Did you know it’s not mandatory for airlines to seat families together? Organizations such as the Family Travel Association have been rallying the government to change that.
“In 2016, Congress passed a law called the Families Flying Together Act, which was supposed to ensure children under the age of 13 would be seated with parents or guardians on flights, but regulations resulting from the law have yet to be drafted by the Federal Aviation Administration,” says Rainer Jenss, President and Founder of the Family Travel Association. “As a result, parents who want to ensure they sit together with their children can take the chance and hope that fellow flyers and/or flight attendants will be sympathetic to their cause and switch seats in case they don’t have pre-assigned seats together. To make 100-percent sure there won’t be a problem, some families will have to fork over the money to guarantee adjacent seating.”
Until the FAA drafts new regulations, there are a few tricks to make sure your family is seated together when flying.
1. Pay extra for seat assignments.
So many airlines, especially budget airlines, have moved to an a la carte menu of options, charging extra fees for carry-on bags, beverages, and more. One fee worth paying for? The seat reservation.
What this means is that instead of letting the computer automatically assign you a seat, you pay extra (anywhere from $7 to $30) per seat to ensure your family can sit together. The cheapest time to pay for your seat assignment is during your initial purchase process; if you wait until check-in or when you arrive at the airport, you’ll pay a premium.
Even non-budget national carriers like American and United have made it more challenging to get seats together. There are some flights that don’t require you to pay extra for a seat assignment, but the only “free” seats may be middle seats. Therefore, to get a group of seats together, you may need to pay extra regardless of airline. If you’re willing to sit in the back, at least you may only need to pay extra for some of the seats (aisle and/or window).
2. Choose an airline that waives seating fees for families.
Some of the discount airlines, such as Spirit and Frontier, charge for any advance seating, while the major airlines with “super saver” type of fares do not allow passengers to select their seats until check-in, unless they choose to pay an additional fee. Officially, airlines discourage families with small children from purchasing these types of fares without paying for a seat.
But as more families pressure airlines to waive seating fees so that young children can sit with parents without a price penalty, some airlines are listening. Two Canadian carriers, WestJet and Air Canada, are now waiving seating fees for families with kids under 12. If you don’t see seats together on the map during seat selection, just call the airline directly and have a booking agent reserve your seats together.
According to their responses to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Alaska Airlines and Delta have a similar policy: if you are unable to get reserved seats together with your child during booking, you can call the airlines to review your options.
American Airlines’ and United Airlines’ systems, even for their most discounted fares, will automatically attempt to seat families together—and at least ensure that one adult is seated next to any child under 15 years old. Hawaiian Airlines’ system prioritizes seating children 11 years old and younger with an adult.
Related: Best U.S. Airlines for Families
3. Fly Southwest and purchase EarlyBird Check-In.
Some people don’t understand Southwest’s open seating policy and think it’s a disaster for families. But it’s actually one of our favorite ways to fly! On Southwest, you’re assigned a boarding group and number based on when you check in. You then line up by group and number, starting with A 1-30, A 31-60, B 1-30, and so on. Once you’re on board, you can take any open seat. This means that if you want seats together, you need to board in the A group, or possibly the B group.
If you check in exactly 24 hours in advance, you will likely still be in B group, since A-List status members and those who purchase EarlyBird Check-In will take up the A group slots. Family boarding for those with children under the age of 6 and their parent/guardian takes place between the A and B group boarding.
For families with children over 6, the best way to ensure seats together is to purchase EarlyBird Check-In. For $15 per flight, per seat, you will be automatically checked in to your flight in the A boarding group. While this is an extra expense, we’ve found that the peace of mind with guaranteed seats together in the front half of the plane, and room for carry-on bags, is worth the investment. Plus, Southwest doesn’t charge for checked bags or beverages so you save some money there. Just note that saving seats isn’t technically allowed if you’re thinking of only paying for EarlyBird Check-In for one family member.
4. Book online directly with the airline.
There are many advantages to booking directly through the airline versus an online travel agent or third-party booking site, especially when it comes to cancellation and changes. However, it will also give you the most control over seat selection and an avenue for recourse should your seats get shifted.
Unless you’re booking very far in advance, you should be able to select seats as part of the ticket purchase process. Remember, some airlines may charge an additional fee for seat selection.
5. Book together or link your reservations.
If you’re booking tickets separately, or booking some seats with points and others with cash, you’ll have separate booking numbers. Therefore, even if you select seats together, the airline may still shift seats around due to an equipment change or other issues. If this happens, they won’t know that you’re traveling together because it was booked under two or more reservations.
Therefore, if your tickets are booked separately, be sure to call the airline and request that they link the reservations or PNRs (passenger name records). This will at least let the airline know you’re traveling together and give you some protection. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s a start.
6. Play the odds.
If you’ve chosen a discount airline such as Spirit or Frontier and you still don’t want to pay for seating together, the best strategy is to make sure that all your tickets are booked on the same reservation and check in as early as possible.
Officially (according to what the airline has reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation), Frontier’s system will “detect and help families flying together… only if all the passengers are on the same reservation record.”
In an unofficial experiment flying Frontier eight times in a one-year period, our family was always automatically seated together when we checked in 24 hours before our flight—without having to pay for assigned seats.
7. Double check seat assignments before check-in.
Seat reservations will sometimes be shuffled by the airline. You don’t want to learn this at the airport, because at that point the desk agent or gate agent will often tell you there is nothing they can do. Then you’re left begging and pleading with grumpy passengers to switch seats with you or trying to enlist the help of a flight attendant who is focused on getting the plane loaded quickly.
If you get any emails about a shift in schedule, be sure to double-check your seat assignments at that time to make sure there hasn’t been an equipment change resulting in changes to your seat selections. Even if you don’t hear from the airline, it’s good practice to review your seat assignments at least a few days before your flight. At a minimum, check in online at home 24 hours before departure and double-check your seat assignments at that time. At least then if there’s an issue, you have time to call customer service and see if they can shift things around to get you back together. Doing this at the check-in counter or gate is nearly impossible.
8. Be prepared to do some shuffling.
If these strategies have still not worked and you’ve arrived at the airport without seats next to your kids, talk to the gate agents—they will usually be able to shuffle the seating chart in order for at least one parent to sit next to the kids.
And if that still doesn’t work? Get on the plane and politely ask the flight attendants for assistance. In our decade of traveling with two young kids, we have had to do this less than a handful of times—and each time, strangers were willing to vacate their seats to accommodate us.
After all, no one wants to be stuck next to a frightened two-year-old without their mommy!