Flying with a baby, car seat or lap child buckle

Flying with a baby: Lap child vs buying a seat

When deciding between flying with a child as a lap child or purchasing a separate seat, you must balance comfort, safety, and your budget. While having your child on your lap can be more budget-friendly, especially for domestic flights where U.S. airlines allow children under 2 to fly for free, it may not be the most comfortable or safest option. The length of flight also should play into your decision. Don’t worry, going on a family vacation and making memories is worth the effort of figuring out how you want your family to fly.

You have two options to consider when flying with a baby or toddler under 2 years old:

  1. Buy a seat for the baby/toddler
  2. Fly with the baby/toddler on your lap

Please note that we are not safety advisors, we are sharing what we have seen on the large volume of flights we have taken and what choices are available.

Flying with a baby (under 2 years old)

Option 1) Buy a seat

Aviation experts, including the FAA, recommend securing children in their own seats using an appropriate child restraint system to enhance safety during the flight. This is particularly crucial during turbulence or unexpected flight incidents. We especially approve this option for long-haul flights or overseas flights as the adult’s comfort level may be hampered with a lap child.

The impact to you is that you need to purchase an extra (adult-priced or discounted) seat on the aircraft and bring a car seat or approved device on board.

Safest option (FAA recommendation)Cost of buying the extra ticket/seat
The car seat can not get lost or mishandledThe flight may not have been sold out, meaning you would have had space anyhow
Evaluating whether to buy a seat for your infant or toddler

Option 2) Fly with a lap child

U.S. airlines allow for one lap child per adult. The ease on and off of the aircraft and budget constraints cannot be overlooked as policies allow your baby to fly for free on your lap. We worked in aviation and saw this as the most popular choice, especially for short-haul flights under 2-3 hours. Any longer than 3 hours, you have a very uncomfortable baby and parent — this is especially true if the baby wants to crawl around and touch everything.

While this is a free child-flying option, the biggest consideration is safety. Ask yourself if you feel comfortable with the baby being less secure during turbulence or an extraordinary safety event. (Many travelers feel okay about this risk, so we’re not saying this to intimidate you.)

Cheapest optionSafety risk
Easier to get on and off the aircraftYour flight comfort may be lower, especially if your 1+ year old wants to move around
Evaluating if you should fly with a lap child

Airline observations: Lap child vs buying a seat

With the advisories and policies that exist, what are people actually doing?

Our observations show that for short, domestic flights, most parents opt to hold their babies on their laps, attracted by the cost savings since children under two fly free. This choice is prevalent for quick trips or if the parents are traveling on a budget.

On the other hand, for longer or international flights, parents are increasingly likely to purchase a separate seat for their child. This decision is driven by a combination of considerations for the child’s and parent’s comfort and safety. Safety aside, having a familiar seat for the child to sleep in (nothing better than a sleeping baby during a long flight) will provide an all-around more relaxed experience.

Thus, the decision largely hinges on the flight’s duration, safety concerns, and personal comfort levels. If you are bringing your car seat but want to check it, make sure you understand how to pack the car seat for checked baggage.

FAA recommendation for flying with baby

We would be remiss not to address where things get contradictory. You are allowed to fly with a lap child and it provides you with a free ticket, but the FAA disagrees:

“Although children who have not reached their second birthday are permitted to travel as lap children, the FAA strongly discourages this practice and recommends that you secure your child in an approved CRS in their own seat for the entire flight.”

Federal Aviation Administration

Thus, to follow the FAA’s flying with children advice you need to bring a forward or backward-facing car seat on the plane and install it in its own airline seat. This translates into buying a ticket for your newborn.

FAA approved travel devices

It’s not just about bringing a car seat or device on board the aircraft, you must have one that is certified. You can easily figure this out with a review of your device. Look for print with the phrase “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.”

We’re all about easy-to-carry devices since you’ll be taking them on the aircraft. Here are some choices to consider:

  • Airplane Safety Harness — This will feel like being in the car to your kids, 1 year or older, and travels super light
  • Lightweight Car Seat — Good choice due to light profile and aircraft approved, and can do rear or front facing.

If you are in any doubt, please read the FAA information and check with your airline’s policies. They may vary or be updated at any time.

Evaluating lap child choices by age

Flying with an infant on your lap (newborn-12 months old)

This is the sweetest age to travel with your infant. They’re cuddly, they sleep all the time, and they don’t know they should go on a tear down the aisle. There is no more to add than that. It’s the easiest time if you’re flying with a lap child.

Flying with a toddler on your lap (1-2 years old)

Flying with a toddler on your lap, especially when they are between 1 and 2 years old, presents its own set of challenges. At this age, toddlers are naturally more active and have a harder time sitting still for extended periods. We recommend against a lap child on flights longer than ~2.5 hours if your child is over 1 year old. This is because the longer the flight, the more difficult it is to manage their restlessness and need for movement.

If your toddler can be engaged watching or using a device, don’t hesitate to use it to keep them entertained. Screen time can be valuable if you enter “survival mode” during the flight. It’s all about keeping your toddler calm (and seated), particularly on longer-duration flights.

Even if your toddler has their own seat, they will likely want to sit on your lap at some point during the flight, which is approved when the seatbelt sign is off.

Tips and rules

Lap child flight rules you didn’t know

We wanted to cover these few rules, for those who do not know them yet.

  • Only one lap child can sit on each row. This is based on only one extra oxygen mask per row.
  • You may only have one lap child per adult. Seems obvious, yes, but if you have some twins or Irish twins, you may want to know this.
  • Depending on the airline, you may have to approach the ticket counter to get your boarding pass. Budget extra time before your flight if you don’t get a mobile boarding pass when checking in the day prior.
  • Due to safety evacuation rules, you can not sit in an exit row with a lap child.
  • The ticket agent may ask to see your child’s birth certificate. Travel with a copy.

Airline family boarding rules

If you’re flying with Southwest Airlines, you can board right after the A group since you have a child with you and this is classified as family boarding. Once they start boarding the A group, go ahead and line up near the employee scanning tickets so you don’t miss the announcement. Anyone who boards the plane after you may try to keep their distance since it is open-seating — good luck for perhaps having an empty seat near you!

Flying with baby expert tips, lap child vs buy a seat

With other airlines, you will board in your assigned boarding group with your specified seat location.

Breezy tip: If you’re selecting your seats on the aircraft and can not get a seat together, do not worry. This will get flagged and you can also talk to the gate agent before you board if you don’t get reassigned a seat together. Airlines will ensure children are next to at least one adult in the party.

Flying with baby tips

There are long lists out there. Here is the synthesis of what you need to know. The rest you can handle as any issues arise.

  • Prepare for blowouts. I.e. Bring enough diapers, wipes, and a change of clothes.
  • Bring enough milk and snacks for a flight delay.
  • Utilize cheap entertainment. I.e. The flight attendant can bring extra cups or spoons to keep those little hands busy.
  • Keep baby comfortable in takeoff and landing. This is a great time to do bottle feedings or offer pacifiers.
  • Pick a flight time that is convenient for naps or baby’s happiest time of the day. See our easy morning flight tips.
  • If you’re flying with a lap child, bring yourself things to do that don’t require moving. If baby falls asleep on you, DON’T MOVE!

Most of all, have a positive attitude about it and you’ll do great. Other flyers will be supportive of you and you’ve got this!

Summary: Lap Child vs Buying a Seat

When deciding whether to fly with your baby or toddler on your lap or to purchase a separate seat, consider factors like safety, comfort, and budget. Flying with your child on your lap can be economical, particularly on domestic flights where children under 2 often fly for free. However, for longer flights, buying a seat may enhance safety and comfort, making it worth the additional cost.

Ultimately, the choice depends on what feels right for your family. Happy, breezy travels with baby!

Peruse more of our expert tip guides:

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