The key to making family air travel easy is knowing ahead of time what to expect and what amenities, if any, each airline offers. Not all carriers are equal when it comes to servicing families. While one might let you board early if you have kiddos, others won't. Some carriers have in-flight entertainment, and others don't. So, to help you find the right airline for your family's needs, we've broken down the amenities offered by U.S. airlines into the following categories:
Frontier and Virgin Airlines have the most lenient policy, which allows families with children 5 years old and younger to board early. Other carriers allow early boarding for families with children younger than 2, but typically only after first class and other priority passengers have taken their seats. Don't even ask to preboard with United Airlines, the answer will be "no." With Delta, you'll be at the mercy of the gate agent, so make sure you smile when you ask to preboard. For $10 per person, American Airlines allows you to board with the first coach group.
Nearly all airlines allow children under the age of 2 to ride as "lap children," which means you don't have to pay for a ticket, and your toddler can sit on your lap for the flight. Southwest Airlines' standard policy is to require proof your child is younger than 2 years old for this benefit. A birth certificate is typically what's required. Also, be aware that most carriers only allow children under 2 to fly free on domestic flights. If you're going somewhere more exotic on an international flight, you'll need to ask the airline if your child needs a ticket, can ride on your lap for free or can get a ticket at a discounted rate.
Using the bathroom on an airplane can be tricky. It's even trickier when you factor in diaper changing. All Virgin America flights have diaper-changing stations in the rear lavatories, and they have extra diapers if you run out. JetBlue and Southwest have changing stations on all flights, but other carriers' availability depends on the size and layout of the plane.
Delta Air Lines doesn't offer child rates when traveling in the United States, but they do offer discounts on travel between certain countries. The trick is, a specific list of international destinations with discounted fares isn't available, so you'll have to call and chat with a Delta representative to see if your trip qualifies. The price of the ticket will depend on the age of the child. American, Southwest, United Airlines and US Airways all offer discounted child fares, so make sure you ask before you pay full fare.
Delta and Virgin America are the big winners when it comes to special food options for your kids. For less than $5, Delta provides myriad choices. Babies can receive strained baby food in jars, including fruit, vegetables, meats and desserts. Toddler meals include finger foods, and child meals for ages 2 to 12 are available with kid-friendly meals like PB & J. Gluten-free options are also available.
At Virgin, kids meals are available to purchase before your flight. Flights that are longer than two hours feature sandwich options like chicken, turkey and PB & J, as well as hummus with vegetables. A Jet Set Kid Pack with animal crackers, Goldfish crackers, granola bar and other snacks is also available.
Though JetBlue doesn't offer kids meals, they do have free snacks just for kids, such as animal crackers, GoGo Squeez Apple Sauce and Mix it Up kid snacks.
On JetBlue flights, DirectTV programming is offered for free on seatback TVs, and kid-specific programming is available. Many, but not all, of Delta's flights have seatback TVs with On-Demand channels with children's programs. They cost $1 per episode or $6 for a bundle; when available, satellite TV is free with children's networks.
For American's flights that are longer than four hours, free movies are on overhead TVs, although the content might not be kid-friendly. New and refurbished planes have in-seat entertainment with movies, TV shows, music and games.
At Southwest, coloring books and airline wings may be available, so ask your flight attendant for these goodies. Starting this month, free On-Demand TV with 75 programs will be available.
Finally, don't expect any sort of kid-friendly entertainment on AirTran Airways. They offer none.
Most airlines will allow you to check your stroller free of charge at the gate, but some carriers have restrictions. On American Airlines, collapsible strollers weighing less than 20 pounds can be checked at the gate. All other strollers must be checked with baggage. Small umbrella strollers may be carried on. Although United and US Airways have no weight restriction on checking strollers at the gate, they do have to be collapsible. Others must be checked with baggage.
If you plan on checking your stroller or car seat with your luggage, most airlines don't apply checked baggage fees to these items. To avoid surprises, check with your carrier before you go.
Nearly every airline now has Wi-Fi on their flights. The difference comes in the price of the service. At American Airlines, you can purchase an All-Day Pass for $16. Their newest plane—the777-300ER—is the first of their fleet with international Wi-Fi. Delta's Gogo online access can be found on many flights within the continental United States. Timed passes range from $1.95 to $14 for a 24-hour pass. Frontier Airlines does not offer Wi-Fi on any of their flights.
If you need help deciding what to pack for your trip, check out our "Travel Mamas Packing List for Babies and Toddlers."