Are airlines required to seat families together? Guide to airline family seating policies
As a mom of three, I’m no stranger to the ins and outs of flying with family.
I know how to disassemble and reassemble my double stroller with ninja-level precision so it will fit through the baggage scanner at security. I also throw screen time rules out the window on travel days. Most importantly, I don’t take any chances when it comes to getting my family’s seats together when we fly.
Because I know how turbulent flying with kids can be, I happily gave up my seat on a recent solo flight when a father asked if I would switch seats so he could sit with his young son.
I was also quick to say yes because he had a window seat a couple of rows in front of my own window seat. (Had he been in the middle seat, I might have needed an adult beverage thrown in to sweeten the deal, but I digress.)
Related: Should you ask to switch seats on a plane?
The crux of the issue is that it can be costly and confusing to find seats together when traveling with young kids. Some parents assume they will automatically be seated with their kids. Others may end up separated from their families if they are rebooked due to a cancellation. Regardless of the reason, airlines are not legally required to seat families together.
In November 2022, the Department of Transportation began monitoring airline seating policies to determine if federal regulation was necessary regarding family seating.
After months of monitoring, the DOT launched an online dashboard that displays, among other things, which airlines guarantee free family seating. This is part of a larger initiative by the Biden administration to improve consumer protections in the airline industry.
So far, only three airlines – American Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Alaska Airlines – comply with the DOT's guideline that airlines guarantee "adjacent seats for children 13 and under and an accompanying adult at no additional cost for all fare types."
That doesn't mean you are completely out of luck in guaranteeing your family sits together if you are flying on another major airline. Here is a guide to each airline's family seating policy and tips for ensuring your family members can sit together on your next flight.
Like most major airlines, American allows you to choose your seats when booking or at any time leading up to your flight.
There is no fee to choose your seats if you book a first-class, business-class, premium economy or main cabin fare. However, you will have to pay a fee to choose your seats if you choose basic economy tickets — American’s least expensive (and most restrictive) fare type.
If you're traveling with children under 15 on any fare type, American's system will detect that you are a family traveling together and automatically search for seats together if you don't choose them yourself. If adjacent seats are unavailable for your entire family, American guarantees children under 15 will be seated next to at least one adult.
Related: Here’s what it’s really like flying business class with little kids
It’s important that you do everything in your power to choose seats for your entire family at the time of booking. This is the only way to guarantee your entire family will sit together during your flight.
To do this, American advises the following:
- Book your entire party’s tickets in the same reservation.
- Book your tickets as early as possible, so there are more available seats to choose from.
- It’s better to skip seat selection than to choose just a few seats or seats scattered throughout the cabin.
Related: Your ultimate guide to American Airlines AAdvantage
To select your seats at the time of booking on an Alaska flight, you’ll need to book either a first-class, premium or main-cabin ticket. Only a limited number of advance seating assignments are available to customers who purchase Alaska’s Saver fare tickets.
If no advance seats are available, the seats will be assigned at the gate; this is not ideal for a family wishing to sit together.
The good news is that Alaska Airlines' family seating policy does guarantee that children under 14 will automatically be seated with at least one parent or guardian at no additional charge, including on Saver fares. So, even if you can't find adjacent seats for your entire family, you can rest assured that your children won't be seated separately from an adult.
To guarantee your family sits together on an Alaska Airlines flight:
- Book as early as possible and reserve your family’s seats together at the time of purchase.
- Book children on the same reservation as adults.
- Confirm seat selections made through third parties on Alaska Airlines’ website or by speaking with a reservations agent by phone.
- If you cannot get reserved seats together with your family during booking, call an Alaska Airlines reservation agent to review available seating options.
- As a last resort, check in online exactly 24 hours before your flight, as this is when most unclaimed seats become available (does not apply to Saver fare seats, which are assigned at the gate on the day of departure).
- Arrive at the gate at least 60 minutes prior to your departure time and speak with a gate agent. Alaska does block a limited number of seats to accommodate families and other needs on a first-come, first-served basis.
Delta Air Lines
All but one of Delta's fare types allow you to select your seats when you purchase your tickets.
If you want your family to sit together, steer clear of Delta’s basic economy fares because they do not include advanced seat selection. If you purchase first class, Comfort+ or main cabin tickets, you’ll have the option to select your seats during the booking process.
Delta’s has other tips for getting your family’s seats together:
- Book children on the same reservation as the adults in your party.
- Confirm seat selections made through third parties by calling a Delta reservations agent or going online.
- If you cannot obtain seats together with your family, contact Delta by phone to review your options or, as a last resort, speak with a Delta gate agent at the airport.
Delta does try and seat family members together but only upon request.
Flight attendants will sometimes ask for volunteers to switch seats. The airline also blocks a handful of rows in the main economy cabin on most flights to accommodate groups and families. Still, there are no guarantees unless you reserve your family’s seats together before arriving at the airport (preferably at the time of booking).
Frontier’s base fares can be alluring to budget-conscious flyers. However, you'll have to pay extra if you want the luxury of advanced seating assignments.
Luckily, Frontier updated its family seating policy to be in compliance with the DOT's recommendations and guarantees that children under age 14 will be seated automatically with at least one parent or guardian at no additional charge.
Unless you have elite status with Frontier, seat selection fees run between $17 and $90 per passenger per flight segment. There are no fare types that include complimentary seat selection for non-elite members if you want your entire family to sit together.
However, you could potentially make up the extra cost by joining Frontier’s Discount Den and choosing a Kids Fly Free flight.
Frontier also recommends that families:
- Book as early as possible and purchase advance seat reservations at the time of booking.
- Book children on the same reservation as adults in your party.
- If you book through a third party, visit Frontier’s website as soon as possible to purchase advance seat selections.
- Check in as early as possible online or through Frontier’s mobile app and Frontier will assign group seats together if any are available.
- If your family is not assigned seats together, speak with a gate agent for assistance.
JetBlue offers complimentary seat selection with all fare types except Blue Basic, meaning Blue and Blue Extra fares include free advance seat selection. However, for Blue Basic fares, there is a fee of between $5 and $40 each way to choose your seat more than 24 hours before departure. (Seat selection is available for free at check-in.)
When you purchase your JetBlue tickets, you’ll have to do the math to determine whether you’ll actually save money by purchasing a Blue Basic fare once you add in the seat selection fees for your entire family. You may be better off with a regular Blue fare.
- Book as early as possible for maximum seat selection availability.
- Book children on the same reservation as adults.
- Confirm seat selections made through a third party on JetBlue’s website.
- If you cannot obtain seats together at the time of booking, contact a JetBlue agent at check-in or talk to one at the gate. They will do their best to seat your family together.
That being said, JetBlue does its best to keep families together and blocks a limited number of rows until the day of travel for passengers with disabilities and unaccompanied minors. If any seats are available after accommodating these passengers, JetBlue may be able to use them to seat families together.
Southwest Airlines is the one airline on this list that does not assign seats in advance, so you cannot purchase a specific seat assignment ahead of time.
With Southwest’s open seating policy, you will be assigned a boarding group (A, B or C) and a position within that boarding group (1 through 60-plus) at check-in. Essentially, A1 is the best boarding position and you’ll have the most seating options available to you when you board the plane.
Because of this, the strategies for getting your family’s seats together on a Southwest flight differ from other airlines.
Check in on time
To get as high of a boarding group as possible, you’ll need to check in exactly (like, to the second) 24 hours prior to your flight. This should land your family in an A or B boarding group, and most of the time, you won’t have an issue getting your family’s seats together. You may have to venture to the back of the plane to find those seats, though.
Utilize family boarding
If you have a B or C boarding group and are traveling with a child 6 years old or younger, you will have the option to board between the A and B groups during “family boarding.”
Southwest’s policy states that up to two adults can board with a child age 6 or younger during family boarding. If you have more adults than this in your party, speak with a Southwest gate agent to determine your best strategy for finding seats together once on board.
Related: Southwest Airlines offers expanded family boarding ages on some flights
Purchase EarlyBird Check-In or Upgraded Boarding
You can also purchase EarlyBird Check-In, which gives you the convenience of automatic check-in 36 hours before your flight. (Southwest’s regular check-in process begins 24 hours prior to your flight.) This means you’ll automatically receive an earlier boarding position and more available seats to choose from than if you’d done it yourself.
EarlyBird Check-In pricing starts at $15 per passenger per flight segment, and you must purchase it for everyone in your party. Depending on availability, you may also be able to purchase Upgraded Boarding at the gate for between $30 and $50 per person per flight segment to secure an A1-A15 boarding position.
Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card holders can receive two EarlyBird Check-Ins per year, which can bring the total cost for your family down a bit. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card also has a benefit of four Upgraded Boardings per year.
Rapid Rewards A-List and A-List Preferred members (and those traveling on the same reservation) automatically receive a boarding position 36 hours prior to departure, though you will still need to check in within 24 hours of your flight to receive your boarding pass.
Buy a Business Select fare
Finally, you have the option to purchase a Business Select fare, which, among other perks, includes priority boarding in the A1-A15 group.
Speak with an agent
If you don’t heed our advice and find yourself at the airport with a less-than-desirable boarding group, Southwest advises that you speak with a gate agent or flight attendant. They will see if any passengers are willing to move to accommodate your family if you aren’t able to get seats together.
Spirit Airlines keeps its family seating advice plain and simple: The only way to guarantee you’ll be able to sit with your family is to purchase your seat assignments ahead of time.
Seat assignments start at $5 per person per segment and vary by route and seat location in the aircraft. You can purchase your seat assignment when you book your flight, during check-in or anytime in between. However, the earlier you choose the seats, the better chance your entire family will be able to sit together.
Spirit currently has no official family seating policy. It only states that it "can't guarantee that you'll sit with your friends and family" if you don't purchase seat assignments; it says that gate agents will work to provide adjacent seats for guests flying with children aged 13 and under whenever possible.
There are ways to save money when purchasing your seats, though. Spirit Saver$ Club members receive low fares and discounted prices for add-ons like bags and seats. There is an annual fee, but if you have a large family or plan on flying Spirit Airlines often, the cost may be less than purchasing seats for your entire group.
Speaking of frequent flying, members of Spirit’s Free Spirit loyalty program at the Gold level receive, among other perks, free seat selection at the time of booking. Unlike Frontier’s program, Spirit’s elite status perks, such as seat selection, do not confer to other members on the reservation.
United is also among the few airlines committed to helping families sit together on flights. United's family seating policy guarantees families with children under age 12 in certain cabins can sit together for free, regardless of fare type.
Now, United's new "dynamic seat map feature" will enable passengers to book two seats together for travelers under 12 and an adult companion for free, including on basic economy fares.
You’ll probably want to avoid basic economy on United if you want your party to stay together. United explicitly states on its website that it's not able to guarantee your entire party will be able to sit together if you purchase a basic economy fare and do not purchase advance seat assignments.
Here are a few more helpful tips for families flying United:
- Book your tickets as early as possible and reserve your family’s seats together when booking.
- Book children on the same reservation as adults.
- Confirm seat selections made through a third party.
- If only scattered seats are available at the time of booking, you are better off letting United’s system automatically choose seats for you because it will attempt to seat families on the same reservation with unassigned seats together.
- If you do not select seats in advance, United’s system will attempt to find adjoining seats for you and your children under 15 on the same reservation, regardless of fare type.
- If you cannot obtain seats together, arrive early at your departure gate and speak with a gate agent. They will ask for volunteers to move seats and help accommodate your family.
There is a lot of overlap with the guidance for getting your family’s seats together on most U.S. airlines (with Southwest being the exception).
You want to do everything possible to:
- Book early and select seats when you book. Do not wait until the last minute to check your seat assignments.
- Avoid saver or basic fares because they often do not offer complimentary seat selection.
- Choose your family’s seats when booking, whether it’s included with your fare or you have to pay an additional fee.
- If you are unable to get your family’s seats together at the time of booking, call the airline and speak with a reservations agent to determine the best course of action.
- Keep checking seat availability in the months and weeks leading up to your flight, especially in the final week before your trip and again 24 hours before your flight. These are the times when people make last-minute changes or elite flyers receive automatic seat upgrades, freeing up space on the seating map.
- If you arrive at the airport and still haven’t been able to secure your family’s seats together, politely ask a gate agent or flight attendant for help. You may still have the option to pay for an upgrade, or they can assist you by finding open seats. It may be too late to do anything official, but they’ll be much more willing to help if you approach them with kindness.
Related: Where to sit on a plane with 2 small kids
Sometimes kind travelers will help parents who end up in a bind onboard, but there’s no guarantee. Luckily, airlines are falling in line and making it easier for families traveling together to sit together.