This section is intended to provide you with tips and advice for finding the best flights for travel with infants, babies, toddlers or small children. While flying with kids can be a terrifying prospect, a few little tricks can go a long way.
1. Flight Selection Tips
Often the best price wins when it comes to booking flights, but if choices are available, the following tips may prove useful.
- Non-stop flights are preferable, since even the shortest stopover will add at least one hour to your transit time. Be aware that there is a difference between non-stop and direct. Non-stop means exactly that, it doesn’t stop. Direct means it takes a direct route but may stop to pick up passengers or refuel along the way.
- If your travels do require a stopover, be aware that not all hub airports are created equal. If given a choice, choose a stopover at one of these following family friendly U.S. airports.
- In recent years several U.S. domestic airlines have dropped the all important pre-boarding for families, so it is important to know which airline will provide you with the most suitable fit and value. Also preferable are airlines that allow you to have preassigned seats so that you do not have the additional fear of having your family split up. If you are interested in which airlines are best when traveling with kids, please consult this blog entry on most family friendly airlines.
- Avoid charter flights as they often have very small seats, limited services, and are less likely than commercial flights to leave at their scheduled time. The exception to this rule is if for a small fee you can upgrade to a better class (ex. economy plus) that may get you preferential treatment (wider seats, more legroom, greater luggage allowance, meals etc.).
2. When to Fly
There is great debate over when is the best time to fly with children, and a lot depends on the temperament of your little one. Generally, however, if you are on a short flight (5 hours or less), flying in the morning is preferable since kids seem to be happiest after a good night’s sleep. For long haul flights, most find that a flight leaving a few hours before bedtime is best. This allows your child to be well settled on the plane before they fall asleep.
What you want to avoid is a flight that leaves right at, or right after your child’s nap or bed time. All the commotion of getting on the plane (check-in, security, takeoff) can be very disruptive, and inhibit their ability to get settled, leading to midair meltdown disaster.
3. The Seating Plan
Traveling parents will debate the pros and cons of the bulkhead seats. They are nice because you do not have to worry about your child kicking the back of someone’s seat, they have extra space in front of them, and are often the only seats on the plane to give you access to the baby bassinet*. The negatives are that they do not have seat storage, the armrests are immobile, and they usually cannot be pre-booked.
*Baby bassinets attach to the wall in front of the bulkhead seats, are offered on long haul flights (international and cross country) and are appropriate for babies 6 months and under. They need to be requested in advance by phone, and cannot be guaranteed until you get to the airport on the day of your travel.
Another common preference is to leave an empty middle seat between you and another family member in the hope that it will remain empty, and you will have the luxury of some extra space. For instance as a traveling family of four you might select row 32 seats A and C, and row 33 seats A and C. Honestly who would choose the middle seat between you and your child? The other benefit to this is that you can put the child most likely to kick the seat in front of them in the second row, so they only bother another family member. Unfortunately in recent years this strategy has become more difficult as planes seem to often be fully booked. It is still worth a shot, however, arriving at the airport early and asking the check in agent to see what they can do (on a flight that is not full, blocking the middle seat so nobody can sit in it is sometimes a possibility).
If you are using an FAA approved car seat, your child must not be blocking another passenger from accessing the aisle. Essentially what this means is that your child will be expected to sit beside the window, not the aisle. The exception to this is if you are sitting in the center block of seats, since a passenger could always exit on the opposite aisle.
If you are used to sitting in the exit row, alas, these days are over. People in the exit rows are expected to assist in the event of an evacuation and, well, you and your child will not be able to do that.
If you are fortunate enough to travel in executive or first class, call the airline to discuss what the best seating arrangement might be. Sometimes, although seats appear to be in a row, they actually have significant separating dividers, making it difficult to move between them. Also the new cubicle and pod designs often do not allow for the use of car seats. Consider carefully whether or not you want to sit in privileged class with a little one. The benefits include the fact that the ratio of flight attendants to passengers is much lower so you are likely to receive more assistance. One of the major negatives is that with a child it will be hard for you to truly enjoy all the perks of this class and may wish to save your money/upgrade/points for a special trip without a child.
One final note. Check out Tripadvisor’s seatguru.com. This website gives you insider information on airplane seats based on the type of plane and traveler reviews. For example, which rows have seats that don’t recline all the way, which row is missing a window and which seats have extra legroom.
4. Seating Rules
If your child is under 2 years, you are not required to buy a seat for them. You can either hold them in your lap, or, if the plane is not full and there is an empty seat beside you, you may be allowed to use this for your child (airlines have differing policies in this area). If your child is 2 years and older, you are required to buy a seat for them. If your child turns two during a trip, they can fly on your lap on the way there, but must return home in a paid seat.
Some things to consider when deciding whether or not to buy a seat for your infant include:
- Safety – Are you comfortable with the idea of holding your baby in your lap throughout the flight?
- Cost – Although very few domestic airlines offer you a discount when buying a seat for an infant, frequently international flights offer a discount of 25% off regular fare. If your child will be on your lap you will be charged from 0-10% of regular fare. *
- Length of flight – It is easy to hold an infant in your lap for an hour, but how about six hours?
- Age of the infant – It is also fairly easy to hold a six month old in your arms but how about an eighteen month old who really wants to walk around?
*Even if you do not need to pay for a lap infant, they are still required to be a registered passenger on the plane. This note is mentioned after recently hearing of a family denied boarding on their flight because they forgot to advise the airline of this, having bought their tickets for the rest of the family online.
5. Securing Your Child on the Plane
To try to clear up any confusion over how you can secure your child on a plane, here are some options. Please keep in mind that the FAA and many child safety organizations are really pushing to require that children under two be in their own seat and secured in a car seat, so this may be law in the near future.
1. If your child is under two years and you are not purchasing a seat for them, you may:
- Hold your baby in your lap for the duration of the flight.
- Hold your baby in your lap for the duration of the flight and secure them in your lap with a Baby B'Air Flight Vest (infant-24 months, allowed in flight, not during takeoff and landing).
- Bring an FAA approved car seat or Cares FAA Approved Safety Restraint System to the gate with the hope that there will be an empty seat beside you and the airline will let you use it to secure your child (otherwise it will need to be stored in the overhead bin or gate checked)
2. If your child is under two years and you are purchasing a seat for them, if desired you may:
- Secure them in an FAA approved car seat.
- If your child is over 1 year and between 22 and 44 lbs (10-20 kg) you may use a Cares Safety Restraint System which is the only FAA approved safety harness for kids in their own seat on airplanes
3. If your child is two years and older you are required to buy a seat for them and may:
- Secure them in the regular airplane seat belt.
- Secure them in an FAA approved car seat
- If your child is between 22 and 44 lbs (10-20 kg) you may use a Cares Safety Restraint System which is the only FAA approved safety harness for kids in their own seat on airplanes.
- Booster seats are not allowed because they are designed for shoulder, not lap seat belts
Important Note: Although I endeavor to keep these rules up to date, I recommend that you also check the FAA website with regards to travel with kids (https://www.faa.gov/passengers/fly_children/)
Next up: Baggage and Packing