Before the era of basic economy, parents could count on selecting their seats on a flight for free – or at least getting assigned a spot next to their children. But now, almost every major U.S. airlines' cheapest tickets are basic economy fares, which come without perks like free seat selection – and that means things are less certain.
Can you get a seat free or will you have to pay for it … or get assigned a random middle seat? And will the airline really separate you from your young children?
That last question is a source of heartburn for many families. So we got some answers from the three major U.S. airlines on their seat assignment policies for minors (older than two and younger than 12) flying basic economy with a parent.
Basic Economy: What You Should Know
Before we dive in, it's important to know a few things about basic economy. Here's what the three legacy U.S. carriers – American, Delta, and United – offer passengers who book a basic economy fare.
In this case, we're particularly interested in the seat selection policy for passengers flying basic economy. Here's what the three legacy carriers offer for basic economy travelers:
American Airlines Basic Economy
- Baggage: Get a carry-on bag and personal item for free; pay $30 each way for a checked bag (or $60 each way to Europe).
- Seat Selection: Available for a fee at time of booking, starting at $9 or 10 each way. Otherwise, seats are automatically assigned.
- Boarding: Final boarding group (Group 8 or 9 depending on route).
- Earning AAdvantage Miles: Yes.
- Earning Status: Yes, but you’ll earn half the Elite Qualifying Miles and Elite Qualifying Segments as a standard economy fare.
- Upgrades: Not eligible for complimentary upgrades.
- Ticket Changes and Cancellation: Not allowed, except for within 24 hours of booking.
Read our full guide to what's included with an American Basic Economy ticket
Delta Basic Economy
- Baggage: Get a carry-on bag and personal item for free; pay $30 each way for a checked bag (or $60 each way to Europe).
- Seat Selection: Seats are typically assigned at check-in or at the gate, but you can also pay for seat selection on many flights or pick your own for free after check-in opens.
- Boarding: Boards last in Delta’s new boarding order.
- Earning SkyMiles: No.
- Earning Delta Medallion Status: No, basic economy flights no longer earn Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs), Medallion Qualifying Segments (MQSs) and Medallion Qualifying Dollars (MQDs)
- Upgrades: Not eligible for complimentary upgrades if you have Delta Medallion Status or paid upgrades, either.
- Ticket Changes and Cancellation: Free within 24 hours of booking. Otherwise, you can pay $99 to cancel a flight within the U.S. or to the Caribbean, Mexico, or Central America. Long-haul international flights cost $199 to cancel for a Delta eCredit.
Read more: What's included in a Delta Basic Economy ticket?
United Basic Economy
- Baggage: Get a personal item for free; pay $30 each way for a checked bag (or $60 each way to Europe). No carry-ons allowed unless flying to Europe.
- Seat Selection: Available for a fee, starting at $10. Otherwise, seats are automatically assigned.
- Boarding: Final boarding group.
- Earning United MileagePlus Miles: Yes.
- Earning Status: You’ll earn Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) but not Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs)
- Upgrades: Not eligible for complimentary upgrades with United status.
- Ticket Changes and Cancellation: Not allowed, except for within 24 hours of booking
Read our guide to United Basic Economy tickets
Budget carriers like Frontier and Spirit never include bags or seat assignment in the ticket price, so it will always cost extra for seat assignment. Alaska Airlines has a basic economy “Saver” fare that allows passengers to pick seats at the back of the cabin for free. Hawaiian Airlines has started selling basic economy fares as has JetBlue, which also charges a fee to pick most seats. And then there's Southwest, which doesn't sell basic economy fares – and says it never will.
We flew all three legacy carriers' basic economy fares in one day, so check out our “battle of basic economy” to find out the winner.
Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like: Airlines use basic economy fares to nudge you into upgrading to Main Cabin. The fear of not having more than a carry-on bag or not getting to select your seat is often enough to scare many passengers into paying extra to avoid basic economy.
But do the rules of basic economy fares bend when a seat is ticketed to a minor? We turned to the three biggest U.S. legacy airlines for their policy on minors' seating in Basic Economy.
What The Airlines Say About Seating with Children
There are plenty of stories about parents approaching gate agents to make sure they're seated next to their children. Or swapping seats with a neighbor once onboard. But that's not a slam dunk or something you should count on.
So we previously reached out to American, Delta, and United to get their formal policies on how they handle seat assignments with minors and adults on basic economy fares. Here's what they had to say:
American Seating Policies
“Our automated system will run within 24 hours of ticketing, and assign them seats together – a child (under 12) and an adult. This is regardless if they purchased a Basic Economy ticket. In this case, seat assignments would appear 24 hours after ticketing (even on a Basic Economy reservation).”
Translation: According to its policy, American will always assign a minor and adult traveling together seats next to each other, even when flying basic economy. That's a surprisingly family-friendly policy.
Here's more from American's policy:
Delta Seating Policies
“Our Basic Economy fares are designed for travelers who don’t mind where they sit. These seats are assigned after check-in or at the gate which means passengers traveling together, including families, may not be seated together, as highlighted throughout the shopping experience. While our Airport Customer Service team makes every effort to seat families with young children together regardless of ticket type, customers who need to be seated beside another person in their family are encouraged to select Delta’s Main Cabin product that allows for seat selections and ticket changes.
“That said, we do offer the option for Basic Economy customers to purchase a seat assignment starting seven days from departure. It’s important to note that options for seat selection are limited to only the eligible seats that remain available at the time of purchase. In some cases, multiple seats together may not be available at the time of seat selection.”
Translation: While you can purchase seat assignments and may be able to secure seats next to each other with the help of a Delta agent, it may not always work. Delta's policy makes clear that if you need to sit next to your child, you should buy a main cabin economy fare – which typically costs an extra $25 to 40 each way.
Here's a snippet from Delta's policy:
United Seating Policies
“Customers who book Basic Economy an onboard experience similar to our standard economy, but there are some restrictions associated with this fare such as complimentary advance seat assignments. For this reason, we don’t suggest Basic Economy for families who want to be seated together. We understand that some families will still be interested in this fare class, and when seats are available, we work to book families traveling with children together starting 72 hours before the flight departs.”
Translation: Much like Delta, Unites also discourages parents and families from booking basic economy fares, saying there's no guarantee they'll be seated together. However, United stresses that the airline will try to seat children with parents starting 72 hours before departure. But that's a narrow time window, at which point many of the seats next to each other may have been taken.
Here's more from United's family seating policy:
What You Can Do
Of course, it won't always work this way in practice.
You may find agents with airlines like Delta and United are far more accommodating with your own travels. And despite American's generous policy on paper, it may not always be the case that you're automatically assigned seats next to your child. It will often come down to the luck of which agent you speak with – and you can't count on that.
So that said, there are a few things you can do to try to ensure you get a seat next to your child.
- Buy a main cabin economy fare. While it stinks that airlines are now charging more for the pleasure of picking a seat, it could be worth paying the price for the comfort of being next to your children.
- Make sure you're buying tickets together. No matter which airline you're flying, your best chance at getting seated together comes from all being on the same reservation.
- Pay for seat assignments. All three major airlines allow even basic economy travelers to pay extra for seat selection. United's policy is among the best, as you can pay for a seat from the time you check out. American allows that too, but Delta doesn't allow you to pay for a seat flying basic economy until seven days before departure – and it's typically expensive at roughly $29 per seat.
- Contact your airline and ask nicely to be seated together. Some airlines and individual agents will be more helpful than others, but it's worth a shot. You can message your airline on Twitter, send a text to Delta, or hop on the phone after booking.
- Ask at the gate. This could be your last chance. While it may not always work, you may find an agent willing to assign you and your child seats next to each other. Just please … be kind.
- If you're flying Delta and unwilling to pay for a seat, you can try the little-known method to pick your seats for free 24 hours before departure. Just beware that it won't always work to snag two (or more) seats together.
Unfortunately, there is no requirement for the airline to provide a complimentary seat assignment, even when a minor is involved. American's policy is clearly the best, but even then, the only way to ensure you get a seat next to your child is by paying for that seat.
Unfortunately, the spread of basic economy spells trouble for traveling parents and families. There are some ways to ensure you sit together, and some airlines handle it better than others.
But if you want to make sure you sit next to your child on the plane, your safest bet is to simply pay for it.
This is bs especially if a child is a minor. But good luck to the person who gets to sit by my hyper 5 year old, at least I’ll have a pleasant flight (jk..jk..). Can you guys imagine how quickly carriers would accommodate families if this happens regularly? Can you imagine what a horrible flight everyone would have due to stupid rules such as these, especially if children are sitting away from parents whom would control them? I say parents should just start booking and letting carriers deal with the fallout from their greediness. Such rules wouldn’t last very long. Flights are already miserable enough as it is stuck in a cramp space for a few hours, let alone being next to a child with no one in charge of them anywhere close to them.
Ya they just make it our fault when they try to remove our children from the flight and we put up a fight
We recently booked a basic economy ticket for 2 adults/1 child (11-year-old) one-way that included 2 separate flights on United about 6 weeks out.
My wife called the MileagePlus customer service number and was easily successful in asking to be assigned seating together with her minor child. YMMV of course. I also would have called HUCA if the first call had not been successful.
If you want seats together, pay the fare. We’ve had a plane held up while a family of 5 pitched a hissy fit about seats. We pay the fare. You can’t have it both ways.
Of course your name is Karen 😂
im still laughing!! this was the perfect response lol.
Hahaha. Yes, so fitting.
Hey Karen, try this one on—trying to book a flight for my family to London. United wants to charge me $650 extra just to select my seats. That’s an insane amount of $ for something that used to always be free. It’s easy to say “just pay the full fair” but are you willing to pay $650 extra just to select a seat?? Rules like these just feel like they are targeting families with young kids. “We know you won’t want to be separated from your kids so we are going to stick it to you—happy holidays”
A Malcar you are right on the money. They are basically price gouging families with young children. It’s one thing to pay a small sum for one passenger but totally different to multiply by 4 or even more. It never used to be a question to sit next to your young child but now we are extorted. Add that along with baggage fees if you would rather check two larger bags than carry four or more smaller bags and have to find over head storage, not to mention booster seats and such, and you could nearly double the price of flying for a family. That’s insane.
No, Karen, it is absolutely ridiculous to have to pay to sit next to your own small child. It shows how greedy the American airline industry has become. International airlines make sure a small child is sitting next to at least one parent. They will also seat an older child within one row of a parent, which is a great compromise. I have no problem paying extra if I want an exit row, bulkhead, more legroom, etc. And, I don’t expect all 4 if us to sit together, but it’s complete b.s. that airlines think it’s ok to seat a 2 yo away from a parent.
This infuriates me to no end, and feels like it unfairly targets parents of young children. I don’t use overhead bin space, don’t care where I sit on the plane (so long as it’s next to my child) and actually prefer to board last when I’m traveling with fidgety children. So the extra $240-320 (for a family of 4) we’re often charged just for wanting to keep tabs on our children feels obscene. What if there’s an emergency on board, can I trust a stranger to affix their oxygen mask or properly evacuate my 4 year old? What’s to keep a pervy stranger from inappropriately touching an unattended kid? It happens to adult women on planes. Who would be liable in these instances, the cheap-o parents, or the criminally greedy airlines?
Time to re-regulate the airlines. So sick of getting charged for everything little thing (most of which used to be free) while they take taxpayer handouts and execs rake in money.
My kids are grown. Basic economy didn’t exist when they were too small to sit separately from me on a plane. But if it were important enough for me to be seated by them and I did not want to leave it to chance, I would have paid for a main cabin fare. Or driven. No cheap airfare would have been worth my child (under, say, age nine) being seated far away from me. The airlines have the upper hand here, whether the traveling public likes it or not. Also, I never book a basic economy seat because I do not ever want to sit in the middle (or even the window, unless there are family members seated next to me). I gladly buy the higher priced fare so that I’m guaranteed an aisle seat. So if I am asked to give up the seat that I paid to choose so that a family can sit together, I am going to politely refuse (unless an FA wants to move me to an equal or better seat).
My husband, 10 year old daughter, and myself are flying from Cleveland to Boston to Rome in less than 48 hours. We can’t afford the extra fee for chosen seats. I know some people will say then we shouldn’t go.
I just tried to get out seats together, but it is an extra $150 for just one portion of the flight. I hope that they will put one of us next to her, but this isn’t guaranteed either.
I’m glad some people can afford to pick their seat, but not everyone can.
This is literally the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard that it would even be an option for me to buy a ticket for my 2 year old and her to sit away from me. Someone would have to restrain her. She would be screaming bloody murder with stranger danger for 5 plus hours. Ludacris.
There is something universally unacknowledged by those who pay for their seats and are trying to shame those who can’t or won’t pay the extra fee to ensure that their children can sit with them. This is an artificial charge! It was designed by the airlines not only to boost their per-flyer revenue, but to divert attention away from the fact that they have not recovered their pre-Covid volume of customers and thus don’t even need customers to “compete” over seats. Further, the fact that multiple airlines have adopted “basic economy” as an airline sales concept doesn’t actually mean they have identified a value commodity for customers—it’s an industry coup intended to funnel more people into the higher price tiers and inure customers to more add-on costs.
One more thing, the website hosting this article is “thriftytraveler.” Karen and everyone else who has written shame-inducing comments about not wanting to pay extra is a troll.