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Preboarding with Kids: Deciphering the Rules for Every US Airline

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Traveling with small kids often slows even the speediest of travelers down. Thankfully, most airlines accommodate flying families at some stages of the air travel process, most notably with preboarding or early family boarding policies.

Letting families board earlier than other passengers can be quite helpful. When my kids were younger, I regularly used that extra time to install a car seat on the plane.

Kids preboarding a Southwest Airlines plane

But even if we didn’t have car seats, I used the time to get my kids settled and strapped in to their seats before the onslaught of other passengers boarded. It was such a relief not to inconvenience fellow flyers with our slow speed or have extra eyes watching and judging the occasional meltdown that can inevitably happen with tired traveling kids.

If you preparing to fly with young kids and want to know if and when you are eligible to use these preboarding policies, here is everything you need to know.

Airline Preboarding Policies Have Changed A Lot!

Kids preboarding airplane with suitcases

Fair warning first… airline preboarding and early family boarding policies aren’t as generous as they used to be. In short, these policies are for a more limited group of family travelers than was the case about a decade or so ago.

A lot of airlines began changing their policies right about the same time airlines started charging for checked bags. Checked bag fees made free overhead bin space for larger carry on bags much more in demand. Allowing travelers with kids to board first often meant that precious bin space would be claimed by families before other passengers. This caused some consternation, especially among airline elite passengers. Airlines responded by rolling back or even eliminating family boarding for a bit.

Thankfully, in 2024 the pendulum has swung back somewhat. All domestic airlines based in the United States (even the ultra low cost carriers) now have a policy that permits at least some form of preboarding or early boarding for families.

These policies differ significantly, however, from airline to airline. Some airlines offer true preboarding before almost all other passengers, usually in conjunction with or immediately following passengers with disabilities. Others offer early family boarding, often after a select group of other passengers like those flying in first or premium classes or those who hold the airline’s elite status.

Additionally, some airlines apply an age cutoff to their preboarding or family boarding eligibility, usually only permitting boarding for families with infants and toddlers. Other airlines don’t base their rules on age but rather whether a passenger actually has a stroller to gate check or car seat to install that might slow them down. (Nevermind that parents know that a young child having a meltdown can be the source of far more delay than an inanimate object like a car seat, but I digress!).

Family Boarding Rules for Each US Airline

American Airlines Empty Row of Seats During Boarding

So what are the specific preboarding and family boarding rules for each airline based in the United States? Airlines have changed these policies often in the past decade, so there is a lot of outdated information out there on the internet that can lead family travelers astray.

Although I fly many major carriers in the United States regularly with my own kids and experience these policies in action, I’ve also thoroughly fact-checked all the latest airlines rules and regulations. (Before I was a travel writer, I was a practicing attorney, so scouring fine print is a habit I can’t break!)

You can be confident that the information below is current as of the date this article is published. I plan to update it regularly if any airline changes its rules. I’ve also included a link to each airline’s official policy so you can double check it for yourself to make sure further changes haven’t happened in the interim.

Please note: as with anything in air travel, your miles may vary. Just because an airline has a written rule doesn’t mean it’s enforced accurately or consistently. Gate agents can and do go rogue when it comes to boarding procedures. And different airports may simply do things a little differently based on space limitations at the gate, local training, or a dozen other reasons. So please comment if you’ve had recent experiences with any of these airlines that differ from the standard rules.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines Planes

Preboards families with children ages 2 and under.

See more details on Alaska’s boarding procedures here.

Allegiant Air

Preboards families with children traveling with strollers or car seats.

Allegiant doesn’t clearly set out its boarding procedures on its website, but you can see more details on flying with children on Allegiant here.

American Airlines

American Airlines Plane at Gate

Preboards families with children ages 2 and under.

See more details on American’s boarding procedures here.

Related: Flying American Airlines with a Stroller? A Rule Every Traveling Parent Needs to Know

Avelo Airlines

Preboards families with children ages under 2.

See more details on Avelo’s boarding procedures here.

Breeze Airways

Preboards families with small children (ages not specified).

See more details on Breeze’s boarding procedures here.

Delta Airlines

Family boarding permitted after elites and premium cabins board. Applies only to families with children traveling with strollers or car seats.

See more details on Delta’s boarding procedures here.

Frontier Airlines

Frontier Airlines Plane at Gate

Family boarding permitted between Zone 1 and 2 (“Courtesy Boarding”). Applies only to families with children ages under 3.

See more details on Frontier’s boarding procedures here.

Related: I Flew Frontier Airlines and It Wasn’t That Terrible… Really!

Hawaiian Airlines

Family boarding permitted between Groups 2 and 3. Applies only to families with children ages under 2.

See more details on Hawaiian’s boarding procedures here.

JetBlue Airways

Family boarding permitted between Groups A and B (“Courtesy Boarding”). Applies only to families with children traveling with strollers or car seats.

See more details on JetBlue’s boarding procedures here.

Related: Tips for Flying JetBlue with Kids

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines Plane and Catering Truck at Gate

Family boarding permitted between Groups A and B. Applies only to families with children ages 6 and under.

See more details on Southwest’s boarding procedures here.

Related: Complete Guide to Flying Southwest with Kids

Spirit Airlines

Family boarding permitted between Groups 2 and 3. Applies only to families with children ages 3 and under.

Spirit doesn’t clearly set out its boarding procedures on its website, but you can see more details on flying with children on Spirit here.

United Airlines

United Airlines Plane

Preboards families with children ages 2 and under.

See more details on United’s boarding procedures here.

Related: Tips for Flying United with Kids

When Should You Take Advantage of Preboarding with Kids?

Mom preboarding airplane with young kids

Now that you know the rules, let’s talk about who should and who should not take advantage of preboarding with kids.

When my kids were little, my husband and I almost always took advantage of preboarding so we could get our kids settled and not be rushed. This can be especially important for parents or caregivers who are flying solo with one or more kids. When you don’t have an extra set of adult hands to help, the extra time can be even more essential.

The bonus of preboarding or early boarding is that you can almost always secure overhead bin space. If you are carrying on larger bags or if you have a compact foldable stroller or booster seat you are carrying aboard to stow instead of checking, I highly recommend preboarding.

Related: Review of the WAYB Pico: A Travel Stroller that Fits in an Airplane Overhead Bin

There is one other specific situation in which families should ALWAYS take advantage of early boarding when eligible – and that is flying aboard Southwest Airlines. Southwest doesn’t have assigned seats, and passengers pick their seats when they board. If you want to sit together with your kids, you need to arrive at the gate in enough time to make family boarding between groups A and B. And if you are wondering if there is a risk that family boarding is too late to get seats together, it isn’t – with 99.9% certainty. I’ve been on hundreds of flights aboard Southwest with kids and have always been able to find an empty row of 3 at this stage.

When Might Families NOT Want to Preboard?

Of course, just because an airline permits families to preboard doesn’t mean that you have to. And there are some situations in which some families may prefer to wait.

If you have an extra active child who needs to burn off some energy before a long flight (especially if it’s a long haul red-eye), waiting to board until later in the boarding process might be wise. Use the time to run around or take advantage of an airport play area instead of confining your little one to the tight space on the plane for extra minutes waiting for everyone else to board.

If your traveling party includes more than one adult, you might even want to divide and conquer – a travel strategy my husband and I have used in a lot of different circumstances over the years. Send one parent on board first to install a car seat or lug a stroller to be gate checked while the other stays back with the kids.

Additional Family & Early Boarding Airline Tips

  • Know when preboarding starts: If you are eligible for preboarding, it’s important to arrive to the gate with enough time in advance of your flight so you don’t miss your chance! My family’s favorite airline, Southwest, boards most domestic flights right at 30 minutes early, but other airlines can start even earlier. Some routinely start the boarding process 40 minutes in advance for domestic flights, and international flights can start boarding a full 60 minutes early. Check your boarding pass (either digitally on the airline’s app or on a printout if you have it) where boarding times are often listed. And always check screens at the airport and listen for announcements.
  • Even if you aren’t eligible for family boarding, other preboarding rules may apply: If your kids are too old for preboarding or you don’t have a stroller or car seat on airlines that require them for family boarding eligibility, don’t be shy asking for early boarding if you truly need it. Other policies may entitle your family to board early, such as airlines’ disability or special assistance rules. Most of those policies cover cognitive or developmental disabilities. And many airline gate agents can often accommodate you out of the goodness of their hearts if you simply ask nicely, even when no particular policy applies.
  • Many airlines allow you to purchase early boarding: If you aren’t eligible for family boarding and really want it, there are now quite a few options for purchasing early boarding aboard many US airlines. An early boarding group almost always comes with premium class cabin purchases. Many airlines now also sell Group 1/A boarding access a la carte. Some airlines will prompt you at check-in to purchase it or some will offer it in fare bundles at the time of original purchase (or both).
Flying with kids and want to take advantage of preboarding? This guide compares each and every US domestic airline and its rules around family and early boarding.

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Sunday 28th of April 2024

Thank you for writing this post, Leslie! I have a 2 year old (almost 3) and an 8 month old. We have flown with our younger one on 1 flight and our older one on at least 4 flights, and have taken advantage of preboarding but I never really knew the rules. I didn’t know they differed so much by airline from age of preboarding to which groups this happens between.

I also like how you mention your strategy of dividing and conquering with your husband, having one person go first to get the seats, install car seats, and put your luggage above while the other person lets the kids run a little longer.

Do you know if the rules for preboarding are pretty similar for international flights? Or is the policy all the same for domestic and international flights if it’s the same airline?

Leslie Harvey

Saturday 4th of May 2024

@Jennifer, for international flights on US airlines, the rules will almost always be the same as they are on domestic flights on the same carriers. For non-US airlines, the rules will be all over the map. Generally speaking, I find foreign airlines on average to be more accommodating of families.

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