best airlines in the US for travel with kids

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top u.s.a. airlines for travel with kidsIt is harder to write about the best airlines in America for travel with kids, than it would be to write about the worst. There are just so many bad ones !  Recent difficult economic times have seen many perks for families disappear on U.S. domestic airlines, that we once assumed were standards.  Among those to become a thing of the past have been complimentary meals, complimentary entertainment and pre-boarding for families traveling with small children.  Still, there are a few standouts airlines that perform better than the rest (primarily with the low cost carriers), leaving the old legacy airlines such as American and United Continental in the dust.  Here is our list of the top 5 airlines for travel with babies, toddlers and kids in the United States.

Before we start I want to clarify a couple of issues that parents frequent ask about :

click here to go straight to the list

1. Although all of the airlines listed here offer something in the way of a free snack or a children’s meal for purchase, supplies sometimes run out.  We recommend that you bring your own snacks for your child and consider anything else a nice surprise.

2. All the airlines listed here will provide complimentary juice for your little one.  Bring with you an empty bottle or sippy cup rather than trying to have your child drink out of one of those plastic airline cups which they are likely to spill (and probably on you).

3. Flights are usually only stocked with enough milk for tea and coffee service.  If your child is under two, TSA regulation allows you to bring a reasonable amount of milk or juice to sustain your child during the flight, in addition to the regular TSA liquid limits (see TSA website).  If your child is 2 years and over, bring an empty sippy cup with you and purchase some milk once you have passed through security screening.

4. Free headphones are a thing of the past and the ones that are offered for sale on airlines are generally ill fitting and not of the best quality.  Consider bringing for your child a proper set of toddler headphones (for more information see our post on the best volume limiting headphones for kids ).cares air safety harness for toddlers and kids

5. All the airlines here will allow you to check (or gate check) a light stroller and car seat for free.  If you have purchased a seat for your child, you may use an FAA approved car seat or FAA approved child harness device on the plane (see FAA website for more information).  The airline’s regular baggage rules apply to playpens and travel cribs.

6. Southwest Airlines offers slightly reduced fares for children 2-11 years and infants (less than 2 years) in their own seat.  Often, however, a promotional fare will beat this slightly reduced price, with the child fare only making sense for last minute travel when a promotional fare is not available.  The other pitfall with a reduced fare child ticket, is that your child needs to be age-verified before they can board the plane, generally requiring airport check-in, rather than the more convenient online check-in (that opens up 24 hours before your flight time). Read point 7 to see how to work around this potential obstacle.

7.  Lap infants and children traveling on a reduced fare ticket are expected to be age verified by the airline (with birth certificate or passport) before a boarding pass or boarding verification document will be issued to them. Depending on the airline, you may be able to have your child’s age verified in advance with an agent at the airport or by mail (see individual airlines for policy).  The system will then be updated allowing for online check-in rather than having to check in at the airport on the day of your flight.

Okay…you have waited long enough.

Please note that I have evaluated all fees and services based on economy seating.

 

best US domestic airlines for travel with kids

1. JetBlue

about: 

  • serves 74 destinations including 21 U.S. states, The Bahamas, Bermuda,Barbados, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico and Puerto Rico
  • named as the low cost airline with the highest level of customer satisfaction in North America (J.D. Power and Associates Customer Satisfaction Survey 2012)

website :

seat selection and boarding :

  • free advance seat selection (optional bigger seat $15)
  • pre-boarding available for families traveling with a baby or infant under 2 years

baggage, stroller and car seat policy:

  • 1 carry-on and 1st checked back free of charge (economy)
  • for a lap infant, the accompanying parent may bring a diaper bag in addition to their free carry-on
  • stroller and car seat checked for free

food and beverage:

  • selection of complimentary beverages and snacks
  • alcoholic beverages and meals available for purchase (see JetBlue menu)

entertainment:

  • t.v. at every seat with complimentary DIRECTV® kid-friendly programming including Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network or Animal Planet (headsets $2)

additional:

2. Virgin America 

about:

  • serves 17 U.S. cities, plus Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos
  • named best low cost carrier and carrier with the best service in North America (Skytrax World Airline Awards 2012)
  • named best domestic airline (Travel and Leisure World’s Best Awards 2012)
  • named best U.S. domestic airline (Conde Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Awards 2012)

website :

seat selection and boarding :

  • free advance seat selection
  • pre-boarding for families traveling with small children
  • for parents with older children, option to upgrade to main cabin express early boarding for $20 per flight leg

baggage stroller and car seat policy:

  • 1 complimentary carry-on , $25 for 1st checked bag (economy)
  • for a lap infant the accompanying parent may bring a diaper bag in addition to their free carry-on
  • stroller and car seat checked for free

food and beverage:

  • complimentary beverages
  • alcoholic beverages and snacks for purchase
  • meals for purchase including kids favorites such as the PB&J sandwich and a popular Jet Set kids pack (see Virgin America menu) on flights over 2 hours

entertainment:

  • touch-screen t.v. in the back of every seat with 24 channels (including Disney), movies ($5-$8),  satellite programming for news and live sporting events,  music, a kids entertainment platform (with parental controls) and video games (headsets $2)
  • GOGO inflight wifi (see coverage and pricing)

additional comments:

  • although this airline doesn’t actively market to families, it is still a great choice for it’s sharp pricing, service, nice planes and excellent entertainment system

 

3. Alaska Airlines 

about:

  • serves more than 92 cities in the U.S.A., Canada, and Mexico
  • named best regional airlines in North America (Skytrax World Airline Award 2012)

website :

seat selection and boarding :

  • free advance seat selection
  • pre-boarding for families traveling with children under the age of two

baggage, stroller and car seat policy:

  • 1 free carry-on and $20 each for 1st and 2nd checked bag (economy seat)
  • for a lap infant, diaper bag counts as the carry-on allowance for the accompanying parent
  • lap infants sharing a seat with their parent may bring an FAA approved child restraint  seat on board provided there is an empty seat available for the infant
  • stroller and car seat checked for free

alaska airlines kids snack packfood and beverage:

  • complimentary beverages and snacks, plus alcoholic beverages for purchase on flights over 1 hour
  • additional food for purchase including Kid’s Choice Picnic Pack for $6  (see Alaska menu) on flights over 2.5 hours

entertainment:

  • no t.v. in back of the seat but you can rent an inflight entertainment unit showing movies, music and tv shows (including Sid the Science Kid, Animal Atlas, Busytown Mysteries, Will and Dewitt, Mighty Machines and Buzz and Poppy (reserve ahead $8)
  • GOGO inflight wifi (see coverage and pricing)

additional comments:

 


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4. Southwest Airlines  

about:

  • serves 78 destinations in 39 states
  • 2011 merger with Air Tran Airways will see it takeover a number of routes to the Caribbean and Mexico in the future

website :

seat selection and boarding :

  • no seat selection, rather seats are issued by zone (A,B and C)
  • families with children under four years may board between zones A and B ensuring them a better seat choice
  • for families with children 4 and over, available boarding positions are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis upon check-in, beginning online 24 hours before your departure (the earlier you check-in, the better your boarding position)
  • optional early bird check-in guarantees that you will board with the zone A people and can be purchased for $10 per ticket
  • as of Jan 2013, an additional early bird boarding option has been added, allowing up to 15 people to be the first group to board the plane (before zone A passengers) for $40 per ticket, purchased at the gate only, up to 45 minutes before the flight

baggage, stroller and car seat policy:

  • 1 free carry-on and 2 free checked bags per customer (economy)
  • for a lap infant, diaper bag counts as the carry-on allowance for the accompanying parent
  • stroller and car seat checked for free

food and beverage:

  • complimentary beverages, snacks, and alcoholic beverages for purchase (see Southwest menu)

entertainment:

  • no tv’s in back of the seat but from $4.95, with your own device, you can access Southwest’s inflight entertainment and connectivity service, which includes high-speed internet, shopping, destination services, and real-time flight map with updates on 400 Southwest aircraft (see website)

additional comments:

  • small discount off regular fare when purchasing a child ticket (2-11 years) or a seat for your infant (see point 6 at the top of this post)
  • periodic family friendly promotions offered on their Southwest Vacations page
  • the two free checked bags and competitive pricing, almost makes up for the fact that this airline boards by zone and does not have advance seat selection (think cattle)

5. Frontier Airlines

about:

  • serves 74 destinations throughout Costa Rica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the United States

website :

seat selection and boarding :

  • upon booking, seats can be selected in one of three zones, with zone 1 Stretch seats boarding first and being the most preferable (more legroom, exit rows and front section of plane – $10 per flight), zone 2 Select seats boarding next  (near the front and middle of the plane – $5 per flight) and zone 3  Standard seats boarding last (near the back of the plane – but free)
  • families traveling with a child under 3 are allowed to pre-board between zones 1 and 2 regardless of what section they purchased their seats in (unless of course they purchased a zone 1 seat in which case they can board earlier)

baggage, stroller and car seat policy:

  • one free carry-on and $20 each for 1st and 2nd checked bag
  • for a lap infant, diaper bag counts as the carry-on allowance for the accompanying parent
  • stroller and car seat checked for free

food and beverage:

  • complimentary beverages
  • alcoholic beverages and snacks for purchase including the Flip’s Surf Shop and Snack Shack which is perfect for kids at $6 (see Frontier menu)

entertainment:

  • inflight TV and movies on all Airbus flights via DIRECTV® (from $3.99)
  • GOGO inflight wifi (from $4.95)on the Embraer 190 aircraft (see specifics here)

best regional carrier in america for travel with kids

I’ve decided to update this post since, as a reader pointed out, there is a regional carrier in the U.S. that also does a remarkable job with families.  Hawaii is no second rate destination either !

Hawaiian Airlines 

about:

  • has flights to Hawaii from 30 U.S. cities, as well as service from Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand , Thailand, Tahiti and Samoa
  • named best airline serving Hawaii (Travel and Leisure World’s Best Awards 2012)

website :

www.hawaiianairlines.com

seat selection and boarding :

  • free advance seat selection, but not until online check-in begins, 24 hours before flight
  • pre-boarding for families traveling with small children

baggage, stroller and car seat policy:

  • 1 free carry-on and $25 each for 1st checked bag and $35 for 2nd (economy seat), $17 each for 1st and 2nd checked bag on inter-island flights
  • for a lap infant, the accompanying parent may bring a diaper bag in addition to their free carry-on
  • lap infants sharing a seat with their parent may bring an FAA approved child restraint  seat on board provided there is an empty seat available for the infant
  • stroller and car seat checked for free

food and beverage:

  • complimentary beverages, snacks and meals, plus alcoholic beverages for purchase

entertainment:

  • on flights using the Airbus 330 aircraft, there a tv’s in the back of the seat with access to paid movie and tv programming (from $6.99), plus their Keiki (kids) pack providing unlimited access to specially selected movies (like Rugrats and Hannah Montana), TV shows, albums and games ($4.99)
  • on flights using the Boeing 767 aircraft, passengers have complimentary access to 10 audio channels, free movies shown on overhead displays, or can optionally rent a digEplayer, which is a self-contained entertainment system featuring movies, tv shows, and music programming (comes with two headsets $15)

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