Airlines are always changing the rules. If you don’t fly often, you may find that some air travel policies and procedures are quite different than they were a few years ago. Watch out for these nine potential air travel surprises so that your summer family vacation plans aren’t grounded by new rules.
The summer travel season is well underway! Families trying to make the most of three short months off of school are crisscrossing the globe by air, land, and sea. If you don’t fly often, you may not know how much air travel has changed in the past few years, especially for travelers with kids.
You may find a few new rules that make your summer flights a little more challenging. Don’t be taken by surprise! Here are the top tips you need to know to avoid those airline gotchas and to make sure that your family vacation (mostly) goes according to plan.
1. Watch for checked & carry on bag fees.
Traveling with kids often means traveling with more stuff, so packing light can be a challenge. Before you pack your bags, know how much checked bags are going to cost you so you can readjust your luggage strategy if needed.
All major U.S. airlines except Southwest now charge for checking a bag. Even long-time holdout JetBlue recently began charging for checked bags, so it is important to plan for these charges. Families can often save just by sharing a suitcase or also by carrying an airline credit card that waives bag fees.
The fees unfortunately don’t end with checked bags. Did you know that some airlines also charge for carry on luggage? Low-cost carriers Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier all charge for anything larger than a personal item. Check the fine print before you purchase.
2. Rethink pre-boarding.
Think you will have extra time to lug car seats and squirmy toddlers down the jetway when you pre-board with your kids? Think again. Very few U.S. airlines allow parents to pre-board any more (you can find a complete list of airline pre-boarding policies here).
Of course, many parents prefer not to take advantage of pre-boarding anyway. If you have an active toddler, you may be better served allowing your little one to blow off steam running around the terminal before your flight. For parents traveling with car seats or just needing extra time to get down the jetway, however, the loss of pre-boarding is a blow.
3. Check those seat assignments.
When traveling with young kids, getting seats together is essential. Even if you have booked specific seats, don’t assume all is well before flight day. Aircraft swaps or computer snafus can result in you losing your pre-booked seats. Monitor your seat reservations regularly and particularly at 24-72 hours before your flight. Call the airline right away if something goes awry with the seats you have booked.
4. Don’t get bumped.
The summer travel season is one of the busiest times of year. Planes are flying fuller than ever. It is very possible that your flight may be overbooked. When that happens, airlines try to round up volunteers to take a later flight in exchange for compensation, but occasionally passengers are involuntarily “bumped.”
Although you can’t always prevent being bumped when a plane is oversold, there are a few steps you can take to minimize your risk. First, get a seat assignment. If you do not have an assigned seat, you are potentially at risk to be the first person bumped from a flight.
Second, don’t book the last flight of the night. If you are bumped from that flight, you are facing an overnight delay. Taking an earlier flight maximizes your chances of at least being reaccommodated later in the day.
Really don’t want to risk getting bumped? Fly JetBlue. It is the only U.S. airline that does not overbook any of its flights.
5. Know about special rules for kid travel gear.
Even though most airlines charge for checked bags, all U.S. airlines allow you to take a stroller and a car seat for free. Thank goodness for small kindnesses.
If you haven’t flown recently, however, you may be unaware that some airlines have a few stroller restrictions to watch. American Airlines, for example, no longer allows you to gate check a stroller over 20 pounds. It must be checked at the ticket counter, rendering it useless if you need it to transport a couple of kids through the airport. If you have two kids of stroller age, consider bringing a single umbrella stroller and carrying your younger child in a carrier. If you are traveling with a double stroller, you may very well find your stroller is no longer allowed.
6. Avoid weather hot spots.
Travel delays are never any fun, but they are even less fun when traveling with kids. You can minimize your chances of weather delays by watching out for known summer weather hot-spots, particularly when taking connecting flights. Just like I try not to connect in Chicago in the winter due to a risk of snow, I try not to connect in Atlanta in the afternoon during the summer time. The Southern summer thunderstorms are notorious and can really throw off Atlanta’s schedule.
Other hot spot airports? San Francisco can be a trouble spot on summer mornings due to fog. And all the New York airports can be trouble due to congested airspace. These hot spots can’t always be avoided, but knowing about them can help you make choices between competing itineraries.
7. Pack enough essentials for delays.
Delays during air travel are inevitable so pack accordingly. Make sure that you have all essential items in your carry on bag and be sure to have extras of items you can’t purchase in airports (most importantly, formula, baby food, and diapers if you are traveling with an infant or toddler).
I always recommend packing a change of clothes for everyone in the family in your carry on bag as well. Because overnight delays do happen. And so do stomach bugs.
8. Plan for food.
Fewer airlines have real food options for domestic travel unless you are traveling in first or business class. Let’s face it: there are only so many snack packs of Lorna Doones you can consume on your cross-country Southwest flight. Pack lots of non-perishable meals and snacks for you and your kids.
Delays sometimes mean you won’t have enough time to grab food while connecting, so always have enough food on hand for your traveling party even if you don’t have time in the airport to purchase more (particularly for the kids!).
9. Relax, you’re on vacation!
It’s easy to get stressed out by the logistics of air travel with kids. There are sometimes stressful moments, but the important thing is to remember to have fun. Your family is on vacation, so take a deep breath and enjoy the trip even if something goes a little awry.
Hopefully with these tips, you’ll be better prepared and will now encounter fewer family travel hiccups!