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The Most Family Friendly Airlines For Domestic And Short Haul Flights

by on September 2, 2013 · 39 comments

in AirTran, American, Delta, Family Travel, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, TPG Contributors, United, US Airways, Virgin America

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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.

All children love planes, but sadly not all airlines love children (photo c/o CNN).

All children love planes, but sadly not all airlines love children (photo care of CNN).

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.

LAN has exceptional customer service for families.

LAN has exceptional customer service for families.

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.

Simple IFE

Flying with children doesn’t have to be a travel trauma.

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 provides guidance for families on their website.

Alaska provides guidance for families on their website.

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 Airlines charges

American Airlines charges lap child fees.

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.

The animals on the tail of Frontier planes are a big hit with kids.

The animals on the tail of Frontier planes are a big hit with kids.

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 doesn;t offer child or infant fares.

Southwest doesn’t offer child or infant fares.

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

United is one of the least family-friendly airlines.

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.

Be sure your electronic ticket does allow for a lap child.

US Airways charges lap child fees for international travel.

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.

Lets hope your plane never looks like this!

Let’s hope your plane never looks like this!

Conclusions

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
Allegiant No No No No n/a
American Yes No No Some A/C Yes
Delta Yes No No Most A/C Yes
Frontier Yes (not w/ 3d party bookings) No Yes Live TV No
JetBlue Yes Yes Yes Free Live TV No
Southwest n/a Yes Yes Most A/C n/a
Spirit No No No No No
United No No No Some A/C Yes (except Canada)
US Airways No No No No domestic Yes
Virgin America Yes No Yes Yes No

For more tips on family travel, check out these previous posts:

Top 3 Credit Cards Fro Family Travel

How To Plan Award Travel With An Infant Or Lap Child

Tips for Using Frequent Flyer Miles for Family Travel

How Families Can Avoid Being Split Up On Airplanes

Guest Blog Post: Tips for Flying With Toddlers

Choosing a Cruise While Maximizing Points

Is the Disney Credit Card Worth It For A Cruise?

How to Choose a Cruise Based on Points

Using Frequent Flyer Miles for Cruise Flights

How to Get a Passport for Your Child

Cruising – Anchors Aweigh

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Traveller

    Delta does allow pre-boarding for parents with small children (often quantified as under 2 by gate agents) or children in strollers. I hear the announcement every week when I fly. I’m not sure where the information came from above.

  • Richard

    Ditto on Delta. I’ve never been on a Delta flight that didn’t offer preboarding for people traveling with infants or children or “anyone needing additional time to get down the jetbridge.”

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    Not surprising, the “industry” wants to move all the kids to the “BUSES” so the self appointed privileged can make believe they are big shots. In some ways, I agree because people without kids shouldn’t have to put up with your kids but I think at a certain point , elites have to stop worrying about taking over commercial carriers. They should start just looking into leasing their own equipment. There are many MANY more issues that should be addressed in this upcoming trial (and more importantly discussion ) but so long as everything is safe, probably no need.

  • Jason Steele

    Oops, that’s right, we’ll correct that.

  • JC

    The more difficult it becomes for families to travel with children, the fewer the families that travel with children.

    What a godsend that would be to the rest of us who just want to get where we are going, without getting puked on or without having to listen to someone else’s little angel screaming and kicking the back of our seats.

  • szuperdan

    Jason, thanks for this article. I never realized how strict Southwest was regarding proof of age. I do want to ask one question however…do you think the “reasonable luggage allowance” is something that should just be offered for families with small children, any age children, anyone or…?

  • Baqa

    I have a trip to Mexico on Alaska coming up late this year and am about to have a baby…are you saying that this text on their site is not followed and I won’t have to pay anything? That would be great! “Lap infants traveling to an international destination (outside of North America) must be ticketed at 10% of the accompanying adult’s fare.” http://www.alaskaair.com/content/travel-info/policies/children-infants-and-children.aspx

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    Wow so now the new ‘exclusionary’ process will be people with kids? Seriously just let us all know when the baby boomers are finished destroying everything in America before we’re allowed to participate.

  • passportsandpushchairs

    Yep, Delta allows preboarding to families with kids 2 and under. International carriers are far better with families that domestic carriers, sadly.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    And you know what else? Screw you. That ‘kid’ paid the same amount for that seat as anyone else. This is exactly why in some ways certain bankrupt “industries” may be beyond repair.

  • Jasmine

    Only issue I had was with southwest. They wanted proof of age for a one year old. Guess when traveling southwest make sure the child has a birth certificate. Never had this issue with other airlines. Must be people on southwest taking advantage of the pre boarding.

  • MM

    Recently found a great website to match a parent with child helpers on flights – nannyintheclouds.com

  • JC

    I probably paid a lot more for my ticket since I primarily travel for business.

    Kids traveling with families typically think that the world owes them first class service on a $17 trip to Detroit.

    I, among many frequent business travelers, wish they would stay home.

  • JC

    Your histrionics are amusing.

  • sam

    Almost half of United’s domestic fleet has DirecTV; that should keep the kiddos occupied once onboard.

  • Caroline

    You obviously have no children, Thank God!
    I, also a frequent business traveler, am actually bothered for the loud adult passengers who think too much of themselves, drink too much and need to be reminded of not using their cell phones. I think those you stay home.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    Did you now? Well you’re aware that they offer leasing services for ‘corporate’ travel nowadays and if you’d like to open up the discussion. I’m game. What state is your supposed ‘business’ located?

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    No ill play. Please expand your explanation for us. What ‘business’ do you claim to represent?

  • LarryInNYC

    Something to be aware of — if one parent is traveling to Mexico with a child he or she (at least, he — I know this is true for fathers) must have a notarized letter from the other parent with permission for the child to travel. You may be denied boarding without it.

  • Caroline

    I think you are amusingly funny and so ridiculously entitled!

  • JC

    I think “those you” should lighten up a little.

  • WS

    I would add that a child traveling on the same itinerary as an AAdvantage elite traveler (Gold and up) receives the same waived baggage fees as the elite traveler. In my case, I’m AAdvantage Gold and get two free checked bags (domestic) so my 6-year old daughter gets two free bags as well. Savings of up to $60 each way.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    Oh and the word ‘histrionics’ coming out of a FF’s mouth this week is just beyond sublime irony.

  • Guest

    Error in summary chart: United and US Airways both offer free advance seat assignments. Those boxes should be changed to “Yes”.

  • Jason Steele

    Certainly, I think all airlines should offer a reasonable luggage allowance. But they don’t. Nevertheless, families are less able to bring a carry on suitcase and a personal item for each person, so it is a key factor.

  • Jason Steele

    I’ve never been puked on or had my kids puke on anyone, so I can’t speak to that. I will say that most of my travel in my lifetime has been without kids, and during that time I have encountered more rude adults than unruly kids, so I think there is plenty of fault to find with passengers of all age groups. So that leaves traveling by private aircraft or car, or traveling with the general public of all ages.

  • Jason Steele

    We’ll try to get that changed.

  • Jason Steele

    That is a cool fact, thanks!

  • Jason Steele

    Good to know!

  • Christian

    And with that changed, how exactly does United end up in the bottom tier and American doesn’t?

  • Jason Steele

    Southwest is notorious for that. Your child could literally be born yesterday, and they will still ask for proof. Fortunately, they accept just about any written, such as a immunization record..

  • A Parent

    Dear JC – what a shame on you! Please remember you also were a kid and if your parents had taken you on a flight then you very well might have caused a little nuisance that you come to hate now.
    I really hope you shed your false status ego and learn to walk on the ground with your feet firm on the ground.

  • Wildcat1

    Jason, great article, could we get a follow up or addition that helps decipher the same topic but for International flights / carriers ?

    Thanks

    WC

  • CMH322

    While it isn’t an official family boarding zone, Delta always does a pre-board for those needing assistance or extra time. Families line up then, and no one has ever contested this, in my 4 years as a Diamond.

  • Laura

    Excellent piece. As the mother of an 11-month old baby who just flew r/t NY to Madrid, I would like to share my recent experience on American Airlines and United. We flew out of JFK to Madrid on American Airlines. The experience was good, mostly because the gate crew managed to get us an empty seat and my husband, baby and I were able to sit in the same row. I did pay $270 in international lap child fees, so it’s not like it was a total freebie. The flight attendants were very nice. Fast-forward to our experience with United out of Madrid… blech. The flight attendants were horrible! The one time I tried to walk my baby down the aisle (she’s taking her first steps), a dog-faced flight attendant came running towards me to tell me to get out of the way because the food service was starting… liar! The food service started 1/2 hour later. At 11-months old my baby is pretty squirmy, so holding her down for 8.5 hours was torture, but something I did. People around me actually congratulated me at the end of the flights for having such a ‘well-behaved baby’, but the flight attendants were no help. In another instance of poor United customer service, when I asked for water to make the baby a bottle, I was told to wait. The flight attendant then served two entire rows behind me, before coming back to me. I mean, come on. Does it really take such an effort to pour some water into the bottle to quiet down the baby? United — you suck. I’ve been a loyal United Mileage Plus member since 1991…. but our relationship has now come to an end. Thanks so much for this post! Please keep them coming. I fly abroad often and found out about intl. lap child fees through an earlier post of yours, so THANK YOU very much!

  • Jason Steele

    Thanks for the comments. I am putting together a piece on family friendly airlines for long haul flights that will appear here soon.

  • Pingback: Maximize Monday: The Most Family-Friendly International Carriers | The Points Guy()

  • Yev

    Looser

  • juels

    I have been flying since infancy, since you could smoke on a plane… You know what I get tired of… The business man who gets intoxicated and thinks he can pick up in woman within a 3 row radius. Who falls asleep on me or the person on the other side of them, while mouth breathing. The one who wont shut down his computer or put away his cell phone because what he/she is doing is a million times more important than anyone else and take off can wait. The guy/gal who doesn’t shower after partying all night or just doesn’t shower at all leaving the rest of us to suffer your stench.
    Myself and hubby travel internationally several times a year. When our child is born, she will travel with us. SO…. If I (now we) have to put up with your intoxicated, egotistical attitude, who thinks they are beyond anyone else, you can put up with my baby for a short amount of time. Just for the record…. yes I’m an elite member.

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