I get questions regularly about what type of seating arrangement is most comfortable and practical for a traveling family with a child under two who does not yet require their own seat.  I received this question again this week and thought I would share the situation and my suggestions in case they are helpful for anyone else thinking through a similar situation.  Of course, I’m most interested in hearing what your family would do – and why!

The family who emailed me recently had their first baby and plan to fly St. Louis – Los Angeles – Kauai on American Airlines when the child is six months old.  They have a seven figure balance of American Airlines miles and are looking for the best seating arrangement for the three of them.  Miles are not a problem, but instead they are simply looking for the “best” solution for their new family of three.  They were picking between getting each person their own first class seat, getting two first class seats and holding the infant, getting three economy plus seats, or getting two economy plus seats and holding the baby.

There are pros and cons to all four situations, many of which may be obvious, but that I’ll go through them just for fun.  Depending on their travel dates and award availability issues they are looking at from 35,000 – 45,000 AA miles round trip for each confirmed seat to travel in economy or 75,000 AA miles for each confirmed seat for first class in a two cabin plane (assuming MileSAAver availability).  For the purposes of this exercise I will assume the economy tickets were 45,000 miles each and the first class seats were 75,000 miles each.

Three first class seats:

  • Everyone has the “roomiest” seat possible
  • Meal service
  • More attention from the flight attendants
  • Less competition for the lavatory
  • Highest number of miles required
  • Baby won’t get anything out of the roomier seat
  • Seating assignment will be 2-2 so only one parent will be within arm’s reach of the child
  • 225,000 miles

Two first class seats + lap infant:

  • Roomy seats for the adult + infant
  • Meal service
  • More attention from the flight attendants
  • Less competition for the lavatory
  • Two parents can sit right next to each other and take turns holding the infant
  • Fewer miles than having a seat for all three in first
  • Someone will have to hold the child the entire 10 hours of travel
  • No car seat to securely strap the child in
  • 150,000 miles

Three economy seats (with extra legroom):

  • Seats aren’t as big as first, but decent legroom
  • No complimentary meal service
  • Less attention from flight attendants than in first
  • More bathroom competition for diaper changes
  • All three are right next to each other within arms reach and with no “strangers” seated with them
  • Child can be firmly strapped in the car seat or held when desired
  • Under seat space for all three seats for baby supplies
  • 135,000 miles

Two economy seats with extra legroom + lap infant:

  • Lowest number of miles required
  • Have to hold the child for 10 hours of travel
  • Likely a “stranger” next to one of you
  • Under seat space only under two seats for all the gear
  • No car seat to securely strap the child in
  • Seats aren’t as big as first, but good legroom
  • No complimentary meal service
  • Less attention from flight attendants than in first
  • More bathroom competition for diaper changes
  • 90,000 miles

Coming to a recommendation:

Since they have a healthy mileage balance and don’t mind spending the miles I would immediately rule out getting just two economy seats as it is clearly the least comfortable of all four scenarios.  I would next rule out getting three first class seats as it just seems unnecessarily expensive on miles without having a good return for what you get.  If the seats were lie-flat seats, or the infant was a toddler who was less happy to sit still, or their family had an even number of people in it, then my recommendation here might have been different, but this just didn’t seem like the best option to me personally.

Ultimately I think the decision in this case comes down to two first class seats or three economy seats.  I think that is actually a decision that lots of new traveling miles and points parents have to make.  I know, I know, #firstclassproblems.  Those two scenarios are similarly priced in terms of miles with the slight edge going to three economy seats at being at least 15,000 miles cheaper.  I think which option is best can obviously only be made by the parents who know their own child, their own preferences, and their own risk tolerances of having or not having a car seat in use on the flight.  I think some snuggley six-month-olds who are being cared for by parents (who like to take turns holding the little one for hours at a time) may be most comfortable with two first class seats.

However, I know that my family would have done best with three economy seats, and ultimately that was my recommendation.  Having the whole family together in one row is very helpful for the first big trip with a little one.  Having the kiddo securely strapped into their own car seat is helpful in terms of having your hands free, but also gives peace of mind if you hit a patch of nasty turbulence.  The under seat storage for three seats is also helpful for the baby toys, diaper bag, emergency changes of clothes, etc.  Though of course some bulkhead seats do not have any under seat storage, so think about that trade-off before selecting the bulkhead.

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My recommendation was to get three economy seats together with extra legroom, and ultimately that is what the family did.  I just didn’t see being in that particular first class cabin with a six-month-old to be worth the additional miles since the layout puts you all further apart from each other.  First class wouldn’t have been a bad choice, but it wasn’t my first choice in this scenario.

I’m curious as to what you would have done in this situation and why?

 

 

Posted by Mommy Points | 21 Comments

21 Responses to “Three Economy Seats or Two First Class Seats with an Infant?”

  1. Alon says:

    I have found that some of the economy seats are too small to comfortably hold a car seat without encroaching on neighboring seats . . . thoughts?

    • Vicente says:

      The post is about infants. Like the Graco Snugride which can fit anywhere, easy to strap down rear-facing so you can watch their faces. I can see this being a problem for a giant seat for a larger child.

      For my DS when he was 3 I used to bring his Britax Boulevard which is a bit unwieldy to get into place. But since the child must sit next to the window, the only incursion should be a little elbow room of the parent next to them.

      After our DD just turned 2, we have dumped car seats when flying. Less stuff to lug through airport. We tried but bringing along luggage plus car seat plus a 6-year old and a 2-year old was TOO MUCH! I picked up a CARES harness for her. With it’s shoulder straps it’s enough like a car seat that she slept in it, and generally didn’t complain much about having to remain seated. We all have to REMAIN SEATED a lot more now, than we did 20 years ago. and that is VERY hard for a 2 year old without some cues that say “this is a time we don’t move” and the CARES harness did that for us. It was less about her safety per se than all our comfort.

      Now when we arrive at remote destination we have inflatable Bubble Bum booster for DS, and either borrow or rent a full car seat for DD.

  2. Nick says:

    I upgraded some friends going to Mexico with their 1 year old using my GPU’s (I’m not re qualifying for 1K so all my international travel this year is award travel). They picked the bulkhead seats in first class and loved it.

  3. Dave Op says:

    The family has 7-digit miles balance. The flight is 10 hours long. Three first class seats is the way to go. Better use up the miles before they turn into AA Pesos.

    Next best choice is 3 economy so that the infant can use a car seat for safety reasons.

  4. JohnSD says:

    3 economy seats or 3 first class seats, FAA approved car seat required regardless of the choice. Safety should be the number one choice. The best option though would be to let the grandparents fight over the child, and let the parents enjoy a wonderful wee – everyone wins.

  5. DBest says:

    I’m curious about your opinion if the F seats were lie-flats? I’d think the clear choice would then be the 2 F seats but I don’t have any kids.

    • Stephen says:

      Their routing was St Louis – Los Angeles – Kaui on American. The aircraft on that route has the standard domestic first class seats, so no lie flats.

  6. Smart Parent says:

    @JohnSD – the whole “safety” issue when it comes to lap infants vs. infants in a car seat is extremely overblown.

    1. Most children will not sit in a car seat the entire time
    2. The likelihood of turbulence that is strong enough to throw a child around to cause serious injury where a car seat would have saved the child is minimal (and see #1 above that in many situations, the child doesn’t sit in the car seat)
    3. Many city-raised babies refuse to sit in car seats because they never use them otherwise. The baby will cry and bother everyone else on the plane.

    The “baby who got injured” due to turbulence thing is always thrown around. Is it safer to be in a car seat? Sure. Are the odds of something happening to a lap infant lower than something happening on the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel? Of course.

  7. Grover's Bathtub says:

    We (2 adults, one 4 year old, one baby) recently booked a trip from the East Coast to HI for next year. There was no availability (and we didn’t have the miles) to sit in the front, so the choice was 3 or 4 economy seats. We picked 3 on the way out, because (at least one of) the adults will be staying awake. On the way back, we’re flying a red-eye, so we got 4 seats.

  8. I think the two first class with infant on lap is the best option. You will still have to hold a 6mo hold infant whether or not they have their seat for their own comfort (and since it will be baby’s first time flying..)

  9. Paul says:

    We recently flew from Boston to LA with our 4 mo daughter, and I ended up upgrading the person in between my wife and me to a seat with more legroom elsewhere on the plane so we could have the row. This ended up being cheaper than buying the seat outright. Also, I’ve seen carriers provide bassinets for passengers in bulkhead rows – can’t remember which, but it was on an int’l flt.

  10. Stephen says:

    The 2 first class seats would be more compelling if they are lie flats. Another routing would be STL-DFW-OGG with the DFW-OGG on the 767 with the near-lie-flat seats. Looks like they already booked the tickets, but they can still change the routing.

  11. I would go with the 3 economy seats with extra legroom. We used those MCE seats on American for our flight to Kauai and they were awesome!!! I think it is much safer for the child to have its own seat where they can be strapped into the car seat, especially if they are sleeping. That is a long time to hold an infant – sleeping or awake!

  12. Seth says:

    If you really have risk tolerance you could book two economy and call in to reserve a basanett. Our experience on delta was that they blocked the bulkhead from being booked and gave it to the first person to request a basanett. With luck there will be no more infants on the flight or none traveling together that want to split up and sit in the third center bulkhead seat alone. This would give you a third seat by default by free. Obviously the risks are a full flight or another baby which would mean total hell holding the baby in economy for 10 hours! Probably a strategy best reserved for shorter flights.

  13. Vicente says:

    3 economy, and infant in car seat. Babies are usually used to going to SLEEP in their comfortable familiar car seat. Buckle seat in rear facing for infant seat, and watch them get that long nap that makes everyone’s day easier. If the baby naps on a parent, that parent will not be relaxed. They could even spend some time there when not napping too.

    I’ve been through this. We used to have the baby in an Ergo when napping, and you end up with sweaty chest and sweaty baby unless the plane is freezing. It wasn’t worth it, get them their own seat!

  14. Great, great post. I agree that it is a very close call between the three economy seat option or the two first class seat option. For a trip that long (10 hours total), I’d personally go with the 3 economy seat choice too. My first child totally needed her separate space in her car seat at that age for a flight of any length.

    For a shorter (perhaps 5-6 hour cross country trip), I think the balance tips more toward the first class option. You can reasonably hold a 6 month old baby that long and the extra space and amenities are nice in first class, even if it is just domestic first class seats and service. I just did SFO to YUL last month in AC first with our 9 month old son (much mellower personality than daughter) and it was great. Next month at 11 months old? He gets his own seat in economy when we fly Southwest from SFO to ATL.

  15. Mommy Points says:

    Love the discussion you guys. Talking about kids, first class, and car seats without fighting – that might be a first on the internet!

    Anyway, you guys have it covered but here are a few thoughts anyway.

    -Alon, some car seats are wider than the seat technically allows. This usually isn’t a big deal as the seat has to go against the window in most seating arrangements so it just steals a bit of your space. Won’t be an issue with an infant seat most likely.

    -The edge from me would go to the lie flats if that were the layout of the first class cabin.

    -All six month olds are just so different, but many who are used to car seats do well sleeping in them on planes. Obviously some don’t.

    -Agree a baby sleeping on you for that long is just sweaty and uncomfortable for most people…would be for me for sure!

    -The risk of not having a car seat is small, but for me the safety factors + the pure convenience of having them strapped in their own seat play together nicely.

  16. guidoland says:

    For my daughter’s first flight when she was 8 months (JFK-FCO) I had her in a baby bjorn carrier the whole flight. When she slept she was pretty much sleeping on my shoulder and there was no worry about me sleeping. The carrier was also good for carrying her to the bathroom for diaper changes (I think there were 5 of those that trip. When she was awake, it was easy to just open the carrier and play with her. I did this in economy but would totally prefer first class.

  17. Erik says:

    Both our daughters took long-haul trips before age 1 and I agree with your recommendation for 3 economy seats (ideally, premium economy for the extra room). If the flight is more than 2 hours, I think it is well worth getting a seat for the infant. Strap in the snugride and (if you are lucky) they will sleep the whole flight. Even if they don’t sleep, I think it is more comfortable for all because you will have the extra space. One of my daughters did fly biz on a return flight from Europe when she was 8 months old, but that was more a fluke than a conscious decision – it was the only low level seat available. Side note: on that return biz trip, my wife was flying solo with our daughter (they were visiting me during a long business trip). She mentioned that she didn’t really get to enjoy the business experience because she had to constantly attend to our daughter. Thus, with a baby I’m not really sure it would be worth it to fly up front unless the flight is a 10+ hour long haul.

  18. […] Three Economy Seats or Two First Class Seats with an Infant?: MommyPoints analyzes a dilemma many families with infants face when traveling using miles — book an extra economy seat for your baby or spring for first or business class with a lap child?  Her analysis is right on for the family in question traveling with a 6 month old on a 10 hour trip from St. Louis to Hawaii.  (Be sure to view my list of factors to consider when deciding whether to travel with a lap child). […]

  19. Mike says:

    Great post and I really enjoy reading your blog. My wife and I are planning on adopting our second child from china. We are in process of building up united miles. For such a long haul flight it would be nice to fly first class. However, I believe ideas somewhere that for an infant you must pay 20% of the ticket price. Is there any way around this? I have a feeling we will end up going economy as the 20% would end up being a big number since actual ticket price of first class is high. Thank you for any insight.

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