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Traveling can be stressful, especially when you’ve got young children along for the ride — screaming babies and extra baggage fees can easily turn what might have been an enjoyable travel experience into a nightmare.
Thankfully, airlines want to help and many tend to have family-specific policies where little things, like early boarding for families with young kids, can seriously reduce the stress of family travel. Below, we’ve put together a list of the best domestic airlines for families based on variety of factors, among them free seating assignments, free checked bags, kid-friendly food options, early boarding for families, in-flight entertainment just for kids, free stroller and car-seat check and the ability to make changes to an itinerary for free.
The good news is many of the top airlines in the US have pretty similar family-friendly policies in place — we found that all the airlines on our list offered free stroller and car-seat check, for instance, which can save customers from racking up pesky checked baggage fees. All of them, with the exception of Southwest, allow you to choose your seats for free at the time of booking, although you’ll want to book early on any airline, as seats that are grouped together can disappear quickly. All the carriers offer some sort of pre-boarding for families, but the exact policies tend to differ by airline. Kid-friendly options for in-flight entertainment can be found across the board as well, but the amount of content, especially free content, varies. Check out the chart and our list — presented below in alphabetical order — to see what we found.
|Free Seating Assignment||X||X||X||X||X||X|
|Free Checked Bags||X|
|Pre-boarding for Families With Small Children||X||X||X||X||X||X||X|
|Entertainment Just for Kids||X||X||X||X||X||X||X|
|Kid-Friendly Food Options||X||X||X||X||X||X|
|Complimentary Car Seat/Stroller Check||X||X||X||X||X||X||X|
|Free Itinerary Changes||X|
You’ll find perks like free seating assignment when you book, plus families with children under the age of two will be among the first groups to board the plane — even before first-class passengers. Alaska also offers free in-flight entertainment and a “Kids choice picnic pack” for $6 that contains healthy snacks.
While AA also supplies free seating assignments at booking, options can be pretty limited due to high demand. Its pre-boarding for families policy isn’t as lenient as many other airlines’, as you’ll have to make a special request with the gate agent to get onto the plane early. However, the carrier does offer an array of free on-board entertainment options, with a special kids section full of movies and TV shows just for them. The airline doesn’t have a designated food option for kids, but offers many healthy food options to choose from regardless.
Families with car seats or strollers get to board early for free — even before first- and business-class customers — and you also have the option to pick your seat at booking. Delta offers free on-board video streaming so your kids will have a lots of choices to entertain themselves with. While Delta doesn’t offer child-specific food, we would consider many of the airline’s snack boxes to be kid-friendly.
In addition to the usual perks, like being able to choose seats during the booking process and early boarding for families traveling with children ages two and under, baggage fees on JetBlue cost less than most other airlines’, starting at $20 (instead of the standard $25) for the first checked bag if you pay for it online or at a kiosk. The airline also offers free unlimited brand-name snacks, like Cheez-It crackers and Terra Blue potato chips, which can keep youngsters at bay without you having to shell out for a bigger snack box.
Southwest seems to be the most family-friendly airline, largely due to its open seating options, free baggage policy and the freedom to change your itinerary for free if you need to. You may not be able to choose your seats when you book, but if you’re traveling with children ages six and under, you’ll get to board early and essentially have your top pick of seats before most passengers even get on the plane. Family travel can get expensive, so Southwest’s generous baggage policy — which allows you to check two free bags per passenger — can end up saving a family of four up to $200 each way! A multitude of free entertainment options, including live TV, are sure to keep the kids occupied during the flight. Southwest also gives you the ability to change your flight without having to pay extra fees, so if your child suddenly becomes sick, you won’t have to worry about losing out on a canceled trip.
The last of the legacy carriers, United offers free seating assignment when you buy your ticket, and recently reintroduced pre-boarding for families with children ages two and under. The carrier provides free entertainment with a wide selection of movies and TV shows to keep the little ones busy. United does offer one kid-specific food option — its “Ben Flyin’ Snackbox” even includes a toy.
Virgin America allows families with children under the age of five to board the plane early, and you get to pick your seats at check-out during the booking process. Virgin’s entertainment system is great, with live TV shows and a variety of movies to choose from, as well as a selection of games. Kid-centric “PBJ” and “Jet Set Kid Pack” snack boxes are also available for purchase.
And the Winner is…
Ultimately, we deemed Southwest the best domestic airline for families, due especially to its generous two-free-checked-bags allowance, as this can save families some serious money. Although Southwest doesn’t technically offer free seat assignment at booking, you won’t have a problem sitting together since its pre-boarding policy allows adults traveling with young children to board before most customers and choose whatever seats are to their liking.
Which airline is your favorite for traveling with the family? Let us know in the comments, below.
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.
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