The Best Airlines for Family Travel

Has United Airlines turned tail on family flyers? Credit: Benjamin Beyers for The Motley Fool.

Traveling families have never had it easy. But in the new era of low-fare, no-frills carriers, it's harder than ever to fly with children. The best airlines design programs and deals that make the hassle worthwhile.

I know because I've seen the difference firsthand. For each of the past three years we've flown United Airlines (NYSE: UAL  ) for our annual holiday vacation to Hawaii. This December we'll be flying Alaska Air Group (NYSE: ALK  ) instead. Why? Five seats in first class on a cozy new 737-800 to Maui cost less than five back-of-the-plane seats on United's 20-year-old 757 headed to the same destination. Between the in-flight food and variety of entertainment options, we're expecting our kids will enjoy the process of "getting there" much more than they have in years past.

This isn't to say United is inherently family unfriendly. Far from it. Yet it's also worth noting that United stopped offering pre-boarding for families with small children a year and a half ago. More recently, the airline toughened its policy on oversize bags in hopes of forcing travelers to check more luggage at $25 a bag. Families with extra carry-ons for diapers, toys, and the like may find it challenging flying the "friendly skies."

Either way, I think it's interesting that United has struggled to produce consistent profits while Alaska operates at some of the industry's best pre-tax margins.

3 carriers that love your children almost as much as you do
So which are the best airlines for traveling families? There's no easy way to rank them, so instead I'm highlighting three that (a) primarily fly here in the U.S. and (b) have distinct programs or amenities for parents traveling with kids, as specified by the ratings site Family Vacation Critic.

1. JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ: JBLU  ) . Pre-boarding is available for families with children 2 and under, and changing tables can be found on all flights. What's more, the carrier was one of the first to embed DirecTV in the seatbacks of its aircraft, and free children's programming is available in-flight.

Are these policies paying off? Net income improved more than 30%, to $168 million, in 2013. Deutsche Bank also recently raised its rating on the stock to "buy" because of expectations for continued growth this year.

2. Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL  ) . While pre-boarding may not always be available, Family Vacation Critic reports that Delta offers a $5 kids plate with fruit, veggies, and a PB&J sandwich for hungry tykes. Aircraft that feature seat-back TVs may include satellite programming with access to kid-friendly networks. On-demand options tend to cost $1 per episode or $6 for a bundle, the site reports.

Are these policies paying off? Unit revenue is up in each of the past two months despite thousands of flight cancellations resulting from severe weather. Earnings per share more than doubled in 2013 thanks to strong demand and lower costs.

3. Virgin America. This fun airline is a good option for families who live in its coverage area, which includes just 23 destinations as of this writing. The lucky few who book tickets can expect pre-boarding for families with children under 5 and extra diapers in case you happen to run out mid-flight. Entertainment options include games and kid-friendly programming, Family Vacation Critic reports.

Are these policies paying off? Operating revenue increased 5.2% year-over-year in 2013's third quarter. Revenue per available seat mile rose 9.4% over the same period, while profits improved to $33.5 million versus a $12.6 million loss in Q3 2012.

Now it's your turn to weigh in. Which do you believe are the best airlines for family travel? Leave a comment below to let us know your favorites. We'd also love to know if you would buy, sell, or short any of the stocks mentioned here.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 08, 2014, at 4:11 PM, Matty1 wrote:

    The biggest problem with someone like you is that you post without knowing what you are talking about.. Pricing aside, that wonderful airplane you are talking about has the nose and fuselage from the B727. While you may think of it as new, the basic aero design is 40 years old. The only commercial airplane being sold today with NO fly by wire technology. The B737-800 is the best aviation example of "putting lipstick on a pig".

  • Report this Comment On March 09, 2014, at 3:12 PM, booglealton wrote:

    Yes, Yes, Yes. You are soooo right Matty1. Please, Please, Please tell EVERYONE, that Alaska uses old crappy planes and does not fly everywhere that YOU want to be! Stick to the back of the plane and pay through the nose on United. Love that new plane smell.

    (Mr. Beyers, PLEASE do not write anymore about flying 1st on Alaska. PLEASE don't spoil the good life for the rest of us on our little NW airline. Tell everyone that it is cold and rainy everywhere they fly and you do NOT want to go there on Alaska.)

  • Report this Comment On March 09, 2014, at 3:18 PM, booglealton wrote:

    Another quick update, I fly alone with 2 young kids A LOT. I've always taken a BOB stroller along as a "gate check" item, with no problem. I'm sure many parents have take similar (or much larger) strollers along. Until last week at DFW, when American took it from me a checkin, as being "over the 20lb limit." And yes, it weighed 24 pounds. I've never had it taken at ANY of over 2 dozen airports (small/large/domestic/international) or any other airline. Makes it hard to wrangle two kids without it. Good luck getting my business again, American.

  • Report this Comment On March 09, 2014, at 6:09 PM, Matty1 wrote:

    wow......... are you stupid and just dumb. I started the post by say "pricing aside". The plane is 40 years old that Alaska (and United) fly. Nothing but old technology. Put a 2013 Cadillac interior in a 1960 chevy and people think it's a brand new airplane. No matter if you took delivery yesterday, the design and technology are from 1960. Keep riding what ever airline gives you the best price. That is your bottom line

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