make you think twice, but the likelihood you’ll actually be split up is low for TUI. Out of the three, Virgin, meanwhile, has the third highest percentage of separated people, according to the CAA, with almost one in five passengers being separated.

If you want the best seats on an Emirates flight, you could pay a staggering £146 each way for the pleasure. However, the airline also seems to offer the most choice, with seats starting at approximately £11. It’s also the second most likely to split people up who didn’t pay, with more than one in five passengers being separated.

Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you think it’s worth it or not. While £3 to sit with your group might not bother you, £30 might. If you’re travelling as a group of adults, it could be better to just risk it and see where you end up. You might not pay, and end up sat together anyway. Consider how important this is to you as part of your overall holiday – would a meal out for the same price make more of a difference?

I’m flying with children – does this mean it’s worth paying for a seat?

Although there is no hard and fast law in place that says an airline has to sit you with your family, they should try to put you together (and most will). Each airline has its own policy, so it’s important to ensure you know what this is before you book.

Ryanair, for example, says on its site that there are free assigned seats for children when one adult books a seat.

It says: “When travelling with children it is now mandatory for adults to have a reserved seat. However you get free reserved seats for up to 4 children between 2 and 12 years old with every adult seat booked. This means you don't need to worry about being separated on board.”

British Airways says that it will seat each child under 12 next to an adult in your party. However, children over 12 may sit separately.

EasyJet, on the other hand, allows you to choose your seats in advance, but it will cost you a fee to do so.

How can you avoid paying for seats?

The best way to sit together without paying is to just ask at the desk. This might only work for smaller groups, but it’s always worth trying in our experience.

Booking your flights early may also help as the flight is less likely to be full meaning there are more seats together.

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