If you're getting on a plane with your children, it's pretty obvious that you're going to want to sit next to them. In fact, you're going to need to – at least until they're old enough to safely occupy themselves independently for the duration of the flight.


But making sure your family sits together on a plane isn't quite as simple as booking adjacent seats in a cinema or theatre. Open seating on aircrafts, where you can get on and choose an available seat, is no longer something offered by airlines. Seats are now allocated for each individual passenger in advance and, on some airlines, if you want to have a say on where your family's seats are and how close together they are, you're going to have to pay for the privilege.

What are airlines required to do about family seating?

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which regulates aviation safety in the UK, doesn't have any specific rules about seating families together but it does recommend that "the seating of children close by their parents or guardians should be the aim of airline seat allocation for family groups".

It also advises: "Young children and infants who are accompanied by adults should ideally be seated in the same row as the adult. Where this is not possible, child should be separated by no more than 1 seat row from accompanying adults."

Not super helpful, is it? But at least it's reassuring to know that, in reality, most airlines operating from the UK right now will routinely seat young children with an accompanying adult. The only catch is, they might not be the seats you want and you family group as a whole may be separated – you may be seated next to your child, for example, but your partner may be seated elsewhere.

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So, what can you do to make sure your family sits together on a flight?

OK, now you know it's unlikely your 4-year-old will be allocated a seat next to the angry-looking businessman in row 6 while you're stuck back in row 37. So, your real mission is to do all you can to make sure your 4-year-old is seated next to you, rather than a row away, and your partner – and any other children you have – are in the same row, too.

The best time to launch your mission is when you choose your airline and book your tickets. And, to help you, we've laid out below 6 key strategies to use. We can't guarantee you'll get the exact seats you want but these are definitely the best ways to try...

1. Know which airlines guarantee to sit a child next to a parent free of charge

Before you even book your flights, it's worth knowing which airlines guarantee that children under 12 will be seated with at least 1 parent, without pre-booking or an extra fee. These are:

  • British Airways
  • Air France
  • KLM
  • American Airlines
  • Delta
  • Emirates
  • Jet2 (This is not clearly stated on their website but has been confirmed to us by Jet2 customer service agents)

The following airlines say they will sit children under-12 "close" or "within arm's reach" of their accompanying adult but cannot guarantee this would be in the seat directly next to them.

  • TUI
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Norwegian Air
  • EasyJet

This potentially means that, on these airlines, your child may be seated across the aisle or in a seat directly in front or behind you. We do have to say, though, that our practical experience on Virgin Atlantic and Norwegian Air has been always that at least 1 parent has been seated next to their children, without reserving a seat.

What about Ryanair?

Ryanair has a slightly different system. They do guarantee children that under 12 will be seated with 1 adult in their booking party but that adult must pay £4 to reserve a seat and the children are then automatically given seats next to them for no extra charge.

This £4 charge is automatically added when you book a child fare and you will see it in your basket when you check out. It's important to know that you don’t have to then select a paid-for seat from the seat plan on top of this payment. This £4 reservation covers up to 4 children aged 2 to 12 years per 1 paying adult.

Should I book a seat for my baby?

Infant fares (for children aged 8 days to 24 months) are for lap-sitting children only. You can opt to book a seat for your baby instead, which you may find more comfortable (you can then have to option to secure your child in a car seat, rather than hold them for the entire flight) and which can sometimes work out cheaper. You can read more about this, and how different airlines charge for infant fares, in our article Should you buy your baby a seat on a plane?

2. If you're travelling with a partner, reserve them a seat near to you as soon as you can

Remember that even airlines that guarantee to sit a parent next to their child/children free of charge are only talking about 1 adult. So if you're flying with a partner (or other adults or children over the age of 12), they may find themselves randomly allocated a seat elsewhere on the plane.

If you want to try to avoid this, without paying extra, here are our tips:

  • On Virgin Atlantic, Qatar and Japan Airlines, you can reserve seats for free as soon as you book your flights – if you are checking in a bag.
  • On British Airways, there is a seat-reserving service once check-in opens (24 hours before the flight time). If you’re not happy with the seats available to reserve for free, you'll then have the option to pay and secure seats together if you'd prefer.
  • On easyJet flights, seats are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. So the earlier you check in, the more likely you are to be seated together. Check in for easyJet is 30 days before your flight, so make a note in your calendar.

What about Ryanair?

If you pay the £4 charge to be seated next to your children (under 12), your partner (and other adults or over-12s in your party) are very likely to end up sitting elsewhere. If you'd rather this didn't happen, you can opt to pay – from £3 per person – to reserve a seat close by.

What if my children are over the age of 12? Will we be seated together?

Unfortunately, on virtually all airlines, children aged 12 or older in your group may be allocated a seat randomly, unless you pay to reserve seating for that.

American Airlines and Air France are a rare exception – and they only say they will seat all children under 16 "close" to their parent or carer.

That said, most airlines do aim to seat families and older children from the same booking together.

3. Consider paying when you choose your flight to get the seats you want

One way of being sure you'll get to sit with your children and family is simply to accept the fee to book seats together. It's annoying, yes, but the fees aren't astronomical, especially on budget airlines. It is worth considering that, if you factor the cost of booking seats into your budget when you're buying flights, you can save yourself a lot of panicky seat-reserving stress or, worse, a meltdown at the airport check-in.

Options for selecting seats come up once you've chosen the flights, and there will usually be a number of price bands you can choose from, depending on where you want to sit on the plane. On Virgin Atlantic, for example, certain preferred seats toward the front of the plane are charged at a higher price than others. Advance seat reservations start from £35 per seat and go up to £75 for the 'better' seats.

On low-cost airlines, such as Jet2 and RyanAir, seat reservations start from as little as £3.

Remember: even if you don't initially book seats together, you can usually go back to your booking and pay to reserve seats later. The earlier you do this, the more choice you will have.

4. Keep a very close eye on all emails from your airline in case something changes

Do keep tabs on your flight booking in the months and weeks prior to your trip, as well as on the day of travel. In the event of an aircraft change or if flights are re-booked due to a cancellation, the seats you have reserved may change even when you have paid extra. The sooner you realise the alteration, the easier it will be to sort it out by contacting customer services.

5. If you haven't booked seats, get in line early

If you didn't book seats together in advance, it's well worth getting to the airport early. Asking politely at the check-in desk may result in the airline moving your seats if there is space to do so. The earlier you get in line, the more likely seats will be available for you to be seated together – especially if you're a group of 4 or more.

On low-cost airlines from the UK, ask if they can also move the seats on your return flight seats, too. Some smaller European airports use agency staff at check-in desks, who have less control over seat allocation than the airline's in-house crew.

What if my child has a disability?

Any passenger, adult or child, with a disability, reduced mobility or difficulty with communication or social interaction has a legal right to special assistance when they travel. This applies on any flights to and from the UK or anywhere in the EU, and also on EU airlines.

BUT disabled travellers and those with additional needs aren't guaranteed free seat selection by law – although most airlines will accommodate you to make the journey as smoothly as possible.

If you have a child with a disability or additional needs, it's best to notify the airline as soon you book so they can help as much as possible. Be aware that assistance requests may be queried by the airline to ensure the best possible service for those who genuinely need it. At the very least, make sure you contact the airline no later than 48 hours before you travel.

6. If you can't book seats, ask other passengers to swap

If you've had no joy getting seats together, you could try your luck once you're on the plane and see if any other passengers are willing to trade seats. We'd recommended you only to do this as a last resort because you may get some less-than-polite responses, especially if the passenger you're asking has paid to reserve their seat. In larger groups, this can also slow down boarding and cause extra stress for everyone.

Don't be fooled into thinking that anyone gladly would swap seats to avoid being near a small child. There are often reasons why other people have paid for – or chosen – the seats they have and they might not want to give them up, however fidgety and noisy the person next to them. If you ask and they say no, you should accept their answer without question.

And if all else fails? Just go with it

For short-haul flights, where you want to pay the cheapest fare for your flight, you may just to accept that your extended family will be seated in different parts of the plane. Children over 12 can obviously manage a short flight without you by their side – they might enjoy the independence – and older adults can definitely manage. It might be hard work for you – or whoever's got the only seat next to the children – but it's only for a few hours after all.

Pic: Getty

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Helen Wright is a travel writer and mum of 2. She has travelled around the world as a blogger, as well as writing for National Geographic Traveller, Lonely Planet, The Times, The Sun, Mirror, Marie Clare and Cosmopolitan