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Traveling as a family is not easy or cheap, and all airlines are not created equal when it comes to accommodating family travel, so TPG contributor (and father of two children) Jason Steele has compiled a list of the family-friendliest airlines flying the skies these days and what accommodations they make for parents and kids.
Some airlines go the extra mile by providing families with priority boarding, kid’s meals, and other amenities, while others seem to go out of their way to penalize those who would travel with small children.
So what makes an airline “family friendly”? For domestic and short-haul trips, families with small children need to be able to sit together, without being charged outrageous seat assignment fees. In fact, I would argue that this is both an important safety requirement and that airlines should not be permitted to monetize parent’s anxiety by suggesting they might not be permitted to sit with their minor children unless they pay additional fees.
Beyond that, the ideal family airline will offer some sort of priority boarding for travelers with small children, a reasonable luggage allowance, and perhaps some in-seat entertainment options. Thankfully, all airlines offer families the ability to check child car safety seats free of charge, and gate check strollers.
But the greatest amenity for families is nearly impossible to quantify – customer service. On two recent short-haul coach flights within Argentina, LAN Airlines flight attendants approached us before takeoff when they saw that my wife and I were traveling with our 5-month-old baby. They each gave us a special briefing and asked if there was anything that they could do to make our trip more comfortable.
In sharp contrast, United Airlines couldn’t even produce a blanket or pillow for my wife (who was nursing) on a 7-hour flight to Hawaii, and that was in first class. In our experience, an airline’s customer service strengths and weaknesses are amplified when you travel with children, friendly staff will be even more helpful to families, while employees with a poor customer service approach can make matters worse for families than they do for adults traveling alone.
Family-Friendly Policies On Airlines for Domestic and North American Travel
AirTran: Airtran gets a thumbs down for charging Advance Seat Assignment fees of $10-$30, although families can choose from remaining seats at check-in, 24 hours before departure. Travelers must pay bag fees, but if they book their flight through Southwest.com, they get two bags for free. Unfortunately, there is no ability to choose seat assignments when flights are booked through Southwest, even for a fee. Pre-boarding is only for one adult with a lap child. There is no seatback video, but there is free satellite radio. To their credit, they do not charge lap child fees for their international flights to destinations in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda.
Alaska: Alaska allows families with children under the age of 2 to preboard, even before first class and elites. Each traveler’s first bag is $20, but this is waived for Alaska, Delta, and American elites, as well as for travel within the State of Alaska. Seat assignments are free of charge at time of booking, but many seats are blocked for elites and full-fare customers. There is no in-flight entertainment in economy class, but their first class seats have a personal television. Thankfully they do not charge lap child fees for their international flights to Mexico and Canada.
Allegiant: While Allegiant used to split up children from parents who did not pay seat assignment fees, it caved to pressure last year. They will now seat each child next to a parent for free, but will not necessarily sit the entire family together unless they all pay the seat selection fees of up to $75 each way. Priority boarding is by additional fee only. There is no in-flight entertainment and Allegiant charges everyone for both checked bags and carry-on bags that do not fit underneath the seat.
American: American offers free seat assignments, but blocks many seats out for elites and full-fare passengers, and the airline does not offer pre-boarding for families (you can see the boarding rules here). In-flight entertainment is available on most aircraft but varies widely, and parents must pay lap child fees to all international destinations.
Delta: Delta offers advance seat assignments, but no priority boarding and no free checked bags for those who aren’t elite, or don’t hold a SkyMiles credit card. In-flight entertainment for a fee is now available on most mainline aircraft, but they do charge an international lap child fee everywhere they fly outside the United States.
Frontier: Kids love the animals on the tail of Frontier planes, and parents can enjoy no lap child fees to their many international destinations in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Costa Rica. Seat assignments can be chosen for free by those who book directly through their web site, and are available for a fee for those who book with a third party. There are seatback televisions with live broadcast channels for a fee. Families needing assistance board in Zone 1, after elites but before most other passengers, and there are always checked bag fees for those who traveling on awards and those who purchase the least expensive tickets. In fact, those who book through third parties must now pay fees for carry-on bags in the overheads as well. Award bookings are exempt from seat assignment fees and carry-on bag fees.
JetBlue: JetBlue offers family preboarding (children 2 and under), one free checked bag, and in-flight entertainment for free (premium channels cost extra). Best of all, there are no international lap child fees for their flights to all of their international destinations.
Southwest: No one receives seat assignments on Southwest, but if you make any attempt to check the day before your flight, you should be able to board early enough to find seats together using their open seating policy. Families traveling with children four and under board after all A Group passengers, but before the B Group; a boarding position I call B-0. All passengers receive two free checked bags, and international lap child fees are not an issue as they do not serve any destinations outside of the United States at this time. One can only hope that they retain AirTran’s no fee policy for lap children when they fold up their subsidiary in 2014 and begin international service under the Southwest brand.
There are no seatback televisions, but Southwest just announced that they will be offering free 14 channels of live service from DishTV using their in-flight WiFi service, currently available on 75% of their aircraft. The only negative thing I can say is that they require documentation of age for all lap children. Your newborn could be one month old and weigh ten pounds, but you will still have to provide a passport, birth certificate, or immunization record to prove that he or she is still under two years of age.
Spirit: No family boarding, no in-flight entertainment, and plenty of fees for checked bags, carry-on bags, and seat assignments make this a difficult airline for families (and everyone else). Yet surprisingly, they do not charge lap child fees for any of their international destinations. Take that legacy carriers!
United: In an apparent bid to become the least family-friendly carrier, United removed family preboarding last year. In-flight entertainment is being rolled out at a snail’s pace, and its presence will depend on what aircraft you are on. There are free advanced seat assignments, but don’t be surprised to find nearly all seats blocked for elites. In my experience, families who are separated from their small children are met with indifference by harried flight crews who suggest that parents just ask around for volunteers to switch seats with them. There are no free checked bags, other than for elites and credit cardholders. And finally, they charge lap child fees for all international destinations, except Canada.
US Airways: US Airways is on par with United as it has no pre-boarding for families (though it does allow families with children under the age of 2 to board after Zone 2), little in-flight entertainment, and no free checked bags, even for credit cardholders. Like United, free advanced seat assignments are available, yet scarce. Finally, they outdo United by charging lap child fees for infant tickets to all international destinations, including Canada.
Virgin America: Virgin America offers priority boarding for families with children ages 5 and under, after first class passengers. There is in-flight entertainment on all aircraft, and families can select seats in advance. There are no free checked bags, but they do not charge lap child fees either.
Discount, but not ultra-low-cost, carriers seem to offer families the best combination of family-friendly policies and low fees. In fact, JetBlue and Southwest are nearly tied for being the most family friendly. Southwest passengers have an edge with two free bags, while JetBlue customers get live seatback television for free.
Furthermore, both carriers have revenue based award redemption options, which enables large families to easily book multiple award seats. The next tier down are carriers like Alaska, Virgin America, and Frontier, which offer families priority boarding, in-flight entertainment, and no lap child fees, but still get you for baggage fees. Finally, there are the rest of the legacy and ultra-low-cost carriers that are trying to extract nearly every fee possible from families while providing few amenities. These carriers include AirTran, Allegiant, American, Delta, Spirit, United, and US Airways.
Below is a comprehensive break-down of the services and fees for each airline.
|Free Advanced Seat Assign||Free Checked Bags||Family Pre-Boarding||In-flight entertainment||Lap child fees for international|
|AirTran||No||No/(Yes if booked w/ Southwest)||1 adult w/ infant||XM Radio||No|
|Alaska||Yes||No||Yes||1st class only||No|
|Frontier||Yes (not w/ 3d party bookings)||No||Yes||Live TV||No|
|JetBlue||Yes||Yes||Yes||Free Live TV||No|
|United||No||No||No||Some A/C||Yes (except Canada)|
|US Airways||No||No||No||No domestic||Yes|
For more tips on family travel, check out these previous posts: