Hot Take

Sorry, But I’ll Never Pay Extra To Sit Next To My Kids On An Airplane

Only four major U.S. airlines guarantee family seats together at no additional charge.

Written by Jamie Davis Smith
Kids sit next to their mom on an airplane seat.
Maskot/Getty Images

There is little I wouldn’t do for my children. I take great joy in showing them the world and introducing them to new sights, sounds, and tastes. I want them to be global citizens, to understand that most people on Earth live very differently than they do, and to approach these differences with an open mind.

When my daughter wanted to see the Eiffel Tower, I made it happen. When my son wanted to check Asia off the list of continents he had visited, we took a detour to cross the Continental Divide in Istanbul to make it happen.

Yet, there is one request I have yet to grant: No matter how many times we’ve flown or how far we’ve gone, I have never paid for airline seats to ensure we sit together on an airplane. I never will.

A Contentious Topic

The internet remains starkly divided on the issue of whether families should pay to ensure they are seated together on airplanes.

Some parents proclaim that they would never gamble on being separated from their children, even on a locked and sealed aircraft with no chance of escape, 35,000 feet in the air. Others, many without children, claim that parents need to accept that added fees to sit next to a baby or preschooler are just part of the cost of having kids.

The latter group says that parents should not expect special treatment and that everyone must pony up extra cash if they want to sit next to any travel companion, no matter how helpless or tiny. I occasionally visualize these people’s faces when they realize that not changing seats with a parent may mean being inadvertently pressed into babysitting a toddler.

Other parents, like me, outright refuse this unfair “tax” on families, believing this policy to be expensive and unfair.

Taking the Gamble

Thus far, my family has been lucky. Even after more flights than I can count, my children and I have always managed to sit together.

Sometimes, airlines automatically assign us seats in the same row. Occasionally, an attentive gate agent will change our seats after check-in. I suspect these kind souls are parents themselves, acting in solidarity.

Other times, I have approached airline employees to ask for a seat change.

On a handful of occasions, I have asked other passengers to switch seats once we are on the plane, although this is always my last choice. Almost every time, they readily agree, not wanting to be responsible for children who are not their own. The lone passenger who initially refused my request quickly changed his mind before takeoff when he realized the implication of his decision.

On this flight, my son repeatedly tried to ask me questions from his seat on opposite sides of the aisle. I had to lean over this reluctant passenger more than once to hand my son his tablet, activities, and some snacks. He quickly decided it was better to endure a middle seat than fly next to a needy child separated from his caretaker.

Sticking Point

I know my approach of not paying for seats and hoping for the best is not for everyone. One day, my luck will run out — but I still refuse to pay to guarantee I will sit with my children.

Part of this is due to thrift. I have an unlimited appetite for travel but not an unlimited travel budget. While I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to travel with my children, that is largely the result of careful saving and planning.

A plane ride, no matter how long, seems like such a small part of our trip. Choosing seats for a family can sometimes cost as much as an additional ticket. And those dollars spent on seat selection might mean skimping on meals or giving up something more meaningful and fun once we reach our destination. For me, the trade-off is not worth the small risk of not sitting with my children on a boring flight.

Moreover, airplanes are nothing more than a means to an end for my family. While I would never want to see the Colosseum or the Great Pyramids of Egypt without my kids, I don’t think flying has to be a shared experience that we go through side by side.

I also believe the common-sense rules my children must follow at home do not apply in the sky. They can have as much screen time as they want and as many snacks as it takes to keep them happy. If we ever wind up sitting a few rows apart, I’m not sure my children, who spend most flights with their eyes glued to their screens, would really notice much of a difference.

Laws and Legislation

Not paying for airline seats is also a small act of protest.

Most international airlines guarantee that children can sit with at least one parent at no additional cost. The United States Congress briefly considered legislation implementing similar rules for American carriers, but they abandoned this effort.

In June 2022, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a notice strongly encouraging airlines to do “everything in their power to ensure that children who are 13 or younger are seated next to an accompanying adult.”

However, DOT’s Fee-Free Family Seating dashboard, which launched in 2023, shows only four airlines meeting its criteria as of March 2024: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, and JetBlue.

While this issue pales in comparison to other ways parents in America are slighted, such as not having guaranteed paternal leave or affordable child care, it still makes me angry. I don’t want to buy in, literally, to another aspect of American culture that hurts parents.

While I sometimes fantasize about having hours to myself on a plane with nothing to do except read a good book, most parents want to sit with their children. How else are parents supposed to take care of their needs? To make sure they don’t needlessly bother flight attendants or other passengers? Likewise, as my experience proves, most other passengers don’t want to get stuck next to a kid they have never met.

Seating families together also makes boarding, disembarking, and caring for children’s needs easier. That means less work for airline staff. The current policy serves no one (aside from “Big Aviation,” presumably raking in the profit).

Until I can think of a convincing reason to buy into the ruse, I will keep refusing to pay extra to ensure my family sits together.