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Guide to Booking Award Travel With Lap Infants

March 10, 2014
20 min read
Guide to Booking Award Travel With Lap Infants
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Lap child tickets are one of the least understood aspects of travel reservations. The basic information on lap child policies is missing or difficult to find on airline web sites, and airline staff are frequently ignorant of their own rules, not to mention those of the partner carriers that they may be issuing tickets for. Yet for families traveling on paid or award tickets in premium cabins, the cost of purchasing a infant ticket can add up to hundreds of dollars, just for the right to carry your baby on your lap! Since I didn't personally make use of lap infant rules very much when my own daughter was under two, I got fellow family traveler and writer Jason Steele to explain some of the basics based on his own extensive experience with lap infants.

Lap child basics

For domestic flights, airlines will allow parents one infant per adult without a seat, free of charge. By FAA regulations, the infant must be under two years of age at the time of the flight, otherwise the child must occupy a seat. On a domestic flight, there are no taxes or fees to be paid on a lap child, (sometimes referred to as an infant in arms), but airlines will issue a boarding pass that will be required by both the TSA and the gate agent. Some airlines, particularly Southwest, will demand documentation that your child is under two years of age, even if he or she is a newborn! Therefore, it is always wise to carry your child's passport, birth certificate, or an immunization record. Some foreign airlines will treat flights within their borders like US airlines treat domestic flights, but always be sure to inquire with both the ticketing and operating carriers ahead of time.

For international flights, every passenger must have a passport or appropriate travel document, regardless of age. All infants must be ticketed, and airlines will impose all taxes and government fees on this ticket. In addition, most airlines will charge a lap child ticket fee of 10% of the ticket price of the applicable adult fare, even if the parent is traveling on an award. While families traveling on business and first class awards may be oblivious to the cash price of tickets in their cabin, they can be in for a harsh surprise when face with a bill of 10% for a lap child ticket. For example, it is not uncommon for an international first class ticket to be priced at over $20,000 round trip, which will equate to a stunning, $2,000 lap child fee. Take a look at this example of how expensive premium class lap child tickets can be. Thankfully, there are a few exceptions to the 10% rule that parents can take advantage of.

Lap child safety

Many parents are concerned that their lap child will not be safe in the event of severe turbulence or an emergency. Certainly, there have been incidents of unrestrained children (and adults) being injured or even killed when severe turbulence is encountered. The FAA continues to allow lap children under the belief that parents might choose to drive if faced with the cost of purchasing a seat.

Yet consider the extreme safety of airline travel. There have been only three deaths attributed to commercial aviation in the United States since 2009, yet automobile accidents kill more than 30,000 people in the United States each year. There is no doubt that your baby is less safe when being held than when seated in an approved car seat, but the inescapable conclusion is that children are far more likely to face injury or death in their own home than while traveling in a commercial airliner.

What is a lap child ticket?

There is some confusion about whether a lap child ticket is an award or a revenue ticket. When parents pay 10% of the cash price of an adult ticket, they are purchase a revenue ticket for their infant at a discount, regardless whether they used cash or miles to book their own tickets. Therefore, parents should be able to apply any available coupons, gift certificates, or travel funds. This is not the case on the small number of airlines that accept points or miles towards lap child award tickets.

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For example, on a recent United flight to Israel, we were able to apply two $100 electronic certificates that United had issued to us in response to service failures on a previous trip. United representatives had no issues using each certificate for two, one-way lap child tickets, in order to reduce the $800 cost of our lap child tickets by a total of $200.

Another implication of purchasing a revenue ticket for you infant is that you may receive frequent flier miles in your baby's name. For instance, we applied for and received credit from American Airlines after a trip to Argentina with a lap child ticket. I have never seen any documentation saying that American (or any other airline) allows or disallows mileage accrual for a lap child ticket. Thankfully, we received enough credit for a one-way domestic award, just by filling out their form. Certainly, it can't hurt to have your child's frequent flier number attached to his or her ticket, or to request mileage credit after a flight. As with any frequent flier account, your baby's miles can be used to book an award ticket for yourself or anyone you choose.

Another interesting aspect of a lap child ticket is that it is attached to an adult ticket and cannot be issued by itself. In most cases, this prevents parents from ticketing an award seat from one mileage program, and trying to book an infant award from another. In my experience, both tickets must be issued by the same carrier, even if some or all flights will be operated by a partner carrier.

How do you book a lap child ticket

Lap child tickets must be issued manually by airline representatives over the phone or at an airport ticket counter. In my opinion, it is vital that parents have their infant tickets issued before going to the airport, as the operating carrier will likely be unable to add an infant ticket to an adult ticket issued by another airline. Even when a single airline is ticketing and operating a flight, advance ticketing of a lap child infant is important as airport staff may be unfamiliar with lap-child policies. For example, an American Airlines check-in representative in Miami who we spoke with remarked that she was surprised to see our lap child ticket and wasn't aware that American had such a policy. If employees at large airline hub can be unaware of lap child tickets, imagine how likely this is at a small airport staffed by contract personnel.

When booking your flight, be sure to request a basinet for infants under nine months old. These are available by request on some airlines, and parents must be seated on the bulkhead.

Booking a ticket for a child not born yet

We all know that, in general, the further ahead you book an award ticket, the better luck you will have finding award seats. This is especially true for families who need more than two tickets. My wife and I attempted to book a lap child ticket for our first daughter, two months before she was born, for travel that would begin when she was about 7 months old. We discovered that United was unable to book a ticket without a name. Only later did I reach the conclusion that, for reasons I will mention later, that it usually doesn't make sense to buy lap child tickets much earlier than necessary.

For those who would choose to purchase a seat for an infant (with an FAA approved car seat), there is some indications that you can purchase a ticket under the name Baby [lastname]. I would certainly ask the ticketing carrier about this policy ahead of time, and this may be impossible if the carrier asks for date of birth or even a passport number before booking a ticket.

Choosing an airline for an award with a lap child

As I mentioned, most carriers impose a 10% fee on all international lap child tickets, but there are some exceptions:

AeroMexico charges $174 pesos (~$13) for lap children within Mexico, and $35 USD for travel between the United States and Mexico, but charges the usual 10% of an adult fare for flights to Asia, Europe, and South America. They are a SkyTeam partner and a transfer partner of the Starwood Preferred Guest program.

Air Canada Aeroplan has one of the best policies out there. Infants traveling with parents on award tickets pay a flat fee per class in either Canadian dollars or miles: Economy Class – $50 or 5,000 Miles, Business Class – $100 or 10,000 Miles, First Class – $125 or 12,500 Miles. Aeroplan is a Star Alliance carrier and a transfer partner of both Starwood and American Express Membership Rewards.

Airtran will be fully absorbed by Southwest by the end of 2014, but it still offers tickets to destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean with no lap child fees, just the standard government imposed lap child fees.

Alaska also charges only government taxes and fees to the destinations it serves in Mexico. Alaska is a transfer partner of the Starwood program.

American Airlines charges no lap child fees to Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and 10% to other international destinations. American is a member of the OneWord alliance and a Starwood transfer partner.

Asia Miles (Cathay Pacific and DragonAir) charges 25% fare on flights from the United States and the standard 10% on non-US flights. Asia Miles is part of the OneWorld alliance and is a transfer partner of both Starwood and American Express Membership Rewards.

British Airways is one of the few carriers that will issue infant award tickets for 10% of the miles as the adult ticket. This policy applies to flight operated by British Airways or any partner carrier. For example, families could use their Avios points to book an international flight on American and pay 10% of the miles, which is far better than American's policy of paying 10% of the dollars. Travelers indicate that BA will only charge 10% of their fuel surcharges. British Airways is part of the OneWorld alliance and is a transfer partner of Starwood, American Express Membership Rewards, and Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Emirates offers infant award tickets for 10% of the miles, but only in economy class. Families have to pay 10% of the paid fare in business and first, but they do offer a discounted fare for infants occupying a seat, which is 75% of the standard adult fare. Emirates is a transfer partner of both Starwood and American Express Membership Rewards.

Frontier follows the pattern of discount carriers in the United States by not charging lap child ticketing fees for their international flights to Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Caribbean. Frontier is an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner.

JetBlue is another discount carrier that issues international lap child tickets at no cost other than taxes and government fees. JetBlue is an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner.

LAN charges 10% of a paying adult's fare, and will not issue discounted lap child tickets in conjunction with an award booking. Parents will can book a lap child award ticket by paying the full amount of LANPass Kilometers (thanks!). Furthermore, it does not allow any lap children in international business. British Airways actually issued me a business class lap child award ticket with Avios for an international flight on LAN, but at the airport, LAN would not accept it. Thankfully, we were re-accommodated on an American Airlines flight at no additional cost. LAN is a member of the OneWorld alliance and a Starwood transfer partner.

Miles and More is the frequent flier program for several different airlines including Lufthansa, Austrian, Brussels, Swiss, and LOT. It offers the ideal policy of not charging any airfare for lap child tickets on any award flights it tickets. Miles and More is part of the Star Alliance and is a Starwood transfer partner.

Qatar offers an infant award for 10% of the miles, but only in economy class and only for flights they operate, not their partners. Qatar is a member of the OneWorld alliance and is a Starwood transfer partner.

Spirit, which has more fees than any other US carrier, surprisingly does not charge a lap child ticket fee to international destinations. We'll see how long this lasts.

United charges 10% of the adult fare in cash to all international destinations, Mexico, and Canada. United is a member of the Star Alliance and a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and Starwood (but only at a 2:1 ratio).

The US Airways website claims to charge a 10% infant fare for all international destinations, but travelers report not being charged that fare for tickets to Canada. US Airways is a member of the Star alliance until March 31st, when it joints OneWorld. US Airways is a transfer partner of Starwood.

Virgin America, like most US discount carriers, does not charge any lap child fare, just taxes and government fees. Virgin America is an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner.

Virgin Atlantic offers lap child awards with miles: 5,000 Miles for Upper Class, 2,000 miles for Premium Economy, and 1,000 miles for Economy. Virgin Atlantic a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou, and American Express Membership Rewards.

Basic lap-child ticketing strategies

I think all parents will agree that it is outrageous to pay for a ticket that does not even include a seat. As reward travel enthusiasts who have been traveling with an infant for nearly four of the last six years, our family is constantly seeking to save money by mining the loopholes in this system.

Here are a few places to start:

Pick your destination to avoid lap child fees. With some carriers, there are exclusions to international lap child ticketing charges. For example, there is no charge for lap children on flights to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but American, Delta, United, and US Airways will all impose fees to neighboring islands in the Caribbean. Hawai'i is also a great family destination where you will never incur lap child fees.

Pick the right airline. United, American, and US Airways do not require a purchased infant fare for flights to Canada, while Delta charges the standard 10%. United and most discount carriers do not charge infant fares to Mexico, just taxes and government fees. On long-haul flights in premium class, try to transfer your points to programs that offer infant mileage awards such as Air Canada Aeroplan, British Airways, and Virgin Atlantic. For example, United will charge 10% of the fare for an international first class infant ticket they issue, while Air Canada will charge just $125 or 12,500 miles for the same flight operated by United. On the other hand Miles and More wouldn't charge any cash or miles for the same infant ticket booked with an adult award from its program.

Watch out for fuel surcharges. In the vague world of lap child fare policies, the issue of fuel surcharges seems to be the most mysterious. Airlines disclose nothing on their web sites, and various sources indicate that fuel surcharges may or may not be added to lap child tickets, depending on the carrier. Given the extreme unreliability of lap child ticket information from airline staff, you may only find out if your infant ticket or award actually has fuel surcharges when you try to book it!

Fly Southwest. With no seat assignments, parents can simply place their lap child on the seat between them. Rest assured that no passenger will try to evict your child in order to enjoy the middle seat, although it is possible that a flight attendant may ask you to hold your child in the event that the flight boards completely full. In that case, you can make the last passenger to board a little happier by offering him or her a window or aisle seat.

Advanced lap child strategies

For those looking to take their family award travel to the next level, here are a few ideas:

Contact the operating carrier in advance. My understanding is that lap child tickets are supposed to be issued by the carrier that issues the parent's tickets, not the operating carrier. Nevertheless, I have read reports that the operating carrier will sometimes issue a lap child ticket at less cost than the ticketing carrier. It certainly can't hurt to ask, but I would never wait until near the day of travel.

Speak with a supervisor. At many airlines, lap child fares are calculated manually, which leaves much up to the discretion of the agent you speak to. Should the 10% infant fare be based on the least expensive ticket available, or the most expensive full fare? Should fuel surcharges be added to an infant award ticket, or just taxes and fees? Since virtually no airline publishes this information, it is within your rights to ask for these questions to be resolved in your favor. I have read many reports of lap child fees being adjusted upon request.

Be careful with one-way awards. Since some airlines will charge the same price in dollars for a one way ticket as they do for a round-trip, parents may be charged double the infant fee if they book two one-way awards.

Split reservations. Let's say you find two available tickets to your international destination on a OneWorld carrier. You could book one ticket with BA Avios and pay only a small lap child fee in miles, and book the other with miles from American or any other OneWorld carrier. Then just make sure to ask for adjacent seat assignment from the respective carriers. The same trick works with Aeroplan and other Star Alliance carriers as well as with Delta and Virgin America. Likewise, you can avoid the Asia Miles 25% infant by booking one ticket on any other OneWorld carrier that charges the standard 10%.

Ticket the infant on the international leg only. Even though infants are supposed to travel for free on domestic flights, the price of the infant ticket will be calculated based on the total price of the adult ticket, including domestic legs. So if you are traveling from Los Angeles to Miami, and then on to the Bahamas, you may be asked to pay 10% of the first class fare from L.A. to Miami, which could be a few hundred dollars more than just the short flight from Miami to the Bahamas. To attempt to get out of this, you can try two things. One would be to argue the point with a supervisor. This can be surprisingly effective since lap child awards are often priced manually. Another would be to attempt to split the award for one parent somehow, so only the international leg has a lap child ticket attached.

Wait until the last month or two before a flight before adding an infant ticket to your premium class reservation. Even though you might book your award as much as 11 months in advance, there is no hurry to hand over your money to book a lap child. Waiting has several advantages: In the interim, parents could acquire vouchers or other discounts that can be applied to the lap child fare. Furthermore, airlines may impose a change fee on an infant ticket, so there is little incentive to pay for it so far in advance when plans could possibly change. On the other hand, those traveling in economy class should not wait too long as those fares can rise sharply as the date of flight approaches.

Try the "travel before 2" loophole. I heard a report that a child booked for a trip that begins before his or her second birthday will be issued a seat by American Airlines for any flights on that reservation that occur after the second birthday. The parent I spoke to was told repeatedly that American will only charge 10% for an infant ticket with travel beginning before his child's second birthday, but will be issued a seat for all travel after the child turns two. My source ticketed and confirmed a flight in this manner, and was given a separate seat assignment for his child for the returns flights after the child turned two. There appears to be no reason why one couldn't book an award ticket with a stopover at a domestic gateway before a child turns two, and then receive an infant ticket with a seat to and from an international destination several months later. Then book a round trip from the domestic gate-way back home.

Furthermore, Mommy Points brought this page to my attention on the British Airways web site. It explicitly details the same policy on "infants who become children while traveling." The policy is that "If you're travelling with an infant who reaches the age of two during their journey, your child will need their own seat for any flights on and after their 2nd birthday. However, there is no charge for this; you will still only pay the infant fare for the entire journey." According to this article, a similar policy of a free return seat appears to be in effect with Qantas, Singapore, and Virgin Atlantic.

My family's experiences flying with our children on lap-child tickets

Traveling with a lap child can work, but only when done in the right situation. As a newborn and up until about six months old, both of our daughters traveled well in economy or business class seats on flights of any length. At that age, most infants are preoccupied with eating and sleeping, and are small enough to truly fit on their parent's lap.

As they grew beyond one year old, coach seats were only adequate for short flights at best, and we couldn't image bringing larger infants on longer flights in coach, but business and first class still worked fine for us. When our oldest daughter was between the ages of 18 months and two years old, I did find myself booking a seat for her when the two of us were traveling together on a three hour flight in coach. Parents must simply take into account their child's size, and figure out if parent, baby, and their fellow passengers will enjoy the flight. In many cases, the right decision is to reserve an extra seat.