Is It OK to Offer Someone Money for His Seat?

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Recently I flew from Buenos Aires to Houston to Honolulu in United economy. (I booked the award for 25,000 Singapore miles plus taxes.) Door to door, it was over 26 hours of travel, which is a long time to not be able to lie down and sleep.

The first flight was basically full, but the second flight was operated by a 777 with a 2-5-2 configuration in economy and several completely empty rows of five seats at the time of check in. Farther back in the plane, the configuration was 2-4-2 with several open rows of four. I endeavored to snag an entire row of four or five to get an economy class “lie-flat bed.”

When I checked in, I swapped out my window seat near the front of economy for a middle seat in a row of four. I reasoned that the rows of five would be filled before the rows of four because they were closer to the front, and that my row would be skipped over, if I took a middle seat, for one with only one person in an aisle seat.

Everything looked good on the United mobile app’s seat map until the last few minutes before boarding. At that point, the gate agent in Houston started giving seat assignments to the dozens of standby passengers. All the empty rows started to get a person or two, and as I stood on the plane walking to my row, I saw that a person was added to it.

No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I thought about moving to a row of five with only one person on an aisle, but by the time the standby passengers were cleared every row of five had two passengers. In fact, the only row of four with one passenger was directly behind me.

In it, sat a young man in a Houston Astros t-shirt and shorts. He seemed to be going to Hawaii with two other men sitting in the group of two seats in his row next to the window.

Before take off, I wanted to ask him to switch seats with me. Since my seat was inferior because there was someone else in the row, it only seemed fair to offer him money to switch. I figured I’d be willing to pay $100 for the switch, and settled on offering him $20 to switch, hoping that by anchoring low we’d end up there or around $40. But I chickened out because it’s awkward to interact commercially or negotiate with strangers in a non-commercial setting.

After take off, though, I was so exhausted that I had to ask.

“Excuse me, would you be willing to switch seats with me for money?”

“No.”

Well that was that.

I was kind of surprised he shot me down without hearing an offer. I was even more surprised when he proceeded to sit in his seat (not lie down) the entire flight and when someone moved to his other aisle seat, so he didn’t even have an entire row to himself. Why didn’t he just take the free money for the same situation a row up?

  1. Maybe he wanted to be able to talk to his friends across the aisle, although he could have done that from my seat. Their row was really between my row and his row since the rows are a bit staggered.
  2. Maybe he was planning to lie across four seats, but an interloper who moved to his row foiled the plan.
  3. Maybe he hates the “elite,” and wanted to stick it to them, and thought that I was them because I was wearing a suit. (I’ve been flying in a suit since September because it’s fun and because I don’t want to fold it into my bag.)
  4. Maybe he just really, really didn’t want to have to stand up again.
  5. Maybe he has simple tastes and enough money and moving didn’t interest him.
  6. Maybe he found my offer distasteful and declined to punish me for being such a rude person.

One and four make the most sense to me, but there must have been some price worth moving for, and he had no interest in finding it.

I can’t help but think I might have had more success if, instead of cash, I had offered the chance at a good deed: “Hey man, I just flew ten hours to Houston, and I was really hoping to sleep on this flight, but they assigned someone else to my row at the last minute. Is there any chance you would switch seats with me if you weren’t planning to sleep? I’d be forever grateful.” Some people respond better to that than cash.

What do you think? Is it OK to ask people to switch seats in economy for money? Is it more effective to ask for them to do it with or without money?

(I ended up lying across three seats in my assigned row. I didn’t feel bad taking up three-fourths of the seats because my row had two fixed arm rests, between the aisle and middle seats, that made it impossible to enjoy two seats comfortably other than the middle two–translation: the other guy in the aisle couldn’t use “his” middle seat, so why shouldn’t I? I had to bend my legs over the fixed arm rest that broke my string of three seats, but that was right where I’d need to bend my legs any way to fit in three seats. [I can get fully flat in four.] I slept comfortably for about four hours and arrived semi-rested in Hawaii and ready to go to bed early that night.)


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16 COMMENTS

  1. Can’t hurt to ask and I’d think you’d want to lead with your best offer (money). Maybe say I’ve been flying for x hours and I’d love to stretch out. Could I pay you to swap seats with me? That way they can decline payment if they are sufficiently altruistic, or negotiate payment if they are interested.

  2. I’m surprised that he didn’t ask how much money you would offer. I would have asked why & how much at the very least.

  3. Once while flying in United domestic first, the man next to me asked if I’d be willing to switch seats with his son who had a middle seat in economy. I was waiting for him to offer me some cash, but nope. He wanted me to trade my first class aisle seat for an economy middle seat… for free. Naturally, I said no, but he persisted, saying that he really wanted to sit next to his son. I suggested he switch seats with the person sitting next to his son. That’s a trade I’m sure they’d be willing to make. But no, he didn’t want to do that. He wanted me to make a trade he wasn’t willing to make himself. Anyway, we didn’t speak again for the rest of the flight.

  4. People don’t like the idea of selling something not normally assigned a monetary value. I agree that if you had explained your situation and asked for a favor you might have gotten a better result.

  5. I’ve actually done this on a transatlantic segment. Paid $43, which was all the cash I had. I explained that I had to teach a class the next morning and the person took pity on me.

  6. Some people aren’t as comfortable asking “how much?” in that circumstance. Either they don’t want to seem greedy or they don’t want to get into a prolonged back and forth of “how much?” “how much do you want?” “how much are you willing to offer?” where the first to offer a number is perceived to be at a disadvantage.

    Perhaps throwing out a number initially would’ve helped. He then could’ve had the additional option of simply saying “sure” to accept your offer.

  7. For an itinerary like this I would have tried to connect overnight to get some sleep. I would have not taken anything less than $200 or just flat out would not feel comfortable talking about it. I would be offended for a $20 offer.

  8. Obviously the airlines monetize differences in seats all the time, so no real reason passengers shouldn’t do the same on a limited basis if willing parties are involved. I can see, though, that it could be annoying if done too often – I don’t really get on the plane hoping for a lively seat auction circus if I just want to settle in and rest – and sometimes airlines have weight and balance issues that affect empty seat distribution, so that the right to engage in such commerce would not be unlimited.

  9. Yeah, I think it’s really plausible he misunderstood the offer. Like you were selling your seat to him.

    I’ll admit, I probably wouldn’t bother switching for money either. If I was already settled in and got a weird request out of the blue like that, I’d probably just ignore it.

  10. Agreed that your wording was a little weird. I think it’s fine to ask, and to be honest, I would feel better about paying someone to switch, rather than “guilting” them into it.

    Guarav (1st comment) had what I think is the best wording: “I’ve been flying for x hours and I’d love to stretch out. Could I pay you to swap seats with me?”

    I think the goal is to make the conversation as quick and painless as possible so I’d add a price too.

  11. He might have been put off or downright insulted by the immediate money offer – you didn’t give him the opportunity to simply be a nice guy. You meant well. However sometimes folks can perceive such an offer as misplaced entitlement/arrogance “oh you think you can buy your way through life”. And he showed you who’s boss by giving you a quick no. Wearing a suit potentially reinforced those perceptions.

    However I appreciate that dressing smartly for travel is a good practice, especially if something goes wrong or you are negotiating an upgrade. Whether people like it or not, you do get treated how you dress. As a compromise, pack the suit trousers, lose the tie, and pair the suit jacket (the suit piece most likely to get wrinkled) with a nice collared shirt/smart T and dark wash jeans / khakis – no dad jeans though lol. This look is down to earth yet perfectly acceptable in upgraded cabins and lounges which have a dress code.

  12. why not? its free market & no one gets hurt. a few yrs back, UA had delay out of ORD & switched me on Cathy from LAX to HKG 14-hr flight. i got pit in the middle seat on in a 3-4-3, with 2 fat buys on either side of me. i was not going to sleep just did not like being in that. so i paid a guy on a aisle seat a $100 to switch with me. we both are happy.

  13. Explaining the situation and asking him if you could buy him lunch and a drink of his choice would have been a great option. Exchanging money is awkward.

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