In the good old days, you used to be able to buy a discounted infant plane ticket. But nowadays airlines that offer such tickets are few and far between: you can get one on Southwest but you can’t do it online. Even then it might not be worth the phone call.
The question every traveling dad has before there child turns two: should I buy an infant plane ticket? I’ve found very strong opinions on the subject – needless to say people can be fiercely defensive of their position. I’m not here to wade into that argument today, instead, I hope to help you ask the right questions when determining what’s best for your family.
Let’s start with what you need to know about infant plane tickets.
- Infants under the age of two are allowed to travel “in arms” – without a seat – on most airlines
- For domestic travel, there is no cost for an infant in arms
- For international travel, the cost for an infant in arms is generally 10% of the ticket price.
- If you purchase a ticket, you can bring along a FAA approved car seat or the CARES harness.
- Both car seats and child restraint systems must be used in the window seat.
With that out of the way – what do you need to think about when deciding whether to buy a seat?
1. How active is your infant or toddler?
In news that won’t surprise many parents, our son and daughter turned out to be different kids. One has no problem sitting still, the other climbs all over the place. One needs to stretch their legs, the other prefers lying down. One needs a car seat or complete darkness to sleep, the other can sleep standing up.
So it’s important to know your child because that will inform a lot of the subsequent questions. It’s impossible to think of an exhaustive list, but for our kids we consider boredom level, nap times, need to eat, need to run around, attention span when it comes to activies (both screen and non-screen related). “How well do they do in infant carriers?” is another great question to ask.
An airplane, obviously, is a small, contained environment. How do you think your child will do in that situation?
2. How long is the flight?
Or, put another way, how long can your child sit on your lap (or the floor, or her older sibling’s lap, etc.) without melting down? Anything under one hour probably is doable without an infant plane ticket for a lot of families. If you’re flying across the country or overseas, maybe that changes.
If you have experience, you probably know how long your infant can handle being on your lap in a plane (though before they are two they change so quickly!) Another thing to consider: the difference between a two hour flight down the East coast, say, probably only $100 less than a flight all the way across the country. So you might get better “bang for your buck” on long flights, or paying for your infant to have a seat might feel more worth it.
3. What is your safety risk tolerance?
This is the question that causes the strongest opinions. Clearly, a child strapped into a car seat is at less risk for harm than one you are trying to wrangle by hand. We keep our seatbelts on whenever seated in case of random turbulence, so ideally your child straps in as well.
That’s why I term this as safety risk tolerance. Different families feel different comfort levels when it comes to safety risks. For example, did you buy a car seat rated 9/10 for safety or did you insist on buying 10/10? Do you make sure your car seat straps never get twisted? Do you always remove heavy coats before buckling in?
I’m not here to tell you what your safety risk tolerance should be: but make your decision about infant plane tickets accordingly. You should also pair this with question 1 – if your child is super active it might be more difficult to hold them safely.
One more point: in my experience all US based airlines require kids to be free from infant carriers on takeoff. After that, however, you can strap them in the whole way (except, ironically, when the seatbelt sign is on for some carriers). So that doubles as “buckling in” for some families.
4. What circumstances help your child to nap?
Most parents’ biggest fears on planes, aside from safety issues, relate to meltdowns. Since meltdowns relate directly to amount of sleep, knowing the circumstances that best help your child to nap should directly affect your decision about an infant plane ticket.
If your child goes out like a light in the car seat, it might be worth it to you to get that extra seat. If your child falls asleep in infant carriers no problem, maybe you can forego that seat. If you’ve chosen a time to fly that doesn’t coincide with nap time, maybe you don’t need to worry about such issues.
Once you’re looking at flights over 3-4 hours, you’re hoping and praying that your child will nap. While some airlines offer bassinets for young babies on international flights (they are too small for my liking), for the most part you are on your own.
5. What else do you have your hands full with?
We didn’t once pay for an infant plane ticket for our daughter. But now that we have two kids to contend with, the calculus changes. The best thing about having a dedicated seat for your infant is the fact that your hands are free. When you strap them in to a car seat or a CRS you free your hands up to do other things!
You can eat! You can read a book! You can help an older sibling with her coloring pages! You can get up to get something from the overhead bin without worrying about anyone toppling onto the ground!
If you only have one kid and two adults, you’re always guaranteed to have at least two hands free. But once you start looking at two, three, four kids – suddenly you may not have enough hands to go around. Of course, when you have that many kids, unless you’re dealing with quadruplets you are paying for more and more tickets, which leads to the final question.
6. What is your budget?
Every family works with a different budget. And you may consider that budget differently when you are traveling for a vacation to relax as opposed to traveling somewhere out of obligation.
Ultimately, you have to balance every one of these factors against your budget. How much of a premium are you willing to pay to lower your stress levels? Can you an associate a price with your safety risk tolerance? Are you traveling as a single parent who needs to ensure their hands are free at some point? Can you afford a private jet (see below)?
Even if you’re saving money on travel using miles and points earned from credit cards – an extra seat still will cost you something. Make sure the cost meets your family’s needs.
Sometimes, as a traveling dad, I wish someone would just tell me what to do. But only you can decide what’s best for your family. Weigh all the issues before deciding to purchase an infant plane ticket. And please let me know what issues I missed in the comments! Safe travels!
All images by author, except where noted and Chrissy Teigen’s Instagram photo