Flying with kids can be tricky. Some airlines make it easier, some don’t. Here are some of our favorite family-friendly airlines to help you on your next adventure:
We LUV Southwest Airlines
Southwest is my personal favorite, but if you haven’t flown them before it takes a little getting used to their unique ways. Southwest only flies 737s so if there’s a mechanical problem, they just use a different plane. It makes them more reliable than other airlines, I've found, especially to smaller airports. They don’t charge a fee to change your ticket, and you can check two bags for free. Best of all, they just have a laid-back attitude and seem to love kids. I’ve had flight attendants come and just take my babies for a walk to give me a break.
If you haven’t flown them, here’s what you need to know:
- They aren’t on KAYAK // Southwest isn’t listed on the flight aggregators like Expedia, Kayak, or google.com/flights. Go to Southwest.com and check the route map; they fly to a lot of small airports that are alternatives to your typical hubs.
- Pro-Tip: Southwest usually announces when their future schedule will open up. Put that date in your calendar and book early to get the best fares. For example, if you know you are planning Spring Break in Puerto Rico, be aware of when they start booking for that time.
- Check-In and Open Seating // Other airlines charge you to pick your seat… on Southwest, there’s no fee because no one picks a seat. Southwest has “open seating.” When you check-in, you are assigned a boarding group (A, B, or C) and number (1-60). A1 is the best, but if you get a C you’ll understand why they say “C means Center Seats.” The good news for families is that there is family boarding after the A group if you are traveling with kiddos under six. This gives you the chance to get seats together.
- Pro-tip: Even with family boarding, check in 24 hours ahead of your flight for a chance at an even better seat. And if your flight has a lot of “through passengers” who are staying on the plane from an earlier leg, you may not find seating together even with family boarding; if that happens talk to a flight attendant right away as they can make an announcement to ask people to move around. It’s a lot easier if the flight isn’t almost ready to take off.
- In-Flight is Different // Southwest doesn’t have food for purchase, so bring your own meals and snacks. To keep planes lighter, they don’t have seatback screens. Use your own device for Southwest’s live-streaming service.
Pro-tip: We always pack kid-friendly headphones with volume control, and we use our Netflix app to download shows onto our phones or an iPad before the flight. Yes, Southwest has WiFi… but it doesn’t always work.
JetBlue Rules (and Pools)
JetBlue is another family-friendly airline, with reasonable fees, great (unlimited) in-flight snacks and entertainment, and a helpful attitude. They also let family pool their points.
Another Reason to Go Abroad
International travel with kids is an amazing opportunity to experience another culture and gain perspective on the world. It’s also way better in terms of flying. International flights still have free meals, usually have great entertainment, offer blankets and pillows, and may even have bassinets or reserve the bulkhead row for families with infants. For more on some of the best international carriers, check out Working Mother’s airline ranking.
Pro-Tip: Select a child meal during booking (and if you want the adult meals to come at the same time, select any special meal for the grown-ups. I always book a vegetarian meal and they deliver all the special meals first). By the time everyone else has their meal, you are done and can hit the lavatory before trying to get wee ones to sleep.
Best of the Old Guard: Delta
The Legacy airlines frankly kind of suck for families. They charge to sit together. They charge you to check bags. They charge to change your flight. They sometimes act snooty and like they hate children (I’m looking at you, American Airlines). While Delta has some of the most horrendous change fees anywhere, they are friendly, have great in-flight entertainment, and those Biscoff cookies are something my whole family enjoys.
Pro-Tip: When booking, check the seat map before you select the flight. As airlines charge to select some (or all) seats, you may want to choose the flight that still has free seats together. Be really sure of your travel dates before you book on a legacy airline. Delta has such high change fees, it can sometimes be better to walk away from the ticket rather than rebook (see above for why Southwest is best).
Cheapies: Good for the Self-Sufficient
Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant are not for the faint of heart. But sometimes those rock-bottom prices are the only way a family of four or more can really justify a trip. I’ve had great experiences getting to Montana on Allegiant, Florida on Spirit, and Mexico City on Volaris - all trips that we took only because of the great fares.
Pro-Tip: The Ultra-Low Cost Carriers charge not just for checked bags, but also for carry-ons (you get a personal item free that can fit under the seat in front of you). But since kids need their own seats, they also get a free personal item (and car seats and strollers are generally free). For our family of four, we can get by on four backpacks. I also always bring a folded-up tiny tote. If my backpack is stuffed so I can get on the plane without paying a fee, I can expand a little once I’m on the flight.
Besides the airlines above, we hear good things about Alaska and Hawaiian. I hope this list of family-friendly airlines helps you plan your next trip. Also check out our post on eco-friendly travel which has some fun and greener alternatives to flying. Happy travels!
About the author: Amanda Reid is the former Head of Brand and Social Impact at WAYB, and is currently living on a sailboat with her family. She spends her time writing, steering, boatschooling, and planning the next adventure, big or small.