Comparison of Airline Seat Selection Fees
Etihad Airways A380 Economy class

When flying from Sydney to London, you could pay anywhere from nothing to over $250 per passenger to choose your own seats – or even more than $1,000 per passenger for exit row seat assignments! This can really add up if you’re flying as a family. And as more and more airlines try to supplement their revenue by charging for ancillary services, seat selection fees are only getting higher and more common.

So, just how much can you expect to pay for seat selection, which airlines charge the highest fees and which airlines still let you choose your own seats for free?

We compared the seat selection fees charged by 11 major airlines flying between Sydney and London. Of the airlines we checked, Cathay Pacific has by far the highest seat selection fees. Meanwhile, Qatar Airways still allows all passengers to select a seat in advance for free. Thai Airways also offers free standard seat selection, as well as Virgin Australia and its partner Virgin Atlantic when flying to London via Hong Kong.

Standard, preferred and extra legroom seats

As well as charging for standard seat selection, many airlines charge an even higher fee to select seats designated as “preferred”, or extra legroom seats such as those in emergency exit rows.

For example, Singapore Airlines charges more to select a seat in the “forward zone”, which is closer to the front. These seats don’t have extra legroom; the main selling point is that you might be able to disembark more quickly. Exit row seats are also available for a much higher fee.

Qantas charges $45 ($90 for a round-trip) to select a seat on long-haul flights such as QF1 from Sydney to London if you’ve booked an Economy Sale ticket. Certain seats designated for no apparent reason as “preferred”, such as row 54 on the A380, cost $55 each way. On long-haul Qantas flights, exit row seats cost $180 one-way.

Cathay Pacific, meanwhile, charges a higher fee to select an aisle or window seat, rather than a middle seat. Even so, you can expect to pay a whopping $249.60 to select middle seats on a return Cathay Pacific journey from Sydney to London via Hong Kong! If you want an aisle or a window seat (why else would you pay to select a seat in advance?!), you could be asked to shell out $264.

And then there’s British Airways, which charges 7 different prices depending on which part of the Economy class cabin you choose to sit in. British Airways, notoriously, also charges for advance seat selection in Premium Economy and Business class! On a return ticket to London, you could pay anywhere between $156 and $220 to pre-select Premium Economy seats – or between $318 and $380 to choose your own Business class seats. Frankly, that is appalling.

Seat selection charges for a British Airways Premium Economy flight from Sydney to London
Seat selection charges for a British Airways Premium Economy flight from Sydney to London

Etihad Airways charges $145 for advance selection of standard seats, $231.80 for standard seats without extra legroom that are closer to the front of the plane, and $753 for Economy Space seats, which have extra legroom. (The Etihad website explains the different seat types.)

Etihad Airways seat selection charges on a flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi
Etihad Airways seat selection options on a flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi

Frequent flyers with Etihad Guest status receive free standard seat selection, and can get a discount on up-front and Economy Space seats – but this benefit does not extend to Virgin Australia Velocity members. There is some discussion about this on the Australian Frequent Flyer forum: Virgin Platinum seat selection on Etihad

Qatar Airways is the only airline we checked that does not charge anyone to select any seat. Even Economy class passengers with no frequent flyer status, travelling on the cheapest ticket category, can choose their own seat in advance at no charge. Qatar Airways does, however, reserve the up-front seats for Privilege Club and Oneworld frequent flyers, as well as full-fare Economy class ticket-holders. Exit rows on Qatar Airways cannot be reserved in advance (which the airline says is for safety reasons), but can be requested when checking in at the airport on a first-come, first-served basis.

Comparison of seat selection fees

The following table compares the total seat selection fees you could expect to pay when flying from Sydney to London return in Economy class with each airline. The lowest category of seat selection fees are shown in green. The yellow bar represents the price you would pay for a “preferred” seat, and the red bar shows the price for an extra-legroom seat. As you can see, there are huge differences between airlines!

Graph comparing airline seat selection fees on a round-trip Sydney-London booking

Note that for Malaysia Airlines, the “preferred seats” are located in exit rows. For some reason, these seats are priced lower than the designated extra-legroom seats on long-haul flights.

How to avoid paying airline seat selection fees

With most airlines, there are ways to avoid paying a fee if you want to choose your own seat in advance. For example, passengers on more expensive tickets and frequent flyers with elite status are usually exempt from paying.

In general, full-service airlines will also not charge you to select your own seat once online check-in opens 24-48 hours before departure. But some airlines, including Qantas, will still charge you if you want to sit in the exit row – even after check-in opens.

The following passengers can avoid paying seat selection fees in Economy class with each of the airlines we checked:

  • Qantas – Economy Saver & Flex passengers, and Qantas Frequent Flyer Silver & above members
  • British Airways – Passengers on flexible tickets and Qantas Gold/Oneworld Sapphire members (Qantas Silver/Oneworld Ruby members can choose seats for free 7 days before departure)
  • Emirates – Economy Flex & Flex Plus passengers, Skywards Silver & above members, and families with infants
  • Etihad – Economy Flex passengers and Silver & above Etihad Guest members (this benefit does not apply to Velocity members)
  • Singapore Airlines – Economy Standard & Flexi passengers, and Silver & above KrisFlyer elite members
  • Cathay Pacific – Economy Core & Flex passengers and Marco Polo Club Silver/Oneworld Ruby & above members
  • Malaysia Airlines – Economy Flex passengers and Enrich Platinum members
  • Thai Airways – everybody is entitled to free seat selection, except preferred (exit row & up-front) seats
  • Virgin Australia – everybody is entitled to free seat selection, except Economy X seats
  • Qatar Airways – everybody is entitled to free seat selection
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Matt Graham
The editor of Australian Frequent Flyer, Matt's passion for travel has taken him to over 60 countries… with the help of frequent flyer points, of course!
Matt's favourite destinations (so far) are Germany, Brazil, New Zealand & Kazakhstan. His interests include economics, aviation & foreign languages, and he has a soft spot for good food and red wine.

You can contact Matt at [email protected]

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Adrian Prince

I think seat selection fees are despicable. My wife has claustrophobia and needs a window seat. I, naturally, want to sit next to her so I end up paying to “select” the worst (middle) seat.

Val

Would it be worth getting a doctor’s certificate for your wife? Maybe registering her condition? I suffer from claustrophobia myself, though it doesn’t affect where I sit in the plane, but I do think it’s a notifiable complaint.

Kim

Hello I have a doctors certificate for claustrophobia, but some airlines (BA, Lufthansa) still insist on payment. Lufthansa told me this is not an ‘approved medical condition and made me pay even in premium economy.. The seat selection fee added a whopping 10% to my PE ticket price Paris -Hong Kong!.

Scott Hunter

I’ve had a few claustrophobic people tell me the complete opposite in that they have to have aisle seats – and to be fair I can’t see how having to sit in a window seat would help if you’re claustrophobic. Is it because the window makes things feel less constricted? If so that’s an angle I hadn’t previously considered but am definitely interested in whether and how it helps (particularly at night or when the shades are down).

Sir Adelaide

I have mild claustrophobia – I avoid underground mine visits (work related) and scuba, and actively leave large gaps in front when I’m driving.
As you said, on planes it manifests as a desire to sit by the aisle so I’m not trapped in by sleeping people I don’t know and don’t want to disturb.

Chris G Stone

You have to admire the cunning marketing of, not only airlines but most big companies, who take the long term plan of offering a free service and then, wham! hit the customer with a fee for service. I remember the introduction of credit cards when there was no fees for the merchant but look at it now. As you say they are trying every angle to improve their bottom line which is pretty miserable in most cases. Who would buy shares in an airline to get a fair return on investment? Not I but it would be difficult to live… Read more »

Angela Hollis

On a recent flight from Colombo to Bangkok with Thai Airways there was a complete row in front of me unoccupied. After take off I asked if I could move only to be told that I would have to pay us$30 extra because they were preferred seats. It would appear that your information about Thai Airways is not entirely correct.

Joe Slater

What really sucks is: 1) You’re travelling on a codeshare, and you can’t select seats because your booking airline doesn’t cooperate with the flight’s operator; 2) A passenger is someone who needs assistance with mobility, toileting, or potentially an oxygen mask or evacuation in an emergency; 3) A passenger is, e.g., someone potentially vulnerable to sexual assault 4) You’re travelling as a a family and the airline doesn’t acknowledge your strong reason to wish to be seated together for reasons of convenience and comfort. I’ve had problems with all of these with Qantas but I’m sure other airlines do it… Read more »

Alan Davies

I recently booked Perth,Manchester return, Swissair I requested aisle seats which was no problem, on the way back I went online to request aisle seats again to my surprise I found I could book any available seat at no cost, so ended up stretching out in front row aisle

Renato

Seat selection fees are the reason I try avoiding flying Qantas as much as possible. Not that I care much where my wife and I are put, but I really care that we are not split up. We have done a lot of flying over the years, and only Qantas, on the one leg where I hadn’t paid for seat selection – on an award flight from LA to New York – has ever split us up and put us in totally different parts of the plane. So now, to avoid such a mishap which would distress my wife, I… Read more »

fn0

Note that the price for selecting a seat can change according to the currency you pay in. The price for the selection I made yesterday was CAD100.00 (equivalent to about AUD110) but upon further enquiry I found I could pay 76.00 instead if charged in AUD, This was managed on the phone as the website would not allow individual selection for two aisle seats at opposite ends of a middle 3 seat row.. I am not complaining as the charge for this transpacific long-haul is very low compared with some of the horrible examples in the article.