Let’s face it: air travel isn’t exactly glamorous any more. And when you become a parent boarding a plane with kids in tow, whatever glamour that was left is definitely gone! Air travel with young kids is no joke, but the good news is that there are some airlines that are better than others for family travel. Find out how to spot those diamonds in the rough and pick the airline that makes travel with kids less stressful.
When you are traveling with kids, not all airlines are created equal. Regardless of the airline you fly, today’s travel experience is not known for being very kid-friendly — long security lines, flight delays. But what you may not know is that there are kid-friendly airline features that make flying with kids much easier on some airlines.
Which airlines do best? It depends on the amenities that matter most to you and your kids. I think the following five airline features matter most:
1. In-Flight Entertainment
Traveling parents already know to pack entertainment for the whole flight. But it is a real bonus when an airline can supplement what you’ve already packed with additional choices. New movies and TV shows on airplane seatback screens provide your kids with novelty and variety.
Some airlines really get it right with kid-friendly entertainment choices. The gold standard in my experience is Cathay Pacific, which on our recent flight had more than 20 kid-friendly movies and dozens of Disney Junior cartoon episodes. I also really like Southwest’s in-flight entertainment system. Southwest now offers a number of kids’ cartoons streamable to tablets and smartphones. Alaska Airlines recently upped the ante, advertising the availability of Disney movies on movie device rentals. Finally, my daughter can vouch for Virgin America. On a recent flight, she spotted Dora the Explorer episodes on demand and a Disney Channel TV station.
Airlines are increasingly listing entertainment choices on their websites. So do a little research before you book.
2. Kid-Friendly Extras & Amenities
A few airlines also try to make families feel welcome with special kid-friendly touches. Most airlines still offer free wing pins or stickers (ask the flight attendant if they aren’t automatically offered). Many also will still invite children to visit the cockpit if there is time before a flight. Southwest and Air Canada pilots have been especially welcoming to my kids on our family trips.
Some airlines go further, offering items such as coloring books and kids menus. Alaska Airlines offers both, and we’ve spotted a kids PB&J meal pack on some Virgin America flights. Better yet: some of the Middle Eastern airlines like Gulf Air and Etihad even offer nanny services.
3. Free Checked Bags
Except on the shortest of trips, traveling families will likely need to check multiple bags. Most US airlines now charge $25 per bag, each way. The ultra-discount airlines can charge $50 or more and often have strict weight limits. These fees can really add up when you travel with three, four, or more.
Airlines that don’t charge for checked bags get high marks in my book. In the United States, Southwest still offers two free bags per passenger. Note that if you are traveling on an international itinerary on any of the major airlines, you still will usually get a free bag (Mexico and Canada are sometimes exceptions, however, so read the fine print).
4. Easy & Free Seat Assignment Process
More and more airlines are charging for advance seat assignments. And some airlines, such as American Airlines, block off a suspiciously high number of aisle and window seats, leaving mostly only middle seats for non-elite families to book without a fee. These types of policies mean that traveling parents often have to pay simply to sit next to their own children. For any reasonable parent, there is no choice but to pay for a dubious “amenity.”
Airlines that understand the importance of family seating get my business. In the United States, smaller airlines like Alaska and Virgin America have a more consistently good seat assignment process for families. Southwest’s open boarding process (it allows families with kids ages 6 and under to board between groups A and B) also works well for getting seats together.
5. Airline Change Fees
No one wants to cancel a vacation, but emergencies happen. Kids get sick and can’t fly. When you have to cancel or change flights for several people, the fees become an outrageous burden. Traveling families can really benefit from airlines that have no change fees or offer fees that are cheaper than the competition.
Most large US airlines like United, American, and Delta now charge $200 per ticket for changes. Southwest is the only US airline that doesn’t have any change fees. If your family wants flexibility, Southwest is a great bet. As of early 2016, Virgin America currently charges change fees of only $100-$150 per ticket (depending on distance). JetBlue offers offering a sliding scale of change fees based upon how early you change your reservation.
What airlines have you found easier than others for flying with kids?