While major U.S. airlines strive to make air travel easier—and less cost prohibitive—seats together aren't always guaranteed. However, there are some steps families with children can take to ensure their group stays close.

By Amy Marturana Winderl
March 09, 2020

Flying with young children is almost never easy, so when you also have to figure out how to keep your family seated together on top of keeping your kids content, relatively quiet, fed, and safe for multiple hours, it can be enough to dissuade you from ever daring to book a family trip again. Recently, Consumer Reports launched a petition urging major U.S. airlines to make air travel easier—and less cost prohibitive—for families with children. The ask: Ensure that children under 13 will be seated with a parent at no additional cost. Policies and fees vary by airline, and different fare classes (economy versus basic economy, for example) have different seating rules. Airlines obviously don't want to be told how to structure their pricing, but consumer advocacy groups argue that this isn't a time when airlines should be upcharging.

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"Besides the safety implications, there's the issue of decency," says Rainer Jenss, president and founder of the Family Travel Association. "Why do parents have to pay a premium for something that isn't really a convenience, but a necessity?" Delta, United, and American have all said they've implemented systems to scan for family bookings and put children near their parents automatically. Southwest lets families board first so they can claim seats together. But as of now, no U.S. airline has a policy that ensures families will sit together. "They claim to do their best, but no guarantees," says Jenss. (Meanwhile, in Canada, the new Air Passenger Protection Regulations state that Canadian airlines must seat children under the age of 14 near their parent or guardian. Proximity depends on the age of the child.) While we're still lacking these sorts of policies in the U.S., there are some things you can do to keep your family seated together and minimize one of the stresses of flying with your little ones. Here, travel experts share their tips.

Related: Here's What to Do If Your Flight Gets Canceled

Book as far in advance as possible.

Booking your flight early, before the plane starts to fill up, will give you your pick of seats. If you're flying with an airline that doesn't include seat assignments in the ticket price (such as Frontier, Allegiant, or Spirit) you will have to pay an extra fee to be able to choose your seat. "I always factor in the additional cost of pre-booking my seats into the cost of the flight,” says Sara Warren, family travel expert of Travels With Tots and host of The Family Fun Show! podcast. "Booking your seats right away saves a ton of stress and guarantees you will be sitting with your children." Also, this means those basic economy tickets on airlines like United, Delta, and American, are out, as they tickets don't let you bring a carry-on (personal item only) or pick a seat. Save the low-cost, zero-flexibility tickets for when you're traveling without the kids and you can leave things like seating up to chance.

If you have to book a separate seat, choose an aisle or window.

If you end up having to try and switch seats with another passenger, a coveted seat will give you some bargaining power. "People tend to be much more willing to switch an aisle seat for another aisle seat (or window seat for window seat) than to give up an aisle seat to end up sitting in a middle seat," says Cindy Richards, editor-in-chief of independent family travel website TravelingMom.com. "Someone in a middle seat will jump at the chance to take your aisle or window seat."

Go through a travel agent.

Jenss says her best advice to get ahead of the problem is to use a travel agent. They can help you upfront during the booking process, which is a better option than waiting to figure it out after you get to the airport.

Talk to the gate agent when you arrive.

Generally, airlines will work to make sure there is at least one parent seated with a young child, says Warren. "If you are unable to book seats together, inform the gate agent as soon as possible. They will attempt to get volunteers to change seats to put parents and children together." As with any other flight-related request, it's important to be nice. "Buttering up the gate attendant is a lot more likely to get you what you need than making demands," says Richards. Try to get to the airport earlier than normal, so that you can be one of the first people at the gate asking for a seat shift. This will increase your chances that it'll be an easy fix.

Ask a flight attendant for help.

"Sometimes, a flight attendant is your biggest ally," Richards notes. Again, they usually want to help. Flight attendants can survey the seating situation and figure out how to accommodate your family with the least amount of disruption to other passengers. That being said, passengers with assigned seats aren't required to move, so they can say no. Chances are, though, there will be a fellow parent or just simply a kind, understanding stranger who will agree to switch.

Be willing to compromise.

If the most important thing is to make sure you are seated with your child, you won't be able to be picky about other factors like where on the plane you're seated, explains Warren. Make sitting with your family a priority, and be willing to sacrifice on some other things (like that coveted aisle seat). Also, while it's obviously ideal to have your entire family sitting together, it may work in your favor if you're willing to split up and simply make sure each child is paired with an adult in your group.

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