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.
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.)
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!
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