Parents are pretty deeply divided on the philosophical and practical question of taking a lap child on an airplane. Whether to buy a seat for the youngest travelers in the family is a tough decision. FAA rules, and airline rules, do not require that infants and toddlers under the age of 2 be in a separate seat. Consequently, many families take their babies as “lap children” while they can to save money.
Over the years, my family has purchased seats for our two kids when they were babies but we have also taken them aboard as lap children. We did things a little differently based upon a variety of factors, evaluating each specific trip before we booked plane tickets and considering the pros and cons of each scenario.
Unless your travel budget is unlimited, you likely will need to make judgment calls from trip-to-trip about whether to purchase a seat for your children under the age of 2. So, here are some guidelines to help you make the lap child decision when it really matters.
Lap Child or Not?: 10 Factors to Weigh When Deciding to Buy an Airline Seat for a Child under 2
The factor that most families consider first in deciding whether to fly with a lap child is the cost. Airline tickets can be pretty pricey, and going from buying 2 tickets to 3, 4, or more can really sting. It’s no surprise many parents want to delay that inevitable extra cost and avoid buying a seat for their little ones for a year or two if possible.
If you have a little wiggle room in your family travel budget, however, you’ll want to consider not just raw dollars but also value. If you can snag a great flight deal, maybe buying an extra ticket for your baby won’t make your total travel costs that much higher than you were expecting to pay for just two parent tickets.
I always consider too what the price is for my sanity. On a 6 hour cross country flight, would it be worth $300 extra round trip to not have to hold a baby 100% of the time and be squeezed into a tiny economy seat? That’s $25 an hour – about what you’d pay a professional babysitter for the same amount of time.
Also consider whether you can use miles or points to offset the cost of an extra ticket for your child. New babies come with lots of expenses. So perhaps it’s a convenient time to get a new credit card with a hefty signup bonus. Earn some extra miles for the spending you are already doing that you can use to to fly home to meet grandma. (Related: Best Credit Cards for Family Travelers).
In some instances – like a last minute trip or flights a few days before Christmas – the extra cost of another ticket may simply be prohibitive. But don’t always assume it is without doing your due diligence and a little math.
2) How long is the flight?
The length of the flight is the next most important factor to consider in my experience. I could suffer just about any air travel hardship for a couple of hours. On longer trips, however, you have to realistic about how much you can manage a crying baby or tantruming toddler for hours on end.
For flights up and down the West Coast, I could manage even my super-active first born in arms and you probably can too. But for a cross-country or international flight, I’d strongly recommend buying a seat – particularly if you have an active or older child.
The only exception to this rule might be for international flights with very small infants. On those flights, you can often secure a bulkhead seat with a bassinet. In that case, the bassinet may well give you the hands-free and restful experience you need. Of course, airlines don’t guarantee those seats, so you are taking a small gamble. Do everything in your power to secure them in advance and confirm those seat assignments early and often!
3) What is your child’s age?
I’ve blogged before about the best and worst ages for traveling with kids. Age really does matter when it comes to needing a seat. Infants can be held much more easily than an older baby that has discovered mobility.
Once your child can crawl and walk, a seat can be really helpful. It gives them a little more space to explore without needing to leave the row you are sitting in. And you won’t have to wrestle as much with a little Houdini who tries every escape act to avoid being constantly held.
Once your child starts nearing that second birthday, he or she may simply be too big to sit comfortably with you in a tiny economy class seat. See my tips for flying with a lap toddler to understand what you may be up against during the 12-23 month stage.
4) What is your child’s personality?
Children all come into this world with very different hard-wired personalities, and this matters a lot when it comes to your decision to purchase a seat. Independent, very active children will simply need the extra space, and you will need it to maintain your sanity if you have a squirmy little one.
We saw this first hand with our two kids, who had very different personalities. We almost always purchased a separate seat for my first born daughter. She had an independent and active personality even as an infant, and it became clear she needed space of her own.
When my son came along, we found out that there were apparently kids who wanted to be held and sleep in a carrier attached to a parent for hours on end – go figure! After buying him an extra seat once or twice that we didn’t actually need, we flew with him more often as a lap infant to save some money because it wasn’t that hard.
5) Which airline are you flying?
This may not seem like an obvious question to ask, but there is a reason for it: Southwest Airlines. While all other airlines have assigned seating, Southwest continues to have open seating. And this really works to your advantage when traveling with kids under 2.
Simply put, no one will want to go out of their way to sit next to you when they see you holding a baby. If there are any other open seats on the flight, passengers will take the ones that are away from the baby. So, you will likely be able to get an extra seat without paying for it, unless the flight is 100% full.
Related: Complete Guide to Flying Southwest with Kids
Improve your chances of snagging an open seat on Southwest by choosing seating closer to the back of the plane. If you are traveling with a car seat, you can even ask the gate agent whether there are empty seats on the plane before boarding. With the gate agent’s blessing, then take the car seat aboard to claim that extra space.
6) Is your flight likely to be full?
On other airlines, consider whether you can avoid paying for a ticket for your baby but still luck into an extra seat instead.
When you arrive to the airport, check with the gate agent to determine whether your flight is full. If not, ask if there is a way to rearrange your seat assignments to leave an extra open space for the baby. Some gate agents are happier to oblige than others, so your miles may vary.
Airline capacity has really been cut over the past few years. With travel demand soaring back in 2022, many more flights are going out totally full. So, the chances of lucking out are probably less than what they used to be at the moment.
That said, there are a few tricks you may want to use to arrive at a best guess about whether your flight might have a little extra space that you can snag for free. If you are traveling around major holidays or school vacations, I’d expect totally full flights. Pay for an extra seat in these situations if it really matters to you.
If, however, you are traveling in the middle of the day on a short hop route (like LA to San Francisco) that is frequented by business travelers who usually travel early in the morning or after work in the evenings, you might just luck out and find some open seating.
7) Are you traveling with any other adults?
If you are traveling alone with your baby, remember that you will not have an extra set of hands to help you. In these instances, an extra seat can come in very handy so you can get a break. If you have another parent or adult along to help, you may be able to pass the child back and forth without going too crazy.
8) Are you traveling with other kids?
If you are traveling with more than one child, you may be able to get away with not buying a seat for your youngest. If the other children are tiny, they probably don’t need the space of a full seat anyway, so you can always count on spilling over into some of their space when needed. This strategy works well when your party takes up a full row or set of contiguous seats.
9) Are you nursing?
This probably doesn’t seem like an obvious factor to consider, but it actually mattered for me. When my daughter was truly a tiny infant, I could nurse her in an airline seat without too much awkward positioning because she was so compact.
But once she was about 6 months old and fairly big, lying her sideways to nurse meant that she protruded into my neighbor’s seat quite a bit. This was fine when my neighbor was my husband, but I would have been a pretty inconsiderate seat mate to a stranger in those months! In those cases, an extra seat helped a lot to give us more space for feedings.
10) What are your safety concerns?
Thus far, all the factors we’ve considered have been about finances and comfort. But there are also safety considerations that come into play for many traveling parents when it comes to lap children!
All the studies show that, statistically-speaking, your child is safest in a car seat during air travel. If the airplane crash lands or even if it hits serious turbulence, anything unrestrained (including infants – yikes!) can and do become projectiles. Of course, the risk of this happening and your child sustaining injury is very, very, very low. You’re far more likely to be in a car accident driving to the airport than having an airplane hit serious turbulence (or worse).
Frankly, I never weighed this factor too heavily in my own personal calculus. But if you are a stickler for safety or are concerned this will add extra worry to your plate, buy the extra seat.
Sunday 24th of July 2022
Tip for parents with “infants” close in age flying on Southwest: if you want to fly with 2 kids on laps—one with each parent—go for it. One thing we learned the hard way was that, on Southwest at least (I do t know about other airlines), there are only 4 oxygen masks per row of 3. We thought we would be clever and sit in an aisle and a window hoping that no sane person would want to sit with us and we would have the whole row. We’ll, the flight was full and the very last person on the plane was stuck with us. However, because there were now 5 people in the row, I had to switch with someone in a middle seat several rows away…with my nursing baby. Fun times…
Moral of the story is, get 2 aisle seats next to each other if you find yourself in this very specific pickle.
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Thursday 20th of December 2018
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What to consider before flying with a lap child | Trips with Tykes
Car Seats on Airplanes: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (Part 2: On the Plane) - Trips With Tykes
Saturday 6th of May 2017
[…] use a car seat at all. In addition, children who have not yet reached their second birthdays may travel as lap children. Whether to use a car seat on board (and whether babies and toddlers even have a seat at all) is […]
Friday 22nd of July 2016
I was on a flight once where our landing gear was leaking hydraulic fluid (I think that's what they told us). In any case, the pilot was unsure if our gear would work appropriately. Before landing, they verified that the gear was down, but we still had to brace for an impact when we landed. The flight attendants explained the position we had to get in. There was a mom with a lap child sitting near me. She was nearly hysterical when she found out she couldn't hold her baby and instead had to put it on the floor by her feet. I will never forget the sounds of the baby crying and the mom sobbing as the flight attendants yelled, "Brace. Brace. Brace." I'm even tearing up as I write this. Fortunately, we landed without incident, but it is not something you forget.
At that time, I swore if I ever traveled with my child, he or she would ALWAYS have his own seat. ALWAYS. No exception... and he did. From his first flight at 6 weeks old, he had an airline approved car seat strapped in to a window seat. If it meant I had to save a little longer for our trip, then it meant that.
Yes, it's rare, but the question is, if something happens, do you want to be second guessing your decision to have a lap child? Was his or her safety worth the $300 or $400 you saved? We buy health insurance in case we get sick, travel insurance in case our trip gets interrupted, and my son's airplane seat was insurance for his safety in case of a survivable issue with the plane.
Some airlines have a different policy on what happens to a lap child during an emergency (they aren't always placed at one's feet). My suggestion would be to find out what the policy is and figure out if you could deal with placing your child in that position should something happen. If yes, then maybe taking your child on as a lap child will work for you. If no, then buy them a seat.
Saturday 8th of October 2016
WHAT? what was the child secured with? that makes no sense?
How to Survive Flying with a Lap Toddler - Trips With Tykes
Thursday 10th of September 2015
[…] toddler in your lap. Up until your little one’s second birthday, your child is eligible to fly for free as a lap child. Many budget-conscious families take advantage of those savings for as long as possible, which […]