Flying with a lap infant? Here’s what you need to know

Sep 21, 2019

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One of the best ways families can save money on domestic air travel with small children is by having a child fly as a “lap infant.” Sure, there may be controversy about the safety of this practice, but most parents appreciate that a small child can simply sit in your lap and fly for free.

That said, deciding when and how to travel with a baby can be confusing and overwhelming. Here are the rules you need to know regarding lap infants, along with general tips to make flying with a baby easier.

Lap infant rules

The magic age is strictly “under 2”

To qualify as a lap infant, your child will have to be under 2 years old. The day they turn 2, that free ticket goes out the window. If you are looking to get away and your child is nearing his or her second birthday, moving your vacation a month or two earlier could save you money (though flying with a lap infant and a lap toddler are two very different things logistically).

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock,
Your under-2-year-old child can fly with you for free on your lap. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

If you have a trip that spans your child’s second birthday, only the outbound flight will be free. On the return flight, you will be required to purchase your now 2-year-old a seat with a one-way ticket. (The exception: British Airways will give you the return seat for free if your child turns 2 on the journey.)

Be aware that 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 is going to turn 2 on your trip.

Empty seats and lap infants

Wondering whether your lap infant can snag a free empty seat? It is every passenger’s dream to have an empty seat next to them, but when you are flying with a lap infant, this becomes even more valuable. If there is an unoccupied seat next to you, you just scored a seat for your child without having to pay for it.

It pays to speak to the gate agents before boarding as they should be able to tell you whether there’s a passenger sitting next to you or, if the flight is not full, help you find a new seat assignment with an empty seat next to it. If you think you might be able to get an empty seat next to you, and have an FAA-approved car seat, bring it to the gate with the hopes of using it. If you can’t get access to an empty seat, you can always gate-check the car seat for no fee and it will be waiting for you when you land. 

Summer Hull
Have the car seat ready for your under-2-year-old in case there’s a free empty seat. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Luggage allowance for lap infants

While paid infants get the same baggage allowance as a paid adult ticket, that’s not the case when your under-2-year-old is flying for free on your lap. Unfortunately, children not occupying a paid seat are not given a checked baggage allowance on most U.S. domestic airlines. Luggage will be checked with the child’s parents’ luggage and will be subject to the extra baggage fees charged by the airline.

Related: How to avoid checked bag fees

Fortunately, all families can check car seats and strollers for no additional fee, and they won’t count against your baggage allowance — regardless of whether 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 regular carry-on baggage allowance. (Note that Alaska Airlines does not extend this generous diaper-bag policy to lap infants.)

mom and baby at airport
(Photo by Orbon Alija/Getty Images)

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 a number of bags, including your lap infant’s items, for no fee is awesome.

Traveling with more than one lap infant

The strict rule is one lap infant per adult. If you are flying as a solo adult and have two or more children under the age of 2 with you, you’ll have to purchase a ticket for one of them (and should also be awarded a gold medal at the other end of the journey!).

Two adults traveling together (or even an older teen with an adult) allows you to book two lap children, which is great for parents with twins or kids born close together. (But don’t be surprised if the flight attendant tells you cannot sit next to each other in the same row. Because of the limited number of oxygen masks, 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.

If you are flying with an infant and your flight has bassinets on board, book that row if you can. Typically, you’ll find bassinets on international flights, but they might also be available on domestic flights with internationally-configured aircraft.

Lap infant fares on international flights

Most international flights allow children under two to fly as lap children, but with one big difference — it is usually not 100% free. Typically, if you are flying on a revenue ticket, you must pay the taxes and fees for your lap infant plus, in some cases, 10% of the fare. While that might not sound like a lot, it can add up.

When TPG contributor Jennifer Yellen took her then-3-year-old and 11-month-old to London, the paid children’s fare was only $376 round-trip. But if she had decided to fly with her 11-month-old son as a lap infant instead, the taxes and fees imposed would have been close to $150. For around $200 more, she was able to get her son his own seat, which was well worth it to preserve her sanity.

mother and infant daughter travel by plane
Flying with a “lap infant” for free means a whole flight of pure cuddle time. (Image by Nadezhda1906/Getty Images)

When you are adding a lap infant to a ticket using miles, the amount you pay varies drastically and depends on the airline. For example, Air Canada just requires you pay a flat fee of $50 for lap infant economy tickets, while others, such as Cathay Pacific, require you to pay 25% of the adult fare plus taxes and fees. In a premium cabin, that can easily be a four-figure number just to hold your baby in your lap.

Most airlines will charge you 10% of the adult fare, or in the case of British Airways, 10% of the miles redeemed plus taxes and fees. Remember, ticket prices fluctuate, so you’ll want to add your child on as a lap infant at the lowest price you see — which may well be when you first book your ticket.

If you are traveling with a lap infant to somewhere relatively close, like Mexico or the Caribbean, consider JetBlue, Southwest or Alaska. Those airlines don’t charge a percentage of the adult fare for lap infants flying internationally — just 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).

Tips for flying with a baby

Bring identification

Technically, most airlines require you to show proof of age for your lap infant. This can include a birth certificate, passport or immunization records. In reality, most airlines will not ask you for that information unless your baby looks like a toddler who could be past that second birthday. If you plan to travel internationally after your baby is born, you’ll have to get your child a passport, anyway. 

If you get to the airport counter and you do not have any documentation for your baby, airlines can theoretically require you to purchase a regular seat for your child. Not only can same-day flights be quite expensive, but you also risk the chance of the flight being sold out.

Southwest is notorious for asking for proof of age for everyone, even newborns, so do not leave your documentation at home. It’s smart to carry a copy in your luggage or save a picture of the documentation on your phone so there are no issues.

So, how young is too young to fly? Candice Dye, a pediatrician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says waiting until a baby is at least two to three months old is a good idea. “Since they are vaccinated by this time, they might need less invasive care even if they do fall sick after the flight,” she says. Of course, there are times when flying with newborn babies simply can’t be avoided, like for adoption, to visit family or for work reasons.

Regardless, it’s important to consider your child’s immunizations when making travel plans. Be sure to leave enough time for your infant to receive any necessary shots.

Related: Planning award travel with a lap infant

Time flights with your baby’s sleep patterns

Babies sleep a lot, just not always when you want them to. Try to book flights coinciding with their sleep schedules. For longer flights, if you can choose a flight that’s close to their bedtime, for example, you may have a better chance of getting them to sleep for a large part of the journey. For shorter day flights, try to time when your baby is naturally napping. Here are tips to flying with kids on a red-eye.

Change diapers before boarding

It’s no fun trying to change a diaper in a cramped airplane bathroom, and there’s also the possibility of being delayed on the tarmac. For these reasons, it’s smart to do a quick diaper change before boarding to potentially reduce the number of changes you’ll have to do in-flight.

Feed during takeoff and landing

Know how your ears pop on the plane, and you yawn or chew to make the sensation go away? Well, babies haven’t yet mastered the art of equalizing their own ear pressure, so takeoff and landing can be particularly uncomfortable for them. Feeding them during this time can help relieve this pressure because the sucking motion they make will help equalize their ears.

My first, but far from last, time nursing on a plane

Pack extra earplugs

Sometimes no matter what you do, a baby will cry on a plane. You can help make it a little less painful for those around you by bringing extra earplugs … if you want to. Sometimes parents choose to make small goodie bags as a friendly gesture toward other passengers in hope of gaining sympathy and understanding. Do not feel required to do this, it is just an option if it makes you less anxious about the trip.

Figure out seating arrangements beforehand

Before you board, it’s important to plan ahead and figure out the most comfortable way for your baby to sit. Consider where your child is most comfortable — do they prefer to snuggle up to a human or are they more relaxed in a car seat? Your child’s seating arrangement truly comes down to the preference of the parent and child. Just remember that you’ll need to book that extra airplane seat if you want to guarantee you can put your child in a car seat next to you.

Bottom line

While getting a few extra hours of snuggle time above the clouds might not always be the most comfortable way to fly (for adults, that is), it’s a great way to keep travel costs down. Many babies prefer sitting on their parents’ lap, especially if mom is nursing anyway, so you might find that 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 lap infants to lap toddlers.

Are you flying with your baby? Here are some other resources:

Featured image by RyanJLane/Getty Images.

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