Most Airlines Still Don't Let Kids Sit With Their Parents for Free

One year after President Biden called for all airlines to provide free family seating, how many have committed to doing it?

Peter Butler Senior Editor
Peter is a writer and editor for the CNET How-To team. He has been covering technology, software, finance, sports and video games since working for @Home Network and Excite in the 1990s. Peter managed reviews and listings for Download.com during the 2000s, and is passionate about software and no-nonsense advice for creators, consumers and investors.
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Peter Butler
5 min read
an illustration of a four-person family walking through an airport with an airplane outside the window behind them

Only four airlines have responded to President Joe Biden's call to make family seating free.

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If you're a parent who has ever traveled with young children by airplane, you probably know what a rough experience it can be. You have to make your kids sit still, keep them entertained for hours on end, and comfort them if they get earaches and motion sickness.

On top of all that, you may not even be seated next to your child.

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Airlines can sometimes separate family members on flights with seats in different rows. Standard or basic fare tickets and ultra-economy carriers may not even allow families to pick seats ahead of time, resulting in children as young as three years old being separated from their parents.

For the last two years, the US Department of Transportation has been pressuring airlines to ensure families can sit together without paying more. A June 2022 DOT notice urged airlines to do "everything in their power to ensure that children who are age 13 or younger are seated next to an accompanying adult." 

DOT Fee-Free Family Seating dashboard launched in 2023 shows you which airlines meet its criteria for fee-free family seating. There's only four airlines so far, and each of their policies is slightly different. 

We've also got all the info you need on the other six major US airlines and why their family seating policies don't currently meet the minimum federal expectations.

For more money tips, learn how to file a tax extension or how to find lower prices on airline tickets.

What is fee-free family airplane seating?

To earn the Department of Transportation's "Fee-Free Family Seating" certification, an airline must guarantee that children 13 years old and younger will sit next to an accompanying adult "at no additional cost for all fare types."

The federal department emphasizes the "guarantee" aspect of the program, specifically mentioning that airlines that "make efforts" to seat young children near parents will not satisfy the requirements for the fee-free family seating designation.

All of these fee-free family seating guarantees come with some "limited conditions," such as requiring a parent and child to be on the same reservation and the availability of seats within a given class at the time.

Note that these guarantees ensure that a child will be sitting next to one parent or guardian. The policies don't guarantee that entire families will sit together.

Which airlines guarantee families will sit together?

As of March 2024, only four airlines offer fee-free family seating -- Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Frontier Airlines and JetBlue.

a screenshot of the Family Seating Dashboard on the US Department of Transportation website. Alaska, America, Frontier and JetBlue are marked with green checks, while Allegiant, Delta, Hawaiian, Southwest, Spirit and United all have red x marks
US Department of Transportation/Screenshot by CNET

American and Frontier both announced their new guarantees shortly after President Joe Biden excoriated airlines for "junk fees" during his 2023 State of the Union Address. Alaska says that it's always prioritized family seating and will now guarantee each child gets to sit next to one parent, per Travel and LeisureJetBlue followed with a similar guarantee last September.

Alaska Airlines does not allow passengers using its lowest Saver fares to preselect seats, but it guarantees children 13 years old and younger will be seated next to at least one accompanying adult in the party. 

American Airlines: Children 14 years old and younger are guaranteed to be seated next to a parent or guardian. Although fliers on Basic Economy fares need to pay fees to select specific seats, young children won't be separated from a parent or guardian if they don't pay extra. 

Frontier Airlines: This discount airline also recently announced a change to its family seating policy, guaranteeing that children 13 years and under will be able to sit next to an accompanying adult.

JetBlue Airlines: The most recent airline to include fee-free family seating, JetBlue will auto-seat children ages 13 and under with an accompanying adult, as long as seats are available.

Family seating policies on airlines in the US

Airline Family seating policy
Alaska No extra cost for any fare
Allegiant No guarantee, seat selection for extra fee
American No extra cost for any fare
Delta No guarantee, no seat selection for lowest fares
Frontier No extra cost for any fare
Hawaiian No guarantee, no seat selection for lowest fares
JetBlue No extra cost for any fare
Southwest No guarantee, open seating
Spirit No guarantee, seat selection for extra fee
United Families can rebook flights at no cost if separated

What are family seating policies for the other airlines?

The other airlines included in the DOT dashboard -- Allegiant, Delta, Hawaiian, Southwest, Spirit and United -- all have different specific family seating policies, but a common theme is that families who purchase tickets at the lowest price levels cannot choose seats in advance and can't ensure that a child will sit with an adult. 

Here's how the six airlines without fee-free family seating manage parents traveling with children.

Allegiant Airlines: Allegiant says that "While we will do our best to accommodate families, the availability of seats together cannot be guaranteed." Depending on the seats you choose, Allegiant seat selection fees can run as high as $80 per ticket.

Delta Airlines: Delta's basic economy fares don't let passengers select seats ahead of boarding. Delta says that while it "strives to seat family members together upon request," there's no guarantee that children will sit near their parents.

Hawaiian Airlines: Customers with the lowest price tickets -- Main Cabin Basic -- can't preselect seats and will be assigned seats at the gate. The site recommends contacting the company's reservations department to let them know you're traveling with children.

Southwest Airlines: Southwest has an "open seating" policy where passengers choose their seats as they board. Fliers are grouped by the letters A, B and C and board the plane in alphabetical order by group.

Southwest allows adults traveling with children 6 years old and younger to board between groups A and B, and is considering expanding family seating to include kids up to 13. There's no guarantee that families will sit together.

Spirit Airlines: This discount air carrier says nothing about family seating in its contract of carriage, and unlike most other airlines, it doesn't have a dedicated webpage about traveling with children. Picking seats beforehand incurs a fee that starts at $5 and which most travel sites peg at $12 to $40.

United Airlines: In February 2023, United announced a new policy to make it easier for parents to sit with children 12 and under. If there are no adjacent seats available, families can switch to another flight that allows them to sit with their kids, at no extra charge (as long as the flight is to the same destination, with seats in the same cabin). United's policy does not qualify it for a green checkmark on the DOT dashboard.

Although the DOT's dashboard encourages more airlines to commit to fee-free family seating, we still haven't seen many airlines make the commitment. We'll continue to update this story as airlines adjust their policies.

For more travel tips, learn how to pack your carry-on the right way and travel essentials you should never forget to pack.