The joys of traveling with a lap infant…limited space, keeping a good hold on them, wondering if you will be able to secure a bassinet seat, oh and a “surprise” $1,800 fee for the right to hold your lap infant in your own seat on an international premium cabin trip.  Kids are expensive, and I totally understand the desire to fly with a lap infant to save miles or money, but I’m not personally a huge fan of the practice of flying with a lap infant for many reasons (especially once they are mobile).  Not the least of which is getting slapped with a surprise ginormous bill for the right to hold your own kid.  This isn’t my own story, but it is what is happening to a family on a growing Flyertalk thread that I have been watching for the last several days.

http://boardingarea.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/mommypoints/files/2011/09/Picture-163.jpg

My one experience flying with a lap child = hot and sweaty!

Here is a summary of the situation as described in the first post of that (very long and contentious) thread:

In July, I used United’s website to plan and book award travel from YYZ-LHR-SIN-CMB and PNH-BKK-LHR-YYZ for myself, my wife, and lap infant.  That is Toronto – London  – Singapore – Colombo and Phnom Penh – Bangkok – London – Toronto for those who don’t speak airport code.  The system priced the booking at 260k miles and $357 in taxes/fees, which I paid.

The following day I received e-tickets for myself and my wife. I assumed the lap child would not need a ticket, until today when I called Singapore Airlines (which was doing the LHR-SIN-CMB segments) to select seats. The Singapore agent said the lap infant also needs a ticket.

So I called United again to have them issue a ticket for the lap child and was told that I need to pay $1,800 more! They refuse to issue a ticket for the baby until I pay. My position is that I clearly indicated the number of travelers and the names (including the lap child) at the time of booking, was quoted a fare based on this information, which I then paid.

If there should have been a separate charge for the baby, should this not have been shown to me at the time I purchased the tickets? If it was, I would have chosen different options. Also, United.com is quite capable of pricing lap infant tickets for award travel (I just checked with some mock bookings).

That is the story according to the traveling family.  Here are the facts.  Lap infants (children under 2 who sit in their parent’s lap on flights) traveling internationally must have a ticket.  When traveling from the US to Canada you only pay a small amount in taxes for your lap infant, but every other international destination requires you to pay not only the taxes on the infant ticket, but also generally 10% of the adult fare.  There are a handful of exceptions on award flights, notably airlines like British Airways that charge 10% of the mileage cost, and Aeroplan who charges a low flat fee in miles.  There are also uber-meanies like Cathay Pacific that can charge 25% of the fare for you to hold your baby.  However, most airlines, including United, American, US Airways, and many more charge 10% of the selling price of an adult ticket for the lap child whether the adult is traveling on miles or dollars.  It is usually 10% of the lowest selling price for that cabin, but even that can vary at times, and the closer you get to departure, often the higher the total amount gets.

It seems from reading the very long thread on Flyertalk that this family had some knowledge that there was a fee to fly internationally with their infant.  It isn’t clear how much knowledge they had on that front, but that really isn’t the point of this post.  The point is that they went to united.com and entered two adults and one infant to get from Point A to Point B.  The computer said that will be 260,000 miles and $357 in taxes and fees.  They said “good deal”, and the transaction was completed.  To the average fella, this amount could totally sound reasonable for two adults and one lap infant to travel.  They even posted a screen shot of their confirmation and it looked like the system knew there were two adults and a baby.  I am of the opinion that you shouldn’t have to be an aviation or miles and points expert to successfully complete an award transaction online.

Fast forward to a couple months after they originally booked their trip when they followed up with Singapore to select their seats, and they were informed that their lap infant was not ticketed in their system.  The parents went back to United to try and fix this issue and were told basically that the online system didn’t charge them what it should have, and they owe the 10% fee for the lap infant to travel which totals $1,800.  10% of a long premium cabin ticket that involves many carriers may very well price out to $18,000 the way fares are calculated.  I’ve had them price even higher than that.  So, they very well may owe 10% of that, which is a whooping $1,800 just to hold their kid.

This problem with the lap infant fee not being calculated is very easy to replicate online (Matthew on UPGRD has a good post with screen shots replicating the issue), and it seems to happen more with certain partner carriers than others on United’s site.  Granted, United’s site also says the following, so there is a fair argument that they “should have known better”.  Though this statement does not appear unless you go searching for it…

Infants traveling between the U.S. and Canada only pay taxes on the ticket. Infants traveling without a seat to other international destinations are charged 10% of the adult fare at the time of infant ticketing (it is usually less expensive to purchase the infant ticket in advance). Infants traveling on an adult’s lap on front cabin rewards or upgrades must pay 10% of the front cabin fare in applicable markets.

Of course, when you are traveling on miles you may not be paying addition to the actual selling price, so when you are charged a few hundred in taxes/fees, that may sound right.  Or, perhaps you are not aware that this 10% applies even when you are traveling on miles.  Or perhaps, you hope the system glitched and you lucked out.  Or perhaps, you just have no clue and trust everything the computer tells you.

I don’t know what the end result will be for this family.  I do know that I would not want to be in their shoes.  If I flew with a lap infant, I would try and limit my international award bookings to programs that were less painful on the pocket book with lap infants.  There is a pretty good chart outlining lap infant fees on The Points Guys post here.  The Catch-22 is that many of the programs most friendly toward lap infant charges, are also ones that charge fuel surcharges on award redemptions that could negate your savings on the lap infant.  However, with careful carrier selection even this can be mitigated to an extent.  You can also sometimes have a better outcome when working with the operating carriers directly to book the lap infant ticket with them, instead of the ticketing airline.

I share this family’s story for two reasons.  First, to hear what you think about their situation and what solution is appropriate.  And perhaps more importantly, I share their story so that you are not blindsided with a similar dilemma in the future.  Regardless of what the computer tells you, it is going to likely cost some real cash to fly with a lap infant on your international award ticket, especially in premium cabins to far away destinations involving multiple carriers.  You have to decide for yourself in advance if that is a good deal for your family, or whether you should look into a different travel strategy.

Update: The traveling family has posted an updated to the Flyertalk thread linked above with their final resolution.  Here is a snipit:

In the end the miles were refunded, and I hope the money will be too. I have now re-booked ourselves on economy (with three seats) for a little more money (but less than the extra $1,800 asked for) and fewer miles than the original booking.

For those who think I was engaging in a game of oneupmanship with UA, trying to game the system hoping for a pay-off while jeopardizing my entire vacation, well, that is one heck of a gamble to take with very little assurance of a favorable outcome. Frankly, I am disgusted by the whole fiasco, and the expectation that the customer be held responsible for the error of a corporate website. But I am moving on. I do not know if I will take it up with the CTA or not at the moment.

Those with lap infants, what do you do to spend as little as possible when booking these big international trips?

Posted by Mommy Points | 35 Comments

35 Responses to “That’ll Be An Extra $1,800 For Your Lap Infant, Sir”

  1. rob says:

    I have no offspring, and no dog in this fight. However, there is a valid argument (and a ex-flight attendant is currently lobbying for this) that lap infants should not be allowed, for safety reasons. They should be in a car seat, strapped in to a seat of their own.

    Her motivation for trying to do this dates back to a “minor” crash where the parents were unable to hold the baby and the baby was killed while all others walked away.

    Here’s the result of a quick google: http://www.jetwithkids.com/blog/lap-child-policy-10-veteran-flight-attendants-perspectives

  2. far north trader says:

    I, too have been following this thread on Flyertalk with interest. While I can commiserate with occasional flyers who do not have access to Flyertalk and who have no idea what a plane ticket should cost (the majority of the flying public), this particular flyer was well aware of what it should cost and thought that he had gotten away with something and is now complaining because he got caught. As with the recent $0 fare error, if you know that you are getting something that you shouldn’t and get away with it, then great for you, but if the person (company) that made the mistake says that they won’t honor it, then it is beyond my understanding to complain that you did not get what you already knew you shouldn’t have gotten.

  3. mommypoints says:

    Rob, I actually agree. I think many agree, but the industry doesn’t want to scare families away to just sticking with road trips due to cost. Of course, road trips aren’t an option crossing the ocean. Again, I totally understand why parents would want to save where they can with a lap infant, but I am glad I kept my experience to one very short flight.
    Far North Trader, I agree this family may have had a hint this wasn’t right, or maybe they didn’t. Either way, I don’t think you should have to be a “Flyertalker” to have the knowledge and ability to add a lap infant to your ticket.

  4. Miguel says:

    @Rob @mommypoints, actually it’s not the industry, it is the FAA: back in the day (70′s I believe) they did a study and concluded that if they made families pay for the infants to have a seat of their own a great number of them would choose to drive instead of flying, and considering the prevalent mortality rate while driving that would kill a few people every year, while on the air only the occasional infant-on-lap gets killed by severe turbulence. So they made it mandatory for airlines to offer this perk to families.

  5. Joe S says:

    I see it both ways in this situation – They knew that they may have to pay for an infant, so they should be willing to pay the 10% in the end. However, United should be processing this correctly on their website, and they don’t. I think in the end United should pony up the cost, and fix their website. It’s not like thousands of people have been getting away with this, and they will lose a ton of money.

  6. mommypoints says:

    Miguel, that is what I was referencing. I include the FAA as a part of the larger industry, and the cynic in me has to assume that losing air traffic business was a part of that decision, not just a benevolent move to keep traveling kids safer. Either way, air travel is safer statistically than travel via a car…but doing it restrained in your own seat is safer than not. ;)
    Joe, I agree no matter what that United should either get the website to work correctly, or at the very least throw up a warning that it is not working correctly and the customer should contact customer service for an accurate total for the infant ticket.

  7. Lance says:

    I had a similar issue with my lap infant. I was traveling to Peru and searching premium cabin space. I found that united flights would price out correctly on united.com but partner flights would always show an infant charge. I even came on to mommy points to ask why I wasn’t having to pay for the infant. I decided to call united before booking on united.com to see what the agent would say. Obviously, the agent was able to price the partner ticket correctly. All in all, I think if you are going to travel international with an infant in a premium cabin it is best to get an agent with knowledge of the situation and have them ticket everything for you. Even if you have to pay a small charge if you aren’t elite it is worth it IMO.

  8. rob says:

    What! Nobody ever agrees with me. There’s a valid argument for reducing risk by allowing lap infants on domestic flights rather than having people drive – it can easily be argued that the TSA has killed more people, by making flying painful enough that they drive, than died in the September 11th terrorist attacks.

    For long flights, though, that argument doesn’t apply.

    As for the question of whether the family should have known about the $1800 – that’s all on United. They should have done the math and properly charged for the child. Equally, the family should have done what they did and double-checked. I typically do whenever there is anything even slightly odd with a reservation – like switching airlines.

  9. Carl says:

    While i am usually incredulous that parents take infants and toddlers on leisure flights, i am equally amazed that folks think it is just fine for United Airlines to put the screws to a family when a deal is a deal.

  10. ffi says:

    I had a friend go to India for a crisis.
    No seats economy; only 1 seat in F on LH.
    Economy prices were sky high for next day 20 hr booking

    PHL-FRA-BLR-FRA-PHL/EWR was available.
    They did not want a 80$ cab to PHL both ways
    So I booked PHL-FRA-BLR-FRA-EWR
    instead of PHL-FRA-BLR-FRA-PHL

    At the gate they had to pay 2000$ for the infant; instead of 1200$ for PHL return, as the rack rate for PHL—-EWR was much higher. So the 80$ saved cost 800$

  11. Laura R says:

    In 2009, when my son was 15 months old we traveled to Morocco on miles with Delta. We booked him as a “lap child”. I just went back and looked through iBank to find the charges. We paid around $250 each for taxes (I guess) on the mileage tickets. I do not see any other airline charges for that period and I don’t remember being hit with anything when we checked in.

    We were lucky on every leg of the flight to have an empty seat in our row so we didn’t have to actually hold him. In fact, our flight from BRU to ATL was very full, but the FA moved the lady into our row to another seat so we had room to stretch out.

    I also used to work for AA at the ticket counter. You wouldn’t believe (or maybe you would) the number of families that checked in for an international flight with an infant that doesn’t have a ticket. They just ASSUMED since it was a lap child that they didn’t need a ticket and that there would be no fee to pay. All airlines have information on their web page about infant travel that states that when traveling internationally, infants must have a ticket and are subject to infant fares and taxes. Buyer beware. Buyer read all fine print.

    • mommypoints says:

      I would absolutely believe the number that try to check-in without a ticket. We are so used to it being free for domestic travel, and most travel so rarely with a child on international travel. What would be more interesting is what the reactions were when they were asked to pay hundreds (or thousands) at check-in! At least for economy travel to say Europe, your charge is likely only $100 – $200 round trip for coach, but that is still not an insignificant amount.

  12. I have only traveled domestically with my baby, so had no idea there would be a fee for flying with him internationally–so thank you for posting this!!

    I agree that United should be able to make their website give the correct amount due.

  13. Brent says:

    With the third kid on the way, I’m pretty familiar with these rules and as you stated planning ahead and knowing the rules is key.

    Now, I didn’t know about BA and the mileage option! That I will have to look into as our next flights are in J on BA to Europe. Our return is in UA from BHX (award) but o/w is pricing reasonable so it shouldn’t be a major cost issue.

  14. 3kids says:

    In regards to charging for lap children…. I hope that never goes through. We moved thousands of miles from home when we started our family. Being able to travel with a child in lap was HORRIBLE. However, it sure was better than never being able to go home because of having to pay for an extra person. Does it come with some risk? Yes and people who want to can pay and bring on their car seat. When we flew abroad, we happily paid the 10% fee. It was quite generous of the airlines I figured. I agree with Laura R.

  15. Jorge says:

    I just booked 4 round-trip tickets YUL-LGA using Avios and was surprised that the system priced my daughter’s ticket in miles (900 miles).

    In this case United should be held responsible. Not everyone is an expert and we trust what we see in the screen.

  16. Ben says:

    I agree with the buyer beware point but only to a certain extent. I encountered this issue on two international DL flights. In both cases I added “Infant in lap” to the travel profile. I knew I had to pay some amount for the baby (and discussed it with the agent on the phone when I called to book the bassinette). Both times I was told I was going to receive a paper ticket for the baby, neither time I was actually charged or received it. In one case, DL acknowledged the error and had us pay the pre-discussed amount at check-in. In the second case, they charged us 10% of a much higher fare, even though it was clearly their fault. They eventually gave me vouchers for the difference without much resistance (it only took me one message). For Delta the solution would be extremely simple: as soon as you check the “Infant in lap” option, you pay. As simple as that. I don’t fault people at the check-in desk, they have no way of knowing what happened before. But the airlines’ websites are severely lacking on this.

  17. JIM says:

    My take on this is they should charge 10% of the whole infant fare in award miles NOT with cash.
    If the international ticket is booked with miles, the laptop infant fare also should be charged in MILES NOT CASH.
    I can’t afford to pay 10% of the biz class award ticket in CASH. All airlines should do this!

  18. Dave Op says:

    “My take on this is they should charge 10% of the whole infant fare in award miles NOT with cash.
    If the international ticket is booked with miles, the laptop infant fare also should be charged in MILES NOT CASH. ”

    I totally agree with Jim. It should be miles too.

    In the case of the flyer above, United should pick up the tab, as they are the ones pricing out the fare, not the couple.

  19. Santastico says:

    The same happened to me when my wife and I were flying internationally for the first time with our baby (at that time 3 months old). I booked 2 business class tickets on AA JFK-GRU-JFK. I was told the baby need a paper ticket which would be sent by mail to our home. The cost for that paper ticket was around $900 since they were calculating 10% of a full fare business class ticket for that itinerary. We decided to cancel the reservation and booked our tickets in coach so we only paid around $200. It is just ridiculous that airlines charge that much money for a baby that won’t take a sear and won’t eat anything. It is just free money to the airlines.

  20. patricia says:

    the parent should bear some responsibility of NOT checking their e-ticket after making a booking, blindly assuming clicking “pay” on the website means everything is confirmed and set in stone.

  21. AK says:

    As a father of a 4yr old and a 6 month old and having traveled very extensively (both domestically and internationally) with our first born here are my 2 cents:
    - Travel Lufthansa if redeeming miles & more for premium cabin since they don’t charge anything (paid $0 last year for a flight from BOS-DEL-BOS) for a lap child. Did this last year for a DEL-FRA-DEL-MUC-DEL route. My strategy was to book an adult+infant using Miles & More and the remainder of the family using Lifemiles.
    - Travel BA is my second preference. 10% of the miles+taxes. Recently issued a one way from DEL-LHR-BOS in First and the taxes+yq were only 109.38 + 13500 miles. I have redeemed BA miles a few times in First and CW and haven’t paid more than $150 in taxes for a lap infant.
    - Recently redeemed life miles for a BOS-ZRH-DEL in Business on Swiss. The fare+taxes quoted by both Avianca and Swiss were approx. 700 (checked the fare and it was about $6900 for a one way fare from BOS-ZRH-DEL) . I’m hoping that another award seat would open up and I could redeem miles to get another seat for the infant (computes to approx. $1050 after buying Avianca miles during 100% promo). I rather have an assigned seat by paying another $300. Obviously this is only if Swiss releases another award seat closer to the travel date.

  22. sharon says:

    Is it possible that this is the airlines attempt to discourage people from bringing infants in premium cabins?

  23. Lynn says:

    I had no idea that airlines charged for infants on international flights. Why? Because I would never, ever, ever fly without everyone having a seat that they could be buckled into. Would you drive in a car with a child on your lap? Of course not. Yes, the chances of an incident on a plane are much less than in a car, but the consequences will most likely be the same. I am just incredulous that lap infants are even allowed. My three kids have travelled often, and as early as 6 weeks old, and even then they were buckled in. Of course I would like to save money – but not at the risk of jeopardizing my children’s lives.

  24. crimson12 says:

    I had a similar issue with AZ. I bought AZ tickets with DL miles in J. 100k miles and ~$45 per adult. And then I PAID the ~$500 for the lap infant. When I got to the airport to check in, AZ said that AFTER the tickets were purchased (and I had ticket numbers for all three), they changed their policy to prohibit infants in J on their longhaul flights. Neither AZ (the carrier) nor DL (the ticketing airline) told me this even though I called to confirm multiple times, including within 24 hours prior to the flight. In the end AZ let me fly on the way out, but I got rerouted on DL on the way back, on a less convenient flight. In short, DL sold me a ticket I could not use.

    More here: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/delta-skymiles/1487954-delta-sold-me-ticket-i-couldnt-use.html

  25. Nick says:

    I think the reason is partly because the airlines don’t really want lap infants in International first and business. There isn’t a cost to them but there is often an annoyance to the valuable business travelers paying top dollar. So I think overall 10% of full fare is fair. There are options if you don’t like it, like purchasing a full mileage ticket or flying in economy.

  26. jason says:

    @Nick +100 !

    And those tickets were purchased during the upgrade restriction window that a lot of people used to buy premium fares that are closed to UA or US. Very disingenuous couple….

    And on top of getting a cheap ride using miles, they want to bother first/business class passengers with a crying toddler that didn’t pay a dime? Between London and Singapore, a super premium sector??

    Freeloaders, Hell No!

    So says SQ and I agree !

  27. Baby Songer says:

    As a frequent lap child flyer (125k miles and counting before age 2), we always ask for the infant ticket number as soon as we book. We learned the difference between having a reservation and a ticket once at SFO before boarding a cash paid flight to ICN (booked using Expedia). Luckily it was a coach flight and taxes were only $80 for the lap child ticket.

    But in our experience using United to book award flights in premium cabins, UA did show an infant fee breakout on the price before we purchased. I have not replicated the above example myself (an award booking with lap child that doesnt price out the infant), but have not seen it happen for us for 4 award bookings in premium cabins with 3 of those itineraries on partner metal (Asiana, Thai, and Lufthansa). The most we had to pay was $800 and that was because we changed one Lufthansa business class flight close to departure time so the cash equivalent price went up.

  28. Chris says:

    The couple is of course right. You have to be able to trust the booking website when getting award tickets (or any tickets for that matter). If United’s system prices the lap child incorrectly then they have to swallow the difference.

    That said, United is one of these airlines that is openly hostile towards parents traveling with children. That they charge 10% based on a ridiculous fantasy fare that nobody is paying anyways is a joke. But they are trying to please mean people like Jason who hate children.

  29. Jamie says:

    Whether the couple knew it or not, United should honor the booking and not charge for the infant. Even if I know it’s pricing incorrectly, it’s not my responsibility to error check United’s systems. We’ve got enough to do.
    If I go to the discount movie theater and I order a large popcorn, and they say it’s $2, and the screen says it’s $2, and they run my credit card for $2, I should be able to expect that’s what it is. Even if a little (or big) voice inside me says, “I’ve never seen popcorn at the movies so cheap”. It’s actually a reasonable price to charge for the product.

  30. Monacutest says:

    Yup, travelling with a lap infant is expensive. When I went to Manila with my baby, I had to pay $1200 for myself and $570 for my baby ($70 for the flight, $500 for tax and surcharge). I just started the miles/points game so I am hoping to save some money on my next trip 2014. By that time, my baby will be 2, so her ticket will be pricier. Oh well. Btw, I love your blog!

  31. Tania Pereyra says:

    This past August I flew to Brazil on miles and after booking my ticket online I called AA to book my infant ticket.
    When I went to the airport on the way back to NY, the agent told me my son didn’t have a infant ticket booked for him. I had to call AA at 430am and it was a disaster. After 1 hour on the phone the agent was able to book/issue a infant ticket. It cost me 300+ because was last minute booking(on the JFK-GRU leg I paid $90). It was a terrible experience at the airport and AA in GRU couldn’t resolve my issue and I had to use Skype to call the reservation center in Dallas.I didn’t want to fight the charge so when I came back I called AA and they gave me $100 credit because of their mistake. Next time I am going to call AA before to verify everything is ok with my lap child reservation

  32. Rebecca says:

    Similar situation as this couple. UA never collected the fees appropriately during booking and slammed us with $118 fee which is about 10% of all three of the tickets we purchased, not the cost of one ticket. Had I known I would be charged over 50% ticket fee to have my son on my lap, I would have booked him a ticket. Can someone please recommend who I can take this up with?
    Thank you!

  33. CityNG says:

    So it seems the same thing is happening to me, somewhat.

    I booked a flight, inter nation to Nigeria, with United. The Total for all 3 passengers including my under 2 child in lap was $2,238.40

    On the website it clearly shows the breakdown and clearly shows the ticket price for my child which is included in the receipt they sent to me after purchase. $2,238.40

    I looked at my credit card and they charged an additional $110.70.

    This seems like fraud to me. How can you provide a receipt and an eticket showing one price and then charge a different price? Legally?

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