With major carriers like US Airways and Delta bankrupt or on the brink, and others cutting services to stay afloat, many travelers, including families, are turning to low-cost carriers and other smaller airlines to meet their travel needs. The cheap fares, friendly staff, and more flexible travel rules these airlines tend to offer make it easier for families to stay under budget on vacation and have more pleasant flights. Plus, with most offering consistently low, one-way fares, families have more flexibility when it comes to visiting grandparents, divorced parents, or going away for long-term events like summer camp.
Our top five picks for affordable, family-friendly airlines are Southwest, Midwest Airlines, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, and Frontier. Notably, all five airlines supervise unaccompanied minors on flights for a charge (subject to age and other restrictions), and all allow babies under two to sit for free on a parents' lap. And, several airlines, including Southwest, Midwest, and Alaska, discount fares by up to 50 percent for infants occupying their own seat. Read on to find out what other attributes make these carriers family-friendly.
With flights to 59 cities in 31 states, an award-winning customer service program, and discounted fares for kids, low-cost carrier Southwest is our top choice among family-friendly airlines. Southwest offers frequent system-wide sales with discounted fares ranging from $39 to $149 each-way, and it is also one of the few airlines to offer child fares on all flights. The child fares can be more expensive than sale fares, but they have no advance-purchase requirements (sale fares usually have a 14- or 21-day advance-purchase rule) and thus can be used for last-minute travel. Read our story about Southwest's child fares for more information.
Southwest does not offer in-flight meals or entertainment, but airline employees do put forth an extra effort to be friendly and make flying as painless as possible. As a result, Southwest has had the fewest customer complaints of any U.S. airline for 13 consecutive years.
Like Southwest, Midwest Airlines also has a child discount program and an excellent service record, wining the award for best domestic airline from Travel + Leisure magazine five times in eight years. However, Midwest only flies between 22 U.S. cities. Travelers who do fly on routes that Midwest services will find low fares, some of the roomiest coach seats in the industry, and friendly cabin service. Flight attendants even serve chocolate chip cookies onboard.
Midwest's youth fares can help you save on long-term travel for your child, offering a discount on fares with maximum stays between 30 and 90 days. For example, these fares could be used for a child spending the summer with a divorced parent or going to camp. Read our story on Midwest youth fares for more information.
Cheap one-way fares, good customer service, free satellite TV at every seat, and the constant addition of new routes has helped JetBlue gain the loyalty of countless travelers and earn the title of "Best U.S. Airline" from the 2004 Airline Quality Ranking Survey. Although JetBlue does not offer child fares, the combination of overall affordability, friendliness, and free onboard entertainment makes the airline a good choice for families.
The airline services 27 U.S. cities (including two in Puerto Rico) and two cities in the Dominican Republic (flights to Nassau, The Bahamas, will begin November 1). JetBlue frequently discounts its flights, with sale fares starting at $29 one-way for the shortest trips, $69 one-way for Caribbean flights, and $99 one-way for cross-country journeys.
Although not a low-cost carrier, Alaska Airlines makes our top five list for having less restrictive fares than most major carriers, and periodically offering free kids' fares to Disneyland and Disney World. Recently, Alaska eliminated its Friday- or Saturday-night stay requirement and maximum-stay restrictions. Families can now use Alaska to take short trips without staying over a weekend, or to travel long term without paying a penalty.
Plus, several times a year, Alaska Airlines Vacations sells vacation packages to Disneyland or Disney World that include free flights for kids under 12.
Our top five picks round out with Denver-based low-cost carrier Frontier, which serves 44 U.S. cities and five destinations in Mexico. The airline does not have a child discount, but it does periodically offer sale fares ranging from $59 to $139 one-way. And, there is no Saturday-night stay requirement for round-trip flights.
Like JetBlue, Frontier also features in-cabin satellite TV, but there is a $5 service fee to tune in.
To keep up on the latest sales from your favorite airline, visit the SmarterTravel.com air page. You'll also find the latest news about airline bankruptcy, service changes, and more.