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Recently, TPG contributor Jason Steele looked at the most family friendly airlines for domestic and short haul travel, considering luggage allowances, seating assignments, in-flight entertainment, and access to boarding priority. Today he’s going to roundup the international airlines with the best travel policies for family travel.
When it comes to traveling with a family, things can be stressful in the best of circumstances, so it is important to understand the family-specific policies of any airline you plan to fly. While none might go so far as offering the in-flight Nanny service that Etihad launched last week, I want to examine the family-friendly amenities offered by major long-haul and international carriers.
Having flown to quite a few long-haul international flights with my children as infants and toddlers, I am actually not terribly excited by the Etihad’s announcement. Aside from the fact that we personally have no plans to visit or transit Abu Dhabi, the service seems to be little more than some extra flight attendant training on an already kid-friendly airline. In short, it is a brilliant PR move, but little else.
International and Long-Haul Versus Domestic and Short-Haul
My criteria for a family-friendly international carriers are different than what my family needs from short-haul and domestic flights. On longer flights, we are less concerned about baggage allowances and priority boarding as most carriers offer at least one free checked bag per person on international itineraries, and long-haul flights board at a much more leisurely (or at least, time-consuming) pace than quick-turnaround short-hauls. In addition, I have found that many airline’s official boarding procedures are thrown out the window at overseas destinations.
When I chose an airline for travel on long-haul flights with children and infants, I want to see the choice of a special meal, the use of a bassinet, and perhaps a fun amenity kit for my children to play with. It’s not necessarily that these amenities are so valuable (we can bring our own food and entertainment), but their presence is a strong indication that the crew will be family-friendly and trained to help. After all, you can’t expect the employees to go out of their way for families if their employers don’t.
When using points and miles, I also want to avoid lap child fees, which must be paid as 10% of regular fares, except as noted. In addition, some carriers even offer discounts on revenue fares for children under 12.
I researched the policies for families, infants, and children at 39 of the largest international carriers. In general, they fell into two groups:
Airlines that go out of their way to accommodate children – These are airlines offer special services and amenities for children, such as Air Berlin, Lufthansa, ANA, and of course, Etihad. Expect your child to really enjoy the experience on these airlines.
Airlines that just offer the minimum. These are airlines that offer children’s meals and perhaps some in-flight entertainment, but no special programs. These carriers include the four major legacy carriers; American, United, Delta, and US Airways. Others in this group include Thai, Turkish, and South African Airways. Some of these, like American, Thai, and Copa do not even list special children’s meal options on their web site.
Here is a list of family travel policies listed by airline, and then read on below to find some of my tips for traveling with your family.
Policies By Airline
AeroMexico – Their web site has no information on children’s amenities. Lap children are $35 to/from the United States.
Air Berlin – Bassinets provided in bulkhead, and parents receive an amenity kit with a diaper, bottle, and a bib. Its website indicates they are happy to warm up baby food as well. Children are offered coloring books, flight certificates, comics or Air Berlin caps. On long-haul flights, kids have their own audio program and cartoons. Children’s menus are an option. Children under 12 pay 75% of regular base fare, which excludes many other charges. Discounts don’t apply to the lowest, “JustFly” fare class.
Air Canada - Offers child fares on international flights. Lap child award fees are small on international flights, and zero on flights between U.S. and Canada. Infant and children’s meals are provided on international flights.
Air New Zealand – Basinets on long-haul aircraft. Children offered “Air New Zealand Jet Cadets” Kids amenity pack including kid’s size headset, Jet Cadet lunchbox, kids packs and meals, kids channel on in flight entertainment. Interestingly, parents flying Air New Zealand can pay the unaccompanied minor fee to have their child sit in a different class of service.
Air France – Air France offers children’s and infant meals, amenity packs, and in-flight entertainment options. Children’s fares are discounted by 15% on domestic flights, and 33% on medium and long-haul routes. Bassinets are also available in all cabins.
Aeroflot – This Russian carrier offer discounts for children occupying a seat as well as special toys and games. They also offer special meals for infants and children.
Alitalia – This Italian carrier seems to enjoy catering to little bambinos. There is an ‘Amica’ lounge at their Rome hub that is equipped with “a nursery with kitchenette, utensils and baby-care items.” International flights offer a children’s meal, and bassinets are available. They even offer a cute First Flight Certificate that the crew will sign.
American Airlines – American has done little to capitalize on the smaller fans it created with its cameo on the recent Planes movie from Disney. It has limited bassinets only on their 777-200 fleet, and they offer no special meals for children or infants. Nevertheless, our family found a nice kid’s room at one of the lounges in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.
ANA – Children and baby meals are offered, and powdered milk, paper diapers, drinks for children, baby bottles, aprons, forks and spoons are also available on board. ANA will also escort passengers with connecting flights who have a child under three years old. Bassinets are available and expecting mothers are also offered special treatment.
Asiana – They have a “Happy Mom Service” that offers “conveniences at boarding, in-flight breastfeeding and long-time traveling.” This is available to passengers with children younger than three, so presumably dads are included as well. Other amenities include a baby bassinet, nursing cover, and baby sling.
Austrian – Austrian offers special infant and children’s meals, as well as bassinets and children’s amenity packs.
British Airways – BA has the great policy of charging 10% points for lap children on award bookings, as opposed to 10% of the dollars. On board, BA offers infant and children’s meals as well as “SkyFlyers activity packs” for flights over two hours long. There are different packs for different ages which include crayons, a coloring book, puzzles, and sudokus.
Brussels – Brussels does not appear to have any specific children’s amenities, although their website makes reference to bassinets and infant food.
Cathay Pacific – Bassinets are available, and children 3-6 years old receive an amenity pack including stationery, games and activity books. Special infant and children’s meals are available, complete with colorful utensils.
Copa – They offer discounted fares for infants occupying a seat, but little else in the way of amenities.
Delta – Delta does not offer any special amenities for infants or children that I could find, other than bassinets. According to their website, some discounted fares are offered “between certain countries.”
El Al – The Israeli carrier sees a lot of family travel, and offers bassinets for infants. In addition, crew will heat and rinse bottles and provide hot water. Children receive special meals as well as an activity book.
Emirates – Emirates features special meals for infants and children. Their Young Flyers program offers families priority boarding, changing tables and a complimentary stroller service at Dubai International Airport. There are special channels for kids on the in-flight entertainment system, and kids receive their own amenity pack. Emirates also offers discounted fares for children occupying a seat.
Etihad – In an apparent bid to become the most family friendly airline Etihad is going all out. In addition to the over-the-top Flying Nanny service, Etihad offers bassinet service, family pre-boarding, and dedicated family rooms for business and first class passengers at Dublin, Frankfurt, London, Paris, Manchester and Washington and its hub in Abu Dhabi. Child and infant meals are available including Hipp Organic premium baby food in several flavors. Children are also offered an amenity pack as well as age appropriate television shows, movies, music and video games.
EVA – They offer three kinds of infant and children’s meals, but their real highlight is the Hello Kitty flights, which will be starting between Taipei and Los Angeles. These flights feature aircraft with special paint jobs, as well as branded items on-board. Read the full story here.
Finnair – They offer bassinets, meals for children, and toys as well as dedicated in-flight entertainment options.
Iberia – Offers special meals for children and infants, but does not have any other special amenities for families.
Japan Airlines (JAL) – They offer bassinets, diapers, and a choice of baby meals (including a bib) and children’s meals. Toys and games are given away, and picture books can be borrowed. Families also receive special assistance at check in, and transfer or arrival.
KLM – KLM offers its Junior Jet service which includes children’s amenities and special meals for infants and children. Bassinets are also available.
LAN – We received fantastic service on short haul flights on LAN earlier this year with our infant, but I can’t describe their long-haul service. That is because infants are not allowed to travel as lap children in business class on LAN, despite British Airways issuing us a lap child award ticket. Although LAN would not honor our tickets, we were re-accommodated at no charge on American. Lap children are allowed in coach, and LAN does offer children’s meals.
Lufthansa – Lufthansa has become our family’s favorite long-haul carrier for several reasons. On our first long-haul flight with our oldest child, three flight attendants erected the bassinet and made it up with fresh linens. Lufthansa offers great amenity kits for infants and kids that currently feature characters from Disney’s Planes movie, and special children’s meals from a celebrity chef. In fact, our daughter still plays with all of the toys she has received from them over the years. Other services include a special family check in area at Frankfurt and Munch airports.
Malaysia – I wanted to include this airline because they made a lot of news in recent years by offering a kid free section on the upper deck of their A380. This section includes their eight first class seats, and much of coach. Nevertheless, this policy doesn’t affect the coach and business class seats on the lower deck, or any seats in other aircraft. In addition, they appear to offer several special services for infants children including priority boarding, entertainment, food, and well stocked childcare facilities at the airport. All in all, I would say they reached a decent compromise.
Qantas – This Australian carrier offers a range of children’s amenities, special family zones in lounges, and dedicated in-flight entertainment. Child, toddler or baby meals are also available.
Singapore – They feature several different options for children’s meals, and some even fancier choices for some lucky kids sitting in business and first class called their Yummy! Selection. Bassinets are also available.
South African Airways – They offer infant meals and bassinets, but don’t appear to offer any other special amenities for families and children, other than some movies for kids.
SWISS – Swiss offers special children’s meals and entertainment options. In addition, there are dedicated children’s lounges with play areas that we have visited when transiting Zurich. Bassinets are also available.
Thai – Thai offers bassinets for infants, but doesn’t show any special meals or amenities for children on their web site.
Turkish – Turkish Airlines offers baby and child meals, but doesn’t seem to offer any other special amenities.
United – They may have a bassinet available on some flights, but otherwise you are on your own. Their website curtly informs parents, “If you are traveling with an infant please be sure to bring enough food and supplies with you. Our flights are not equipped to heat baby bottles.” Thankfully, there are children’s meals available. We have had some particularly poor service from crew members United, and judging by reports from other families, we are not alone.
US Airways – Like United, US Airways may offer infants a bassinet, but not much else. Thankfully, baby and children’s meals are available.
Virgin Atlantic – This airline offers basinets, baby meals, and in flight entertainment options for kids. There is also a special kids menu featuring fish sticks, pizza, and chocolate. They also offer lap child awards in points; 1,500 Miles for Upper Class, 750 miles for Premium Economy, 200 miles for Economy.
Virgin Australia – Virgin Australia offers reduced price children’s tickets for international flights, just not in business class to North America. Airports include a mother’s/parent’s room. Special children’s meals are available and their web site claims that “cabin crew will heat bottles and assist you with preparing and washing bottles or pacifiers.” They also offer some surprising family benefits in their Velocity frequent flyer program such as parental leave that pauses elite status and four guaranteed award seats for an annual family trip.
Tips for traveling with infants and children
Reserve seats, meals, and basinets in advance. Every airline that I looked at that offered special accommodations for infants and children required parents to notify the carrier in advance to reserve these amenities. The reservations required from 24-72 hours in advance. Just including your child’s date of birth in the reservation is not sufficient.
No more than 1 infant per row and per adult. The FAA and other international regulators prohibit multiple children from occupying a row, so as to ensure that everyone has enough oxygen masks in the event they are needed. The problem, once again, is that even though the airlines know the age of their passengers, their systems will usually permit seat assignments that violate this rule. As a result, parents may only be informed of this regulation by flight attendants and will be forced to switch seats and be separated. If you are traveling with more than one infant, be sure to get advanced seat assignments in separate, but nearby rows.
Bring your own infant meals. Most airlines offer some form of an infant meal, but it should only be seen as a backup, at best. Most carriers strongly encourage parents to pack their own infant meals that they know their child will eat.
Always ask about children’s fares . If you are purchasing a revenue ticket for any member of your family, ask about children’s fares. Many airlines offer discounts for children 12 and under, but these policies are poorly disclosed. I did my best to mention airlines that list an offer on their web sites, but other carriers may still offer discounts when asked.
Try to stay positive. The service families receive may occasionally surprise you. For example, American has the fewest children’s amenities of any airline I researched, yet we received great service from a particular flight attendant during a weather hold in Buenos Aires this year. She paid special attention to our daughter during the two hour delay, and even invited us up to the cockpit while the aircraft was at the gate. My daughter enjoyed it almost as much as I did!