How I Scored The Best Seat On A Frontier Redeye For Free

Frontier Airlines is a whole different kind of animal. Or so claimed their marketing campaign way back in 2003. That was back when they were sort of a quirky regional airline that managed to attract a loyal following among the anti-corporate crowd common to the mountain west. They went head-to-head with United in Denver for years, becoming equally famous for the lovable animals on the tails of their planes and the chocolate chip cookies baked in their onboard ovens.

Nowadays, Frontier is still an animal. But instead of that cuddly koala, they are now more like a raccoon or opossum that skitters around the edges of civilization, tipping over trash cans in search of a meal made from someone else’s leftovers. That’s because Frontier’s current strategy is to dart in and out of juicy markets that were once dominated by the legacies. If a route works after a few months, they keep it. If not, they pack up shop and head elsewhere. For sure, they offer some incredible fares, but then try to sell you everything and the kitchen sink along the way. 

I’ve flown Frontier a few times, but certainly not much. As a United Premier 1K, I’m willing to pay a little more for my ticket since it will come with an Economy Plus seat, the chance at an upgrade, more valuable miles, and better protection in the case of travel snafus.

But even I have my price.

And for a recent work trip to the east coast, Frontier was offering a fare that was several hundred dollars less than United, even when I included the $30 fee I’d have to pay to check a bag. Sure the schedule sucked — a redeye leaving after midnight — but for that kind of savings, I figured I could survive.

FrontierPlane

Seat assignments on Frontier

For my flight, Frontier wanted an extra $12 to select a seat in the back of the plane. Or I could pay $24 to select a regular seat towards the front. Or $40 for an extra legroom seat in the first couple of rows or the exit. It’s possible that Frontier offers a few middle seats in the back for free, but I didn’t see any on my flight.

As much as the extra space seemed nice, my thinking was that if you’re gonna go cheap — and I was most assuredly going cheap on this trip — you gotta go all-in. Plus, I was leaving my wife and three young kids at home for once, meaning that even the middle seat next to the lav was going to seem like a spa compared to constantly adjusting someone’s tablet or opening endless packages of string cheese.

At the time I bought my ticket — about a month in advance — the seat map showed the plane was mostly empty. I mistakenly took this to mean that the flight was lightly booked, which seemed to make sense considering this was a miserable redeye leaving at 1:20 AM on a Sunday morning. I wish I had taken a screen shot of the seat map at the time, but basically there were just a smattering of occupied seats in the $12 section, with almost no one in the premium seats.

Here’s what the seat map looks like for an upcoming flight on this route:

frontierseatmapmiddle
Frontier seat map for a future flight on this route

Anyway, I decided to save the $12 and take my chances. 

Frontier’s online check-in opened 24 hours prior to departure

As the day of the departure approached, I periodically checked the seat map to see if my gambit was going to pay off. The back of the plane definitely had a few more seats occupied than before, but still not that many.

But then when check-in rolled around, the back started to fill rapidly. That’s because Frontier automatically assigns seats to those who haven’t paid for a seat assignment — and apparently that includes just about everyone. I’m not sure what the seat allocation algorithm looks like, but I imagine they more or less go front to back handing out the $12 seats, all the while hoping they can entice a few folks to buy-up to the premium seats.

By perhaps midday on Saturday — 12 hours from departure — all of the cheap seats were taken. But the $24 seats were mostly available. I started to realize that this flight was not nearly as empty as I had hoped. A quick check on the Frontier website indicated that they weren’t even selling tickets for it anyone. Ruh roh.

But I still didn’t see much benefit to completing check-in. I mean, if I’m just going to end up in a middle seat, it might as well be in the front of the plane.

So I stuck to the strategy of monitoring the seat map, but not actually checking in.

Coming down to the wire

As I left for the airport, nearly all of the $12 and $24 seats were occupied. Two $12 seats momentarily became available as you’ll see below, but they soon filled as well.

FrontierSeatmap
Seat map for my Frontier flight a few hours prior to departure

By the time I got to the airport, the only seat on the entire flight that was open was an exit row aisle. I was sure hoping it had my name on it.

I decided it couldn’t get any better, so I decided to finally take my shot and completed check-in, now barely an hour before departure. I held my breath as the app displayed my boarding pass — I had been assigned seat number “0.” Did that mean I got to sit in the cockpit?

Actually, I figured that meant I still had a chance at assigned that awesome exit row seat. Or it might mean I’d be the first passenger to get involuntarily denied boarding (since I didn’t have a seat assignment and was flying on a rock-bottom fare). It would be feast or famine.

A few minutes later I arrived at the counter, ready to check my bag. The friendly agent chatted a bit, typed, and then asked if I could lift 35 pounds. I hadn’t been to the gym that week, but assured him I could. He then handed me boarding pass for seat 13 D, the exit row aisle. Arguably the best seat on the plane.

FrontierBoardingPassExit

But now I was curious. How close had I come to getting IDB’ed? The agent said the flight was overbooked by two. And he had just assigned me the last seat. He said he hoped the two guys behind me weren’t going to Philly. (I think they were.)

In the end, I presume everyone got on since the exit row aisle across from me remained empty. In fact, I think that was the only empty seat on the plane.

Bottom Line

By waiting until all of the regular seats had been assigned, I was able to game the Frontier seat allocation algorithm to score a $40 exit row seat for free.

This strategy isn’t without risk, however, as I imagine that I might have been one of the first passengers to be denied boarding should the flight have ended up oversold since I didn’t have a seat assignment. But given that I didn’t need to be in Philadelphia until the following day anyway, I figured it was worth the risk.

Have you ever tried to game the seat allocation algorithm on a low-cost carrier? How did it turn out?

Comments

  1. I was recently on an Easyjet flight.Checked in about 36 hours before the flight and was assigned an extra legroom exit row seat. As there were 3 of us in that row, I was requested to go to the other side which was empty. So I ended up with a full row of extra legroom exit row…..

  2. @Travis. I do it with spirit all the time. I dont check in online but at the kiosk. If u check in 2 hours or 2.5 hours. Before the flight at the aipprt it assigns you seat from the front i always get the first row or regular seats. In spirit i have also gotten the big front seat with your method half the time. Win win. I tell everyone to check in at the aiport 2 hiurs and garunteed first or 2nd row seats

  3. Jon — You haven’t heard the half of it yet! I think the review will be titled, “This is why friends don’t let friends fly Frontier….”

  4. Similar experience with Ryanair. If you check in at exactly T-24hr they fill in back to front. I got Row 33 many times which is by far the best row (last row) because Ryanair boards back to front and often times opens both doors for disembark. First one on, first one off. Perfect. The only catch is you have to know your airports because at major airports like my home base Madrid, they use gates to board so getting off might be a problem.

  5. Recently I flew AA. From booking the ticket until check in, there were no free seats that I’d want to sit in. At check in, I was assigned one of their “preferred” seats (main cabin, closer to the front of the plane but not main cabin extra) with priority boarding.

  6. I often travel alone with Wow Air and I never pay for seat assignments so it is always a gamble what seat I will get when I check in. I would try this strategy with them but a) they don’t have kiosks and b) their online check in closes two hours before departure and c) i’d rather have a window or aisle on the last row of the aircraft than have a middle seat anywhere on the plane. So in balance i prefer my strategy of being as close to SEQ001 as possible so that I get assigned a window or aisle seat.

  7. I’ve tried this with United in an attempt to score a free Economy Plus seat, but at some point they just assigned me a seat even though I hadn’t checked in.

  8. Ive done this strategy before. JetBlue didnt have any decent seats and I didnt choose a seat. I asked at the gate for a seat and got the window exit row seat.

    This also works with legacy carriers really well. All the elites get the best seats on the flight to start bc they can select for free. A few of these elites are likely to get upgraded and then their seats will be open. Ill ask for exit row when I get to airport and its usually available at the gate.

  9. A little trick I’ve done on Spirit many times is to check in and get your seat assignment but wait to be the very very last person to board the plane. When you step on the plane quickly scan to the exit rows to see if there are seats open and head right to them and sit down. They don’t know the wiser and I’ve scored an amazing seat.

  10. This is the way to get seats together on Spirit or at least guarantee an aisle seat (or window, whatever your preference). I’m optimistic that regular Spirit flyers are not reading this blog, so I won’t complain too much. I only fly them MCI-LAS; hard to beat RT’s in the range of $48-72.

  11. Months after reading this, I booked a flight with my fiance. He’s not usually like this, but when he saw me the day before asked if I’d checked in and – I’m going to admit it – I was annoyed by the reminder about something that I didn’t think mattered. So I said “I like to check in late because you can get better seats that way.” Thanks Travis for the conversational ammo 😐

    It was a connecting flight and we did get better than expected seats on the first leg. Whatever they call the seats they try to up-sell to you, we sat in those. On the second leg we didn’t have seat assignments so had to go to the gate; it looked like we wouldn’t sit together. I was almost contrite. Then the gate agent said “oh are you together?” and re-issued seats that were fine.

    I guess it makes sense that they assign the up-sell seats last to regular-price customers. I’m surprised though that this airline gave us nice seats together instead of shitty middle-seats-not-next to each other. I’m fairly sure that United would have done the latter.

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