This question has confronted me several times. But every time I thought there was a chance we wouldn’t get seats together (like flying Southwest and being in the C group), things worked out. I’ve prepared my boys for this contingency. But a month ago, it was finally put to the test. The question had to be asked: would you sit separated from your child on a flight?
The Woes of Flying Standby
Flying standby is what finally did me in. I’d booked an award ticket with an extremely long layover. Like, all day at SFO. At least it’s the best large airport in the country. The itinerary had us on an early morning flight in and a late afternoon flight on to Phoenix. We’d planned to plane watch, stream a soccer game at midday, and read books. I’d see if I could get some work done. Not usually successful with the kids around.
But then I had a thought: why don’t we try flying standby? There was an earlier flight to Phoenix. I had just been cheap and didn’t want to pay 3x the miles.
While the process was an ordeal for the gate agents (story for another day), we finally got tickets. A group of travelers no-showed on the full flight.
There was one catch: there were two seats together and a separate middle seat in another row. I’d either have to sit separated from the boys or sit with my younger one and put the 12-year-old by himself. They weren’t thrilled. But the alternative was another 5 hours at the airport.
Sitting Separated From Your Child On a Plane
If this had happened a couple years ago, I would have made my older son sit by himself. But with a 12-year-old and 8-year-old, I actually opted to let the two of them sit together, which was their preference. I’d take the solo middle seat. The boys were a couple rows behind me, across the aisle.
Now, I know some parents may object to this. You know your kids best, what they can handle, even if it’s not ideal. I trust my 12-year-old to be watchful over his brother, and this seemed a fine option.
If you do end up separated, make sure your kids have what they need to get through the flight. The boys pulled anything they needed from their luggage before they sat down. I also had them hit the restroom, knowing they’d be hesitant to ask to get up.
It was a very uneventful flight. The boys were fine. I was fine. I read a book and glanced back at them occasionally. They watched a movie on my laptop. We got to Phoenix.
Situations Where You May End Up Separated From Your Child
Standby on a very full flight is probably the worst situation where you’re likely to sit separated from your child. A misconnect is another, when rebooking is at the mercy of the airline. If the situation is their fault, you might have a bit more leverage.
Booking separate tickets can pose a problem. In many cases, you’ll be able to select seats together. But if there is an aircraft swap, you may not be assigned seats together at that point, and the aircraft may be full or nearly so.
Flying basic economy is the other situation where you can end up separated from your kids on a flight. This is one reason why booking basic economy for family travel can be unwise. Many carriers don’t guarantee you’ll sit together. However, some carriers do make a guarantee if you have young enough kids.
Dealing With Being Separated
Again, with young kids (like 5-years-old and younger), it’d be a non-starter to sit separated. I’ve sat next to “solo” flyers as young as about 7 a few times. In every case their parent was in another row. Never have I observed any distress.
With an older kid, you’ll need to gauge what you and they are capable of. Of course, my 12-year-old did not want to sit by himself. But he is more than capable of doing so. I decided I’d take the separate seat in our case.
If worse comes to worst and you have no choice (e.g. missed connection where you have to take what you can get), the last-ditch option is to ask passengers if they’ll swap seats. I’ve been asked to switch a few times over the years, usually when I’m traveling alone. As long as they aren’t giving me a middle seat, I’m more than happy to move.
Be kind and gracious about it. People don’t have to move. But many will graciously do so.
It could be that in a few years the kids prefer to sit separately. Don’t want to sit with dad? Fine, guys. Enjoy coach. I’ll be up front. Sorta kidding. I hope we don’t get to that point.
Knowing that you may end up sitting separately from your child on a flight can make you anxious as a parent. This is one reason I don’t book basic economy with some carriers, including with United. I considered a basic economy ticket for our return flight of this very same trip and opted to pay a bit more for normal economy. Paying $30 more per person is better than having to finagle with the gate staff or beg other passengers to switch.