I love my daughter. I love being a dad. You know what I don't love? Traveling with kids

Actually, that's not quite true. Family travel can be fun, or at least less stressful than some might imagine. But it requires planning, patience--and cooperation from the airline. 

Then, I was happy to see that The Points Guy, one of my favorite sites for airline news, recently analyzed the 10 largest U.S. airlines and ranked them in terms of how friendly they are for families. TPG's ranking criteria included:

  • Whether the airline has advance seat assignments (remember this one)
  • Whether they have baggage and claim fees
  • How good their route network is
  • Whether the airline has family-friendly mileage policies
  • The degree to which families can fly on award travel
  • Whether they offer early family boarding
  • How comfortable the seats are
  • Whether there are kid friendly food and drinks
  • Whether there's in-flight entertainment for kids, and 
  • Their on-time arrival rate

If I have any quibble with this, it's that I'd add the issue of overall ticket cost, and whether there is any discount for children.

Of course that's hard to compute, as the the airlines don't all fly the same routes, and fares vary even on the same flight. But I do think that cost is probably the #1 issue for many families when they're trying to fly with an entire brood.

That said, it's a valiant effort. Even if you disagree with the actual rankings (as some of the airlines themselves undoubtedly would), it's a very useful guide to have all of the airlines' child-friendly policies listed together in one place.

If you're flying with kids, you should really check it out. Here's a quick summary of their rankings:

1. Southwest Airlines

Good old LUV topped the rankings, which probably doesn't surprise too many people. 

"[N]o attitudes, no bag fees, no change fees, family boarding and the extremely valuable Southwest Companion Pass" helped it to the top of the list, according to TPG.

An interesting point: Southwest doesn't have assigned seats, but it ranked highest in that category anyway, because families with kids under six board early, while the plane is still almost empty.

2. JetBlue

I was gratified to see JetBlue ranked #2, if only because my family and I had a great experience flying them with a toddler earlier this year. 

"Southwest just barely squeezed out JetBlue for the top spot when it came to on-time arrivals and a more robust route network," TPG wrote.

3. Delta Air Lines

A very respectable showing, and the highest ranking for any of the legacy carriers.

"Families who have flown Delta in recent years know that the airline has a solid onboard product, good on-time arrival rate and the free Biscoff cookies certainly don't hurt in the efforts to keep kids happy," according to TPG.

4. Hawaiian Airlines

Okay, let's start with the fact that if you're on Hawaiian Airlines, you're probably traveling to Hawaii. That makes everyone happier. 

In truth, that advantage (the happiest destination) actually hurt Hawaiian in the rankings, TPG admitted, as "the airline would have ranked even higher were it not for its relatively limited domestic route network."

5. Alaska Airlines

TPG says Alaska ranked tops in its separate survey about the best airlines, period, so no big surprise to see it doing okay here.

"But the carrier's lack of a strong complimentary in-flight entertainment product and higher average ancillary fee per customer," TPG wrote, "kept Alaska from going higher in these family-focused rankings."

6. United Airlines

This is the other airline that I wrote about traveling with a toddler earlier this year, and like TPG's rankings, I found the expeirence was okay, but not quite as good as JetBlue.

One thing United does have going for them however, according to TPG: "the best early boarding policy of all of the US airlines, as it consistently allows families with children two and under to board ahead of other passengers, even before first class."

7. American Airlines

They have a decent selection of in-flight entertainment for kids, but otherwise ranked poorly across the board, according to TPG.

"[L]imited availability of standard complimentary seat assignments, the lack of consistent early boarding for families and a loyalty program that makes it hard to find at least four reasonably priced award tickets means that American ranks the lowest of the three traditional US air carriers for traveling families," the site said.

8. Frontier Airlines

Now we're into the ranks of the "ultra low-cost carriers for families," so it's no big surprise that Frontier is "first of the last," to so speak--with "typical low-cost carrier rules" like not allowing seat assignments ahead of time, and restricting carry-ons to backpack sized bags.

The airline has recently eased rules for some frequent fliers, TPG noted. "This won't help the occasional Frontier passenger, but it will make the experience better for the families that fly the airline the most."

9. Spirit Airlines

This isn't a great airline for families by TPG's standards, but I do think it's part of the time when considering the overall cost of tickets for families could come into play. And TPG notes that it can be a good option if one of your big goals is to keep ticket costs down.

However, it's "'everything costs extra'" model, and lack of in-flight entertainment," along with small seats and parsimonious frequent flier policies mean you really need to do your homework first.

10. Allegiant

It seems that if you're traveling with kids, the only way you'd wind up going with Allegiant is if you found a ridiculously cheap fare, or if the airline happened to be the only one servicing the route you need.

"[T]he airline landed at the bottom of the pack in pretty much every ranked category when it comes to specifically meeting the needs of flying families," TPG wrote. [F]amilies need to come prepared to meet their own needs while on Allegiant flights."

Published on: Jul 29, 2018