Getting seats on an airplane … together

Each Friday on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin blog, my assignment is to get an answer to a reader’s question.

This week’s question came from Lori Hewitt, a business analyst based in Columbus, Ohio, who made airline reservations online with Expedia last May for a trip she and her husband were taking to Charleston, S.C., in October.

Hewitt says she wasn’t given the opportunity to select seats when booking, but didn’t worry about it or contact anyone since it was so far in advance of her travel. She and her husband were eventually assigned seats, at check-in, which Hewitt said she went online to complete “at 23hrs 58mins prior to flight.”

There was one problem. “We spent $1,200 for flights and didn’t get to sit together,” said Hewitt. “My husband was in row 13 and I was in row 31!”

At the airport, the couple was able to get seats next to each other for the shortest leg of trip. But Hewitt says, “We should have had an opportunity to get our seats at the time of purchase. I don’t think it should be incumbent upon the traveler to beg other travelers to change seats or to have to go to the counter to do so.”

Now Hewitt wants to know: “Do online travel agencies, such as Expedia, Travelocity, get the leftovers for flights? And was there something I could have done – and can do next time – to make sure I sit with my husband when we fly? Otherwise, it’s kind of like spending a lot of money for a nice dinner, but not getting to sit at the same table with each other.”

I contacted Expedia for help with this one and chatted with company spokesperson Sarah Keeling.

“No,” she said, “Expedia doesn’t get the leftovers for flights. We have the same reservation capabilities as the airlines do.”

But Keeling said when Hewitt made her initial reservation it was likely the airline hadn’t yet decided what type of plane would be used for that flight and so hadn’t yet offered a seating map. “But that would be the same situation no matter whether she’d booked with Expedia or directly with the airline,” said Keeling.

Hewitt’s options? “She could have gone back online or called Expedia or the airline at a later date to see if the seat chart was available,” said Keeling.

Here are some other tips for getting the seats you want on an airplane:

  • If a seat chart is not available when you book your flight online, call the airline or the ticketing agent as soon as possible to request seating.
  • If you don’t get a seating assignment — or don’t get the seats you’d like — call back again a week or two before your flight.
  • As the day of the flight gets closer, check the online seating charts or call the airline to see if other seats have become available.
  • Check in online as soon as you can. Some seats, especially exit and bulkhead row seats, are not released until the day of the flight.
  • Get to the airport early and check the seating chart at the check-in kiosk or ask the gate agent if any better seats are available. Some airlines will offer discounted upgrades or first-class seats at good discounts at the check-in kiosks.
  • And, yes, once onboard you may find another passenger willing to swap seats to allow two people to sit together. But don’t count on it.