- My 3-year-old and I were assigned to sit in different rows on the plane on a recent trip.
- I tried changing our seats online, over the phone, and at the gate.
- I was told I had to take matters into my own hands and ask other passengers to change seats with me.
We walked up to the gate to board our flight. After touring the fairy gardens of northern Delaware, it was time to pack up our sparkly wings and go home.
We’d been assigned seats in separate rows— which wouldn’t be a big deal if my travel companion weren’t my 3-year-old daughter.
I’d tried unsuccessfully to fix the seat assignments online. Then I’d struck out with the airline’s customer-service rep on the phone. The rep had passed the buck to the gate agent. The gate agents then passed the buck to me. “We couldn’t get anyone in your rows to change seats,” they said. “You could get on the plane and try yourself” was the extent of their assistance.
We boarded the plane. When we got to my daughter’s row and she grasped what was happening, she burst out crying.
A passenger right behind us, also waiting in the aisle, moaned, “Well, I’m not going to listen to that for the whole flight. I’ll change seats with you after all.” Nothing volatile, but not exactly the kind of behavior I’d like directed at my child as she reenters public spaces after two long pandemic years.
Nothing’s stopping airlines from separating families on planes
It turns out there’s no standard policy around family seating on airplanes, and the Department of Transportation knows it has a problem. In July it encouraged airlines to adopt policies to seat families together and announced a four-month period for airlines to do so.
As the grace period expires, it’s pretty clear not all airlines have heeded the notice.
The department has a website with suggestions, including verifying the airline’s family-seating policy before booking, booking tickets early, booking as a single reservation, checking in with customer service as needed, and arriving at the airport early. But I’d inadvertently followed nearly all the tips and can’t say they got me very far.
One of the department’s top suggestions is to purchase higher-class seats if sitting together is important to you. To me, it’s a bogus suggestion. In my case, I was a pretty broke mom trying to scrabble together a postvaccination trip for my girl; it was economy or bust.
If I were to leave my child with strangers for several hours in a public place, I’d likely be reported to child services and the police. So why is that fair game on a plane?
These are my tips for traveling with kids
The Department of Transportation doesn’t have the answers to make your holiday travel better; many fellow travelers simply won’t care. But I wanted to share what worked for us to help others mitigate a potentially stressful flight experience.
I always expect unpleasant things to happen in air travel. I try to be calm and make sure everyone’s well rested and fed before boarding to avoid hunger meltdowns.
I also recommend what I call “packing a party.” I pack an activity and snack bag for my toddler with both surprises and something familiar (and throw in some streamers and noisemakers for good measure). That way, if you get separated, you can act like it’s a cool thing, like they’ve won a prize or a party for their parentless row. A cache of party hats has gotten me through many difficult moments with a young child.
I flip the energy to try to reset the stressful situation rather than getting sucked into its vortex. I say things like, “Oh, separate rows? How cool! Look, they’ve chosen us to prepare to become pilots by sitting on our own! Thank you so much for selecting us for this opportunity! Let’s celebrate!”
While those suggestions may or may not help you navigate getting your seats back together, they’d take you further than the measly $75 travel credit the airline gave me for my flight troubles.