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One of the best ways families can save money while traveling throughout the US, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands with their little ones is by having their child fly as a “lap infant.” This means you do not have to pay for a seat for your child and instead he or she can sit on your lap and fly for free. Of course, there is some controversy about lap children, but I was comfortable flying this way while both my kids were younger. It also helps that Southwest Airlines has been my go-to airline, and it is, by far, the best airline for lap children as you can often score a free seat for your child if the flight isn’t sold out.
Cost aside, deciding what’s best for traveling with a baby can be confusing and overwhelming. If you are looking to save money on an upcoming trip, or just think your baby would do better snuggled in your arms, here is everything you need to know about flying with a lap infant:
1. The Magic Age Is Strictly “Under 2”
To qualify as a lap infant, your son or daughter will have to be under 2 years old. The day they turn 2, that free ticket, unfortunately, goes out the window as he or she is no longer allowed to fly as a lap infant. Instead, you’ll be required to purchase him or her a regular ticket from that day forward. When my kids were under 2, I would make sure to plan accordingly and get that last “free” flight just in the nick of time. If you are looking to get away right around your 2-year-old’s birthday, shifting your vacation by a month or two earlier could save you a decent amount of money on their ticket.
If you have a trip that spans your child’s second birthday, only the first flight will be free. On the return flight, you will be required to purchase your now 2-year-old a seat, meaning you’ll have to buy a one-way ticket. (Though interestingly, British Airways will give you the return seat for free if your child turns 2 on the journey.)
Tip: There are times when buying a one-way flight can be more costly than a round-trip, so price out both options if your child turns 2 on your trip.
2. Yes, ID Might Be Required for a Lap Infant
Technically, most airlines require you to show proof of age for your lap infant. This can include a birth certificate, passport or immunization records. But in reality, most airlines will not ask you, unless you are on Southwest Airlines or your baby looks like a toddler who could be over 2 years of age. Southwest is notorious for asking even newborns for proof of age. If you get to the airport counter and you do not have any documentation, airlines can theoretically require you to purchase a regular seat for your child. Not only can same-day flights be quite expensive, you risk the chance of the flight being sold out. Bottom line: Do not leave your documentation at home. If flying Southwest, expect to show documentation for your lap infant on all flights.
Tip: Always have a copy of your children’s documentation in your diaper bag, luggage and even a picture on your phone so there are no issues.
3. Can I Fly With More Than One Lap Infant?
There is a strict one lap infant per adult rule. This means if you are flying on your own and have two or more children under the age of 2 flying with you (such as twins), you’ll have to purchase a ticket for one of them. Although, you are my hero for taking two under 2-year-olds on your own.
Of course, if two adults are traveling together (or even an older teen and an adult), you can book two lap children, which is great for parents with twins or kids born close together. Do not be surprised when the flight attendant tells you that you cannot sit next to each other in the same row. Due to the limited number of oxygen masks in each row (often the number of seats plus one), most aircraft only permit one lap infant per row. Lap infants are also not allowed to sit in emergency exit rows or in the rows directly in front of or behind the exit rows. On some aircraft there are additional rows that do not permit lap infants.
Tip: If you are truly flying with an infant and your flight has bassinets on board, book that row. Typically, you’ll find bassinets on international flights, but they might also be available on domestic flights with internationally configured aircraft.
4. Can Lap Infants Snag a Free Empty Seat?
It is every passenger’s dream come true to have an empty seat next to them, but when you are flying with a lap infant, this becomes even more important. If there is an unoccupied seat next to you, count your lucky stars as you just scored a seat for your child without actually having to pay for it.
Speaking to the gate agent before boarding the plane is incredibly helpful. They should be able to tell you whether or not there is a passenger sitting next to you and, in the case where the flight is not full, potentially help you find a new seat with an empty seat next to it. I’ve also been lucky enough to have gate agents block an empty seat next to me on flights that are not full. If you are flying Southwest and the plane is not full, because of the open seating policy, you can almost be guaranteed that your child will have his or her own seat. When this does happen, you should be able to bring your FAA-approved car seat or CARES harness onto the plane.
Tip: If you think you might be able to get an empty seat next to you, bring your car seat to the gate with the hopes you can bring it on. If not, you can always gate check your car seat for no fee, and it will be waiting for you when you land.
5. Do Lap Infants Get a Luggage Allowance?
While paid infants get the same baggage allowance as a paid adult ticket, that all changes when your under-2-year-old is flying for free on your lap. Children not occupying a seat, unfortunately, are not given an extra checked baggage allowance on most US domestic airlines. Luggage will be checked with the child’s parents’ luggage and will be subject to the extra baggage fees charged by the respective airline.
Fortunately, though, all families can check car seats and strollers for no additional fee, and it won’t count against your baggage allowance — it doesn’t matter if your child is flying as a lap infant or on a paid fare. For carry-on bags, most airlines will allow you to bring a diaper bag on board in addition to the airline’s carry-on baggage allowance. Note that Alaska Airlines does not extend this same generous diaper bag policy to lap infants.
This is why Southwest Airlines is such a favorite airline among families since all passengers flying on a paid ticket get to check two complimentary bags per person. As most parents know, when you travel with children, the amount of “extra stuff” you have to pack can get out of control. Knowing you can check in a fair amount of bags, including your lap infant’s items for no fee, is pretty awesome.
Tip: If you are not flying Southwest and don’t have elite status, get a credit card that allows you to check your baggage for free.
6. Lap Infant Fares Range from $0 to $1,000 Internationally
Most international flights allow children under 2 to fly as a lap child, but with one big difference — it is usually not 100% free. Typically, if you are flying on a revenue ticket, you are paying the taxes and fees for your lap infant plus potentially a 10% fare. While that might not sound like a lot, it can add up. When I took my then 3-year-old and 11-month-old to London, the paid children’s fare was only $376 round-trip. But if I decided to fly with my 11-month-old son as a lap infant instead, the taxes and fees imposed on this type of ticket was close to $150. For around $200 more, I was able to get my son his own seat, which was well worth my sanity for a round-trip flight between Boston and London.
When you are adding a lap infant to a ticket using miles, the amount you pay varies drastically and really depends on the airline you are flying. A number of airlines, like Air Canada, just make you pay a flat fee of $50 for economy tickets, while others, such as Cathay Pacific require you to pay 25% of the adult fare plus taxes/fees. In a premium cabin, that can easily be a four-figure number just to hold your baby in your seat.
Usually, most airlines will charge you 10% of the adult fare or sometimes 10% of the miles redeemed plus taxes/fees. Remember, ticket prices fluctuate so you’ll want to add your child on as a lap infant at the lowest price you see.
If you are traveling somewhere close-in like Mexico or the Caribbean with a lap infant, consider JetBlue, Southwest or Alaska as the airlines don’t charge a percentage of the adult fare for lap infants flying internationally — the airline just charge taxes. Contrast this to an airline like United that charges 10% of the fare for lap infants plus taxes and fees, even to Mexico (though not Canada).
Tip: Do not wait until you get to the airport to add a lap infant to an international ticket if an airline that charges 10% to 25% of the fare as it could result in a pricy lap infant fare. Here’s a guide to award travel with lap infants.
While getting a few extra hours of snuggle time above the clouds might not always be the most comfortable way to fly, it is my No. 1 favorite way to keep travel costs down with a baby. Many babies prefer sitting on their parents’ lap (especially if mom is nursing anyway), so you might find buying a seat is ultimately a waste of money. Of course, the decision is yours and the equation can shift as the littles grow from a true lap infant to a lap toddler.
Are you flying with your baby? Here are some other resources:
- How to Survive Flights With Kids of Any Age
- Where to Sit on a Plane With Two Small Kids
- 10 Tips for Long Haul Flights With Kids
- Best Toys to Bring on a Plane
- Most Family Friendly International Air Carriers
- Flying With a Baby Checklist
- Getting Ready for Your Child’s First Flight: A Survival Guide
- Traveling With Children Who Have Special Needs
Featured image by RyanJLane/Getty Images
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