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A Wall Street Journal article came out this week that talked about a phenomenon that is frequently finding families traveling with children all seated together in the back of the plane. This section of the plane was affectionately dubbed the “Baby Ghetto”. I’m not sure I personally like using the term “ghetto” in this manner, but I do totally get what he is saying. I actually contributed some information to this article, and I do have a few ideas as to why families are finding themselves in the back of the plane. One of the main reasons is because many of the seats towards the front of the economy section of the plane are now reserved for people who are willing to pay a premium to sit in them (or have elite status that allows them to select those seats). There probably aren’t that many traveling families that are willing or able to pay a surcharge for multiple people to have better seats, so they are often grouped in the back of the plane.
So, that’s one issue. A much larger issue, in my opinion, is that airlines are splitting up families around the plane. This is even happening when there is a very young child in the family. In fact, I have not been able to find any airlines or FAA regulation that states an infant or toddler has to sit next to a caregiver. Though please tell me if you know of one – there certainly should be one! I have been contacted before when someone was looking for advice because an airline had split up their family with seat assignments all around the plane (they had a toddler) and the airline wanted them to pay for premium economy seating to be placed together. The airline was seemingly unconcerned that a toddler had no guardian sitting next to them. Whether you are for or against children traveling, clearly no one is a winner when a parent can’t sit next to their young child. The airline’s advice in this case was to ask people to switch seats once they board. While people are generally willing to help in cases like that, I don’t think that people should have to move seats just so a young child can sit next to their caregiver. That should be an automatic – not something to work out on-board the plane.
We are very proactive when traveling to guard against these sorts of problems for our family. First, I am very proactive with getting seat assignments together and I keep an eye on them as the flight gets closer. You particularly want to double-check if you get a notification that an aircraft swap (a different type of plane then you originally were scheduled to fly on) has occurred. If for some reason you are unable to select seats when you book your flight, you need to call into the airline and ask for seat assignments together. Assuming that you do have a young child that you are traveling with, explain your situation and that and you need seats together. The earlier in advance you do this the greater the likelihood of your success. The closer it gets to departure the greater the chance that the plane is full and there aren’t seats together available.
When we fly on Southwest our strategy is a little different since they don’t assign seats ahead of time and your boarding position is what determines how good of a seat on board you are able to secure. With Southwest we make sure to either check-in online exactly 24 hours before the flight, or pay $10 extra per person to secure a good boarding position. Southwest does let families with small children board between the A and B boarding groups, so even if you don’t do either of those two things, you shouldn’t be one of the last ones to board. Still, I like to be one of the first – especially when we travel with Little C.
One of our favorite “tricks” is to wait until many elites have been upgraded to first class 24 hours before the flight, and then move our assigned seats to better seats that have been freed up by the elite flyers who are now in first class. As shown in the image below, even if you are on a plane where there isn’t a first class, the seats toward the front of the cabin that had been previously blocked off for elite flyers, open up to everyone at 24 hours before the flight. This tactic doesn’t work as well on airlines who have large premium economy sections, but it has worked fantastically for us on Continental (at least until they add premium economy).
Most of those available white seats towards the front-half of the airplane were reserved for elite flyers until 24 hours before departure. You can see that the back-half of the plane is full while many of the previously reserved seats are open for assignment. This means it is your chance to move up and grab a better seat for your family!
I’m actually not necessarily against a kid’s section of the plane, but until that officially happens, I prefer to sit as close to the front of the plane as possible. How great would it be to have a quality kid’s section that played kid’s movies, had juice boxes, Goldfish snacks, and no nasty looks from other travelers? We have also used some of our annual $200 airline fee credit with our American Express Platinum card to move up to Economy Plus seating on United in order to have a little more room. I found that to be a great use of money – especially since it was all refunded by American Express. A quick side-note about the Amex Platinum, if you are considering getting it, now is a great time as your $200 airline credit is per calendar year so right now you can take advantage of it for 2011 and then get a fresh $200 in 2012! That is already a $400 value out of your $450 annual fee. Click here to get more info about that and other top credit card offers.
Until a magical kid’s section is invented, my best advice is to be proactive from the day you make your reservation up through the day of departure to ensure that your family gets to sit together in whatever part of the plane you prefer. This is especially true if you are flying during the busy holiday travel season that will be upon us this week. Planes will be full and there won’t be very much wiggle-room if you don’t already have seat assignments together. What have your experiences been when traveling with your family?