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 the airlines, do not require that infants and toddlers under the age of 2 be in a separate seat. Consequently, many families take their infants as “lap children” while they can to save money.
Even as much as I travel, I almost always have purchased a separate seat for my daughter. I found out even before my daughter was born that she had an independent and active personality, and she has always been one of those kids who wants her own space. And we also fly pretty long routes. Cross-country flights are a really long time to hold an infant , and they are practically an eternity if you have a squirmy lap toddler. I’ve been lucky enough that it has been within my travel budget to purchase seats in most cases, but I realize that this is not the case for many, particularly if you have several children.
If your travel budget is limited, you likely need to make judgment calls from trip-to-trip about whether to purchase a seat. So, here are some good guidelines to help you make your decision when it really matters:
1) How long is the flight?
This is the single biggest factor to consider. For flights up and down the West Coast for an hour or two, I could survive anything with my daughter in arms and you probably can too. But if your trip is longer than a few hours, I’d strongly recommend buying a seat.
The only exception 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 often!
2) 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. And 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.
3) 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. I’ve seen some 18 month olds sit quietly in their parents’ laps for long-haul flights, but my daughter was simply never like that. Parents of active kids — those kids may just cost you a little more!
4) Which airline are you flying?
This may not seem like an obvious question to ask, but there is a reason for it — Southwest Airlines (be sure not to miss my Complete Guide to Flying Southwest with Kids). 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 them. So, you will likely be able to get an extra seat without paying for it, unless the flight is 100% full. Improve your chances by choosing seating near the very back of the plane.
5) Is your flight likely to be full?
Airline capacity has been cut over the past few years, and many more flight are going out totally full. So, you simply cannot bet on lucking into extra space without paying for it. 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 (or during summer to popular family destinations), 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.
6) 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.
7) 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.
8) Are you nursing?
This may also seem like a silly question to ask, but it actually mattered for me. When my daughter was truly a tiny infant, I could nurse her in an airline seat with no problem 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 probably would not have been so fine if it was a stranger! In those cases, an extra seat helped a lot to give us more space for feedings.
9) What are your safety concerns?
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, infants 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 don’t worry excessively about this factor in my own personal calculus. But if you are a worrier, or a stickler for safety, buy the extra seat.
Flying with an infant or toddler? Follow my Pinterest boards about travel with babies and toddlers for even more tips!