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Family Friendly Airline Travel – Tips From a Pro

by Allison Hollins

Allison Hollins is a project manager at Fly.com, a website that scans the best airfare deals on the internet. She lived in Hong Kong as a child and has been an avid traveler ever since. She frequently travels to the UK to visit family and hopes that the grandparents offer to babysit her toddler so she can escape to somewhere exotic with her husband in 2013!

Flying with small children requires an incredible amount of energy and patience. My husband and I live near NYC, and our folks live in the UK and San Francisco, respectively, so we have plenty of experience taking long flights with children to visit family. We did trips in both direction with our baby last year, and the experiences were… interesting (the airlines should hand out free cocktails to parents upon landing). Nevertheless, I was well prepared, and in my research for the flights, I did discover that many airlines do make an effort to make the process a little easier. Here are some survival tips:

Save some cash
Most domestic carriers allow children under two to fly for free on a lap. If flying internationally, children under two may still fly on a lap but will be charged 10% of a full adult fare. Once a child is over two, an actual seat must be purchased for the child at the full fare. With the high cost of airfare these days, this is when things get expensive. Back in the day, airlines gave a generous discount on child seats but now it’s a rare thing to find. However, there are still some airlines that offer a discount. Scandinavian Airlines offers 25% off adult fares for children between the ages 2-11 (keep in mind this is 25% off the fare, before taxes). If you’re headed to South America, LAN Airlines also offers 25% off full fares for children. On domestic U.S. flights, child fares are few and far between, though some airlines will provide them through a special promotion or sale. For example, this past fall JetBlue Airways offered free flights for up to two children (traveling with an adult) for vacations book through JetBlue Getaways. To stay on top of deals like this, sign-up for email offers from JetBlue, Virgin America and other domestic carriers. Otherwise, Fly.com is always a good resource to find cheap airline tickets.

Get a good seat
As the airlines have been blocking more sections the plane (front rows, aisle seats, etc.) for those willing to pay for a seat assignment – there is a chance that families flying on full flights might get separated if they don’t pay for seat assignments. Most major domestic carriers like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and U.S. Airways do give travelers the option to reserve a seat online for free at the time of booking. To ensure your family sits together, try to book as early as possible to get the most seating options and lock-in seats during the booking process. If you find yourself having to book a flight last-minute and space on the plane is tight, use the free Seat Alerts tool from ExpertFlyer.com. The tool allows travelers to select their seat preferences (aisle, window, etc.) even if the seats are occupied. ExpertFlyer then notifies the traveler by email or text when a seat becomes available.

If you are traveling with a young infant, check with your airline if it’s possible to reserve a bassinet seat. Typically located in the bulkhead row, the bassinets are a great perk as your baby will have a place to sleep and you will have your hands free for at least part of the flight. It depends on the aircraft model (typically a Boeing 767 or 777), but you’ll usually find bassinets on cross-country and international flights. Major carriers like American Airlines, United Airlines, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and KLM all offer bassinets, depending on the route. The bassinets are usually free of charge, although some airlines allow you to reserve them in advance while other carriers operate on a first come, first serve basis after check-in.

Keep track of your extra baggage
When you first start traveling with a child, it is difficult to wrap your head around all the stuff you’ll need to transport to the airport, check-in, get through security and then onto the plane. Strollers, car seats, snacks, toys, diaper bags and then all of your personal belongings. Since most carriers now charge baggage fees, keep costs down by traveling with an airline that will allow you to check your car seat and stroller for free (and not count them towards your baggage allowance). Here are a few that will transport them for free and links with further baggage policy details: United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines. These carriers will also allow you to check strollers/car seats at either the check-in desk or at the gate. This is helpful so that you can use your stroller in the airport. If you are traveling with a small infant that might sit or sleep in an infant car seat during the flight, check with the airline when you get to the airport to see if there are any empty seats available on your flight. They might give you an extra seat for free to place your car seat. I got lucky and was able to get an extra seat twice for our car seat when flying American Airlines this past year.

Board with ease
Many carriers are either eliminating the family pre-boarding group or tightening up the policy. For example, United Airlines completely eliminated the boarding group over this past summer and American Airlines has no defined policy but families can board after first class (if they hear the announcement in time) or purchase a group 1 boarding pass for $10. Doesn’t sound appealing to you? There are a few carriers that still offer a true family pre-boarding, allowing families to board before anyone else. For families traveling with children under the age of two JetBlue Airways, Delta Air Lines, AirTran Airways and Alaska Airlines all offer pre-boarding.

Entertainment, snacks and fun stuff
You should always pack plenty of snacks, toys and games in your carry-on bag, but there are a few airlines that do offer kid-friendly amenities: JetBlue has free DirectTV with children’s programming and complimentary snacks (including animal crackers). Southwest offers peanuts and pretzels for free and coloring books are available. Delta gives out the kiddie pilot wings and on flights with seatback televisions, there are 16 On Demand children’s programs that cost $1 per episode.

The domestic carriers mentioned above offer some nice perks, but you’ll find the good stuff on international airlines. On Virgin Atlantic, kids receive a complimentary backpack with books, candy, and other goodies. Lufthansa offers special children’s meals created under the direction of top chef and children’s cookbook author, Stefan Marquard. And the Abu-Dhabi based Etihad Airways offers custom-designed kids packs for in-flight entertainment and a nanny-monitored play room inside the lounge at the Abu Dhabi airport.