3-1 or 2-2?
June 1, 2015 9:06 AM   Subscribe

Parents of AskMe, help me pick over this plate of beans: when traveling by airplane as a family of four, is it better to configure seats 2-2 or 3-1?

We're taking a trip on Southwest in about a month - two parents and two young kids (15 months and 4.5 years). Southwest doesn't offer assigned seating in advance, but it seems like we'll be able to board early enough that we'll have a good selection to pick from.

(Sub question: is that about right? I've only flown Southwest a bit, but the A group seems to be where we'd get in as a family with small kids, and seems to be a lot of space on the plane at that point.)

When we get on, are we better trying to snag a full row of three across, or should we take 2 x 2? I was thinking to also try to configure it so a parent would be seated in front of the 4.5 year old in case of seat kicking.

The 4.5 year old should be fairly chill on the plane, especially with snacks and the ipad. The 15-month-old is right in the middle of the "mobile with no accountability" period, and is going to be a lot harder to wrangle and entertain. I am still nursing, but only around evenings and mornings - I'm not inclined to try on the plane at all and he's past the point of hanging out for a long time doing it.

With the three across, it seems like we have some extra room and also don't have to worry as much about some stranger in the row who doesn't like kids. It would also let the parents split shifts with the kids, which might help for sanity. With two by two it seems like a good divide and conquer technique, and parents could also switch to sit with the more easygoing traveler.

Anyone feel like one is clearly better than the other? This is definitely nitpicking, but we haven't traveled with four seats before so I haven't thought through it much yet.
posted by handful of rain to Human Relations (25 answers total)
3-1, if you can. That way you have a whole row of 3 to yourself without some random passenger (like meeeee) wedged against the window or hanging out into the aisle.
posted by mochapickle at 9:12 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

Southwest has a few options including paying extra to board earlier but also there's a "families" boarding time between A group and B group if you have little kids. Info here.

Most families I've seen do three across and one parent across the aisle, so like

Kid - Kid - Parent (AISLE) Parent - Rando - Rando

This way the kids have a play corral that is all theirs and parents can swap out being the border guard. I wouldn't worry too much about kicking unless your kid is really difficult to reign in, a little kicking is normal. It's also possible that you can get the bulkhead row, or a chunk of it which means no kicking worries and easier boarding on/off. I've found that I'm happier on SWA flights if I just assume I'm a leaf in the river and may not have much choice as far as seating. Horror stories aside, two and two is something you're basically going to be guaranteed to get, so the question would be whether it's better to really angle for three and one or not.
posted by jessamyn at 9:13 AM on June 1, 2015 [12 favorites]

As a solo traveler, please go with 3-1. It's the best way to minimize the amount of child you inflict on others.

The most effective way I've seen is to have the shortest kid in the window seat, parent in the middle, kicking kid in the aisle, and parent in the aisle seat directly in front of the kicker. This keeps the kids separated, keeps the toddler contained and restricted from potential escape and wandering, and allows the parents to switch off and make bathroom trips without disrupting any other passengers.
posted by phunniemee at 9:13 AM on June 1, 2015 [17 favorites]

You might want to call Southwest and just confirm that they don't have seating restrictions. I think most US airlines do not allow two car seats in a single row, but sometimes depending on airline and the aircraft involved they may not allow two children under 5 on the same row.

In any case, calling them will allow you to get the direct scoop on pre-boarding procedures, so you might as well.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:18 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

3-1 since SW doesn't have any other configuration unless you happen to get one of their 737-800 and snag row 15 which is 2x2. The commenters above are correct in my (extensive) experience traveling with kids. Right balance between control/comfort so long as you don't have to be the default parent the entire time.

Also bonus points to you for both getting your kids acclimatized to air travel early and thinking ahead about their and everyone else's comfort.
posted by digitalprimate at 9:19 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I fly Southwest quite often. Family boarding is between the A and B groups if you didn't already end up on A group. I'm the type of person who is a solo traveler and usually is quick on the check-in process to try to get a good boarding number. I have witnessed families who slack on the check-in process, end up with C group cards, and then jump the line with family boarding. Please try to be considerate and check in on time so that others behind you have an idea of their actual boarding status.

How long is your flight? In my experience, Southwest flights are usually on the shorter side (less than 3 hrs) so keeping everyone quiet/happy or not bothering neighboring passengers isn't that big of a deal.

When you're at the gate and waiting to board, ask the agent how full the flight will be. When the flight is not very full, you'd often be able to snag 6 whole seats to your family of 4. You could have one kid and one parent per row, and then the third seat would likely stay empty.

If it's a completely full flight, I'd go with what jessamyn and phunniemee says.
posted by watch out for turtles at 9:24 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

You mention seat kicking - thank you so much for trying to corral this! As you may have experienced yourself it can be pretty miserable to sit through if you're in front of a rowdy kid. If one of the seats in the row in front of you ends up being empty, put the kiddo behind that one.

In my experience on Southwest, people who are really sensitive to the noise and commotion of kids will naturally sit farther away from you if you get on there early and stake out your row. And you'll maybe even end up sitting near people like my mom, a hopeful-someday-grandma who will play peekaboo with your toddler for two hours, read to your 4 year old, and offer to hold the little one while you go to the bathroom.
posted by amaire at 9:32 AM on June 1, 2015

On some planes there's some kind of thing where there's only one child-size oxygen mask per row, or only some rows have more than one child-size oxygen masks, and then your options will be further limited. But if possible, I would also shoot for 3-1, either with the second parent across the aisle or in front on the aisle, because then you can "guard" both children with only one adult paying attention.
posted by mskyle at 9:35 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Just nthing the advice that it might well be worth the collective $50 or so (at $12.50 a ticket) for the Southwest "pre-boarding" fee that guarantees you Group A, which means you'll be able to stake out your preferred row without hassle. Otherwise you board before the B group, but then you're in a scrum with the other parents who are juggling car seats, trying to collapse their strollers, etc. Best to get a jump on them as well.

(Oh, and definitely the 3-1 configuration, for all the reasons that phunniemee listed above).
posted by TwoStride at 9:51 AM on June 1, 2015

As a parent, I like 3-1 because then, the only people in my space are my kids, rather than being squished between some random stranger and a kid. (Because I'm always in the middle seat, in any configuration.)

But if you're in a plane where there's only two seats in the row, then 2-2, naturally, so you don't have to fight about which kid gets the window. (Less of an issue at 15 months, but a source of never-ending wrangling at 6 and 9.)
posted by leahwrenn at 10:09 AM on June 1, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks all! I didn't realize exactly how the family boarding worked - I might look at paying to get into the A group vs. after the A group. As I said, haven't flown Southwest much so still new to the system!

Our flight is almost 5 hours long, so I'd like to do what we can to make it comfortable for all. FWIW, my 4.5 year old isn't terrible with the seat-kicking, but it's more just incidental to moving in his seat and I am trying to get him to be more conscious about how that kind of thing affects other people.
posted by handful of rain at 10:13 AM on June 1, 2015

I just flew with an almost 3 year old on Southwest for the first time. Buying the early bird boarding wasn't worth it (which I didn't realize). Family boarding is between A and B and there were plenty of open rows on the plane once all of A was seated. Save the extra $12.50 per ticket and just wait to board after the A group.

Also, if you have a stroller, make sure that you go to customer service counter to gate check it. I didn't realize that this needed to be done and I had to leave the line, go to the counter, and then come back. Trying to explain to my almost 3 year old that we couldn't go onto the plane just yet was a bit of an annoyance.

I'd recommend the 3-1 paring. The 4.5 year old could be in the next aisle seat with the 15 month old square between the two of you. It would allow parents and kids to move around and change seats if needed.
posted by Stynxno at 10:16 AM on June 1, 2015

I vastly prefer 2-2 in different rows, with one parent and child sitting directly behind the other parent and child, and the children sitting in the window seat with an insulating parent between them and any strangers. When you're sitting across a single row, one parent winds up with the entire burden of shushing and entertaining two kids, and with younger children that's not always an easy thing to manage. And this way you can just put the seat-kicker behind the sibling and not worry about it.
posted by Andrhia at 10:18 AM on June 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

Yeah, I'd vote for the 2-2 all the way for the reasons Andrhia mentions. Seat-kicking can be really hard to manage with a kid of a certain age and height -- not because they are hellions, but because sitting with your legs dangling in mid air is really uncomfortable, and the only place to rest them is the seat back in front of you. I just spent both legs of a flight reminding my four year old every three minutes to put her feet down, and by the end of the flight her legs were sore and she was crying anyway. It would have been so much easier to have just put her behind her sister and let her rest her feet.
posted by xeney at 10:23 AM on June 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

Based on my experience flying with a young child 4 times in the past 2 years.. You won't need to pay to get into any early boarding group. Southwest and most other airlines board families and people needing assistance before calling the boarding groups. It goes First Class / Premium passengers, families with young children and people needing assistance, then the boarding groups. When you get to the gate, check with the gate agent to make sure they're aware you need extra time to board.

If the 4.5 year old has a booster seat or car seat of any kind, you're going to have to sit 2/2. Safety regulations prohibit those seats in the middle or aisle. Otherwise, sit 3/1. Window - Baby - Parent - Toddler - Aisle - Parent would be my suggestion. Baby-in-carseat will have to be by the window due to safety regulations.

We use a CARES restraint seatbelt for our toddler on flights now, so carseats/booster seats aren't an issue.
posted by erst at 10:44 AM on June 1, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for pointing that out! Our 4.5 year old will be using just the lapbelt and our 15-month old will be using the CARES restraint - which we used on our older kid during travels when he was younger. No car seat or booster seat for either.
posted by handful of rain at 11:04 AM on June 1, 2015

In my experience 2-2 window seating is usually better - otherwise one parent inevitably burns out and the kids feed off each other.
posted by bq at 12:01 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have flown SW with young kids many times and 3-1 works a lot better, for the reasons that several people have already said. My wife and I switch off in the "hot seat" and it works pretty well.

As far as paying for early check-in -- I recommend doing it so long as the cost isn't too prohibitive. Especially if you are going to/from somewhere with a lot of older people (like Florida or a cruise destination), there can be a ton of people doing pre-board, before the As board. By the time they get through A, there aren't a whole lot of free rows. I pay for the early check-in mainly so I don't have to sit there stressing out while waiting for my turn - if you can handle this better and/or it isn't worth the cash for you, then give the family boarding a try.
posted by Mid at 12:11 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just an add-on - with the 3-1 configuration, I would absolutely expect that the adults would switch places a few times during the flight. Keeps things interesting for the kids, and lets the parents rest.
posted by mskyle at 12:42 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree with bq -- in my experience, 2-2 works a bit better, especially because of the kids feeding off each other aspect. However, my kids are close in age (closer in age to OP's older kid), and are simultaneously best buds and arch rivals; placed together they are capable of being far more disruptive than if they're separated. This may not apply in quite the same way to OP's situation. Although it might argue even more for a 2-2 configuration, so that one parent is always able to give undivided attention to the baby.
posted by odin53 at 12:58 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just a note that paying for Early Bird does NOT guarantee you A boarding. It just gets you ahead of everyone who didn't pay for Early Bird. The last time I flew with my toddler I paid for Early Bird for the reason odinsdream suggests -- to get ahead of other families -- and ended up with two B group boarding passes, making that a total waste of $25. Just plan to board between A and B, though you can always try to do better by manually checking in 24 hours ahead.
posted by devinemissk at 2:02 PM on June 1, 2015

I thought earlybird does guarantee A-group, because I have gotten A-group every time I have used it (at least 25 times), but now I see in the terms and conditions that A-group is not guaranteed. Huh. But still, that seems like a fluke to me.
posted by Mid at 3:08 PM on June 1, 2015

As a family of seven - seriously - I've tried every conceivable seat configuration as our family has grown. I definitely suggest kid-kid-parent (aisle) parent (3 and 1).

I try to bring a wide array of snacks and playthings because without fail the kids will get tired of whatever you have during takeoff.
posted by tacodave at 4:23 PM on June 1, 2015

I was going to say what devinemissk did - I have flown Southwest with my baby a bunch of times and it is not worth it to pay extra for the early bird boarding, because you do not necessarily get A group. It's not a fluke. The most I've ever gotten with it is the second half of the A group, so you're really only boarding like 15-30 people ahead of where you could board for free. Don't bother.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:22 PM on June 1, 2015

I strongly recommend 2 and 2. We've done other configurations, but now opt for 2 and 2 whenever possible. My recommendation for you: child in window seat, parent in middle, both rows. With the 15-month-old in the row AHEAD of the 4.5 year old.

This way each child has one parent's full attention. Nobody is stuck trying to tend to a child by reaching across another child (whom you're also trying to care for). Place the child who demands more care in the forward row, because it's easier for the aft parent to give assistance forward than to reach it back behind him or her.
posted by wjm at 1:38 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

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