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The joys of traveling with a lap infant…limited space, keeping a good hold on them, wondering if you will be able to secure a bassinet seat, oh and a “surprise” $1,800 fee for the right to hold your lap infant in your own seat on an international premium cabin trip.  Kids are expensive, and I totally understand the desire to fly with a lap infant to save miles or money, but I’m not personally a huge fan of the practice of flying with a lap infant for many reasons (especially once they are mobile).  Not the least of which is getting slapped with a surprise ginormous bill for the right to hold your own kid.  This isn’t my own story, but it is what is happening to a family on a growing Flyertalk thread that I have been watching for the last several days.

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My one experience flying with a lap child = hot and sweaty!

Here is a summary of the situation as described in the first post of that (very long and contentious) thread:

In July, I used United’s website to plan and book award travel from YYZ-LHR-SIN-CMB and PNH-BKK-LHR-YYZ for myself, my wife, and lap infant.  That is Toronto – London  – Singapore – Colombo and Phnom Penh – Bangkok – London – Toronto for those who don’t speak airport code.  The system priced the booking at 260k miles and $357 in taxes/fees, which I paid.

The following day I received e-tickets for myself and my wife. I assumed the lap child would not need a ticket, until today when I called Singapore Airlines (which was doing the LHR-SIN-CMB segments) to select seats. The Singapore agent said the lap infant also needs a ticket.

So I called United again to have them issue a ticket for the lap child and was told that I need to pay $1,800 more! They refuse to issue a ticket for the baby until I pay. My position is that I clearly indicated the number of travelers and the names (including the lap child) at the time of booking, was quoted a fare based on this information, which I then paid.

If there should have been a separate charge for the baby, should this not have been shown to me at the time I purchased the tickets? If it was, I would have chosen different options. Also, United.com is quite capable of pricing lap infant tickets for award travel (I just checked with some mock bookings).

That is the story according to the traveling family.  Here are the facts.  Lap infants (children under 2 who sit in their parent’s lap on flights) traveling internationally must have a ticket.  When traveling from the US to Canada you only pay a small amount in taxes for your lap infant, but every other international destination requires you to pay not only the taxes on the infant ticket, but also generally 10% of the adult fare.  There are a handful of exceptions on award flights, notably airlines like British Airways that charge 10% of the mileage cost, and Aeroplan who charges a low flat fee in miles.  There are also uber-meanies like Cathay Pacific that can charge 25% of the fare for you to hold your baby.  However, most airlines, including United, American, US Airways, and many more charge 10% of the selling price of an adult ticket for the lap child whether the adult is traveling on miles or dollars.  It is usually 10% of the lowest selling price for that cabin, but even that can vary at times, and the closer you get to departure, often the higher the total amount gets.

It seems from reading the very long thread on Flyertalk that this family had some knowledge that there was a fee to fly internationally with their infant.  It isn’t clear how much knowledge they had on that front, but that really isn’t the point of this post.  The point is that they went to united.com and entered two adults and one infant to get from Point A to Point B.  The computer said that will be 260,000 miles and $357 in taxes and fees.  They said “good deal”, and the transaction was completed.  To the average fella, this amount could totally sound reasonable for two adults and one lap infant to travel.  They even posted a screen shot of their confirmation and it looked like the system knew there were two adults and a baby.  I am of the opinion that you shouldn’t have to be an aviation or miles and points expert to successfully complete an award transaction online.

Fast forward to a couple months after they originally booked their trip when they followed up with Singapore to select their seats, and they were informed that their lap infant was not ticketed in their system.  The parents went back to United to try and fix this issue and were told basically that the online system didn’t charge them what it should have, and they owe the 10% fee for the lap infant to travel which totals $1,800.  10% of a long premium cabin ticket that involves many carriers may very well price out to $18,000 the way fares are calculated.  I’ve had them price even higher than that.  So, they very well may owe 10% of that, which is a whooping $1,800 just to hold their kid.

This problem with the lap infant fee not being calculated is very easy to replicate online (Matthew on UPGRD has a good post with screen shots replicating the issue), and it seems to happen more with certain partner carriers than others on United’s site.  Granted, United’s site also says the following, so there is a fair argument that they “should have known better”.  Though this statement does not appear unless you go searching for it…

Infants traveling between the U.S. and Canada only pay taxes on the ticket. Infants traveling without a seat to other international destinations are charged 10% of the adult fare at the time of infant ticketing (it is usually less expensive to purchase the infant ticket in advance). Infants traveling on an adult’s lap on front cabin rewards or upgrades must pay 10% of the front cabin fare in applicable markets.

Of course, when you are traveling on miles you may not be paying addition to the actual selling price, so when you are charged a few hundred in taxes/fees, that may sound right.  Or, perhaps you are not aware that this 10% applies even when you are traveling on miles.  Or perhaps, you hope the system glitched and you lucked out.  Or perhaps, you just have no clue and trust everything the computer tells you.

I don’t know what the end result will be for this family.  I do know that I would not want to be in their shoes.  If I flew with a lap infant, I would try and limit my international award bookings to programs that were less painful on the pocket book with lap infants.  There is a pretty good chart outlining lap infant fees on The Points Guys post here.  The Catch-22 is that many of the programs most friendly toward lap infant charges, are also ones that charge fuel surcharges on award redemptions that could negate your savings on the lap infant.  However, with careful carrier selection even this can be mitigated to an extent.  You can also sometimes have a better outcome when working with the operating carriers directly to book the lap infant ticket with them, instead of the ticketing airline.

I share this family’s story for two reasons.  First, to hear what you think about their situation and what solution is appropriate.  And perhaps more importantly, I share their story so that you are not blindsided with a similar dilemma in the future.  Regardless of what the computer tells you, it is going to likely cost some real cash to fly with a lap infant on your international award ticket, especially in premium cabins to far away destinations involving multiple carriers.  You have to decide for yourself in advance if that is a good deal for your family, or whether you should look into a different travel strategy.

Update: The traveling family has posted an updated to the Flyertalk thread linked above with their final resolution.  Here is a snipit:

In the end the miles were refunded, and I hope the money will be too. I have now re-booked ourselves on economy (with three seats) for a little more money (but less than the extra $1,800 asked for) and fewer miles than the original booking.

For those who think I was engaging in a game of oneupmanship with UA, trying to game the system hoping for a pay-off while jeopardizing my entire vacation, well, that is one heck of a gamble to take with very little assurance of a favorable outcome. Frankly, I am disgusted by the whole fiasco, and the expectation that the customer be held responsible for the error of a corporate website. But I am moving on. I do not know if I will take it up with the CTA or not at the moment.

Those with lap infants, what do you do to spend as little as possible when booking these big international trips?

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