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.
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.