A man recently earned praise after he filmed himself confronting a fellow train passenger who was sitting in the seat he’d purchased ahead of time.
The positive response to the viral footage of the man insisting he be allowed to sit in the seat he’d booked came after an influencer recently earned similar applause for refusing a request to swap seats on a plane so that a family could sit together.
“No I’m not switching for a middle seat, book your flights earlier babes,” influencer Audrey Peters captioned the equally viral video in March.
The pair are not alone in their experiences, as social media has recently become inundated with stories of travellers who have been asked to swap seats with fellow passengers wishing to sit with a friend or a family member, or simply because they’d prefer a better seat.
However, as the responses to the viral videos suggest, most travellers aren’t open to seat swap suggestions. And, according to travel etiquette, they don’t have to be.
To find out whether there’s ever a time when it’s appropriate or acceptable to ask to swap seats with a fellow traveller on a plane or a train, or any form of transportation where seats are pre-booked, we sought the advice of Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Texas.
Speaking to The Independent, Gottsman said that there is only one acceptable scenario where a traveller may ask a fellow passenger to switch seats, and that even then, it is only justifiable if the passenger has first tried other ways of remedying the situation.
According to Gottsman, the acceptable scenario refers to a parent or guardian who found “there is no possible way” through pre-planning that they could have been seated next to their young child, at which point “of course it’s understandable” to ask a fellow passenger to swap.
However, Gottsman noted that, even in a case involving a young child, “it’s always best to ask a ticket agent or someone from the travel company if there is a possibility of changing or switching seats before you board the plane or train,” as “asking a fellow passenger puts the person you are asking in an awkward position” and relies on their “goodwill”.
If you’re hoping to change your seat for any other reason, it’s typically not advisable to ask a fellow passenger if they’re open to switching, despite the numerous videos of travellers doing just that on social media.
“Wanting to sit next to a friend, or preferring a window seat rather than an aisle, is not a good enough reason” to ask, Gottsman said, adding: “If you and your spouse are separated, it simply means you booked late or did not plan in advance to book seats together.”
The requests go against travel etiquette even more when the proposed switch would take the passenger out of a seat that’s preferable to the one they are being offered, according to Gottsman, who told us it’s “really not the best form” to ask a person to take a “middle seat or a window seat” when they have an aisle seat booked.
Travel website The Points Guy agrees, with the blog noting that, “generally speaking, the unspoken rule when it comes to seat swaps is that only better or equivalent exchanges should be offered; maybe you lose an aisle seat, but gain some leg room in a bulkhead seat, or you trade your window seat next to the toilet for a middle seat at the front of the main cabin.”
However, the travel experts suggest that a seat trade proposal where you are offering a “comparable seat” to your fellow passenger is “generally viewed as acceptable,” even if it’s for a reason such as wanting to be “near your spouse or friends, or [because you] have a very tight layover”.
“It’s always worth the ask,” the website states.
While there may be times when a seat swap request is acceptable, one of the biggest travel etiquette misjudgements a traveller can make is to take a fellow passenger’s seat without asking, according to The Points Guy. “A cardinal rule of seat swaps is that you should never take someone else’s seat before they board,” the blog states.
As for how requests to swap seats should be handled by travellers, both Gottsman and The Points Guy say that passengers should feel comfortable declining if they don’t want to give up their seat.
“It is perfectly fine to decline the request – no excuses necessary,” Gottsman told us, before giving the concise example response: “‘Sorry, I’m going to stay here in this seat.’”
The Points Guy also notes that passengers are “quite within their rights to decline any seat trading offer unless told to do so by a flight attendant”.
This article was originally published in April 2023.