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2 boys in plane seatsAir travel, at best, is a challenge, these days—at worst, an ordeal. For families, however, the inconveniences are compounded. A New York Times article by Michelle Higgins states, “Baggage fees? Start multiplying. Early boarding? Probably not. Hoping to sit together? Don’t count on it (unless you’ve paid extra). A few empty seats where a child can spread out and nap? Good luck with that!”

It wasn’t always like this, of course, the article reports. In the golden age of flying in the 1960s and ’70s, families were the first ones on the plane. “They would then be greeted by smiling flight attendants bearing miniature pilot wings for children who would be treated to a tour of the cockpit before settling into their seats. And even as recently as a few years ago, families could count on a handful of common courtesies, like boarding before other passengers, landing a roomier seat in the first row of coach, bringing certain strollers onboard, and even being able to get milk on board,” it states.

As any traveling parent knows, those days are long gone, partly due to simple economics. American carriers have lost about $55 billion over the course of the past decade, according to the Air Transport Association, as operational costs, like fuel and employee benefits, have outpaced revenues. Making up for those losses has meant cutting benefits and adding fees. Now, airlines “treat families like everybody else,” Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group International, an aviation consultancy, told the Times.

For families planning to brave the “indifferent skies,” particularly this holiday season, here are some things to look out for, according to the article, and tips on how to navigate them:

1. WHY IS EVERYONE ELSE BOARDING FIRST As recent as four years ago, some airlines were still routinely calling families to board first. Now early boarding is a privilege people have to pay for. The only way to guarantee early boarding for your family is to buy it. Check with the airline to see what they offer. Short of that, explain to the gate agents why you would like to board early and see if they can help.

2. MY KIDS ARE SEATED 5 ROWS BEHIND ME Planes are flying mostly full most of the time, thanks to major capacity cuts over the past decade. During peak travel times, empty seats are even harder to come by. For families, this means that it is harder than ever to get seats together. If any open seats are left, they are usually the middle ones, making it next to impossible to persuade other passengers to swap seats—and something flight attendants are not required to do. As a solution, book as early as possible so more seats are available. If you can’t find seats together, call the airline and ask an agent to make a note on your reservation indicating which family members are minors. Check back with the airline 1-3 days before departure, when seats for customers with disabilities are often released. Or, you can throw money at the problem. Most airlines now put a hefty price tag on the most desirable seats, which may remain available when the rest of coach is sold.

3. IF YOU DON’T BRING IT, WE DON’T HAVE IT Today’s travelers pretty much know that they have to take their own food onboard, or buy it on the plane. Don’t count on even basic supplies being available. Even when airlines do offer food onboard, often the thing you want is sold out. To ensure that your family has what it needs, bring it yourself. Consider buying perishables like milk after clearing security and asking a flight attendant to put those items on ice. Or bring something like Parmalat or Horizon Organic’s eight-ounce milk boxes, which can be stored at room temperature until opened.

4. TRY AN ALTERNATIVE TO FLYING Joanne Gardner, owner of the Travel Specialist travel agency in Wheaton, Ill., told the Times that nearly half of her business was planning family vacation. She estimates that 25-35% of her clients actively avoid flying. “People really dislike the whole experience,” she said, from the baggage fees to having to bring on their own food. “Clients are preferring to take trains, rent a car or drive on their own.”

What families can expect from a range of American carriers on domestic flights:

AMERICAN

  • EARLY BOARDING: No. Families who want to board earlier can ask the gate agent or pay a fee to guarantee a spot in the first boarding group in coach.
  • SEATING: Bulkhead seats toward the front of coach are reserved for elite passengers or sold as “preferred seats” 24 hours before departure for a fee.
  • KIDS’ MEALS: Sells a number of “kid-friendly choices,” such as turkey sandwiches with chips.
  • ENTERTAINMENT: Free child-friendly movies and streaming video on overhead TVs on most flights longer than 4 hours.
  • STROLLER GATE CHECK: Yes, except non-collapsible strollers or those weighing 20 lbs. or more, which must be checked at the ticket counter.

DELTA

  • EARLY BOARDING: Yes (no age limit), ahead of first and business class.
  • SEATING: Bulkhead seats may be available for families 24 hours before departure.
  • KIDS’ MEALS: For a fee: peanut butter and jelly plate, served with fruit and vegetables.
  • ENTERTAINMENT: Back by popular demand: pilot wings handed out to children. On flights with seatback TVs, Delta offers 16 On Demand children’s TV. Some flights have Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network via satellite television (at no charge).
  • STROLLER GATE CHECK: Yes.

JETBLUE

  • EARLY BOARDING: Yes, for families with children under 2, along with passengers who paid extra for seats with more legroom.
  • SEATING: Bulkhead seats are reserved for customers with disabilities up to 24 hours before departure, with remaining seats sold as “Even More Space” seats for an extra fee.
  • KIDS’ MEALS: No, but does offer free snacks, including Animal Crackers.
  • ENTERTAINMENT: Seatback TVs offer 36 channels of DirecTV, including children’s programming, and 100 XM Satellite Radio channels free.
  • STROLLER GATE CHECK: Yes.

SOUTHWEST

  • EARLY BOARDING: Yes, for families with children up to 4 years old, after passengers in boarding Group A, which includes elite fliers, full-fare passengers and those who pay a fee for early-bird check-in.
  • SEATING: There are no seat assignments. Like other passengers, families must find an open seat once onboard.
  • KIDS’ MEALS: No meals onboard. Peanuts and pretzels are free.
  • ENTERTAINMENT: Coloring books and airline wings.
  • STROLLER GATE CHECK: Yes.

UNITED-CONTINENTAL

  • EARLY BOARDING: Yes, for families with children 4 and younger, after passengers who paid extra for priority boarding.
  • SEATING: Bulkhead seats are typically reserved for elite passengers or sold for a fee.
  • KIDS’ MEALS: Snacks and meals, including cheese and fruit plates, depending on length of flight and time of day.
  • ENTERTAINMENT: Most of United’s fleet has overhead screens that show in-flight movies. Continental offers satellite TV.
  • STROLLER GATE CHECK: Yes, except large, noncollapsible strollers, which must be checked at the ticket counter.

US AIRWAYS

  • EARLY BOARDING: Yes, for families with children 4 and younger, along with elite passengers and those who paid extra for bulkhead seats.
  • SEATING: Bulkhead seats are reserved for passengers with disabilities until an hour before departure, and are assigned at the gate agent’s discretion.
  • KIDS MEALS: Snack boxes and meals including fruit and cheese plates, depending on the length of the flight and time of day.
  • ENTERTAINMENT: Nothing on domestic flights.
  • STROLLER GATE CHECK: Yes, except for non-collapsible strollers, which must be checked at the ticket counter.

BRITISH AIRWAYS

In addition to specially designed “carrycots” and infant seats for children up to 2 years old, the airline supplies Skyflyer activity packs for children under 12 on all flights over 3 hours long. The “feed kids first” policy is designed to ensure that parents can eat in peace. One thumbs down: The carrier charges for seat assignments in coach. Families who don’t pay for seat assignments will get seats three days before departure.

VIRGIN ATLANTIC

Children receive backpacks with coloring books, toys, sunglasses, hats and other surprises. Children’s meals, which must be reserved in advance, include chicken fingers and pizza served with child-size cutlery and a side of a fruit, vegetable, yogurt or string cheese. Children 2 to 12 pay 75% of the adult fares. Bulkhead seats are specifically reserved for parents with infants, and specially designed infant cots and chairs are available for children up to 3 years old. A limited supply of diapers, bottles and baby food are also offered onboard.

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