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Children under the age of 2 can fly for free when traveling with an adult on all US-based airlines on domestic flights. While the word “free” is probably my favorite four-letter word, it does come with one important stipulation: The child will not have his or her own seat and must fly on a parent’s lap. This is how the term “lap child” originated and it’s not without controversy.

I admit that when my kids were younger, having them fly as a lap child was my favorite way to save money on travel. Having one less ticket to pay for is huge, especially with the amount my family travels. The savings allowed us to take a few extra trips that we might have otherwise not taken.

Getting a Seat for a Lap Child On Southwest

I know many people are concerned with their little one not having his or her own seat from a comfort and safety standpoint, and I get it. It is a decision you need to make based on your family’s comfort level. This is especially true if you have an infant and are new to flying with a baby. But on the many flights I’ve taken on Southwest Airlines with my lap child, every time but once, I was able to snag an empty seat for my “free” child. Although this is by no means guaranteed! 

Since Southwest does not have assigned seats, and family boarding happens after Boarding Group A, this will work to your advantage. As long as you board with family boarding (or even earlier if you are able to grab an A boarding pass), there will still be plenty of open rows available. Or, this might be a time to consider using one of your Upgraded Boarding Position certificates that comes with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card. Mommy Points thinks this card is Southwest’s best credit card for families. Using the certificate guarantees you an A1–A15 boarding position, which means you’ll be one of the first to board the plane.

You can also consider paying for EarlyBird Check-in. Boarding as early as possible allows families to pick their ideal seats and gives you the opportunity to have your lap child occupy a seat — even if you did not pay for one (as long as the flight is not 100% full).

(Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
(Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

The morning of my flight I always try to get a sense on how full the flight is based on whether or not seats are still available for purchase — Southwest no longer overbooks its flights so if you were theoretically able to purchase eight tickets the morning of the flight, for example, there is a good chance there will be plenty of open seats available. When this happens, I always bring my car seat through security instead of checking it with the rest of my luggage. This allows me the opportunity to bring my seat onboard, assuming there are still seats available. And if not, gate-checking it is easy enough.

Before boarding, I always ask the gate agent if there are empty seats available. Gate agents generally know how many seats were sold and whether or not there is a standby list. As I mentioned above, in my many flights traveling with a lap child, only once did I experience a 100% full flight — and that was the Saturday of school vacation week. All other times, there was at least a seat or two (if not more) available. Tip: Fly during off-peak times and the chances of a full flight are slim. In my experience, as long as there are not more lap children than open seats available, they have always let me bring my car seat onboard.

Southwest has always been extremely accommodating for lap children and one of the reasons TPG voted Southwest one of the best airlines for families. Having an extra seat has allowed my child to stay contained in a seat (especially when I bring a car seat on board) and actually sleep. And not having to share my seat with a squirmy baby or toddler is a big win for this momma!

Photo provided by Jennifer Yellin / Deals We Like

Why Is Southwest Better Than Other Airlines?

On other airlines, you are given an actual seat assignment. You either select the seat when you purchase the ticket or when you check in for your flight; the method depends on the airline and the type of ticket you purchase. While you can try to pick unpopular seats with your fingers crossed that no one will be sitting next to you, you are really rolling the dice. On a flight that is not even full, there is still a good chance that you’ll get a passenger sitting next to you. Yes, you might be able to get the passenger next to you to move, or you yourself can move with your lap child, but it can cause chaos and might just ultimately not work. Many airlines are also not a fan of passengers playing musical chairs. With Southwest, all you really need is just one empty seat to be available on the plane and, viola, the seat is yours (assuming the plane isn’t filled with lap infants).

Bottom Line

If purchasing a seat for your child under 2 is not in your budget — although you ideally would love for them to have their own seat (I mean, who wouldn’t?) — my best suggestion is to fly Southwest. You have the best chance of actually getting a seat for your child without paying for it.

Know before you go.

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