When traveling with a child under 2 years old, you have two clear options.
Pay for a seat and bring your car seat on board for them to safely strap into during the journey.
Don't pay (unless it's an international flight) and bring them on as a lap infant but you must hold them the entire flight.
So what if I told you there was a secret third way to bring your car seat onto the plane AND you don’t have to pay? Well... it is possible!
The only problem with this method is that it is a bit risky. You are not guaranteed a free seat for Baby and you have to be willing for this method to fail and then hold the baby for the duration of the flight… however long that might be.
So if you’re willing to take that chance then read on!
When you arrive at the airport, you will likely need to go to the check in counter for your designated airline. Most airlines do not have mobile boarding pass options for your lap infant or they need to confirm Baby’s age before issuing you a pass. The only exception would be when you are checking your luggage, which you would then need to go to the counter anyway.
Once you are there, while you are checking your bags or getting boarding passes, ask them if you are seated in an open row. If not, see if there are any available for you to move to.
If you are traveling as a family, you may need to split up in order to be seated in an empty row depending on how many travelers are in your family or how many seats are in a row. If they are able to move you to an empty row, great! You are one step closer to getting a free seat for Baby.
If not, then you will need to gate check your stroller and hold baby for the flight.
From there, you are still not guaranteed that free seat until you get to your gate just before your flight. Flights often move people around based on missed connections or stand by seating so the only way to know for sure is right before your flight.
Before you board it is good to see the gate attendant in advance to boarding call in order to get tags for anything you may be gate checking. This may include your car seat and stroller. While getting your tags, ask the gate attendant if the open seat in your row is still available.
And make sure they check.
The gate attendant may have been told the flight is full but really there are two random seats available and what they were actually told is “the flight is basically full”.
They will tell you the flight is full but they will not look in the system and then you will get onto the plane no one will be sitting next to you and you will be very annoyed because you totally could have brought your car seat onto the plane and your baby could have napped but instead they are jumping from seat to seat and complaining that they are tired for 2 hours… speaking from experience.
Make sure your gate attendant checks the system to see if the seat in your row is still open. If not, then you will need to gate check your car seat.
If it is… then CONGRATULATIONS! You just got a free seat for Baby.
A few airlines actually have a policy in regards to infant seating which essentially states that if unused seats are in your row, you may use that open seat for your lap infant. But it is also important when discussing this with your desk or gate attendant to know the wording and the exact policy because not all attendants are aware of this clause. You may have to do some VERY polite convincing.
Below is the exact wording from each US Airline in regards to lap infant seating.
Airlines that do have an empty seat clause on their website:
United - United doesn’t reserve space for child seats, unless you've purchased a ticket for that seat. If space is available after boarding is completed, customers may use adjacent unused seats to secure the government-approved child seat. If space isn't available after boarding is completed, the item must be stowed in an approved storage space.
American - To carry on a safety seat, you must have bought a seat for the child, or if a seat is available next to you. If an unoccupied, adjoining seat is not available, the gate agent will check the safety seat to your final destination.
Alaska - Lap infants are not guaranteed a seat, but if there is an empty seat available on a flight, the infant may occupy that seat for no extra charge.
Airlines that have no visible policy on their website:
Southwest - Unable to find any specific wording on their website but because they have an “Open Seating” if the flight is not completely full, they will likely let you board with your infant and car seat.
JetBlue - The assumption here is that because there is no policy, you can always ask. They may say yes or no.
Frontier - The assumption here is that because there is no policy, you can always ask. They may say yes or no.
Airlines that require payment for infant seating, even if there is an open seat:
Delta - Infants occupying a seat on domestic flights require a ticket and pay the applicable fare.