To the surprise (and disappointment) of many other travelers, we have flown with our infant since she was eight weeks old. At 22 months, she has flown more than 100,000 miles to 15 countries on four continents—some of them several times—and (I will get hate mail for this) often in first and business class.
Before you throw tomatoes at us, understand that we were already traveling more than 100,000 miles a year and while our daughter is not always a perfect angel, she’s pretty close (I'm a true dad). But it takes knowing what keeps her calm and quiet, how to occupy her and how to put her to sleep to pull it all off successfuly. Meanwhile, she knows what our expectations of her are on a plane. It's the secret to keeping us, her and those seated around us sane.
There are often tons of eye rolls when we're boarding a long haul international flight but we always seem to hear, “She was so good, I didn’t even know there was a baby on this flight” when we finally disembark. The tricks are to know the ins and outs to pull it off with as little as stress as possible.
Children fly for free under the age of two
Most carriers do not charge a cost for an infant to sit on their parent's lap during a flight. By definition, this means children under the age of two at the time of the flight. Some carriers might charge taxes for infants on these flights but the price is typically minimal. For instance, a typical cost might be $5.60 per flight (a flight that involves a connection would cost $11.20) each way. The infant must fit on the parent's lap and be secured at all times. There is also a maximum of one infant per parent (you can’t stack kids on top of one another, as much as you'd like).
Infant seats don't have to be purchased in advance. Adding on an infant ticket to the parent ticket on the day of travel is easy to do and can be done on the phone or at the counter before security. Infant tickets will not earn any miles and points for travel, either, though the parents' tickets still do for their own seats.
In terms of the airport security process, the TSA rolled out the Families and Special Assistance lane at airports nationwide back in 2008, which should help with major crowds. If the parent has TSA PreCheck, TSA will typically let both Mommy and kiddo go through the faster lane since infants often do not have their own PreCheck (of course, my daughter does).
Bassinet seating is also often free to secure, though it may require some hustle. In general, the principles to remember are to book early, pick a bulkhead seat, put in the bassinet request early and continue to harass the airline until the bassinet is secured.
If the parents are fortunate enough to redeem miles in the U.S., most major domestic carriers don't have an issue adding on an infant, either. In this case, the kiddos are truly freeloaders until they're the age of two. Or for the rest of your life.
International flights are often more expensive
This is where things get tricky. In this case, the rule where infants fly free in the United States doesn't hold true abroad. It is best to assume that your child's ticket will need to cover at least 10% of the purchase price and taxes for the same seat in cash.
That might seem a little complex so here's an example. Assuming that a coach seat from New York City to Madrid is $800 with $100 in taxes ($900 in total) the price of the infant would be 10% of the base fare ($80) plus the taxes ($100) = $180 for the infant. For airlines like American, Delta and foreign carriers like British Airways this holds true.
It doesn't always hold up for everyone, though, so its best to check with the carrier. Southwest (now serving several foreign countries in warm Caribbean and Central American destinations) charge just taxes for an infant which makes them one of the best values for families once again.
Preparation is half the battle
Kids require a lot of stuff from diapers, bottles, wipes, toys, car seats, strollers, a sort of caravan of children’s supplies in addition to your own stuff. However, carry-on limitations and extra charges for checked bags make new parents nervous. Not to worry, Mom and Dad, the airlines still go above and beyond for families. U.S. carriers allow a diaper bag to be carried on at no cost for infants and free checks for car seats and strollers. Most foreign carriers do the same.
Though airlines like Cathay Pacific wrap strollers and car seats in clear plastic bags to prevent damage and stains, the best solution for most families comes from Southwest Airlines. For $15, they sell a durable blue zipped bag that you can put your stroller and car seat into. Even flying other carriers, my wife and I take this bag and put our tracking tag to the handle. It's worth it to prevent any damage, which has happened to our very expensive stroller.
Kids do not get an extra free checked bag outside this, so if you prefer to check their Thomas Train luggage you will still need to pay for any extra bag not otherwise included with your ticket, credit card or airline status.
Breast milk and formula have been a point of contention since the TSA has reduced the amount of liquid that can be brought through security over the last decade or so. There have been numerous incidents where mothers were forced to drink their own breast milk to prove it wasn't a malicious liquid and luckily, this practice is no longer in place. Instead, liquids can be brought through security for babies (including bottles of water!) but may be subject to test for explosive materials. It's a simple act of swabbing the outside of the bottle and running it through a meter.
Boarding the plane
Many airlines allow parents traveling with children to board early in the process though this is not as universal as it used to be. Southwest will allow families with small children to board after A1-A60 have boarded, which may be better or worse than the assigned order given.
If you need some extra time to board the plane, inform the gate agent. If there is a place for families to board with priority, they will typically accommodate most passengers. Some families will send one parent down with the bags while the other parent will board with the children at the last possible moment, allowing them to run off steam before being confined to their seat for the flight. It's all about surviving the flight, baby.
Sometimes buying the ticket is worth it
Though it's not necessary to buy a ticket for a child until they turn two, there are always exceptions. Our family was recently fortunate enough to buy a $500 ticket to Beijing from Washington D.C. in business class per person. We ended up booking a seat for our daughter because it made more sense than sitting her on our laps (and that is a very, very long flight).
The regular price for this ticket is usually more than $4,000 (10% = $400) and when adding the taxes to that fare (assume $100), we would have now paid the same price as if she had her own seat (there was also an issue with adding an infant ticket on the website). Sure, we could have cancelled her seat within 24 hours and added her onto our tickets, however, the extra space and baggage allowance were more than greatly appreciated. This is all combined with the fact she earned status and miles worth more than the price of her ticket! The value of the 30,000 miles she earned is worth more than $600 to us, so it was a really easy decision to make.
Some credit cards like AAdvantage Aviator Silver credit card or the Bank of America Alaska Air credit card offers companion seats for $99-125 per person at sign up. These seats also earn miles and status and even though they may be slightly more expensive than paying just the taxes but the amount is often marginal considering the miles will help with tickets after a child turns two years old. This may not be necessarily worth it for a family that doesn't travel together often but it's definitely a point worth considering for sanity's sake.
Airplane safety comes first
There is just simply not enough emphasis on child airplane safety in the U.S. In the event of unexpected turbulence or a significant speed decrease like an aborted takeoff, an adult’s arms—regardless how strong that adult may be—would be insufficient to contain a baby's weight up to a G-force of 16. Your baby then becomes an object in the cabin and becomes subject to the laws of gravity, force and nature. (I once saw a flight attendant who needed to explain to passengers that empty water bottles acted as “little torpedoes” in the face of turbulence before descent.)
The FAA actually recommends that children are secured in a car seat for air travel but many car seats are too bulky to fit in those teeny, tiny economy seats that are only 17 inches wide. Children that size are also too small to sit in a seat as an adult would with just a belt over their lap.
If your kid is under two years old but over 20 pounds, a great solution is the CARES harness which is the only approved FAA harness available on the market. Many flight attendants may be unfamiliar with this approved restraint but there is a tag on the harness that indicates its FAA approval status. The harness loops over the back of the chair and behind the tray table of the person behind you (this will not affect their ability to use the tray table). It then crosses the shoulders and attaches at the waist using the normal airplane seat belt, with additional support and buckle across the torso. This will keep a smaller child secure to the seat in the case there's turbulence or a sudden stop.
Personally, the CARES harness is also our first choice because of its portability. On airlines like Southwest with open seating, many people don't like sitting next to a family with a baby. This often leaves the middle seat open for our daughter and we can pack the harness in a very small bag and use it then.
Be conscientious of others
In the same way that I don’t want to listen to music cranked up without headphones, I know you don’t want to hear my kid. Passengers may not be entitled to a library experience but they aren't entitled to tantrums either.
Most common complaints revolve around unruly children who frequently hit the back of the seat in front of them, cry the entire flight and make a total mess. This is generally not a reflection on the children but a reflection on the kids' parents. Unprepared parents that don't bring entertainment or discipline are often the real problem more often than not. Most parents wouldn't let their kids kick the seat at a movie theater and its up to them to instruct their children to behave in public as they would elsewhere. Bringing stuff for them do (and being diligent about it) is half the battle.
This includes doing whatever is necessary to make things work. Headphones for the kiddo may be in store, or in the case of a serious faux pas, it doesn't hurt to buy a drink for another passenger if your child is out of line. If your child can’t be consoled from the seat (it has happened to us several times), get up and walk around. On a recent flight to India, our daughter was restless so we walked to the back of the plane where the flight attendants gave her cookies and talked to her. Like many people on long flights, she just really needed to get up and walk around.
...But ignore everyone else, too
People will judge as soon as you get on a plane with a child. Prove them wrong. People have traveled with children many, many times on planes without disrupting the entire cabin but it isn’t without hard work. That’s what raising kids is: Hard work. Child rearing hasn't changed since the Stone Age days.