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United Finally Lets Families Sit Together Without a Fee. But These Airlines Still Don’t

It’s a big policy change.

This week, United Airlines announced that it’s changing its seating policies to allow parents to sit with their children for free. It’s a sigh of relief for families who deal with the added stress of being separated from their young charges on the plane. Airlines charge an average of $20 to let you select seats on a basic fare and when they’re unavailable, you’re at the mercy of the boarding agent or fellow passengers.

In a press release, United explained its new seat map feature that will allow families to dynamically find adjacent seats at the time of booking. Basic Economy and Standard Economy class passengers will be able to travel together with kids under 12 years of age. If free Economy seats aren’t available, it will open up upgraded Preferred Seats—also complimentary. In case of a full flight, last-minute bookings, or aircraft changes, fliers will be able to switch to another flight without any extra charges. 

United Polaris, United First Class, and Economy Plus are excluded. 

A day later, Frontier Airlines followed suit—the airline announced that it will automatically assign adjacent seats to one guardian and any children under 14.

These changes come after President Joe Biden, in his State of the Union address on February 7, slammed airlines for charging families to be seated together and the White House has criticized “junk fees.” Biden said, “We’ll prohibit airlines from charging $50 round trip for families just to be able to sit together. Baggage fees are bad enough–airlines can’t treat your child like a piece of baggage.”

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In July last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation sent a notice to airlines to ensure that children 13 years or younger are seated next to accompanying adults without any fees. “If airlines’ seating policies and practices are barriers to a child sitting next to an adult family member or other accompanying adult family member, the Department will consider additional action consistent with its authorities,” it said.

Related: The Best Tips for Traveling Alone With Small Kids, According to Experts

Airline Seating Policies

For years, travelers have been offered cheat sheets by airlines and experts on how to score seats together. For starters, you need to book everyone under the same reservation and get your tickets as far in advance as possible, so you can have dibs on seats. The Department of Transportation has also shared tips for families to be seated together when flying.

To be fair, most airlines will try to seat families together—all websites say so. But in practice, it comes down to economics. If you have booked the cheapest flight ticket, there will be overages, including meals, carry-on fees, and yes, seat selection. For a family of four, that would mean more than $160 for a round trip just to be next to each other. If it’s a last-minute trip or a full flight, you won’t be able to select seats even if you can pay extra. 

The American Airlines website says that the system automatically detects families under the same reservation and assigns seats together. “We’ll try our best to keep you together, but if seats are limited, we’ll assign seats so children under 15 are next to at least one adult.”

Delta’s policy is a bit more up in the air. “Delta strives to seat family members together upon request,” the website says. However, Delta holds off certain rows for groups of three or more and if you’re a family traveling together, you may be able to book these seats when you buy the tickets under the same reservation.

Southwest operates under an open seating plan. It seems bizarre that travelers aren’t assigned a seat at all. You get a boarding group with a place in line (each flight has three boarding groups of 60 each) and you pick wherever you want to sit when you board. There is a Family Boarding between groups A and B and fliers can get a leg up if purchasing EarlyBird Check-in or Upgraded Boarding.

JetBlue is clear that families might not also find seating together. In fact, it advises travelers with kids to not book the cheapest tier: “Blue Basic fares do not include free advance seat selection, so if you’re traveling with kids and want to be sure to sit together, we recommend booking another fare. Blue, Blue Plus, and Blue Extra all include free advance seat selection, as well as a carry-on bag.”

Low-cost carrier Spirit assigns seats randomly at check-in and doesn’t guarantee you’ll sit together unless you pay for each assignment. “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,” it states on its customer support section.

All airlines suggest fliers contact airline support online or ask for assistance from the flight crew at the gate or flight. 

Related: The Strangest Thing Happened to Me on My First Flight Post-Pandemic