In the United States, the best airlines for families traveling together are JetBlue and Southwest. That’s according to a ranking by travel-industry blog the Points Guy, which weighed 11 individual factors of flying with family, from entertainment and food to seat size and complimentary seat selection, to create composite scores.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the winners are low-cost lines that feature good service, reasonable fares, and ample frequent flyer opportunities on limited networks (similar to the Big Three U.S. airlines, but smaller). It’s worth noting that while the findings rank a top ten, only the top five should really be considered winners. Here are the best airlines for families flying domestically (or close) in the United States.
Best Airlines for Families
JetBlue excels in several important factors, including seat size, seat comfort, built-in free entertainment, unlimited free snack basket, free Wi-Fi, and an easy-to-use frequent-flyer program that allows families to pool miles together at no charge. Although not emphasized in the report, those factors also make JetBlue arguably the best U.S. airline for anybody. The big drawback is limited geography: JetBlue offers only limited service—chiefly flights to the East Coast—in the western two thirds of the country. But if JetBlue flies where you want to go, it’s a top family choice.
Southwest pretty much blankets the country these days, including Hawaii and some nearby Latin American areas, and it’s a solid number two behind JetBlue that can fly you to lots more places. Southwest’s strengths are free checked bags, a set family boarding time after Group A for those with kids 6 and under, an extensive route network, its companion pass program, and no blackout dates on frequent flyer trips. The Points Guy downgraded Southwest because it does not allow booking frequent flyer seats more than six months in advance—a failing that I consider pretty trivial, given the line’s other strengths.
Hawaiian and Alaska are essentially tied for third and fourth. Both are limited-geography lines that outdo their giant competitors in several factors important for families:
- Hawaiian offers above-average seat size, likelihood you can sit with your family without paying extra, and family-friendly early boarding.
- Alaska offers complimentary available seat assignments; it also has above-average seat sizes, family-friendly early boarding and kid-friendly snacks. It loses a few points because it doesn’t offer complimentary inflight audio/visual entertainment.
Delta is tops among the Big Three for families—just as it generally rates tops among the big three for just about anybody. In the ranking’s words, Delta is good at almost everything when it comes to family air travel: Its miles don’t expire, on-time stats are solid, its route network is extensive, most of its planes have seat-back entertainment, there are free Biscoff cookies, and standard economy seat size and the availability of free seat assignments are better than many competitors’. It loses points due to above-average baggage and cancellation fees, as well as rewards-seat availability during peak vacation times.
United offers early boarding for families and kid-friendly snacks and built-in entertainment on at least some planes. Basically, United is a solid middle-rank line, being fine for families without any huge pluses or minuses.
American scores well below United. The ranking succinctly notes that “American has work to do if it wants to more consistently meet the needs of traveling families.” It especially notes removal of in-seat entertainment and inconsistent early-boarding procedures. But affordable Spirit’s policy of paid seat selection is, of course, not family-friendly.
As usual, Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant aren’t making the cut. These base-fare airlines don’t work too well for families, but the findings recognize a few high-scoring areas: Frontier offers an ongoing “kids fly free” promotion on some flights; Allegiant flies to many “fun spots” from airports with very limited service from other airlines. But all three would have to make big changes before becoming truly family-friendly—which probably isn’t their aim, as budget airlines.
It’s also worth noting that congress recently told the Department of Transportation to mandate that airlines be required to seat families together without them paying extra. The DOT has so far failed to act, again. Maybe next year?
More from SmarterTravel:
- 13 Tips That Take (Some of) the Stress Out of Flying with Kids
- Testing the Gear Desperate Parents Buy for Long Flights with Kids
- 10 Fun Family Vacations for Multigenerational Travelers
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.