Not too long ago, parents could count on selecting their seats on a flight for free … or at least getting assigned a spot next to their children. But the growth of cheap basic economy fares and budget airlines that charge extra fees for everything can throw that in doubt – and it causes anxiety for parents and traveling families.
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. And the Biden administration is pressuring airlines to step up, pushing legislation to ban charging more on fares or extra fees with the President himself recently posting on social media: “You ought to be able to fly with your child – and sit next to them – without paying an additional fee.”
Some airlines have answered the call, guaranteeing families can sit together no matter what kind of ticket they buy. But still, not every airline does it.
Here's a look at what you can expect when flying budget airlines or on the cheapest basic economy ticket with minors.
- Basic Economy: What You Should Know
- What The Airlines Say About Seating with Children
- What You Can Do
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 $75 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: Free within 24 hours of booking. Otherwise, you can pay a fee to cancel a flight within the 50 U.S. states, but you must be an AAdvantage member to do so
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 $75 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 boarding order.
- Earning SkyMiles: No.
- Earning Delta Medallion Status: No, basic economy flights no longer earn 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 $75 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 almost always cost extra for seat assignment. Hawaiian Airlines has started selling basic economy fares as has JetBlue, which also charges a fee to pick most seats. Alaska Airlines has a basic economy “Saver” fare, but as of May 2023, passengers traveling on these fares are no longer able to pick seats at the back of the cabin for free.
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 what if you realize it too late? Or what if you're flying an ultra-low-cost carrier that charges extra for seat selection?
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.
But as federal pressure has grown, more and more airlines are going out of their way to seat parents and kids next to one another. As you'll see, even some budget airlines who normally charge big bucks for a seat assignment will guarantee you a spot next to your child … while even some major, legacy U.S. airlines still do not.
Here's how some of the biggest U.S. airlines handle seat assignments with minors and adults on their cheapest tickets.
Alaska Airlines Seating Policies
It's crystal clear: If you're flying Alaska, you can count on getting assigned a seat next to your child – even flying basic economy.
Here's what the airline says in its policies: “We guarantee that children 13 and under will be seated next to at least one accompanying adult at no additional cost, including for Saver fares.”
So long as you book those flights under one reservation, you'll be able to select adjacent seats with a child free of charge. If you book the cheapest Alaska Saver fare – the airline's name for basic economy – Alaska will assign you seats next to one another no later than 26 hours before departure. And if the airline can't seat the entire family together, they say they'll sit every child under the age of 13 with at least one adult.
Here's more from Alaska's policy:
American Seating Policies
American's customer service plan guarantees children 14 and under will be seated with at least one accompanying adult so long as the family is booked on the same reservation and there are adjacent seats available in the same fare class the tickets were originally booked in, including basic economy fares.
If those conditions are met and American cannot seat you next to your child, the airline says it will rebook your whole party for free or provide you a refund.
For years, American had automatically placed children under 15 with at least one adult on the same reservation soon after booking at no additional cost, including in basic economy. But last February, the airline updated its customer service plan to now guarantee families can sit together for free.
Here's more from American's policy:
Delta Seating Policies
Unlike many other major U.S. carriers, Delta has stopped short of guaranteeing that parents will sit next to their children on a basic economy reservation.
Reached for comment on Wednesday, here's what a spokesperson had to say:
“Delta does not charge family seating fees and regardless of the ticket class purchased, will always work with customers on a case-by-case basis to ensure their family seating needs are met. At Delta, seating families together is a top priority. As noted on our website, when customers have seating questions, we encourage them to reach out to us as soon as possible to allow for the opportunity to address their concerns.”
Translation: Delta will do its best to work with traveling families to ensure they're seated together … but it's not a sure thing. It'll require you to reach out to the airline directly and make such a request – though, in some cases, Delta has some automated processes that will seat children next to parents on the plane so long as they're booked on the same reservation.
Here's a snippet from Delta's policy:
Frontier Seating Policies
Yes, even a notorious budget airline will make sure you're not separated from your children onboard. And no, it doesn't require paying Frontier extra fees.
Here's what Frontier says: “When one or more of the passengers on a reservation are 13 years of age or younger, Frontier will guarantee adjacent seats for the child or children and an accompanying adult (over age 13) at no additional cost for all fare types.”
Like many other airlines on this list, you'll just need to make sure you're booked under the same reservation so Frontier knows to sit you together.
Here's the full Frontier Airlines policy:
JetBlue Seating Policies
Even on the cheapest JetBlue basic economy ticket – aka Blue Basic fares, where you normally have to pay for a seat assignment – you should. And JetBlue says they'll do it automatically.
Here's what the airline says: “We’ve now automated the family seating process, and it auto-seats any children ages 13 and under with an accompanying adult as early as booking time, if seats are available.”
Yet again, you'll need to make sure parent and child are booked under the same reservation for that automatic seat assignment process to kick in. JetBlue also recommends booking early to ensure that adjacent seats are still available to stick you in.
Here's more from JetBlue's full family seating policy:
Southwest Seating Policies
Southwest does things completely differently. There's no seat assignment, period: The airline uses a “first come, first served,” seating model where you get to pick any available seat for free. The sooner you check in, the sooner you board – and the more seat choices you'll get.
Depending on how old your children are, Southwest will do even more to keep you together:
- If you're traveling with a child 6 years old or younger, Southwest will let you board as part of a special “Family Boarding” group: after A group passengers have gotten onboard but before the airline moves to its second, B boarding group. And Southwest will let up to two adults board at that time.
- With children between the ages of 7 and 13, Southwest merely says it will “endeavor to seat a child next to one accompanying passenger” upon request.
Boarding earlier with children 6 years and younger, you should have plenty of seats to pick from to ensure you're together. But with older children, it's no sure thing.
Here's more from Southwest's full family seating policy:
Spirit Seating Policies
America's biggest budget carrier doesn't guarantee you'll sit next to your kiddo.
Just like with Spirit baggage fees, anyone flying Spirit is on the hook to pay extra for a seat assignment … or get assigned to a random one. And that includes families traveling with small children. Here's a direct snippet from Spirit's policy:
“Spirit will randomly assign you a seat at check-in for free, but we can't guarantee that you'll get to sit with your friends or family. If Guests with children aged 13 and under do not opt to pre-select seats at the time of booking, our gate agents and Flight Attendants will work to provide adjacent seats when possible.”
So while you can ask a Spirit gate agent or flight attendant to help seat you next to a child, that's far from a sure thing.
Here's the full Spirit policy:
United Seating Policies
United unveiled a new family seating policy last February that ensures children under 12 can sit next to at least one adult in their traveling party for free – including on United basic economy fares.
The airline has a new seat map feature that makes this possible by automatically finding adjacent seats for families booking together. If all standard economy seats are occupied, United will even open up “Preferred seats” toward the front of the plane to avoid separating families.
If the flight is full and there's nothing available, the airline will allow families to switch flights for free.
It's a big change. United previously warned families with children not to book their cheaper basic fares, which come without free seat assignment. Parents anxious about being separated from their children were better off paying an extra $9 to $15 apiece to select a seat or upgrading to a standard economy fare with free seat selection.
Here's more from United's family seating policy:
What You Can Do
Of course, it won't always work this way in practice.
While airlines like America and United and even Frontier have adopted much more generous policies, it may not always be the case that you're automatically assigned seats next to your child. You may find agents with airlines like Delta will be accommodating, but 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 many 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 or more 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 – at least not yet.
Unfortunately, the growth of budget airlines and the spread of basic economy has caused trouble for traveling parents and families. Some airlines have created new policies and procedures to avoid splitting families up.
But not every airline has gone that far. So you may need to simply hope that your gate agent or flight attendant will help you out … or just pay more for a seat assignment and avoid the drama altogether.