Ask any parent about the most difficult situations with young children, and managing air travel will probably be near the top of their list.
To make a tough travel situation worse, 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.
The US Department of Transportation has been pressuring airlines for months 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."
A new DOT Fee-Free Family Seating dashboard shows you which airlines meet its criteria for fee-free family seating. There's only three airlines so far, and each of their policies is slightly different.
We've also got all the info you need on the other seven major US airlines and why their family seating policies don't currently meet the minimum federal expectations.
For more money tips, learn why 529 plans are now more flexible 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 provide fee-free family seating?
As of March 2023, only three airlines offer fee-free family seating -- Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Frontier Airlines.
American and Frontier both announced their new guarantees shortly after President Joe Biden excoriated airlines for "junk fees" during his State of the Union Address in early February. 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 Leisure.
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.
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 guarantee, lowest fares can select seats with extra fee|
|Southwest||No guarantee, open seating|
|Spirit||No guarantee, seat selection for extra fee|
|United||Fee-free family seating coming soon|
What are the family seating policies for the other airlines?
The other airlines included in the DOT dashboard -- Allegiant, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, 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 seven 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.
JetBlue Airline: JetBlue does not allow seat selection for its standard Blue Basic fares, but you can pay between $5 and $40 extra to select seats, according to The Points Guy. There's no guarantee that kids will sit with their parents.
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, United also announced a new policy to make it easier for children 12 and under to sit with parents, but it has not yet rolled out the changes to its Basic Economy fares. The airline says that the changes are coming "soon."
Whether the DOT's new dashboard encourages more airlines to commit to fee-free family seating remains to be seen, but the quick and easy visual tool should make it easier for families to make informed decisions. 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.