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3 Little-Known Airline Rules All Traveling Parents Need to Know

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Flying with kids can be a challenge. But sometimes airlines can make it harder by throwing a curveball your way with a unique rule or requirement that you weren’t expecting on your travel day. My family has flown on pretty much every US airline and quite a few international carriers over the years. While the basics of flying with kids is the same no matter what airline you are on, we’ve come to learn that there really are little differences between airlines. Sometimes these idiosyncrasies can affect families the most. The key is to know about these rules in advance so they don’t trip you up!

The following three rules are some of the most common ones that I’ve heard about from readers who have been surprised on their travel day. If you know about them, I guarantee you’ll be a lot farther ahead than most traveling parents before your next trip!

Every airline has its own unique rules, and a few of them may be unpleasant surprises for family travelers. Find out what they are so you aren't tripped up the next time you fly with kids on United, Southwest, Delta, American and more.

Little-Known Airline Rules Traveling Parents Need to Know

1. Booking a Basic Economy Fare? You May be Separated from Your Kids.

Delta Airlines Ticket Counter at MCO

The advent of basic economy fares are, in my opinion, a really bad development for traveling families. If you haven’t heard of them, basic economy tickets were created to compete with the discount airlines like Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier. Now offered on legacy airlines like United, American, and Delta as well as on JetBlue, they offer a no frills experience on airlines that used to be more full-service.

Basic economy fares come with far fewer privileges than most travelers are used to getting when they fly the major airlines. None of them, for example, include an advance seat assignment. This is where families can really be tripped up.

What so many parents don’t realize is that airlines are fully and totally prepared to assign you seats that separate you from your children if you book one of these fares. When you book them on an airline’s website, there are usually warnings and popups saying you may be separated (sometimes less so if you book on a third party site like Expedia). I know so many parents simply don’t believe these warnings might apply to them. Surely, they think, an airline won’t separate me from my toddler?

Believe it. Travelers who book basic economy tickets are often awarded scattered middle seats all over the plane – even toddlers and young kids. While many such separations can be worked out thanks to the kindness of fellow passengers who will swap seats, don’t count on this. If you are traveling with kids, booking a basic economy fare adds all kinds of stressors to your family’s travel day. If you have kids young enough that they need to be seated next to you, pay for regular economy seats at least.

2. Flying American Airlines With a Stroller? You May Have to Check it at the Ticket Counter.

American Airlines Plane on Tarmac

Nearly every parent who flies with babies and toddlers will bring a stroller on their travels at some point. For parents traveling alone with one or more kids, a stroller is often a very necessary tool for simply navigating an airport with a small child effectively. It keeps the little ones safe and restrained and frees up adult hands for juggling bags.

But anyone taking a stroller on American Airlines needs to know its unique weight limit rule. American will only allow strollers 20 pounds and under to be gate checked. Bigger strollers must be checked at the ticket counter pre-security. Most double strollers and several larger jog style single strollers are over the weight limit.

For parents traveling with two kids of stroller age (especially solo), this rule means they lose their stroller long before they can clear security, hop aboard airline trams and trains, and walk down long concourses to their gate. Logistically, that can be very tough! So if you are flying American, weigh your stroller in advance to make sure it is compliant or bring an alternative for navigating the airport like a baby carrier.

3. Taking a Lap Child On Southwest? Always Carry a Birth Certificate.

Southwest Planes at HNL Hawaii

I’m a huge fan of Southwest Airlines for family travel – in fact, it’s my family’s airline of choice because of how accommodating the airline is of kids. But there is one obscure practice that Southwest has when it comes to lap children that can trip up traveling families.

Southwest requires that parents show a copy of a birth certificate for ALL lap children, regardless of age. Travelers with a lap child are not able to get a boarding pass in advance and must instead check in at the airport ticket counter in order to get a “boarding verification document” for a lap child to go through security. In order to get this document, you must first show a birth certificate for the lap child.

Most other US airlines, in contrast, will only ask for a birth certificate for an older toddler who they might suspect is too old to fly as a lap child. A lot of parents who have had experience flying other airlines and not needing any identification will not realize that Southwest has different requirements. I’ve heard of quite a few parents showing up empty handed and having to make a mad dash home or call a pediatrician’s office for immunization records to prove the child’s age. Hopefully now that you’ve read this, you won’t be one of them!

In fact, I recommend anyone who flies at all taking a photo of your child’s birth certificate to have on your phone’s camera roll or attached to an email so that you can access it in a pinch. 

The Bottom Line

While this article highlights three of the most common airline rules Trips With Tykes readers have had trouble with, there are certainly others. I highly recommend that every traveling parent read as much as possible about their airline before flight day. Preparation is key. Check out especially the “traveling with kids” section that many airlines have on their website. Talk to other parents you know who have flown a specific airline out of your home airport under similar circumstances. And definitely don’t assume that what works on one airline will always work on another.

Flying with kids on US airlines like United, Delta, American, or Southwest? Then you need to know about these little-known special rules that might affect family travelers. Don't be surprised and have your travel disrupted on your next flight! #flyingwithkids #familytravel #travelwithkids

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Sunday 27th of October 2019

Great to know about Alaska! I generally find their agents are more empowered to bend the guidelines than the bigger airlines. I've also had one data point from a relative who got seat assignments (during holiday travel!) with their kids on American booking basic economy. So this is definitely a YMMV situation. I think less experienced travelers aren't as likely to be the squeaky wheels to make it work.

Mason Levit

Saturday 26th of October 2019

Alaska will let you pick a seat at the back if they are available during booking though them. Tip, i used chase points to book a flight for three of us (could not choose seat on the chase portal). Called Alaska and agent assigned us seat all together under their super saver fare.

Tuesday 22nd of October 2019

Taking a photo of your child’s birth certificate is a great idea!