This is certainly a hot button topic for many parents. At Vacationkids we get this question ALL the time. The short answer is...Yes. "TECHNICALLY" babies and toddlers under the age of 24 months can fly for "Free". Airlines and travel agents use the industry word "LAPCHILD" to describe a baby or toddler flying seated in their parent's lap. Everyone likes the idea of a "free ride" but there are some VERY important points parents need to consider when deciding whether or not to buy an airline seat for their baby. We want our parents to be informed so that they can make the best decisions regarding their child's safety and finances so we'll do our best here to outline this important topic.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sets the standards for airline safety in the United States. The FAA does recommend that all children fly seated in an approved child safety seat, BUT... it does not MANDATE the use of child safety seats for babies on airplanes. The word "mandate" is an important one here. Because the FAA does not mandate the use of a safety seat, airlines WILL allow children UNDER the age of 2 to fly "FREE" seated in the lap of an adult.
We use the word "free" here in quotes because techincally a seat for a lapchild is never 100% free. Most airlines charge a small fee, usually 10% cost of an adult ticket and Uncle Sam never gives you a free pass when it comes to taxes. Never the less, a lapchild under 2 can fly and pay significantly less than other passengers.
The airlines, the FAA, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and concerned parents have been debating this issue for years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also comes into the discussion because they are the governing body responsible for rating and maintaining list of approved, crash tested car seats . The FAA and the airlines argue that airline travel is statistically far safer than driving a car. The fear is that requiring parents to buy an additional airline ticket for their baby may be cost prohibitive for many families. This would in turn force more families, putting more children at risk for auto accidents.
As a travel industry professional I am often asked my opinion on the matter. Let me start by saying most airlines cut sales commissions to travel agents back in the 1990's. Whether you buy and airline ticket for your baby or not has no economic effect on my income. Speaking as a travel agent, it doesn't matter to me either way whether you buy an extra plane ticket or not. Some travel agents who still do book airline tickets do charge fees per ticket. Vacationkids does not sell plain airline tickets. We sell airline tickets as part of vacation packages, we do not make commissions on air tickets and we do not charge service fees. The opinions I express here have no bearing on my earnings.
Speaking as the mother of three kids and a former pediatric nurse, I am whole heartedly believe ALL babies and children should be seated in an airline approved car safety seat buckled into their very own airline seat. I HAVE PERSONALLY experienced turbulence at 30,000 feet. Luckily I always keep my seat belt fastened in flight but fellow passengers had to be taken off the aircraft on stretchers when we finally landed. Turbulence can happen without any warning and can catch you off guard. It is my humble opinion that the most loving parent in the world cannot hold and protect a child seated in their lap against the g-forces of a jet flying over 500 mph and suddenly hits turbulence in the sky. That said, as a mom, I too have had many challenges balancing our family's checkbook so I do understand both sides of this story. To help parents make an informed decision about whether or not to purchase an airline seat for their baby, let's consider the pros, cons and compromises...
Fly Right- The FAA publishes an article and brochure for parents outlining child safety on airplanes. Here parents can find full details and I would urge you to heed their advice. Be sure your child's car seat is one that is approved for airline travel. Check to make sure this detail is printed somewhere on your child's car seat. Double check that your child is the appropriate size for the seat you plan to use and be familiar with instructions and operation of your child safety seat. Securing and operating a child's safety seat is the responsibility of parents, not the flight crew.
Discounts - Many airlines do offer discounts for children so be sure to ask when making your reservations. Generally discounts offered are around 75% of the adult fare but hey, every bit counts. Keep in mind many big online travel web sites may not offer child discounts thru their public online reservation systems.
Airline Seating -Be away Airline regulations require child safety seats to be placed in window seats in a non-exit row.
Is Free REALLY Free? - Each and every airline has their own specific rules when it comes to lap children and how they need to be documented. Often there is a service or ticketing fee which can average 10% of the adult airfare. Foreign airport taxes and fees may also need to be paid by "free" lap children. Be sure to ask, especially if you book your own airfare online. Many large online travel web sites do not calculate these extra charges and parents find themselves unpleasantly surprised at the airport check in desk. Also for foreign flights, remember lap children will always still need a passport. Don't forget to calculate those costs as well.
Luggage - It's amazing when you think little humans require so much "stuff" to be safe and comfortable. Most airplanes do not stock diapers, baby food or even offer changing facilities. It's recommended that parents pack a minimum one day supply of these items not to mention strollers, clothing, portable cribs etc. Because lapchilden are not paying for an airline seat, this means they do not get any luggage allowance. This means mom and/or dad must pack all of junior's necessities into their carry on. Parents need to calculate the cost of excess or oversized luggage fees into the cost of their child's "free" ticket.
Size Of Airline Seats - The average size of most airline seats is 14-16 inches with minimal legroom. Can you and your child sit comfortably in this size space for the length of your flight? Try out this test with a kitchen chair at home if you need any convincing. If it's a long flight, you won't be able to drop your tray table down for meals because there is simply no room. Also consider the feelings and comfort of fellow passengers seated around you. If they have paid full price for their ticket, they might not look kindly on a cranky child infringing their space.
In Case of Emergency- Most airlines are outfitted with a limited number of oxygen masks per row. With a lap child, there may not be enough oxygen masks available.
Time Your Flights - If possible try to schedule flights for travel times when airplanes are not full. Often if flights are not full, airlines may allow parents some options. They may allow parents to use their child's safety seat on board and not pay for an extra ticket. The other option is they may seat parents next to empty seats to give lap children and their grown ups a little extra space without the extra charge. Remember, this is often a last minute arrangement and totally up to the good graces of the airline and airport check in staff. Parents can call 24 hours prior to departure and inquire about possibilities.
Fly Off Season - Young families with non school age kids or homeschoolers can take advantage of huge vacation deals and discounts by traveling during early May, Sept, Oct or Early Dec or Jan when other kids are in school. Compared to travel during Summertime, holiday or Spring break weeks, the cost difference can often pay for an airline seat for your baby.
Shop Around- Instead of flying into a major tourist airport or flying a major airline, compare the cost of a charter airline or flying into a smaller airport. Often good deals can be found that can offset the cost of an additional ticket for your baby.
Vacationkids travel agents can always price a baby vacation for you either way. We can price your baby as a lapchild or price them with their own airline seat. Please know it often will take us a bit longer to get exact pricing for a lapchild. Lapchild fess and charges are NOT listed in all our reservations systems. Often we need to call and confirm with individual airlines.