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Beginner’s Guide to Summer Air Travel (With Kids!)

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The summer travel season is here, and it looks to be another busy one this year. Summer travel always brings many people to airports for the first time in quite awhile – especially families. New rules and long lines can definitely frustrate infrequent travelers. Here are some important tips that all travelers, especially those with kids, need to be aware of before taking flights in the summer travel season.

Beach on Tropical Island

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Summer Air Travel Tips with Kids

1. Know the Airline Rules

American Airlines Plane at SFO

Air travel is so much more complicated than it used to be in many ways. Airline A charges for checking bags; Airline B doesn’t. Meanwhile, Airline C charges for carry on bags. Airline D charges for seat assignments. Airline E has no seat assignments.

And we haven’t even talked about all the TSA rules and regulations that can affect travelers in airports long before ever boarding a plane. Seriously, how can you keep track of it all?

Before you fly, make sure you know the rules and regular practices of the airline you are flying so you don’t arrive at the airport unprepared. Here are a few things to think about for family travelers:

  • Does your airline charge to check bags (note: checked bag rules are often different for domestic vs. international itineraries). What is the weight limit for checked bags?
  • Does your airline charge for carry ons? Ultra-discount airlines in the US do these days. Additionally, many “basic economy” tickets on some airlines like United don’t allow larger carry on bags in the overhead bins.
  • Do you have seat assignments? Are they together with your kids?
Child watching iPad on airplane.
Using her own entertainment aboard Southwest Airlines.
  • What kind of entertainment is offered on-board? Do you need to pay a fee to use it? Do you need to have your own device to access it? Are there outlets to charge electronic devices on longer flights or should you bring an external charger or battery pack?

Some airlines have even more obscure rules you may not expect or anticipate at all. Get more information in this guide to 3 little known airline rules all traveling parents need to know.

2. Check (and Double-Check) Those Seat Reservations

Toddler sitting next to mom on airplane
Happier for everyone on the plane if this kid sits with mom. Seriously.

It may seem strange how much I harp on seat reservations, but travelers with little kids know how important is it to stay together. Back in the good old days of flying, you never heard about airlines separating families, but they have been doing it all the the time the last decade. With so many seats being set aside for elites or having some special designation (like extra legroom), there is simply not much left to keep family groups of 3, 4, 5, or more together.

In the past year after a lot of bad press, a number of U.S. airlines have made commitments to keeping a least one adult with young kids together much more often. But these promises are far from a guarantee. And this promise doesn’t necessarily keep your whole family together which is what most families really want.

Related: Best and Worst U.S. Airlines to Fly with Kids

So, what can you do?

First, even if you secure seat assignments at the time of booking, check them often, especially if you booked flights many months in advance. Airlines may swap out equipment causing you to lose your reserved seats. The earlier you spot this, the better chance you have of calling the airline and getting something back that works for you.

Second, check in early. Most airlines allow you to check-in 24 hours before your flight. Go ahead and do it, as this is a chance to secure your boarding pass early and confirm that your seat assignments have stuck. In the event you are separated, you have plenty of time to call the airline and try to sort it out. At the very least, you will know whether you need to arrive early at the airport on your travel day to try to arrange swaps with the gate agent.

Third, pay for seat assignments. Airlines are more likely to keep you together if you’ve paid for the privilege. No, it’s far from fair to families. But the years when you really need to do this are short. By the time your kids reach the ages that mine now are, you can gamble a bit more and save the cash.

3. Brace Yourself (and Plan for) TSA Delays

TSA Airport Security
Family lanes can significantly reduce your TSA wait times.

Painfully-long TSA lines have been all over the news the last few summer travel seasons. The predictions are painful again for many airports this summer. The agency as a whole is understaffed and some airports will have gnarly delays, especially when summer travel crowds are at their worst.

Give yourself plenty of extra time if you are traveling during peak periods. This is particularly necessary at certain problem airports known for always having long lines. Denver, Orlando, and Atlanta are a few that are notoriously bad. In my own travel experience, Charlotte can be pretty rough as well.

4. Know a Few Shortcuts

Airport Security TSA Priority Boarding and Family Lane

If you can help it, you don’t want to be that person standing in a super-long TSA line – especially with antsy kids in tow. Know about and use airport security shortcuts when you can.

For example, my favorite lesser known trick (before I had TSA Pre-Check) was to use family lane when traveling with my kids. They are only in some select airports, but when you can find them, those lines are usually significantly shorter than regular lines.

If you plan to fly semi-regularly with your kids, apply for TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry which can save you more time and hassle. It may be too late to get approved for Global Entry at least (TSA Pre-Check can be super quick in my experience), but you’ll be ready for future vacations if you tackle this task sooner rather than later.

5. Watch the Weather

Most infrequent travelers think to check for weather-related problems during the winter travel season. But weather delays can be just as big in the summer time. Summer thunderstorms and even hurricane season can derail flight plans in many parts of the country.

Check for weather at your originating airport, destination and – most importantly – at any connecting airports along the way. If weather is bad enough, the airline may issue a waiver for travelers that will allow you to change your plans with no extra fee. The earlier you watch for these waivers, the better chance you have at being re-accommodated on a flight that works for you – before everyone else starts filling up alternative flights.

What other summer air travel tips would you add? Leave your thoughts in the comments and have a happy summer vacation!

Tips for flying with kids during the busy summer air travel season. How to avoid surprises when it comes to checked and carry on bags, TSA lines, seat assignments, and more.

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Heidi Strawser

Tuesday 7th of June 2016

These are all great tips. You do have to really watch what airline you choose because some of them might seem cheap at first, 'til you get all the add-ons it's ridiculously expensive! I have TSA pre-check, which has been a real lifesaver this spring!


Saturday 4th of June 2016

Awesome, Best World Travels Guides and tips. Find the best Hotels, the most convenient cheap Flights and Amazing Worldwide Tours so you won't miss your Dreamed Vacations. In you will find Train, Taxi and Rental Car services and we can help you to get your Visa and Travel Insurance. How Would you Like to Cross the World ?

Mary at Capturing Magical Memories

Friday 3rd of June 2016

My solution for TSA is to send the kids with Dad. For some reason if they see a Dad alone with kids they feel sorry for them and speed them through. It seems to always work. And it gives me a couple of minutes to myself. Win-win.

Heidi Strawser

Tuesday 7th of June 2016

Mary, you are so smart! I like how you think!