Should You Fly Basic Economy With Kids?

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basic economy family seating

Basic Economy Family Seating  – Is It Possible?

Flying basic economy is an idea I do not relish. It is bad enough if flying alone. Flying as a family, it’s even worse. The lack of advance seat selection is the biggest issue when kids are along. Basic economy family seating is better handled with European carriers, as U.S. airlines don’t really make guarantees that you’ll be seated together.

While not sitting next to my twelve-year-old might not be the a deal breaker, not sitting next to my five-year-old would be a nonstarter. We simply wouldn’t fly. So basic economy family seating is a critical consideration when deciding which tickets to book.

I’ve already covered the general basic economy experience with each major carrier. All basic economy products (with the exception of Alaska) do not offer any sort of advance seat selection. This is not an issue if traveling solo, not even with United, the worst of the bunch.

But with families, seat assignment can be make or break. Here is what each carrier offers traveling families:

Basic Economy Family Seating Policies

Some European carriers have great basic economy family seating policies, such as KLM’s guarantee that all kids under 12 will sit next to an adult. KLM allows families to select seats free of charge at least 4 days prior to departure. Virgin Atlantic is also required by law to provide family seating, per the following:

basic economy family seating

But what about U.S. carriers? Things should have been a bit better after the Families Flying Together Act of 2015, but all this really did was require air carriers to provide you an “are you really sure?” screen that informs you of your fare’s restrictions. It does not require them to actually accommodate seating your family together.
Here is what each offers in terms of basic economy family seating guarantees:
  • Alaska Airlines – No guarantee that parties of two or more will sit together. However, Alaska does offer a limited number of seats for selection with their Saver (basic economy) fares.
  • American Airlines – The published policy is to seat children under 15 next to at least one adult. The entire party may not be together.
  • Delta Air Lines – No guarantees for traveling families that kids will be seated next to adults.
  • United Airlines – No guarantees for traveling families that kids will be seated next to adults.
  • JetBlue – No guarantees for traveling families that kids will be seated next to adults. They are the most recent to launch a basic economy product, dubbed Blue Basic.

Southwest Airlines also doesn’t offer basic economy, but they do have free-for-all seating. However, families will nearly always be seated together, as parents with kids age 6 and under board between Group A and Group B. This guarantees that there are enough pairs of seats left that you can be next to your kids.

But…could Southwest be considering basic economy?

Should You Fly Basic Economy With Kids?

Deciding whether to fly basic economy or not as a family requires you to weigh a number of considerations. If basic economy is much cheaper and you save $100s on your trip, it might be worth chancing.

If you’re able to fly a carrier where you do have an opportunity to skirt around the issue of seating, then go for it. Not sitting together is the primary issue I have when booking basic economy with kids. I’ve not yet done it due to this very reason.

You do have the option to select seats for a fee before check-in with many carriers. If it is only critical that you sit by your favorite child, then maybe you could just pay for two and not the other. Okay…I kid about the favorite. But this might just be a valid scenario for a parent traveling with their 15, 12, and 6 year old.

Finally, you can always plan to ask folks to swap seats, if needed. My guess is that most would help try to accommodate you. However, I personally wouldn’t make it a plan to bank on the kindness of strangers to make sure you all sit together.

basic economy family seating

Case Studies of Traveling Families I’ve Seen

While traveling for work I have been able to observe traveling families a number of times. There have been multiple instances where kids were not seated with parents. I’ve actually had a child seated next to me twice without a parent in the same row.

In both cases the kids appeared to be at least 8 years old. Each was also in fairly close proximity to their parents, with mom or dad either a row ahead or behind. In both cases, all family members occupied middle seats in consecutive rows.

I don’t actually know whether the family booked basic economy, or whether they had to be accommodated on the flight last minute due to a missed connection. All I know is that everyone was separated. The kids ended up being totally cool flyers. And an 80-pound kid next to me is much preferred over a 240-pound dude on a cross country flight.

There was a third case where a kid in the window seat across the aisle from me on an American ERJ-145 was seated five rows ahead of (who I assume was) his dad. He looked to be about nine and seemed entirely comfortable sitting by himself.

Based on these observations, it seems some parents and kids are perfectly fine not being seated together. My kids wouldn’t be especially thrilled if we were seated separately. My 8-year-old son had reservations when we had one person between us in the same row after getting upgraded to first class on a Delta flight. Luckily, the man in the aisle seat swapped seats with him.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, it’s up to you whether you want to risk booking basic economy with kids in tow. Basic economy fares can be tempting due to the savings they offer, but make sure you consider any potential pitfalls if you’re traveling as a family.

I much prefer to book fares where I know that we can select seats ahead of time. However, there are cases where I might consider saving some money by booking basic economy, as long as I am confident that basic economy family seating won’t be an issue.

Would you fly book basic economy with your kids?

Ian Snyder
After igniting his passion for award travel while planning his honeymoon, Ian now enjoys using points and miles to see the world with his wife and three internationally adopted kiddos. He loves dissecting loyalty programs to find maximum value. His goal is to demonstrate that extraordinary travel is possible for the ordinary family.

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15 COMMENTS

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15 COMMENTS

  1. There is one huge aspect that was not covered here, and that is the cost of seat assignment and when you can book them. Most of us in this hobby hold an amex with airline incidental credit. When I book united, it is often $75-100 cheaper per ticket, and I have their card so I dont need to worry about baggage, but then I can book a seat assignment moments after the booking for $11-20 per person. I just use my incidental, and save a ton. Now delta tells me that I have to wait until 7 days before the flight to buy a seat assignment so I have not tried that yet, and I dont know about about AA, but there is still a substantial savings when taking this approach.

    • Great point! I’d not thought about that. My guess is most will only have enough for this for a few family trips per year, though.

      • I bought basic blue with JetBlue. Was $25 cheaper then the fare that you get to pick seats for free. I paid for the basic blue tix and immediately was allowed to buy seats for $5. So again saved me about $100 as I was buying 6 tix.

  2. You left out another major option that is probably relevant to many readers of travel blogs like this one.
    If you have one of the many Amex cards with an airline fee credit, you can buy BE and then purchase seat selections immediately afterwards and be reimbursed.
    With the purchase of gift cards no longer working for the credit, this may be about the best use of these Amex credits (other than food and cocktails on board).

    • Very true. I definitely went the gift card route with DL in the past, but I may need to employ this strategy this year.

  3. Not a great article and the answer is ‘no’ you should not fly domestic basic economy with young kids unless you can nab the reserved seats by the toilet on Alaska. When you do, you’re essentially causing problems for other passengers in order to save a few bucks yourself. Often asking someone who paid for seat selection to switch seats so you can save money yourself, all under the guise of needing to sit with your child. That’s a bunch of cr@p. And this from a parent with young kids who hates missing out on the lowest fares, but who does pass on them because I know they are not appropriate for my current travel situation.

    • I personally will not go this route, but I have seen families do it. Yes, they are inconveniencing others. But, yes, they are likely saving $100s. Is it “right”? Not to most. I would not employ this as my basic strategy.

  4. Just one caveat about Southwest, if you are flying to or from Orlando where 90% of the people on the flight have children under the age of 6, there is a good chance you will NOT be able to sit next to your children if you don’t pay for early boarding. I have seen this from experience where people were trying to get other people to change seats so they could sit next to their children. And a lot of people are not willing to switch seats, especially if they paid extra to board early – it is really unfair to ask them to switch after they paid.

    • Totally agree. I always pay extra so I can pick my seat. I can’t believe people would be to cheap to fork up the extra money to sit with their kids.

    • I have seen this in Orlando on Frontier as well. People assuming that you will move for them because they have young kids. At least 90% of the people on the flight have young kids and bought the seat selection. The poor flight attendants trying to split up groups to seat those who didn’t pay but had 3 or 4 year olds with them was awful.
      I hate looking like a jerk but I always pay to select my aisle seat. I will happily move to another aisle, but not a middle or a window.

  5. I think you’re selling AA short here. As long as there are open seats together, AA has always automatically assigned seats for us when we have a child within 5 days of booking. Additionally, lap infants gets a free blocked off seat that isnt assigned to anyone unless the flight is full.

    • Published policy versus policy in practice can be different. They are one of the better carriers in this regard.

  6. Great article. I’m not as savvy as most commentators here on optimizing points for travel, so I typically do travel basic economy with my three kids. There are times I travel alone with my two daughter (without my wife) and I risk it even then. I usually fly American, which has (in my opinion) the best policy to deal with this. They also typically allow you to select your seats at check in, so if you do that 24 hours in advance, usually there is not an issue getting seats next to each other without having to pony up extra cash.

    • Agree on AA being a good choice for this! I’d avoid Delta, as the flights tend to be really full, and it can be hard to snag multiple seats together at T-24.

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