Flying with a lap infant — here’s what you need to know

Aug 25, 2020

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One of the best ways families can save money on air travel with small children is by having a child fly as a “lap infant.” There is controversy about the safety of this practice even in non-pandemic times, but most parents appreciate the savings and small children often just want to be in their parent’s arms anyway.

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Deciding when and how to travel with a baby can be confusing and overwhelming. Here are the rules you need to know regarding lap infants, along with general tips to make flying with a baby easier.

Lap infant rules

The magic age is strictly “under 2”

To qualify as a lap infant, your child will have to be under 2 years old. The day they turn 2, that free ticket goes out the window. If you are looking to get away and your child is nearing his or her second birthday, moving your vacation a month or two earlier could save you money (though flying with a lap infant and a lap toddler are two very different things logistically).

Also, know that this is the same age cut-off for required face masks with most airlines. Those under 2 years do not need to wear a face mask (and shouldn’t for safety reasons per the CDC), but those children over 2 and over are largely required to wear a face mask while flying.

(Photo by Arief Juwono/Getty Images)
(Photo by Arief Juwono/Getty Images)

If you have a trip that spans your child’s second birthday, only the outbound flight will be free.

On the return flight, you will be required to purchase your now-2-year-old a seat with a one-way ticket. (The exception: British Airways will give you the return seat at the same infant fare if your child turns 2 on the journey.)

Be aware that there are times when buying a one-way flight can be more costly than a round-trip, so price out both options if your child is going to turn 2 on your trip.

Empty seats and lap infants

Wondering whether your lap infant can snag a free empty seat?

It is every passenger’s dream to have an empty seat next to them, but when you are flying with a lap infant, this becomes even more valuable. If there is an unoccupied seat next to you, you just scored a seat for your child without having to pay for it.

It pays to speak to the gate agents before boarding to ask if a passenger is sitting next to you. If the flight isn’t full, they might help you find a new seat assignment with an empty seat next to it. If you think you might be able to get an empty seat next to you and have an FAA-approved car seat, bring it to the gate. If you can’t get access to an empty seat to use it, you can always gate-check the car seat for no fee and it will be waiting for you when you land.

Summer Hull
Have the car seat ready for your under-2-year-old in case there’s an empty seat next to you. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Rich now, with some airlines continuing to block middle seats due to social distancing concerns, it may be very easy to score an empty middle seat next to if you’re on Alaska, JetBlue, Delta, Southwest, etc. Just keep in mind that those policies could end as early as this fall, so don’t count on that free empty middle seat being available unless you have verified airline will still be blocking the middle for your flight.

Luggage allowance for lap infants

Infants flying on paid tickets get the same baggage allowance as adults on paid tickets, but that’s not the case when your under-2-year-old is flying for free on your lap. Children not occupying a paid seat are not given a checked baggage allowance on most U.S. domestic airlines. Luggage will be checked with the child’s parents’ luggage and will be subject to the extra baggage fees charged by the airline.

Fortunately, families can check car seats and strollers can come on for no additional fee and they won’t count against your baggage allowance — regardless of whether your child is flying as a lap infant or on a paid fare. For carry-on bags, most airlines will allow you to bring a diaper bag on board in addition to the airline’s regular carry-on allowance. (Note that Alaska Airlines does not extend this generous diaper-bag policy to lap infants.)

(Photo by Orbon Alija/Getty Images)
(Photo by Orbon Alija/Getty Images)

This is why Southwest Airlines is such a favourite airline among U.S. families since all passengers flying on paid tickets get to check two complimentary bags per person. As most parents know, when you travel with children, the amount of extra stuff you have to pack can get out of control. Knowing you can check some bags for no fee is awesome.

Travelling with more than one lap infant

The strict rule is: One lap infant per adult.

If you are flying as a solo adult and have two or more children under the age of 2 with you, you’ll have to purchase a ticket for one of them (and you should also be awarded a gold medal at the other end of the journey!).

Two adults travelling together (or even an older teen with an adult) can have two lap children with them, which is great for parents with twins or kids born close together. But don’t be surprised if the flight attendant tells you that you cannot sit next to each other in the same row. Because of the limited number of oxygen masks, most aircraft only permit one lap infant per row.

Lap infants are also not allowed to sit in emergency exit rows or the rows directly in front of or behind the exit rows. On some aircraft, there are additional rows that do not permit lap infants.

If you are flying with an infant and your flight has bassinets on board, book that row if you can. Typically, you’ll find bassinets on international flights, but they might also be available on domestic flights with internationally configured aircraft.

(Photo by Dmitrii Guldin/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dmitrii Guldin/Getty Images)

Lap infant fares on international flights

Most international flights allow children under 2 to fly as lap children, but with one big difference — it is usually not 100% free. Typically, if you are flying on a revenue ticket, you must pay the taxes and fees for your lap infant plus, in some cases, 10% of the fare. That might not sound like a lot, but it can add up.

For example, when I took my then-3-year-old and 11-month-old to London, the paid children’s fare was only $376 round-trip. But if I decided to forgo a seat for my baby at the time and have him fly as a lap infant instead, the taxes and fees imposed would have been close to $150. For around $200 more, I was able to get my son his own seat for the seven-hour flights — well worth it to preserve my back and sanity.

mother and infant daughter travel by plane
Flying with a lap infant for free means a whole flight of pure cuddle time. (Image by Nadezhda1906/Getty Images)

When you are adding a lap infant to a ticket using miles, the amount you pay varies drastically and depends on the airline. For example, Aeroplan has long had a flat cost for lap infant award tickets that used to range from $50 – $125, but it is scheduled to get even better when the new programme rolls out. Lap infant ticket awards will cost just CAD 25 or 2,500 miles.

But others, such as Cathay Pacific, require you to pay up to 25% of the adult fare plus taxes and fees.

In a premium cabin, that can easily be a four-figure number just to hold your baby in your lap. (Note: Air Canada has had some system issues where they’ve been waiving the fee at times.)

Most airlines will charge you 10% of the adult fare on an international ticket, or in the case of British Airways, 10% of the miles redeemed plus taxes and fees. Remember, ticket prices fluctuate, so you’ll want to add your child as a lap infant at the lowest price you see — which may well be when you first book your ticket.

If you are travelling with a lap infant to somewhere relatively close, like Mexico or the Caribbean, consider JetBlue, Southwest or Alaska. Those airlines don’t charge a percentage of the adult fare for lap infants flying internationally — just taxes. Contrast this to an airline like United that charges 10% of the fare for lap infants plus taxes and fees even to Mexico (though not to Canada).

Where lap infants can’t sit

In addition to emergency exit rows, or the rows directly in front of or behind the exit rows, some seats are off-limits to lap infants — especially those who also have an assigned seat with a car seat installed. This is often due to airbags that are installed in some of the lap belts. Most often you will encounter this in some business or first class seats or the first row of economy, though those are hardly hard and fast rules as it simply varies by airline and aircraft.

For example, on United, child safety seats or restraint systems also aren’t permitted in United Polaris business class on 767, 777 and 787 aircraft.

Related: Baby-free travel zones

Tips for flying with a baby

Bring identification

Technically, most airlines require you to show proof of age for your lap infant.

This can include a birth certificate, passport or sometimes hospital or immunization records. In reality, most airlines will not ask you for that information unless your baby looks like a toddler who could be past that second birthday. If you plan to travel internationally after your baby is born, you’ll have to get your child a passport, anyway.

If you get to the airport counter and you do not have any documentation for your baby, airlines can theoretically require you to purchase a regular seat for your child. Not only can same-day flights be quite expensive, but you also risk the chance of the flight being sold out.

Southwest is notorious for asking for proof of age for everyone, even newborns, so do not leave your documentation at home. It’s smart to carry a copy in your luggage or save a picture of the documentation on your phone so there are no issues.

Time flights with your baby’s sleep patterns

Babies sleep a lot, just not always when you want them to. Try to book flights coinciding with their sleep schedules. For longer flights, if you can choose a flight that’s close to their bedtime or an overnight red-eye, you may have a better chance of getting them to sleep for a large part of the journey. For shorter day flights, try to time the flight to your baby’s customary nap time.

All that said — an overtired baby can resist falling asleep, especially in a strange environment. You know your baby best, so if you think there’s no shot of them sleeping on a plane through the night, there’s nothing wrong with just going for that daytime flight as rested and prepared as possible.

Change diapers before boarding

It’s no fun trying to change a diaper in a cramped aeroplane bathroom, and there’s also the possibility of being delayed on the tarmac. For these reasons, it’s smart to do a quick diaper change before boarding to potentially reduce the number of changes you’ll have to do in flight.

Feed during takeoff and landing

Know how your ears pop on the plane, and you yawn or chew to make the sensation go away? Well, babies haven’t mastered the art of equalizing their own ear pressure, so takeoff and landing can be particularly uncomfortable for them. Feeding them during this time can help relieve this pressure because the sucking motion they make will help equalize their ears.

My first, but far from last, time nursing on a plane
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Pack extra earplugs

Sometimes no matter what you do, a baby will cry on a plane. You can help make it a little less painful for those around you by bringing extra earplugs … if you want to. Sometimes parents choose to make small goodie bags as a friendly gesture toward other passengers in the hope of gaining sympathy and understanding.

Do not feel required to do this; it is just an option if it makes you less anxious about the trip.

Figure out seating arrangements beforehand

Before you board, it’s important to plan and figure out the most comfortable way for your baby to sit. Consider where your child is most comfortable: Do they prefer to snuggle up to a human or are they more relaxed in a car seat? Your child’s seating arrangement comes down to the preference of the parent and child. Just remember that you’ll need to book that extra aeroplane seat if you want to guarantee you can put your child in a car seat next to you.

Minimum age to fly

The minimum age to fly varies by airline. Some allow you to theoretically fly the same day the baby is born, and others require the baby to be at least a week or two old. Some airlines will also require a doctor’s note giving the go-ahead for those youngest flyers.

But aside from the actual requirements set by the aeroplane or your doctor, how young is actually too young to fly? Candice Dye, a paediatrician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says waiting until a baby is at least two to three months old is a good idea. “Since they are vaccinated by this time, they might need less invasive care even if they do fall sick after the flight,” she says. Of course, there are times when flying with newborn babies simply can’t be avoided, like for adoption, to visit family or for work reasons.

And of course, those are tips from a non-pandemic era. Confer with your paediatrician if you are planning to fly with a baby or very young child while coronavirus is an active issue.

Regardless, it’s important to consider your child’s immunizations when making travel plans, and it’s better to wait until your infant has received at least some immunizations if possible.

Bottom line

Although getting a few extra hours of snuggle time above the clouds might not always be the most comfortable way to fly (for adults, that is), it’s a great way to keep travel costs down. Many babies prefer sitting on their parents’ laps, especially if mom is nursing anyway, so you might find that buying a seat is ultimately a waste of money.

But as long as the child is under 2, the decision is, of course, yours and the equation can shift as babies grow from lap infants to lap toddlers.

Additional reporting by Summer Hull

Featured image by RyanJLane/Getty Images.

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