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man sitting next to empty comfort seat on the plane.
Oprea George/shutterstock

Is Buying a Second Seat on the Plane Ever Worth It?

SmarterTravel

“An empty seat next to you is as good as an upgrade.” That’s how a former aircraft expert recently described their economy class strategy to me. And while a comfort seat might sound crazy, in the right situation it might be so crazy it’s smart.

You’re probably familiar with the rules that require a passenger who is too large to fit into a standard seat to buy a second seat next to them. What you might not know, however is that many airlines allow any passenger to buy an extra seat, called a comfort seat. And it’s not a bad idea if you’re willing to pay to avoid the crowding that’s become commonplace on planes—especially during busy travel seasons (summer and the holidays) while Boeing’s 737 MAX planes remain out of service, and especially on a long-haul flight. You can rush to choose and pay for your window or aisle seat, but you can’t guarantee someone won’t end up in the middle seat.

There are some logistics to sort out when it comes to buying a second comfort seat for one person, and then making sure it’ll be the one next to you.

How to Buy a Comfort Seat on the Plane

The economics of buying an extra seat are tricky. If you can buy such a seat, you can usually buy it at the same price as the first seat, which means that a solo traveler pays double. In most cases, that’s still a lot less than first class domestic or international business class. But not always: Airlines these days often offer greatly reduced prices for last-minute upgrades. And on intercontinental flights, premium economy often costs about the same as double the lowest economy fare, and it comes with a lot of extras.

A second seat works out better for couples. These days, many economy class seats are arranged in threes, so one member of a couple could buy an extra middle seat for both to enjoy, and the extra cost can be split. That brings the price premium on each ticket down to 50 percent more, which is almost always less than it would be for any sort of premium economy upgrade.

A travel blog called FlyerTalk recently highlighted how five main U.S. airlines treat second-seat purchases. Here are the findings:

  • Alaska routinely allows purchase of a “comfort seat.”
  • American’s stated policy applies only to oversize travelers.
  • Delta sells “Personal Comfort” seats, but not for travelers on its lowest “Basic” fares. And travelers with two seats are still allowed only one carry-on bag.
  • Southwest has a policy allowing “passengers of size” to buy a second seat, but you have to go through a special process because Southwest does not assign its seats in advance.
  • United policy refers specifically to travelers of size, not to general comfort seats.

In all cases, if you want to book a second seat, you should do so through your airline’s reservation phone line to assure no complications with seat assignments, and to ensure you can logistically get two seats together before you make the purchase. And it couldn’t hurt to ask about a second seat even with an airline having a policy referring only to travelers of size, or not having a policy at all. It’s worth noting, however, that some airlines add an extra fee for booking over the phone.

One aspect of second seat purchase remains cloudy: What happens with an oversold flight or even a flight with standbys? Do airlines in effect confiscate that second seat, and—presumably—refund the extra fare? I’ve never seen any reports of how airlines might handle this problem, but it’s probably worth asking the airline about before you book a comfort seat.

Have you ever bought a second comfort seat? Comment below.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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