Best Place to Sit With a Family on the Airplane

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One of the questions I get with some regularity is related to where to sit with young kids on an airplane.  This question can take many forms, from where to sit with an infant on a premium cabin on an international flight, to where to sit with a family of four on a domestic 737 in coach.

There may never be a “right answer” on where to sit, but it sometimes isn’t even possible to give any specific advice without knowing the type of aircraft, which cabin(s) are being considered, whether or not you have access to extra legroom or bulkhead seats, and how many people are in your party.  Those are all things to think about, in addition to how you think you kids will behave on the plane.  Ultimately you know your kids best, and probably have a gut feeling on how they will do in-flight even if they have never left the ground.

So while I can’t answer what the best seating arrangement is for every scenario, I will give some pointers that will hopefully apply to many situations.  I’d also love to hear your thoughts!

Request Seats Early and Often:

This may go without saying for those who are proactive enough to consider the best seating arrangements, but don’t just assume the airline has assigned your family seats together at all.  Obtain seat assignments at the time of booking, and then keep an eye on them as your trip approaches.  Equipment swaps or similar can cause seating arrangements to change without you necessarily being notified.  Once the plane is pretty much full, your seating options will be dramatically worse.

Divide and Conquer:

Probably the most common seating question I get is what to do with a family of four when the rows offer a 3-3 seating arrangement.  In that case, some initial thoughts that families have is to put three family members on one side of the aisle, and the other alone just across from them on the other side of the aisle.  This can certainly work, and keeps everyone close together, but I would argue that with young kids your best option might be to divide and conquer…. especially if your kids might be inclined to kick the seat in front of them or fight with each other.


One on one parent child ratio

If you put one parent paired up with one kid, and sit behind each other in say 7A and 7B and 8A and 8B, then not only does each kid have a parent, but if the kid in row 8 accidentally slips in a few seat kicks, then they are only impacting their own family members in row 7.  Additionally, the family members in row 7 can choose to not recline their seats, which really helps if the kid in row 8 is in a car seat that puts their legs very close to the seat in front of them.  My own kid had her legs pinned in a way that really hurt when the person in front of her reclined quickly while she was in a car seat.

Bulkheads can be very good, but there is often a “stuff problem”:

The bulkhead seats can be a really good place for families in terms of having lots of legroom, but be aware that in many aircraft that means there will be no place to put bags/purses under the seat in front of you.  This can be a big problem if you will need to frequently access snacks, toys, etc. from your bag.  You may have to sit in the bulkhead if you need a bassinet on an international flight as they are often in that location.

Magic bulkheads that have room for stuff and lots of legroom!

Magic bulkheads that have room for stuff and lots of legroom!

Coach or premium cabin:

Assuming you have the option of redeeming miles for coach or premium cabin seats for your family, you have to decide where you will be more comfortable.  If the premium cabin seats you are considering are lie-flat on a long-haul flight, then I can assure you that you will absolutely be more comfortable there in most cases.  Kids do better sleeping laying down than sitting up just like adults.

Guess which shot below resulted in the longest period of sleep….




Napping in a lie-flat seat

However, you may be met with less tolerance in a premium cabin in the event that your kids misbehave or have a meltdown.  Many folks there likely paid the premium to sit there because they want/need sleep on the flight.  That said, no one on the entire plane wants to be seated next to a crying baby whether they are in seat 1A or 44E, so just do your very best to meet your kid’s needs and keep them from disturbing others to the extent humanely possible regardless of where you are sitting.  Make the decision on where to sit based on where your child will be most comfortable, not where you will get the fewest dirty looks.  For me and my family, that will be in a lie-flat seat when that is an option to consider.

Back of the bus or front of the bus:

Assuming you made the decision to sit in coach, you still need to decide whether to sit toward the front or back of the coach section.  Some families like to sit at the very back of the plane both to be close to the lavatory for potty breaks, and also because the “grumpy” frequent flyers usually don’t sit back there.  I have heard the back of the plane referred to as the “baby ghetto” because you can often find a higher concentration of families seated in that section.  We sometimes sit at the back of the plane, but I personally prefer the front as it is easier to get on and off with all of our stuff, and that is usually where the extra legroom seats are located.  However, not everyone has access to extra legroom seats without paying extra, so if you find yourself toward the back, you will likely be in good company.


The back of the plane can feel like a long way with lots of stuff!

Lap Infant vs. Buy Infants Their Own Seat

The other decision you will have to make if your child is under 2 is whether to buy them their own seat or have them as your “lap child”.  If you can afford it either in dollars or miles, you will almost certainly be more comfortable if your child (and their stuff) has their own seat.  If your child is not yet mobile and still sleeps/nurses frequently you may be relatively comfortable with a lap infant, but once you get passed about the 9-12 months mark, it is often a struggle to keep the baby happy and still in your lap.


Locked and loaded in her car seat

There are also some safety concerns to keep in mind when making this decision.  Air travel is of course statistically much safer than travel in a car, so the likelihood of anything happening is very low.  However, some flights do have unexpected drops, turbulence, and hard landings where babies would be safest strapped in their own seat via their car seat.  On most flights though you are simply buying some extra space and convenience by putting the under-two crowd in their own seats.

If you have some stories or suggestions to share about how your family selects seats on the plane I’d love to hear it!

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  1. Great article. If your family is larger (as mine is), you have even more “fun” to deal with. 🙂

    With a family of 8, getting seats all together is even less of an option (without paying tons extra)

    Last time we flew, we were on Frontier which doesn’t let you pick seats (for free). We were able to talk to the gate agent who was able to pull some strings and at least get us in 3 clumps. So my older boys sat together, I sat with 2 of the girls and my wife sat with the baby.

    • This is the type of scenario where you need to cough up a few bucks to avoid inconviencing everyone else on the plane

  2. We were flying United out of Calgary over the Christmas holiday and the gate agents were working like crazy to switch people around so that families with young kids (and there were a ton of them) could sit together. But it’s a good reminder that they don’t have to find you seats together. We’ve been lucky that most of the time they do seat us together and when our son was a lap-sitter they would find us a row to ourselves.

  3. We do about 40,000 miles as a family a year with four kids. If we have three and three seat configuration we usually pick A and C leaving B empty. No one likes the middle seat and usually the airline puts people there last. If it does full up no one will sit there and make you be separate. We offer to switch with them the aisle or window seat and they are happy and we are back to were we would be if we booked them next to each other. We have a 10 & 8 yr old so they do that in there own row while I take one and my wife takes one on another row.

  4. We have a family of 4 and if it is 3-3 we tend to do 3 and 1, but my kids are good about not kicking! They like sitting next to each other, and one of us gets a break for a little bit. If there are sections of 2 we do 2 and 2, in a row front to back.

    We don’t actually have a preference on where on the plane, but avoid bulkhead. And if we are not placed together I call and have never had a problem with them finding us seats together.

    Of course we prefer business class 😉

  5. When traveling with family (wife and 8 year old boy and 4 year old boy) I like to sit as close to the front as possible so we can get out of the plane quick after we land.

    Coach domestic: second row on Economy Comfort – wife with one kid and I sit with the other. Although bulk head gives you more leg space you cannot move the armrests and it makes very challenging if the kid wants to stretch and take a nap.
    First class domestic: we usually let the kids sit together and we sit on the other side of the aisle

    Coach international: always Economy Comfort in either two seats sharing with one parent or we take 3 seats in the middle row and one on the aisle.
    Business class international: almost never fly with kids on business class international

  6. We fly 60-70K a year with two kids, 8 & 12. Usually do the two and two configuration, window-aisle near the back of the plan, as an earlier comment suggested.

    I am a big proponent of only flying the kids economy, and it has nothing to do with making the other business class passengers happy. Unless you have the budget, in points and cash, to always fly business class, don’t. Otherwise, for every flight for the next two years, you get the constant refrain “why aren’t we sitting in the front of the plane!” as you walk through the premium cabins on your way to the back of the plane!

    Save the lie flat seats for solo travel instead.

  7. I agree with George. Economy only for the kids in part to save points/dollars to travel more and in part because of not wanting to give them a taste of the good life!

    We are a family of four (9 & 6) and tend to prefer the 2 and 2 arrangement over the 3 and 1. Each kid gets a parent and each parent is responsible for a kid. It also eliminates the fight over who gets the window. When my little one was younger, it helped to have him sit behind his sister since he would occasionally kick.

    I started traveling alone with the kids a little more a couple of years ago and in that situation I prefer to sit in the back near the bathrooms. That way, I don’t have to drag both kids to the bathroom every time one of them has to use the toilet.

  8. Great ideas here. I have a 4yo and 1yo and I don’t buy an extra seat for the baby. At least with my eldest, he liked to be in my arms nursing the whole so buying an extra seat would’ve been pointless. On our last flight (int’l biz on points), when he saw his sister asleep in my arms he insisted he needed a cuddle, too, so I had 2 kids on top of me with an empty biz class seat next to me!

  9. We are grandparents flying a 5 hr flight with our daughter, husband 2 1/2 yr old and 8 month old. Do u suggest we sit behind them or in the isle next to them?

    • I suggest in front of, if possible, so if the toddler gets to kicking the seat in front it won’t be as stressful for the parents. If not, I suggest across the aisle.

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