We became parents about a year ago, and suffice it to say that traveling with an infant sure presents all kinds of new challenges that may have never previously crossed your mind. While I’d consider myself a “travel expert” who can go through the whole airport and flying experience half asleep, flying with a baby is a whole new challenge.
If you’re traveling with a baby under two years old (meaning up until the day prior to their second birthday), you have the option of either traveling with them as a lap infant (meaning they don’t need a seat), or you can buy a seat for them.
Now, when our son was first born, I thought to myself “yay, he has the world’s ultimate airline companion pass, and can fly with us for free, or at least for very little.” However, as we’ve actually started to fly more with our son, we’re realizing that might not be as great as it sounds, and buying a seat is probably the better bet.
So in this post I wanted to discuss some of those considerations, and also hear what other parents think. Let’s discuss cost, safety, and comfort, which I view as the three biggest considerations.
The cost of a lap infant vs. buying a seat
The single biggest benefit of traveling with a lap infant rather than buying them a separate seat is the cost savings. What’s the cost of traveling with a lap infant (meaning they don’t get their own seat)?
- On domestic flights, you can have them fly with you at no cost; you can either add them at the time of ticketing, or all the way up to check-in, even at the airport
- On international flights, you can expect to pay up to 10% of the adult fare; however, since airline pricing is dynamic, it’s not always going to be the same amount, and sometimes it might be a bit more than you expect, and other times it might be a bit less than you expect
- I’ve written about infant award travel, as different frequent flyer programs have different policies in this regard, and some programs are particularly awesome
If you choose to buy a seat for your infant, you can expect that you’ll typically have to pay the same price that adults have to pay. Some airlines will offer a small discount, but I find that to be the exception rather than the norm. Now, to be fair, there are some additional benefits to buying a ticket for your infant (beyond the added comfort, which I’ll address later):
- If the infant has their own seat, they get an additional baggage allowance
- Your infant can start racking up miles if you booked a ticket for them, as lap infants don’t earn miles
One other consideration is that if you’re on a flight that isn’t very full and you are traveling with a lap infant, you can always use the empty seat next to you, should there be one. Some gate agents might even be helpful and offer to try to keep an empty seat next to you. However, with flights as full as they are nowadays, that’s definitely not something I’d count on.
There are a couple of other potential strategies to consider if you’re hoping for an empty seat:
- Southwest has an open seating policy, so I imagine that if you’re traveling with an infant, it’s likely that the seat next to you will be among the least to be filled, since no one in their right mind wants to sit next to a stranger’s infant
- Intra-Europe business class offers a blocked middle seat, so if you’re two parents traveling with a little one, you can always seat your infant there; it’s basically the same as buying a seat
In terms of cost, I think we can all agree that there’s a huge advantage to traveling with a lap infant.
The safety of a lap infant vs. buying a seat
The next major consideration when it comes to traveling with an infant is safety.
If you’re traveling with a lap infant, you basically just hold your baby the whole flight. At least in the United States, unless you bring a device of your own, they’re in no way strapped in, and in the case of severe turbulence, there could be some danger. Understandably, many people have safety concerns about traveling with a lap infant.
Meanwhile if you buy your infant their own seat, you can always bring a car seat to place on the seat (assuming it’s compliant with airline regulations), and then seat them in that the entire flight, and strap them in.
There’s simply no denying that it’s safer to have your baby strapped into a car seat rather than just holding them for the entire flight. However, people have very different opinions about how much of a risk people are taking. Some think safety concerns over traveling with a lap infant are unfounded, while others think it’s irresponsible to travel with a lap infant.
I’m somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, in the case of severe turbulence (which can happen), I wouldn’t want to just be holding a baby in my arms. On the other hand, how many billions of flights do people take per year, and how many babies are seriously injured when traveling as lap infants?
Based on what I’ve seen, the risk is infinitesimally small. I think most of us take bigger risks with our babies on a daily basis (like getting in any car, even if they’re properly strapped in).
The comfort of a lap infant vs. buying a seat
Perhaps the biggest consideration in deciding whether to travel with a lap infant or buy a seat for your baby is comfort. This is so personal, because everyone’s baby is different — how much do they weigh, how easily do they sleep in a car seat, how restless are they otherwise, etc.?
For example, our son is an amazing sleeper at home — he sleeps through the night every night, and he does pretty well with nap time. However, as he got older, he started sleeping on his stomach, so he generally refuses to sleep in a standard car seat, since he’s seated on his back.
Traveling with him as a lap infant is not easy. For one, he’s really heavy (around 25 pounds), so holding him for hours on end isn’t easy (though it’s a great replacement for going to the gym!). And it’s not just that you’re holding him, but he’s squirming the whole time, wants to explore everything, etc.
While he probably wouldn’t sleep in a car seat (maybe he would eventually, if he were tired enough), he’s usually pretty good about staying calm and just accepting that he can’t move when he’s in a car seat. So we’ve realized that buying him his own seat definitely makes for a much easier journey.
Like I said, everyone’s baby is different. If you have a 10 pound baby that just loves sleeping in your arms and you’re comfortable with that, then you’ll probably have no issues traveling with a lap infant.
For what it’s worth, some airlines and airplanes do have bassinets for babies. However, these are only available on select aircraft, and there are a limited number of them, so you need to be able to assign a seat by them. Furthermore, they come with their own safety issues, and really only work for very small babies that can’t sit up on their own (since otherwise it becomes very unsafe).
So in terms of comfort, I think there’s a huge advantage to buying a seat for your baby. You can have them sit in their car seat when it’s safe and they want to rest, and can then always lift them up if they’re getting antsy.
Before I became a dad, I figured having a lap infant was basically the coolest travel deal in the world, as you can have a whole additional person travel with you for nothing (or at least for very little). However, I’ve found that it’s not quite all that it’s cracked up to be, especially if your baby is no longer a newborn.
It’s so much more comfortable to have the space of an extra seat, and then to be able to place a car seat on it so that they’re safe and comfortable.
Admittedly having a baby is expensive, and I understand for a lot of people, buying an additional seat might break the bank. If that’s the case, you’ll probably be okay with a lap infant as well. Just make sure you pack a lot of things to entertain your baby, because they may very well be overstimulated by all that’s going on.
Furthermore, you can always try to book a flight that’s less likely to be full, and then if you luck out with an empty seat next to you, you might get the best of both worlds.
To fellow parents, how do you feel about traveling with a lap infant vs. buying a seat for your little one?