31 answers

Infant in Lap Vs. Seat on Plane

We have always bought plane tickets for our kids when they were infants. I tend to be ultra cautious, and having them in a car seat in the plane seemed safest.

However, now there are five of us. And flights this summer are ridiculously expensive, presumably driven by the high cost of oil. And when we flew last summer, our youngest was so fussy that I ended up holding him for 95% of the time we were on the plane, even though we had bought him a seat and schlepped the car seat onboard.

So, we are considering NOT buying a ticket for our 20 month old this summer. Will I be able to lower the tray table with him in my lap? (He is big, about 75th percentile for his age.) Will we be able to put down the armrest and have the three kids share two seats for parts of the flight? (I know that wouldn’t be allowed for take-off and landing, but do they allow it in-flight?) It’s a >6 hour flight. If we don’t get him a seat, will I totally regret it?? (P.S. I know I will end up being the one holding him the majority of the time, especially since my husband thinks we should cough up the money for the extra ticket.)


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It really depends how long the flight is. A 20 month old is not going to be willing to sit still for long in your arms.

As a mom who once tried to hold a 22 month old on a 2 hour flight to Seattle, I really recommend getting the seat- for your own sanity.

I would buy the ticket. I guess it depends though on if you're going to bring a car seat. If you are and he'll sit in it all the way, then that's worth the extra money right there. I'm assumming you'll all be in a row. Cuz if you have a stranger in the row and your baby is crawling all over you and fussing, that could get tense. We just flew across country with our 10 1/2 mo and we bought a ticket for her. She was crawling all over me and fussing but it was nice to have that extra space for her to play. I don't think I could've dealt with having her on my lap for 5 1/2 hours in the air. Cheers to you if you can : )

Good luck!

D., I agree with your husband, buy the ticket and take the seat. I just flew back on a non-stop flight from JFK (New York) to Oakland and I can't imagine not having the car seat for your child. That flight was almost 6 hours long and every baby on that flight had some type of issue by the time we got to Oakland. Your baby is sure to get restless, cranky or sleepy (or all 3). Plus you never know when the flight might become turberlent. Your baby will be much safer in the car seat than on your lap!!!!!!


I don't think they will allow 3 kids to share 2 seats even in flight. They usually keep the seat belt light on for when you are sitting. My husband & I held our 1 year old twins on a flight from Oakland to Washington DC and I totally regretted it. If you think he will relax on your lap but that just seems uncomfortable for that long of a flight. Sometimes we have to pay for convenience and having that extra seat will at least let you put him down sometimes. Your poor legs will probably cramp up. Hope it works out for you! Flights are tough if little ones. I now give my kids dramamine and they usually sleep for the flight.

I would spring for the ticket on a flight that long.

This decision depends A LOT on how your son travels. I've been travelling alone with my son since he was 6 weeks old, and lucky me, he's a GREAT flyer!! We've never bought a ticket for him, and we're totally dreading having to come October because like you said, flights are ridiculous right now! Here are some other tips that have worked for us.

1. We almost ALWAYS fly Southwest because there are usually empty seats and it's festival seating, which means you don't have an assigned seat. I usually ask the flight attendant as we board if the flight is full, and if it's close, he/she will tell you that they'll let you know if they need the seat next to you.

2. I usually sit towards the back of the plane (where no one else really wants to sit) by the window with him or my jacket, etc in the middle seat, and if someone wants to sit on the aisle, that's fine. Only once in 19 months have we been on a full flight. Other airlines are another story....

3. I try to schedule our flight early in the morning or around naptime, so he would nurse during take-off and sleep for the flight. I put him in the sling and have a great flight! Festival seating also works for nursing because you can sit against the window on the side of the plane that corresponds to which side is next.

You won't be able to put the tray table down regardless of his size, but being lucky enough to have an empty seat next to you allows you and your child to have their own tray tables. 75% of flight attendants LOVE kids and will help in any way they can.

I wouldn't recommend putting 3 kids in 2 seats because of the armrest base, but I also don't like the idea of strapping my kid in his carseat. He loves to climb around and look out the window and stand in my lap so he can see the other passengers. We usually get lucky and have a couple around us who like to play peek-a-boo or just talk silly to him, and he laughs!

I'm also one to try almost anything once. With your child being 20 months old, even if the flight is miserable, it'll probably be the only one because he/she is so close to turning 2 anyway. I wouldn't buy a ticket unless you get a good price on your flight. Good luck!

My boss' daughter is 6 months old and it is manditory that you pay for them to sit on your lap it was something like 175 so i think u should just buy the seat?

Hi there,
In my experience, my son always ended up on my lap most of the flight regardless of having an extra seat. The advantage of the extra seat is just having the extra room - but that is expensive extra room. If you have 5, I would suggest buying the 4 seats, and reserve 3 together and 1 across the aisle. That way you can sit with the other two kids and have all 3 share the seat (the flight attendants might discourage it, but it should be okay if the seatbelt sign is off.) Then you can hand the little one across to your husband when you need a break. I would save the money, but I am always on a budget, and splurge somewhere else on your trip. Good Luck!

Dear D.,

I have 3 young children also and travel all the time with them. Check how full the flight is so far, don't buy a seat but bring the car seat just in case there is any empty seat for it. Sit your husband and the 10 year old across the aisle with the 10 year old on the inside and you sit on the aisle across with the 6 year old on the inside. When you lift the armrests when the seat belt light is off you should all fit, if you are small so to speak. There is not enough room to lower the tray table with the baby on your lap. Renting the DVD players at the airport are great to keep the kids busy. Also, remember to order kids meals, they won't give one to the baby so bring your own. If the baby won't settle, I usually just go stand in the back for an hour or so with the baby. Good luck. L.

We just got back from a cross-country trip with our 20 month old and his 3 older brothers yesterday. We did not buy him a seat. Here's what I can tell you: putting the tray down will be really hard with him on your lap (probably impossible in some of the smaller planes), putting him in the seat with the others for the non-take-off and landing time would probably work (if he'll stay there). It is a really hard age because they just want to move and have really limited attention for anything else, so even watching a movie didn't work very well for us. If he is really hard to keep on your lap and will really want to move, I would buy the seat. It wasn't impossible, but it wasn't easy either. The flight attendant pretty much yelled at me half way through the flight because I couldn't keep him on my lap very well during some turbulance when they had the seat belt sign on. He was exhausted coming home and ended up sleeping for a good part of that flight but going out he was wide awake for about 80% of it. He may have slept more if he'd had a car seat. Flights are crazy expensive this summer and that's why we didn't buy it this time either. If I had to do it over again, I would not have paid $700 for the seat but if it were half that much, I probably would. Good luck!

If you can swing it financially you should get everyone their own seat or you will be miserable the whole flight. Many airlines are not allowing car seats anymore so I heard. Of course they charge now to check extra baggage and car carseats.

Hi D.,

Take it from me..I am an Ex-Flight Attandant who flew for 17years and have seen it all. First,I agree with your husband and buy a ticket for your little one. He and you will be happy that you did. If you hold him on your lap you will not be able to put the tray table down. As for using the armrest for him to sit on it is not a very good idea and not very comfortable to for your little one. He should be in a seat with a seatbelt on at all times. for his saftey and for yours. You don't have to take his car seat on the plane just check it. This will give him room to move around in his seat. I have a 21month old boy who is off the charts. We traveled from Sacramento to Ocean City, NJ last year and he was in a carseat. We used his car seat and it was very uncomfortable for him. His legs were touching the seat infront of him and had know where to put them. On the flight back we checked his carseat and he had a much better flight. He was able to play with his big sister. Also remember to pack plenty of snacks and things for him to do during the flight. Even bring a DVD player with some of the movies he likes to watch. YES..you will tatally regret it if you don't get him a seat. I hope this helps and enjoy your trip. Oh one other thing...if you don't want to check his carseat...there is a travel carseat that you can buy. It is small and compact so you can pack it in your suitcase. I have 2 of them, one for each of my kids. It is called an Eddie Bauer portable car seat. Just google it. The first on I bought for around $60.00 and the 2nd one I found on line for $35.00 at a site called www.babyage.com.

I'm interested to read the responses from people with more experience flying with toddlers than I have. We last did a long flight with DS when he was 16 months, with no seat for him, and the man in front of me turned around to ask that he stop kicking the seat. DS hadn't kicked the seat at all, but space was so tight that in order for us to move at all, to get anything out of our bag, we had to bump the seat. Forget having the tray table down.

I wonder though if with two other relatively small travelers with you, you might have more room to maneuver.

I have gone both ways (on lap and in seat) with my kids around the same age. With my son on our lap across the country it was a nightmare. We couldn't put the tray table down with him on our lap, he was grabbing at everything and wanted down the whole time. It was hard to get into our bags and the whole trip was painful. We did change planes at one point had an empty seat beneath us and he was able to sit in the seat and he behaved so much better that leg of the trip. Over the holidays we took the same plane trip with my son now 4 and daughter (she was 19 months when we went)and purchased a separate seat for her. She pretty much stayed in her seat the entire flight. It was very nice. Only complaint was she could kick the seat in front of us so we had to stop that and also the tray table did not go all the way down since carseat was in the way. I think she slept better having her own seat that she was used to and I didn't have to give her constant attention. She played nicely with the toys we brought when she was awake and didn't really get antsy until the end of the trip (which took much longer than it should have since we had weather delays). Anyways, for your sanity, I would suggest a seat for your youngest, especially since it is highly unlikely there will be any extra empty seats. Also they left the fasten seatbelts sign on for almost the entire trip we took, which wouldn't allow you a lot of freedom to put the youngest in the seat with the older kids.

i've travelled extensively with my older two (the oldest of whom is off the charts with height/weight) and never bought either of them a ticket when they were under two, though sometimes i think it would have been easier if i did. if you can swing it, i'd say buy a ticket, if not, it will be tight accomodations (the tray table will fit if your little one is sort of sideways and still not realistic for a toddler...i'd say take turns eating with daddy). also i've seen some airlines that are very strict on belts at all times and some that are more lenient, so i'm not sure what they'll say about 3 kids in two seats. good luck and have a fun trip!

I'm not sure what the weight limits are for infants in arms, but I really don't think it would be a good idea for you to attempt to hold and control a good-size nearly 2-year old on your lap for such a long flight! It seems like foolish economy not to buy a seat for your child - yes, he might be crawling all over you during the flight, but you need to have the option to keep him in his carseat, safe and secure! Your older kids will thank you, as well. Good luck! I flew with my big, active 15-month old to England, years ago, and it was an exhausting experience even though she had her own seat.

I am also taking a 5 hour flight next month (Hawaii) with my 16 month old. We chose to not buy her a seat($750) and we hope there will be an extra seat on the flight, but if there is not she will just rotate between me, my husband and the grandparents. I didn't want to bring a car seat on the flight especially since I am not guaranteed a seat for her, but they have these new FAA approved seatbelt system (CARES) that works with the regular airline seatbelt for kids 22-44 lbs (minimum 1 year old). I got the information off the United Airlines website and I double checked with my sister who is a flight attendant and this was approved last year for all flights. It cost $75 or you can rent them on ebay for about $20. It comes in a tiny pouch (6 inches) and weighs 1 pound. I will include the website below.


Hi D.,
Try the couch cushion test. Sit with your child on one couch cushion in your house. Not the whole couch, just one cushion. How long can you manage to hold him without frustration? How long is the flight?

Like so many others, I say buy a ticket.

We took my son's car seat with us (SMF to SLC) for two reasons - one, we wanted him to be restrained safely like in a car and felt he would not stay in the small airplane seatbelt and two, so we would have it for the rental car. It was a hassle to get it through the xray and there was no preboarding as someone else mentioned. The flights all seem to be full these days - overbooked, in fact.

Even though I am a mom (btw: I don't care if other peoples' kids fuss and cry for the entire flight as long as the parents are engaged with the kids), I do not want to sit in the seat next to someone with a lap baby.

Good luck and enjoy your vacation!

Hello D.,
My husband, two daughters and I just went to New York for a close friends wedding. We departed from SFO, to JFK (in NY), then to Buffalo as our final destination. This was a total of 7+hrs. of flight time. We had to purchase tickets for myself, my husband, and 7yr. old daughter, but my (at the time) 13month old was a lap child. She is LITTLE. She is only in the 25-30th percentile. I could not put the tray down over both of us. It was not a big deal because I sat between my older daughter and husband, and they both shared their trays with me. But keep in mind that you have to hold your child facing you (chest-to-chest) during both take-off and landing. It gets pretty hot on the plane, and she was quite the little heater. It probably would have been nice to put her in her own seat, but on a shorter flight, I would lap-it again in a heartbeat. So depending on the length of your flight....???? We also carried on lap DVD players (LIFE SAVER!!!!LaLa-LaLa Elmo's World!!!). Hope you get something out of my experience. Have a wonderful trip!!!

I would save the money for something more fun and hold him. Your kids will probably be fine sharing after take off. He would probably be all over the place any way. I wouldn't try to put the tray table down because little ones are good at kicking them. Just use one of your other family members trays. Happy travel, and remember to relax!

I'd buy the ticket and bring things on board that are favorites of his. Maybe color books or toys. Bring snacks on board. You will get tired of holding him for 6+ hours and you may regret it. This way if you are holding him and he falls asleep you can put him in his seat.
Another idea, plan on a red eye flight or late night at least and he will sleep most of the flight.Plus I think those are cheaper anyways. That's what we have done in the past with little ones. I think once in flight you can sit the kids together, just not for take off and landing.

Also think of where you are going. Will you need a car seat where you are going? I would not want to rent a seat not knowing where it's been and if it is safe etc.
I agree with the husband and I would buy the ticket. This day and age with gas and food skyroceting, if you can afford a family of 5 to go on vacations, what's one more ticket.
Good luck and have fun,

I flew alone with my very large 14 month old a little while ago. And while it was manageable on my lap, it was nice to have a seat too (we got a seat on two flights, because there were extras). Part of it depends on what you do with your little one....is he difficult usually when travelling. I knew that I would be doing the benadryl trick to make him sleep (please don't all condemn me at once:-), so while I had to hold him he basically slept the entire flight. The times that he was awake were very difficult. I think it would be asier not travelling alone though, I was confined to a very tight space, trying not to let a squirm invade the space of the person next to me. For the most part people are nice and understanding. If you are going to try to go without a seat, I would try to find a flight during off hours, ask the airlines what that is, that way there is a better chance you wil get a free seat :-)

My new rule is if I am alone and the kid is walking he gets a seat, if I have my husband then we will decide depending on the child :-) We also refuse to take straight flights, which helps, because all flights are manageable and you have time to run around in between.

Good Luck and enjoy your vacation :-)

Hi D.,
We have taken our son on 3 flights (he is 20 Month old) and have never purchased a ticket. The flights are very short though (Monterey to San Diego). We also brought the infant car seat back when he fit in it and there was an extra seat on the flight. If there is an available seat, they will allow you to use it for free. If I was on a 6 hour flight I might purchase the ticket so i was guaranteed a seat. As you stated, you will end up holding you child most of the flight. The tray table question depends more on your size than a 20 month old's size.

D. -
Pay for the ticket. We are a family of six and when we flew last fall our youngest two were 22 months and 3 weeks. We didn't buy tickets thinking we couldn't afford it. We ended up with about two hours of really rough flight that I almost lost my grip on th baby several times. My hubby had an even harder time holding on to our toddler. I was gripping my child so tightly that i was concerned they might be bruised by the time we got off the plane. The turbulance was so rough that the flight attendants were required to be seated and buckled up for nearly the whole flight and I am thankful we made it with no trouble but babies and unbuckled adults have been hurt and even killed during in flight turbulance. I will always buy a ticket after this. My rule now is if the flight attendant has to be buckled so does my baby and if the baby screams that's a small price to pay for their safety.

Hi D.
I did this last summer with our 23 mo old 95% daughter (lol!) for our annual trip back east. It is totally what you are willing to put up with. Yes, it is pretty crowded and not much fun but we knew this was the very last time we could get away with not paying for an extra ticket. If you are going to do the lap thing just be prepared for a long day, hope for a long nap, and do something fun with the money you save,
best of luck!!

For me, it's all about safety. I wouldn't drive my kids around without carseats in the car, so I wouldn't on a plane. We just factor it in as a part of the cost of flying and if we can't afford to fly at the time, we don't. I guess that's why we don't fly much with the kids ... especially now with the sky-high rates.

It's miserable taking a carseat on a plane, though. We flew Northwest recently and yikes ... not family-friendly. No pre-boarding, so we had to install the car seat while the entire planeload of people was boarding. Not to mention, hauling it around isn't fun. Then, the woman in front of our daughter reclined her seat all the way and glared at us when our daughter (toddler age) kicked her seat (our daughter's feet were right in the seat because they had no other place to go).

So, taking a carseat on a plane isn't perfect by any means. But I feel it's worth it from a safety standpoint.

Hi D.,

My son, who was over 2 yrs old when we last travelled, sat on my lap for take off and landing and no one made an issue of it. He had his own seat. I tried it once, just the lap thing, and I went nuts. I made his seat his play room. His blanket, pillow, toys, snacks.

He still sat on my lap, especially when it came time for sleep, then I would lay him down on his seat with is feet on my lap and all was good.

You have 3, I only had 1, big difference, but I would not travel without my chilren, over the age of 1 having a seat of their own, if nothing but for my sanity. Even if he is in your lap most of the time, having the option of being lap free, might be good.

Good luck and safe journey.

I. b

I am a single mom of 4 children ages 3, 5 ½, 10, & 12. The hardest time for me was when I had my 2 oldest children, at the time 3 and 1, on a plain coming back from Germany. 12 HOURS alone with the two of them in 3 airports was more than I ever thought I would have to go through. I then traveled to L.A. with the children (a total of 4 hours with layovers) when my third was 4 months old. It was much easier. I learned that it is not hard to hold your baby as long as you remember, the more you check in the better. 4 hours may seem like a long time but you really do not need as much as you think. Do you really need a full can of formula? (If you use it.) Little things like that. But the most important thing to remember is that they play with all the new things they see on the plain. You can ask the airline for the space information too. The money you save will be worth the stress of the lap hoping and the memory you will chuckle over later in the years.

I debated this same issue a few months ago - decided against the ticket. But later we decided to pay for a ticket since it was about a 3.5 hr flight - SO GLAD WE DID, even though it DID cost us a fortune.

We've never bothered with the car seat because he hated being in it on the plane for any length of time. But having the seat available, even if he ends up in your lap majority of the time, will afford you room for him to "play" - I bought a bunch of little animals & people from Target, cheap stuff, & he would stand on the floor & use the seat as a little table to play around on. Same for coloring books & other things too. It just gives you options.

Airplanes are a nightmare for kids (at least my kid!). By not getting him a seat, (IMO) you're only subjecting yourself & him to even more frustration - & then you have to do the same thing again on the way home!! My son is very little in weight, but very tall. We were so glad we ended purchasing the seat because, for the same reasons you were concerned about, we wouldn't have been able to lower the tray table & just have that tiny bit of extra room.

Don't forget the snacks & good luck!

hey D. -
i'd get the extra ticket if your finances can swing it, because better to have the seat and not need it then NOT have it if you want it! also, the armrest doesn't go back all the way into the seats, so with 3 kids sharing two seats, the middle kid is going to have that armrest cutting into his back (there'll be lots of fussing, there!) - also, those tray tables are pretty flimsy, so even if he fit on your lap under it, he could kick your snacks and drinks to kingdom come with ease :)
anyhow, good luck and sounds like your husband is taking the "better safe then sorry" approach and i'm glad he's on board like that! best of luck in your travels!

i recommend not purchasing a ticket. my son is really big too. it was so much easier to hold him (i flew alone with him to europe when he was 5 months and with my husband on a 5 hour trip when he was 22 months). also, i have found most airlines really accommodating at finding an extra seat if one is available. as far as having 3 kids in 2 seats, that might be difficult, since the kid in the middle will be sitting on the metal armrest base.

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