TPG's best airlines for families in 2019
When you board a plane with a baby, a stroller, a car seat, hungry toddler, lots of gear and maybe even a moody older child or two thrown in for good measure, you have different needs than when flying solo or only with other adults. Seemingly little things — seat assignments, early boarding procedures, seatback entertainment and crowd-pleasing snacks — quickly become essentials.
As a parent, you can control some, but not all of what goes into a trip by air. The difference between an uneventful, smooth flight and one that goes down in family lore as the "worst ever" can sometimes come down to what airline you're on. In other words, who you fly matters.
Though The Points Guy puts out an annual ranking of overall best domestic airlines, we know that a flying family has different priorities from, say, a solo flyer. Here's who we think are the best and worst domestic airlines when it comes to ensuring flights are as family-friendly as possible.
Best airlines for families 2019 rankings
- JetBlue Airways
- Southwest Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Alaska Airlines
- Delta Air Lines
- United Airlines
- American Airlines
- Allegiant Air
Flying just past last year's winner, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue claims the No. 1 spot in 2019 by a nose. Southwest again did well in the scoring, but what knocked it from this year's top slot was ultimately the inability to book trips far in advance. Southwest has always kept its booking calendar closer in than some traditional carriers, but the schedule has been held even closer in than ultra low-cost competitors this year, making it harder to plan family vacations well in advance.
Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines moved ahead of Delta this year, jumping up to the third and fourth spots, respectively. Both of these airlines had consistent scoring across almost all of our family-friendly metrics. If Alaska had built-in entertainment or either one had more robust domestic route networks, those airlines could make a real play for the top spot.
Best airlines for families
When it comes to seat size, seat comfort, built-in free entertainment, the famous unlimited free snack basket, free Wi-Fi, the ability for families to pool miles together at no charge and an easy-to-use frequent-flyer program, JetBlue nudges past the other U.S. airlines to the top of the pack. If JetBlue serves the route you need to fly, it should get serious consideration, as the airline simply is best in class when it comes to making it easy for families to fly.
TPG wishlist: What we'd love from JetBlue in the future, in addition to an expanded route network, is an improved on-time flight record so families can trust they will get where they need to without delay.
With free bags, a set family boarding time after Group A for those with kids 6 and under, no-fuss attitude, no blackout dates, an extensive route network (that now includes Hawaii) and the ever-popular Companion Pass, Southwest continues to be an excellent choice for families traveling the U.S. — and even slightly beyond.
However, the airline was hurt in the award-availability category this year, largely because we couldn't book trips more than about six months in advance, the closest-in scheduling of any of the major U.S. airlines.
TPG wishlist: We very much want to see the Southwest booking window extend further out to make it easier to plan family vacations during peak travel times.
Thanks in part to the postcard-perfect island weather, Hawaiian Airlines shines with the best average on-time performance in the U.S. The airline also excels at above-average seat size, likelihood you can sit with your family without paying extra and family-friendly early boarding. (Plus, those with its cobranded credit card can share miles at no charge.)
Hawaiian does have the smallest route network of the bunch, but when you need to head to Hawaii from a city served by Hawaiian, it's a great choice for the whole family.
TPG wishlist: Hawaiian Airlines should try to fly into additional U.S. cities or perhaps strike up more partnerships to make it easier for families to connect onto the airline on one ticket.
All but tied with Hawaiian, Alaska is also a great airline for families looking for a good inflight experience. Tops when it comes to complimentary available seat assignments, it also has above-average seat sizes, family-friendly early boarding and kid-friendly snacks.
The airline loses marks for zero built-in complimentary entertainment, the inability to open a child's frequent-flyer account online and a somewhat limited route network that de-emphasizes non-West Coast destinations.
TPG wishlist: We'd love to see Alaska Airline go all-in on making its frequent-flyer program as family-friendly as possible with online child sign-up, free mileage pooling and the end of mileage expiration dates.
Delta Air Lines was TPG's best domestic airline of the year and came in best of the Big Three in this family-focused report, too. Delta is good at almost everything when it comes to family air travel: Its miles don't expire, on-time stats are solid, route network is extensive, most of its planes have seatback entertainment, the free Biscoff cookies are amazing and standard economy seat size and the availability of free seat assignments come in better than many competitors.
However, the airline charges higher-than-average bag and cancellation fees, award availability prices for travel during family vacation periods can sting and getting advance seat assignments together as a family, while easier than on United and American, isn't as guaranteed as it is on some other airlines.
TPG wishlist: Delta needs to tighten up its complimentary seat-assignment rules to favor families, lighten up on the ancillary fees and rein in some award redemption prices on key dates for families to become even more family-friendly.
At the No. 6 spot, United Airlines is strong when it comes to a comprehensive route network, family-friendly early boarding, included kid-friendly snacks (such as pretzels and stroopwafels), kid-friendly snack boxes for purchase, miles that no longer expire and built-in entertainment on some aircraft.
The airline is more middle-of-the-pack when it comes to complimentary seat assignments, economy seat size and award pricing. However, United doesn't find itself at the bottom of any rankings and remains an OK option for families, holding the same position in this study two years running.
TPG wishlist: From United, we'd love for it to become easier for families to get advance complimentary seat assignments together. We are also crossing fingers that the move to dynamic award pricing won't spell too much trouble for families looking to use miles to travel during school breaks.
After sixth place, the scores drop off dramatically. Sitting at seventh place out of 10, American has work to do if it wants to more consistently meet the needs of traveling families. Though its route network is robust, it lags behind with expiring miles, pricey award redemptions during school breaks, limited complimentary advance seat assignments and sagging on-time arrivals. The airline is actively removing seatback entertainment and has one of the least consistent early boarding procedures for families in the industry.
TPG wishlist: If it wants to become a better option for families, we'd love to see American reverse course on walking away from seatback entertainment, immediately improve its early boarding procedures for young families and make it easier for families to trust they will receive advance seat assignments together.
The good news for Frontier? It scores higher than the other budget carriers. Frontier isn't a full-service airline, but its effort to become more family-friendly while maintaining it's a la carte fee structure is working. You can pool miles if you have the cobranded credit card or Frontier elite status, it has the ongoing Kids Fly Free promotion and base fares are low enough that you probably can budget in needed extras.
The bad news? It still ranks lower than almost everyone other than the budget carriers. The airline takes hits for expensive bag fees, small seats and lack of free snacks, built-in entertainment and complimentary advance seat assignments.
TPG wishlist: Frontier is a good airline for families comfortable with its pricing model, but it needs to improve its on-time arrivals — it's currently the tardiest airline of the bunch.
This ultra low-cost airline is what it is. It doesn't trumpet itself as meeting the special needs of families beyond being a cost-effective way for everyone to fly. Along those lines, Spirit came in first when it came to affordable awards, and that's without factoring in the discount for those with the Spirit credit card, which sometimes drops award flights as low as 1,250 miles each direction.
Just don't sit on those miles — they expire after 90 days without activity. Also plan to be self-sufficient on Spirit flights, since you aren't going to get anything in the way of entertainment, food or complimentary advance seat assignments.
TPG wishlist: Spirit should steal a page from the Frontier Airlines playbook with more family-friendly mileage rules and maybe even a way for families to guarantee seats together without paying extra.
At the bottom of the pack is Allegiant. The airline doesn't have a frequent-flyer program available unless you sign up for a cobranded credit card, and it lacks available entertainment, kid-friendly snacks or meals, complimentary advance seat assignments, set early boarding for families or a good record of on-time arrivals.
What it does have is a unique route network with some fun nonstop options and middle-of-the-pack seat size, so at least you aren't as squished as you are on other airlines.
TPG wishlist: Allegiant has a lot of work to do all around.
What matters the most to flying families
These were the factors TPG considered most important for traveling families.
Complimentary advance seat assignments
Families need to sit together more than almost anyone else on the plane. Southwest's unique open-seating approach may be confusing to newbies, but it works pretty well for families -- at least when the kids are 6 years or under. (Here's how to get the best seats on Southwest.) Though they don't follow Southwest's model, JetBlue, Hawaiian and Alaska allow complimentary seat assignments and don't block off the bulk of their cabins for elite customers. United and American, on the other hand, are among the worst offenders when it comes to premium-seat blocking even when many of those seats don't offer additional legroom.
Many airlines have computer programs running in the background to assign seats together for at least one parent and young children, but it isn't a perfect science and doesn't solve the issue of parents feeling pressured to spend more to ensure they can sit with their children.
Because families need to know they can sit with their children without scrambling or onboard bargaining, we weighted seat assignment above the other categories. It's something that affects all families — as well as the passengers seated around them.
Hawaiian has the luxury of great weather at many of its stations, but Delta, Spirit and United round out the airlines that are the best at promptly getting you and your kids where you want to be.
JetBlue and Frontier, on the other hand, have room for improvement in this category. Pack extra diapers and emergency bottles when you fly these carriers.
Early boarding for families
When you are traveling with a car seat, slow-walking toddler or a stroller, you want to get on board before everyone else so you can get set up without slowing down the entire plane. Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian and United excel at getting young families situated early, often just after those with disabilities and active-duty military.
At the bottom of the list are American Airlines and Allegiant, which don't set aside time specifically for families with young kids to board. American gives gate agent discretion to let families that ask board early, but in practice, not all gate agents are even aware of this rule, and many don't use it anyway. Getting young families on first is a way to make the traveling experience easier without a big expense to the airline and is something that should be table stakes for airlines that want to meet the needs of families.
If you don't have children, you might think seat size isn't a huge issue for tiny humans, but most kids go through a phase where they require large car seats that mean that their legs can become virtually trapped if the person in front reclines. Bottom line, everyone appreciates an extra inch here and there, so JetBlue sits at the top of this category with the largest economy seats. American, Frontier, United and Spirit all have some economy seats in their respective fleets that are ... really small.
It's easy enough to bring a loaded tablet on the plane for yourself, but doing that for a whole family is harder, especially if you don't travel frequently enough to justify the cost of tablets for all. JetBlue has fleetwide free seatback entertainment and Wi-Fi. No other carrier comes close to claiming that, so it's the clear winner in keeping kids happy.
At the bottom of this list are the ultra low-cost carriers, Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier, none of whom offer anything in the way of free or paid onboard entertainment for kids (or adults).
These days, no airline has included kid meals for domestic flights in the U.S., so we looked at who serves complimentary kid-friendly snacks or sells kid-friendly snack boxes or the like. JetBlue again takes the cake (er, packaged chocolate chip cookies and Cheez-Its), since it offers complimentary snack baskets from which you can take whatever you like. Hawaiian Airlines actually ties JetBlue with its free assortment of snacks and kid-friendly snack boxes for sale. Southwest Airlines also did well in this category — and thanks for putting lids on those complimentary beverages for kids!
The ultra low-cost carriers don't have any complimentary snacks for kids or adults, so either plan ahead or bring a credit card to buy some Pringles and juice on board those planes.
The more domestic routes an airline offers, the easier it is to get your family from Point A to Point B without getting everyone on and off the plane, dealing with connections and greatly increasing your chance of related delays and problems. Southwest has more than 1,000 domestic routes, making it the clear winner. Delta was the next closest, with some 700 domestic routes. At the bottom of the pack was Hawaiian, with fewer than three dozen domestic routes.
Some frequent-flyer program make it easy to pause your status when welcoming a baby to the family, pool miles to book an award faster and ensure that your whole family's miles never expire. Others don't.
JetBlue is the only domestic frequent-flyer program that checks all of those boxes. On the other end of the spectrum, Allegiant doesn't offer a traditional frequent-flyer program at all, instead forcing you to sign up for the Allegiant World Mastercard to earn or redeem loyalty points.
There are dozens of airlines around the world that allow for family pooling of miles, and we'd love to see that functionality expand to more U.S. programs.
Family-friendly frequent-flyer program rules are one thing, but making well-priced awards available when families want to travel is another. To sleuth out the winner in this department, we compared three sets of departure and return dates across a variety of routes to see if the dates were bookable, and then compared the award prices based on TPG's latest valuations.
Spirit Airlines topped the chart by making well-priced awards available for all but the furthest-out dates in our test. Frontier and JetBlue also did well in this category. American and Allegiant came in at the bottom, with Allegiant not really offering loyalty-program award flights at all and American's awards being prohibitively expensive.
Kids get sick at the last minute, sports games get scheduled and family plans change. The best airlines for families are ones that understand life and don't charge huge fees when it happens. Southwest Airlines doesn't charge change fees, rebooking fees, cancellation fees or even bag fees (for the first two checked bags), making it tops in this category. You won't pay hefty bag and cancellation fees on Southwest -- the average charge for those services across all passengers is just 31 cents per person, well below any other domestic airline.
Though the low base fares may make up for it, Spirit came in last in this category, charging an average of more than $26 per person in additional bag and cancellation fees. For a family, that adds up. Be sure and brush up on your built-in travel insurance if you're booking on a carrier known for big last-minute change or cancellation fees. You'll also want to learn how to avoid checked bag fees across most of the U.S. airlines.
Happy passengers file fewer complaints, and the Department of Transportation does take notice. We factored in how many times each carrier's flyers said they had an experience with an airline that was worth filing a report over, and took that as a general guideline of how satisfied, or not, customers were as a whole. Southwest, with its loyal fan base, unsurprisingly came out on the top of the heap in this category. Also not a surprise? The budget carriers, Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant, had the most customer complaints filed over a year. Notably, American barely did better than the "best" low-cost carrier in this category, Allegiant.
Allegiant and Frontier Airlines don't accept unaccompanied minors on board their flights, so they rank at the bottom of this part of the list. On the other end, when your child needs to fly by themselves to camp, grandparents or wherever, Southwest and Alaska get top marks for offering unaccompanied-minor services and charging just $50 per child. (Hawaiian lost points for charging per segment, not per trip.) Uniquely, with Alaska, if your child has Alaska elite status, there is actually no charge for the unaccompanied-minor services.
We weighed each factor separately before combining all our figures for an overall score, counting some categories, like seat assignment, more than others. Some factors in the list will matter to certain families more than others, depending on where a family is in the family life cycle from newborn to teenager, but we felt that because such emphases are phase-based, it was fairest to most categories equal weight.
Our report factors in data from federal government statistics, the airlines' own published policies and procedures and TPG’s team of experienced travelers, among other sources.
The full list of factors and weighting is as follows:
- Complimentary seat assignments: Are complimentary advance seat assignments readily available?
- On-time arrivals: Percentage of arrivals and departures that were not more than 15 minutes late.
- Early boarding procedures: How early can families with small children board?
- Seat comfort/size: What size are basic economy seats across the mainline fleet, and would a car seat realistically fit in those dimensions?
- Available entertainment: Does the airline offer complimentary or purchasable seatback entertainment, Wi-Fi or streaming?
- Kid meals and snacks: Are there complimentary snacks kids generally enjoy, or child-friendly snack boxes for sale?
- Route network: Cities and routes served in the U.S.
- Mileage program rules: Can families pause elite status, do airline miles expire and how easy is it to share or pool points?
- Award availability: Are awards available for booking at set advance booking periods, and for how many miles across a shared set of routes?
- Additional fees: How much did airlines charge on average for bags and flight changes?
- Unaccompanied minors: Does the airline serve unaccompanied minors, and what are the fees for that service?
Other comprehensive reports from The Points Guy: