Q I'll be flying with my family (two adults, and kids ages 2, 4 and 6) this summer. Which airline(s) will allow us to preboard? Do any airlines still provide games, infant formula, snacks and other goodies for little fliers? Also, we want to make sure we sit together, so which airlines let you choose seats together in advance without an extra fee tacked on?
A There are many aspects to what makes an airline family-friendly, and airlines are anything but equal in this regard.
Foreign or U.S. airline? If there's a choice, you definitely want to pick a foreign-based airline over a U.S.-based one. In general, foreign airlines have the financial resources to provide families with better amenities (games, toys, video selections, kiddie meals, free diapers) than U.S.-based airlines. Among the best: Emirates for travel to the Middle East and beyond; Lufthansa and British Airways for travel to Europe; Singapore for travel to Asia. If you're flying domestically, I'd give Southwest Airlines the nod for being most family-oriented.
Preboarding privileges: Most airlines still allow families traveling with small children to preboard, sometimes before everyone else, other times just after first-class and business-class passengers board. Southwest, Delta, JetBlue, Alaska and Virgin still extend this courtesy. American and United do not. Southwest doesn't have assigned seats, but the airline lets families with small kids board right after those who have paid an early-boarding fee.
Seat selection: Some airlines have fees for advance seat selection, making it more expensive for families with kids to sit together when planes are full. And they are designating an increasing number of seats as "premium economy," which cost extra (typically $18 to $118 each way domestically), reducing the number of fee-free seats. In addition, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic only let you choose seats for free within 24 hours of flight time, which means you may have to sit apart from your kids (these airlines do, however, let you choose a seat in advance if you're flying with an child younger than 2). In contrast, Lufthansa and most other foreign airlines let you pick seats when you book your fare. In the U.S., Spirit, AirTran and Allegiant charge for seat selection on all flights.
Amenities: Don't expect games, free kids' entertainment, meals, formula and diapers when flying on a U.S.-based airline; if you're flying overseas, you're much better off on a foreign airline. Emirates, British Airways, Singapore and Virgin Atlantic provide all this for free. Emirates even has a frequent-flier program for kids, with colorful puppets for younger fliers (their flight attendants don red clown noses to distract little ones during a meltdown). A telling detail: United now states on its website that it cannot warm baby formula. Crews on most foreign-based airlines do this without a problem.
Today's column comes from George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com.