The Day My Baby Earned Her First Miles

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I’m not good at tracking and logging the flights we have taken, so I can’t tell you for sure how many flights my 23-month-old tiny traveler has taken. If I had to guess I would say 30-ish, but what I can tell you with absolute certainty was that her most recent flight over the weekend from Houston to Boston was the first one where she earned flown miles. This was not the original plan, and in fact it wasn’t the plan until minutes before we arrived at the airport. I think in the end, this experience not only turned out great, but also solidified my own personal flying with a lap baby viewpoint.


Before I tell you want happened on this trip and why we literally bought her a ticket on the way to the airport, let me rewind and explain how we got to this point. With my first daughter, she only flew as a free lap infant on one short round trip from Houston to Corpus Christi. She was about 18 months old at that time, we had no one in the seat next to us so she wasn’t truly a lap infant, and it went just fine. That said, logistically it was nerve racking when I wondered if the seat next to us would end up occupied, if that person would be okay sitting next to a toddler, etc. I was terrified through much of the flight that we would hit a surprise pocket of turbulence and she would go flying into the ceiling. Suffice to say, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the lap baby concept.

That said, her first flight wasn’t until she was 11 months old so she was never a true infant, and she wasn’t the snuggly-hold-me-constantly-type of baby or toddler. She was, however, a professional car seat sleeper, and it made the most sense across the board to book her a seat even before she turned two, let her sleep in her car seat on the plane, and then we would have the whole row of three to ourselves. Win, win, win.

Then roughly five years later our second little traveler came to join us, and many of our experiences and opinions we had developed while traveling with our first went out the window when she came out as her own (different!) person. She was a very snuggly-hold-me-contstantly-or-else sort of baby who absolutely hated her car seat with a hot passion. The audacious idea of forcing her to sit in a car seat restrained on an airplane next to me, but not in my arms, would have never flown. Literally. She would have screamed bloody murder until she threw up, and then kept going. I know, because this is what would happen in the car.

So she became a lap infant, both on the ground and in the air (but not in the car). One flight, two flights, a dozen flights, two dozen flights, she flew in my arms, usually pretty content most of the time. It didn’t hurt that she also nursed way longer than my first daughter, so that paired up very well with traveling in my arms.

Snuggly Baby S and me. Photo by Jamie Kutter.

I did retain some anxiety about severe turbulence or emergency landings given that she wasn’t truly restrained, but while those things can and do happen, I also know the stats about commercial air travel in this country and know that she is much safer in the air than in the car, so I tried to keep that risk in perspective. However, I totally understand and appreciate if you want your little one strapped in 100% of the time on the plane. 

We took a little bit of a break bringing our second toddler on trips starting at around 18 months. At that time she was in the ‘hardest age to travel’ and some of our trips including a ski weekend, flights all the way to Hawaii and back for just four nights, and our first adults-only trip in a couple of years to Costa Rica really weren’t trips designed for someone her age. Her grandparents were all rock stars in keeping her at home for us while we took those trips without her. During that time that we traveled without her, she got six months older and went from a young 18 month old, to a more talkative and opinionated almost two year old.

Not a baby anymore!

Even though it had been close to six months since our last flight with her, I hadn’t thought much about what all had changed during that time until a few days before our flight. Once I thought about it I realized that she was a very different little girl than the last time she flew. She is still cuddly, but she is also more independent and no longer hates her car seat with a passion. I had a light bulb moment that she would actually probably do best on a four hour flight in her own car seat with her own iPad, but the ‘lap baby’ ticket for her had been booked many moons earlier.

I played some seat assignment Tetris, and crossed my fingers that the middle seat on our E+ row would stay empty. If that happened all the way to departure, then she and her car seat could occupy that seat for free. This is an actual rule when flying with a lap baby if an adjacent seat is left open, not just some crazy thing I made up. All the way until the morning of the flight, the middle seat between my oldest daughter and me was still empty. In fact, many of the middle seats in E+ were empty according to the seat map, so I felt pretty good about our odds.

However, the morning of the flight the standby passengers list kept growing to the point where there were almost as many names on that list as there were unassigned seats on the airplane. As we were just about rounding the turn to enter the airport property, I no longer felt all that great about our odds of scoring her a ‘free’ seat. By this point I had also fallen very much in love with the concept of her having her own space in her own car seat on the plane, and my husband absolutely did not want to haul the bulky car seat all the way to the gate and then potentially not get to use it.

So, we did what any crazy but well intended parents would do and used United’s app to literally buy her a paid seat as we were just minutes away from the airport. The price was surprisingly reasonable, and really no more than we paid for our seats months and months earlier.

We then raced into the check-in area to get her seat assigned to the empty one between us since we couldn’t do this on the app without shelling out another $100-ish for E+ as she technically wasn’t on our ticket and thus didn’t get access to our elite perks without manual intervention. The check-in agent giggled at our situation a bit and helped us out with the seat assignment without problems.

Once that was completed we all breathed a sigh of relief and felt great about our plan. We had time to relax in the United Club and then were some of the first on-board the plane so we could install her car seat and settle into our new 1 – 3 configuration when flying with us girls in one row and dad across the aisle.

After going through the 0 – 24 month flying period with both children, I think I now have a solid handle on my own personal thoughts on lap babies. My thoughts can be summed up by saying that only you know what is best for your babies. Yes, they are safer strapped into a car seat, but that may not be where they feel the safest and most secure in a strange environment. They will hit an age where they do best in their own space and seat, but that exact age will vary from child to child. For my first daughter that magic age was probably between 4 – 6 months, and with my second it wasn’t until she got very close to her second birthday.

At 23 months old, Baby S earned her first 1,598 flown miles on a ticket purchased just minutes before arriving to the airport. She credited them to a United MileagePlus account we opened for her as a one day old almost two years prior. We booked her return flight in her own seat that same morning, but for that one we were able to use miles, so she won’t be earning miles again quite yet.

Welcome to a whole new world of flying high sweet baby! When did you make the switch from lap baby to big girl/boy seat?

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  1. This is the exact situation where Southwest’s open seating policy shines.

    In my experience with a lap child, if there are ANY seats open on a Southwest flight, the ops agent will let you board with your car seat and stake your claim.

  2. For us it always depended on the flight duration and price if we’d buy them a ticket or not. We always did and still do a lot of NY to MCO which is 2-3 hours which I felt wasn’t terrible for a lap baby but if we were going to the west coast I’d buy a ticket for them! Also having SW companion pass for the past 2 years it was worth it to get the extra seat since we figured we were already saving so much!! My youngest is now 2.5 so no choice anymore!

  3. Our 17 month old has been a great lap infant. I’ve actually enjoyed many red-eyes with her sleeping in my arms… I also enjoy the occasional flight with both my wife and I upgraded to Business.

    We’re both a little bittersweet about the day we have to start buying her a ticket, and the day where she won’t just automatically get upgraded with us

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