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One Father’s Comprehensive Guide for Flying with an Infant

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Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele shares the lessons he’s learned about traveling with small children, based on his experience as a father of two.

Don’t listen to the naysayers! You can travel with your infant and enjoy the trip, and it doesn’t have to come at the cost of disturbing your fellow passengers. My family and I have taken dozens of vacations while one of our two daughters was under two years old, to destinations as distant and exotic as South America, Europe, the Middle East and Hawaii, and we had a fantastic time on each one of them.

In this post, I want to offer parents (and grandparents) the strategies I’ve learned for planning a trip with your baby and pulling it all off without a hitch.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Traveling with a young child isn’t always easy, but it doesn’t have to be prohibitively hard, either. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Booking Your Flights

Perhaps the greatest challenge of booking travel with an infant is ticketing. Most airlines will allow children under two years of age to travel without a seat, which is often called a “lap child” or “infant in arms.” However, parents should consider not only whether bringing a lap child is affordable, but also whether it’s a good idea with regard to both comfort and safety.

When it comes to your own comfort and that of your fellow passengers, I’ve found that sitting a newborn or small infant on your lap works well in economy class, especially during shorter flights. For longer flights and for larger infants approaching two years old, business and first-class seats provide the extra room that’s necessary. When faced with a long flight (or a larger infant) in economy class, you should consider reserving a separate seat for the child, even if you technically don’t have to. In those cases, you’ll want to bring a child safety car seat that’s also FAA approved.

Lap Child Safety

When it comes to safety, many people cite the problem that a lap child is unrestrained and therefore less safe in the event of an accident. While this is true, I would counter that air travel has become so extraordinarily safe that the chances of an accident are astronomically remote, especially on a commercial aircraft operating in the United States. For more information, you can read my post exploring the statistics of airline safety.

The Basics of Lap Child Ticketing

Deciding to travel with a lap child is the easy part; actually pricing and booking your tickets can be mind-numbingly difficult. Airline lap child ticketing policies vary widely and are sometimes poorly disclosed. Furthermore, you can call an airline three times to ask about booking a lap child ticket, and you’re likely to get three different answers, as staff remain woefully uninformed about their own policies. Nevertheless, there are some basic guidelines.

You are allowed to travel with your lap child for free (without a separate ticket) on domestic flights within the United States, and on domestic flights in some other countries. On all international flights, you are required to have a ticket for your infant traveling as a lap child, and most of the time you’ll have to pay 10% of the ticket price of whatever class of service you’re traveling in, even when you’ve booked your ticket with miles. For example, if you’re flying on a business-class award to Europe, you can expect to pay 10% of an adult business-class fare for your lap child.

Tickets purchased with Citi ThankYou points do earn frequent flyer miles.
Some airlines are more charitable than others when it comes to lap child fees.

Infant Award Travel Exceptions

I think it’s outrageous that most airlines get away with charging anything (beyond mandatory government fees) just for parents to carry an infant onboard. Thankfully, there are a few notable exceptions that can help you avoid the 10% rule on award tickets, while also proving that the airline industry is just gouging young parents most of the time.

AeroMéxico charges a reduced fee of $174 pesos (~$11) for lap children on flights within Mexico, and $35 USD for travel between the United States and Mexico.

Air Canada charges parents a flat fee (in either Canadian dollars or miles) when traveling on an award: economy class is 50 CAD (about $40) or 5,000 miles, premium economy is 75 CAD (about $60) or 7,500 miles, business class is 100 CAD (about $80) or 10,000 miles, and first class is a relative bargain at just 125 CAD (about $100) or 12,500 miles.

American Airlines doesn’t charge lap child fees for flights to Canada, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

Asia Miles (Cathay Pacific and DragonAir) is the bad kind of exception, as these airlines charge 25% of an adult fare for lap children on flights from the US, and the standard 10% on non-US flights. I can’t imagine why the destination makes a difference.

British Airways is one of the best options, as it offers infant award tickets for just 10% of the miles of the adult ticket. Reports also show that BA charges just 10% of its fuel surcharges as well.

Emirates and Qatar both offer infant award tickets in economy class for only 10% of the miles, but in business or first class you have to pay 10% of the fare.

LAN doesn’t issue lap child tickets in conjunction with an award booking, and doesn’t allow any lap children in international business class. My family learned that lesson the hard way when British Airways issued us a business-class lap child award ticket to Argentina, but LAN wouldn’t honor it. Ultimately, LAN was able to re-accommodate us on an American Airlines flight.

Miles & More (Lufthansa, Austrian, Brussels, Swiss, LOT and others) doesn’t charge for lap child tickets on any award flights that it tickets. If only other carriers were this family-friendly.

United excludes flights to Mexico and Canada from the 10% rule.

The US Airways website cites the 10% rule for all international destinations, but I’ve read several reports of travelers not being charged for infant tickets on flights to Canada.

Virgin Atlantic offers lap child awards with miles: 1,500 Miles for Upper Class, 750 miles for Premium Economy, and 200 miles for Economy.

Alaska, Frontier, JetBlue, Spirit, Southwest and Virgin America don’t charge lap child ticketing fees for international flights to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and beyond. The irony is startling, considering that some of these discount carriers charge fees for just about everything else!

For more information, read my post on How to Plan Award Travel with an Infant or Lap Child.

Some airlines may add fuel surcharges to lap child fares.

Common Questions

When it comes to infant award travel, the 10% rule leaves open a lot of unanswered questions. Here are some common questions and the best answers I’ve found based on my research and experience:

1. Which fare is used to calculate the 10% lap child fee? This is never spelled out by the airlines, and I’ve seen carriers price lap child tickets based on both discounted fares and (much more expensive) unrestricted, refundable fares. Lap child ticketing is often a manual process, and since the airlines don’t document which ticket class the fare is based on, you should look up the lowest ticket price and ask for that to be used. Don’t be afraid to escalate your request to a supervisor if a representative is unwilling or unable to price the ticket fairly. I’ve read many reports of infant fares being recalculated upon request.

2. Does the lap child fee include fuel surcharges? Airlines may or may not impose fuel surcharges, and sadly, there’s little way to find out until you actually speak with an agent. Again, it might be worth arguing this point if you don’t get an answer you like.

3. Is the lap child ticket purchased from the ticketing carrier or the operating carrier? I have always purchased my lap child tickets from the issuing carrier, but I’ve read reports of operating carriers selling lap child tickets to parents who purchased the ticket from another carrier (such as an award on Air France ticketed by Delta). I always purchase my lap child tickets from the operating carrier far in advance of the flight, as I’ve heard horror stories of airport representatives taking hours to try to ticket an infant.

4. Can infants earn frequent flyer miles in their own accounts from a lap child ticket? Maybe. I’ve successfully received credit (in my daughter’s account) from American Airlines for international infant travel, and I think you’re entitled to it for any paid ticket. On the other hand, some airline representatives have claimed that these tickets are ineligible. My advice is to add your child’s frequent flyer number to the reservation and see what happens.

5. Can I use gift cards or flight credits to purchase an infant fare? Sometimes. I’ve used customer service vouchers to purchase lap child tickets with United, but I’ve been turned down by American when trying to use gift cards. While it’s my belief that a paid lap child ticket is a revenue ticket, and you should be able to use any form of payment accepted for revenue tickets, your results will vary.

passport shutterstock featured 212653234
Some airlines may request proof of age for lap children, and your infant will need a passport for international flights. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Preparing for Your Trip

Again, I strongly recommend purchasing any necessary lap child ticket at least several weeks before your trip begins, as airport staff cannot be relied upon to issue you a lap child ticket in a timely manner. In fact, many airlines will actually need to print and mail you a paper ticket!

It’s also important that you obtain the correct documentation in advance. Some airlines (particularly Southwest) will ask for proof of your child’s age before a domestic flight, no matter how small he or she is. In this case, a birth certificate or immunization record will suffice. For international travel, children of all ages must have a passport (with a few limited exceptions), so be sure to apply for one well in advance. (My favorite part of the application is where it asks for the baby’s “occupation.”)

Finally, a Global Entry membership can help the whole family speed through customs, although children under 12 don’t need to be enrolled in PreCheck to use those lines when accompanied by an eligible traveler. For more information, see this post on the Top 12 Things You Didn’t Know About Global Entry.

I’ve covered many other key considerations of traveling with an infant, such as Making Family Travel Easier with Car Seats & Strollers and Essential Travel Gear for Families with Infants. To sum up all of my baby travel gear advice, smaller is always better (and tends to be cheaper). Finally, Nick Ewen’s Guide to Maximizing Points and Miles for Baby Purchases is a must-read for award travelers with young children.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
You don’t need to bring every toy known to mankind with you on the plane; one or two good ones will do it. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Day-of-Travel Advice

Even with an infant ticket already in hand, I would allow some extra time for check-in due to the likelihood of confused airport staff. It’s not uncommon for me to spend 20-30 minutes watching check-in staff stare at their computer screens while consulting with a supervisor about what to do with an infant ticket. On an international trip, don’t be surprised if a substantial percentage of the staff you encounter has never seen a lap child ticket.

As I wrote in my post on 8 Travel Tips that Every Parent Needs to Know, I’m deeply skeptical of the common advice to arrive at the airport several hours early, and to pack loads of toys and games. We always try to arrive at the gate with just enough time to board (which is much easier to do reliably with PreCheck), toting a favorite book and one or two especially captivating toys. More than that is overkill.

If you have the luxury of traveling with another adult, you can tag-team your airport experience by dropping the baby at the curb with one parent while the other parks the car. On arrival, one parent can pick up the rental car and meet the other parent and baby at the most convenient curbside location. The less distance you have to cover with the baby and luggage in tow, the better.

On the plane, I’ve always believed that parents have the responsibility to control their children. When dealing with an unruly infant, my first response has always been to get up and take a walk as soon as possible, which has several advantages. First, it relieves your fellow passengers of listening to your screaming baby, while reducing the stress of knowing that you’re bothering others. In addition, taking a walk and changing your surroundings can have an immediate calming effect on your child. Finally, getting out of your seat gives you a chance to change a diaper, refill a bottle and restore your blood circulation.

Baby Airplane Family Shutterstock featured 31621051
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Final Word

There’s a certain art to traveling with an infant, along with a sense of satisfaction when you’re able to pull off a great trip. By taking the time to plan well, pack smart and practice good in-flight infant etiquette, you can enjoy vacations with your children and hopefully help them catch the travel bug early!

What other tips do you have for traveling with very young children?

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