As a San Francisco-based flyer, United is one of my hometown airlines. The airline has had a rocky past few years since the merger with Continental. Service has been criticized and my family even mostly stopped flying United, opting instead for more family-friendly Southwest Airlines whenever possible.
We’ve flown United a few times within the past 12 months and I’m personally seeing some improvement for family travelers. Some. United was the source of our really bad seat separation saga last fall, but they’re still better than they once were overall.
Since the air travel experience is different from airline to airline, particularly for travelers with kids, it’s important to know what to expect before you book and before you fly. If you are considering booking a flight on United with kids, or have already booked one and need to know how to plan for it, here are the things to know.
1. United Offers Pre-Boarding with Kids 2 and Under
Like most domestic US airlines, United did away with family pre-boarding a few years ago. Luckily, they brought it back in the spring of 2016. If you are traveling with a child who is 2 and under, you can board early to have time to install a car seat or just to get settled without other passengers breathing down your neck. Just use this amenity wisely, especially if you have an active toddler whose time might be better spent running around in the airport and blowing off excess energy! Frankly, I’m very relieved to have this choice back.
2. Wi-Fi and Streaming In-Flight Entertainment is Finally on Most of the United Fleet
Having (extra) ways to entertain your kids in-flight is always a bonus for family travelers. United was one of the last major US airlines to roll out WiFi and next generation streaming in-flight entertainment, but it’s finally mostly there. Using the WiFi costs a fee. The entertainment system, on the other hand, is free! The system offers free streaming of various movie and TV show options to smartphones and tablets. There are plenty of kid-friendly choices, so it’s an opportunity to stream something new.
One important tip: remember to download the United app to all your devices before your travel day. Many of the kid-friendly movies and TV shows won’t play direct from your browser unless you have that app installed.
3. Complimentary Snacks are Back
Earlier this year, United made another change that families with hungry kiddos will like – it brought back snacks on flights longer than two hours. Morning flights offer a breakfast treat called a stroopwafel and all other flights offer a zesty snack mix (mostly pretzels). Granted, this is a very small benefit – and smart family travelers should always pack plenty of snacks for airplanes anyway – but we appreciated it on our most recent United trip.
4. You Can Buy Meals on Board, but Demand Often Far Exceeds Supply
For longer flights, United has a buy-on-board meal service that has been around for a long time. This includes several hot meal choices, three snack boxes, a kids meal/snack box, and a variety of a la carte snacks. The food is pretty decent and even kids who are picky eaters will find something they like.
The problem is, you can’t really rely on United’s buy-on-board as a food option for your family. On my last several United flights, these catering choices have been woefully understocked every time. On my last flight, the hot meals were long gone before the flight attendants had served half the economy cabin. Even all but one of the snack boxes were gone by the time they got to our row (about 3/4 back). Family travelers often find themselves seated near the back of the plane, so don’t plan to rely on United to feed you a meal if you are there. Pre-pack what you need or buy in the airport.
5. Getting Seat Assignments with Your Kids Can be a Challenge
Many frequently traveling families have had a seating horror story at one point or another. With so many more seats being saved for elites or designated as premium, that leaves fewer options for families to secure a row of seats together. I had my own trouble with United nearly separating me from my toddler last year.
Every time I have a friend tell me “the airline tried to separate me from my kids on our last flight,” I ask the friend which airline. Nine times out of ten the answer is United. While I know my information is anecdotal (and I’m sure my stats are a little skewed since I live in a United hub), I do think United has a bigger problem with family seating than with most other airlines. I’ve had far more luck addressing this potential problem earlier (before I get to the airport and certainly before I board the plane) with Delta, Alaska, and American than with United. And Southwest offers family boarding early in their open-seating boarding process which minimizes family separations there.
Luckily, Congress recently passed a new law that will require airlines to seat each child under 13 adjacent to a family member, but no word yet when that goes into effect. When it does, I expect United will have to get its act together. In the meantime, monitor your seat reservations aboard United in order to sit next to your kids. Be prepared for the seat separation curveball.
6. There’s a Fee for Checked Bags (But…)
Family travelers – especially those with babies and toddlers who require lots of gear – often need to check a bag. Most airlines except Southwest charge for checked bags these days on domestic flights, and United is no different. First bags up to 50 pounds cost $25. Plan ahead for these charges when comparing airfares. Also be aware that while many airlines don’t usually charge for bags on international travel, United often does on flights to Mexico and Canada.
The silver lining for family travelers is that United doesn’t charge for checking car seats or strollers. Bring those as you need them without fear of racking up costs. And at least United doesn’t charge for carry ons like some of the ultra-low cost carriers do!
7. A Large Route Network Gives Families More Options in Cases of Cancellations and Delays
Even though I have my gripes with United, I think they are still a far better option for family travelers than some other airline choices – particularly the ultra-low cost carriers like Allegiant, Spirit, or Frontier. Why? Because United is just a much larger airline. When weather causes trouble or a mechanical problem delays or cancels your flight, a bigger carrier is going to give you more options to get home in time. Face it – it’s hard to accommodate families who travel in groups of 3, 4, 5, or more. An airline with a larger route network provides more flexibility, and United has that.
Have you flown United with kids? What have been your experiences and what tips would you offer other family travelers?