United Finally Lets Kids Sit With Parents for Free

Kids 12 years old and under can now sit next to an accompanying adult on basic economy fares at no extra cost.
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Written by Sally French
Lead Writer/Spokesperson
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Edited by Meghan Coyle
Assistant Assigning Editor
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For parents traveling with young children, the inability to have guaranteed, side-by-side seats can be far more than annoying. It can be impractical, stressful and irritating — not just for them but the folks stuck sitting next to a kid who appears to be flying solo.

Many families fork over a seat selection fee to ensure a seat next to their kid. Such fees can often cost more than $20 per person, per direction.

This year, the United Airlines family seating policy is doing away with such aggravating fees — if you’ve got a tot in tow, at least.

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United adds new and improved family seating policy

United announced a new family seating policy that allows children under age 12 to sit next to an accompanying adult for free when on basic economy tickets.

And while it had been free for children to sit next to an accompanying adult on standard economy tickets, it was complicated. United’s news is set to simplify the booking process. 

United says that customers traveling with children under age 12 will see more adjacent seat options starting in March 2023. Though this only applies to economy and basic economy seats — not United Polaris, United first class and Economy Plus seats.

“United's new policy is made possible through a series of investments in a new seat map feature that dynamically finds available adjacent seats at the time of booking,” according to a statement from the airline. “The online seat engine first reviews all available free economy seats and then opens complimentary upgrades to available Preferred Seats, if needed.”

If adjacent seats are not available, United says its new policy will let customers with a child switch to another flight to the same destination with adjacent seat availability in the same cabin at no additional cost.

That means families won’t owe the price difference if the new flight is more expensive.

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The president has been critical of airline fees

Extra fees that cover services that either used to be included or that don’t really cover any costs at all (it costs United the same whether you sit in row 15 or 16) have been the subject of recent debate on the federal regulation level.

The Biden-Harris Administration has proposed the Junk Fees Prevention Act, which would limit hidden fees and surcharges across a handful of industries including relatively-hidden resort fees at hotels, service fees at concerts and sporting events and, yes, surcharges for families to sit together on airlines.

President Joe Biden even referenced the family seating fees in his February 2023 State of the Union address.

“We’ll prohibit airlines from charging $50 roundtrip for a family just to be able to sit together,” he said. “Baggage fees are bad enough. Airlines can’t treat your child like a piece of baggage.”

How to avoid airline seat selection fees

United’s new family seating policy only applies to children under age 12. But for families who still want to keep teens together (or anyone who just wants to sit with their friends and spouses), you can still avoid seat selection fees.

NerdWallet analyzed nine major carriers as part of its annual awards to understand which airlines charged the most fees. Consider booking with airlines that charge low or no fees.

One standout is Southwest Airlines. While the airline has made low fees a cornerstone of its business, it also has a wildly unconventional boarding process with no assigned seats. Passengers are instead assigned a boarding order and can select any available seat once onboard.

The airline offers family boarding, which allows families with children ages 6 and under to board relatively early on in the boarding order, making it almost certain families sit together.

Otherwise, simply ask in person. Some gate agents will facilitate seat swaps prior to boarding. And you might have luck simply asking the passenger seated next to your loved one if they’re willing to swap.

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