This frequent flying dad knows which airlines (domestic and international) treat families right--and which don't. Find out what policies and amenities are offered by the best airlines for families.

As we get into the holiday travel season with its endless excitement of long lines, overbooked flights, bad weather and having to see your family, it pays to know how best to get to wherever it is you’re going with your family. Having traveled with my family across the US and the globe on a variety of different airlines, I aim to break down which ones are the best for the traveling family.

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Domestic

Most people think about the big 4 (Delta, American, United and Southwest) when traveling stateside. These do account for the bulk of travel in the US, but there are some smaller ones as well that are worth knowing. I’ll rank the major airlines and detail some of the others that could be helpful for families.

Please note that car seats and strollers are universally accepted as free checked baggage so I won’t comment on those individually for airlines.

This frequent flying dad knows which airlines (domestic and international) treat families right--and which don't. Find out what policies and amenities are offered by the best airlines for families.

  1. Southwest

What? Southwest gets 1st place even though it doesn’t have assigned seating? Well, yes, it does. Outside of business travelers, families probably have the highest likelihood of unpredictability because of anything happening to one member derailing the travel plans of the whole clan. So Southwest’s generous cancellation and 2 free bags policy overrides any negative of not having assigned seating.

Boarding: And, for families traveling with small children (6 or under), Southwest permits families to board between A and B boarders, meaning they will be able to sit together. For families, with older kids, that’s not guaranteed, but they could be construed as a positive too since you don’t have to sit next to your punk teenager.

Change/cancellation policy: Changing is free with only the difference in fare required (and if the fare is cheaper, you pocket the difference!). Cancelling is also free, but the money returned is good for 1 year from the date of the flight.

Baggage policy: 2 free bags per passenger.

  1. Delta

Delta has a similar policy to American and United for families boarding with small kids 2 or under (and a similar baggage policy). So why is Delta higher up? Their planes are nicer, with most having video screens at every seat (regional flights are a notable exception), and they have a much better on-time record. On top of that, their workers seem happier, which is always a pleasant change when flying.

Boarding: Families with kids under 2 board first, before even elites and first class.

Change/cancellation policy: Changing or cancelling incurs large fees so try to avoid this.

Baggage policy: No free bags unless holding a Delta credit card (or are an elite member).

  1. (tie) United/American

These airlines mostly suck, but as mentioned above, their family boarding is nice. They’re otherwise basically the same as Delta minus the entertainment, on-time performance or anything else that matters.

Boarding: Families with kids under 2 board first, before even elites and first class.

Change/cancellation policy: Changing or cancelling incurs large fees so try to avoid this.

Baggage policy: No free bags unless holding a credit card (or are an elite member).

Others

There are a few other airlines whose policies are worth knowing.

Alaska

Based in my hometown, Alaska is a solid airline for families. Similar to the legacy airlines (Delta, American, United), they allow boarding before everyone for families with kids 2 and under. Their cancellation policy is fairly unique (and a bit confusing), but it’s more generous than the legacy airlines. They also have free entertainment when using your own smartphones or tablets though the selection is a bit limited.

Boarding: Families with kids under 2 board first, before even elites and first class.

Change/cancellation policy: They allow for a full cancellation 60 days or more before the scheduled departure with the money returning to an Alaska travel bank (so not a pure refund). The money is good for 1 year from the date of the flight.

Baggage policy: No free bags unless holding an Alaska credit card (or are an elite member).

JetBlue

JetBlue is another airline that I love flying. The seats have more legroom than most and they have video at every seat, making even cross-country flights a breeze. They used to be generous with their baggage policy, but Wall Street came a knockin’ so that’s basically the same as the legacy airlines now.

Boarding: Families with kids under 2 board after elites and premium class passengers.

Change/cancellation policy: Changing or cancelling incurs large fees so try to avoid this.

Baggage policy: No free bags unless holding a JetBlue credit card (or are an elite member).

Spirit

Spirit is cheap upfront so people like it. It’s kinda like a $1 cheeseburger at McDonald’s. It seems cheap until you have a heart attack later and that $1 burger cost you $5,000. Spirit loads on the fees so do your research before going this route.

Boarding: Families board after those who paid more to board early and those who paid for their carryon. Keep in mind, Spirit charges for advance seat assignments and doesn’t guarantee families will sit together.

Change/cancellation policy: You really think it won’t cost you to change or cancel on Spirit??

Baggage policy: No free bags

Allegiant

Boarding: Families board after those who paid more to board early and those who paid for their carryon. Keep in mind, Allegiant charges for advance seat assignments and doesn’t guarantee families will sit together.

Change/cancellation policy: See Spirit.

Baggage policy: See Spirit

Hawaiian

You’re going to Hawaii so you’re already winning and the fun doesn’t stop there. You’ll get a full meal on Hawaiian and friendlier service. Within Hawaii, the folks can seem a little laid back (obviously) so don’t fret if they don’t understand your frazzled nature after dealing with kids who screamed all flight.

Boarding: Families with kids under 2 board first, before even elites and first class.

Change/cancellation policy: Changing or cancelling incurs large fees so try to avoid this.

Baggage policy: No free bags though discounted for loyalty program members.

International

Look at you, baller. Going international with the family? It’s no issue except for having to spend more time on an airplane with your family.

Having flown with quite a few airlines, here are my picks based on destination (assuming origin is the US). Although I certainly haven’t flown every airline, this list should provide a good basis from which to start.

Generally, foreign airlines are superior in almost every way to domestic airlines flying internationally. Delta is the one I’d recommend for international travel, if you have to fly a domestic.

This frequent flying dad knows which airlines (domestic and international) treat families right--and which don't. Find out what policies and amenities are offered by the best airlines for families.

Asia

Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are two top picks for East Asia. They both have outstanding service and are very friendly toward families. Seating is spacious and they have plenty of entertainment options for kids. They consistently rank at the top of annual airline surveys for their service and food so these are great choices. As a bonus, the airports in Hong Kong and especially Singapore are also fantastic places for kids if you have a layover. Asiana is also solid. Asiana’s service wowed us and the overall experience didn’t disappoint. While I haven’t flown them, Japan Airlines is highly regarded as well so it’s worth researching if that’s an option.

To South Asia, the Middle Eastern carriers are by far the best choices. Emirates, Etihad and Qatar serve numerous markets and have overtaken other airlines in terms of number of flights and service. Service again is the name of the game here and these 3 are at your beck and call. You can also ask for kids packs and even kids meals, which makes it easier to fly with younger ones. The airport in Dubai is another great choice to be stuck at for a layover so consider that as well. Jet Airways is also a good option to India, but I’d avoid carriers like Gulf Air and Air India as they were cramped and are plagued with operational issues.

Europe

Europe has a host of carriers that we love to fly, again due to their outstanding service. Swiss Air and Lufthansa stand out despite the fact that Germans aren’t exactly known for their overly caring demeanor. We had amazing experiences on both of these, including them keeping food warm and bringing a glass of wine 2 hours after our baby terrorized my wife (he wouldn’t even let me touch him so I was forced to eat my dinner and enjoy my drink). The flights themselves are reasonably spacious and there’s enough entertainment to get over the Atlantic.

British Airways sadly did not meet our expectations. Service is generally mediocre and the seating isn’t that great either. Unless you’re flying to London specifically, connecting in Heathrow (or even Gatwick) can be a pain as well. This is also true of Paris (Air France), the airport is a mess and it’s often hard to connect so make sure there’s enough time to get to your next flight.

Also, within Europe, if you’re flying EasyJet or Ryannair, make sure to check the baggage and seating policies as you’ll probably even more shocked than had you flown Spirit in the states (and Ryannair has had numerous operational issues in the past few months as well).

On the budget side, although I haven’t flown Wow or Norwegian Air, I’ve heard great things about the flights. Just make sure to research the fees in advance because the fares are low, but the fees add up if you need anything more than a personal item.

South America

South America is very hit or miss, mostly within the continent for the “flexible” times they take off and arrive and for the plane changes that happen too often. For international flights, LAN is a solid choice as is Aerolineas Argentinas. I prefer LAN for its more professional experience and because its merger with TAM a few years ago has given it more destinations. Copa Airlines has good pricing, but the planes tend to be older and a little more cramped.

Within the continent, make sure to check your flight schedule the day of because we’ve had numerous occasions when the plane was switched and the seating changed or there was an unexplained delay. It helps to try to contact the airline on the day of departure to verify your time.

Oceania

For Australia and New Zealand, Qantas and Air New Zealand dominate and both are fine picks. Certainly better than the domestics flying there. For Australia, Virgin Australia is probably a better bet if it works out as the service is solid, but Qantas is no slouch.

I sadly haven’t been yet, but to Polynesia, the flag carriers should be fine. There aren’t a lot of flights so try to book early to get better pricing.

Africa

Africa is served by a number of different airlines. I personally would choose the Middle Eastern carriers again for the service, but South African Airways is a good choice for families as well. Ethiopian Airlines also has good service and from the west coast has a nice option with a flight from LA stopping to refuel in Dublin before heading out to Addis Ababa.

European airlines also serve Africa and you can use the same guidelines as in the above section on Europe for many of them. Where you’re headed will likely determine which airline(s) you can fly so your options may be limited if you’re not headed to South Africa or certain countries in north Africa.

I hope this helps with finding the best airline for you and your family. There’s nothing to fear (well, I don’t know your family so…) no matter where you’re flying. And if nothing else, just remember, the pain will only last for at most 17 hours!

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