Ryanair tried to seat a three-year-old away from her horrified parents on a flight from Portugal to Liverpool. The budget airline is one of at least five that operates a 'family tax', where the only way to guarantee parents and their children are seated together is to pay for allocated seating.

When the Parrs checked in for their flight from Faro last month and printed their boarding passes, the airline's system had seated parents Chris and Kim Parr, both 33 from Lancashire, and their three-year-old, Lily, in three seats spread out around the plane. Their five-month-old, Harry, was sitting on his mother's lap, as planned.

Even after a furious Chris interrupted his holiday to complain, Ryanair wouldn't budge.

In April, we launched a campaign calling for airlines to scrap this 'family tax' to combat scenarios just like this. Many often complain of hidden budget airline fees, see our Budget Airline Fee-Fighting guide to beat them.

Speaking to MoneySavingExpert.com, policeman Chris raged: "It's incredulous an airline could seat a three-year-old away from her parents.

"On booking the tickets, Ryanair was aware of the ages of the children, so why would it leave a three-year-old on her own?

"I was aware you can pay extra to pick your seats, but I assumed those booking together would sit together. There is no reason why the seats shouldn't be together. It's more Ryanair creating a problem so that people pay more."

After a second complaint while relaxing on holiday, Ryanair did at least move three-year-old Lily and mum Kim, a solicitor, to the same row, but they were still separated by the aisle. Once on board, they arranged to swap with other passengers so they could sit together.

Had Chris not been so persistent, it may have been a different story.

Airlines' roll of 'family tax' shame

The Parrs are not the only family this has happened to, and Ryanair isn't the only culprit, as you can see from these Facebook responses we received this week.

  • Clare says: "Last year, my 10-year-old was sat on the other side of the plane to me. A quick phone call to Ryanair and they gave us seats together." 
  • Chris says: "Virgin Atlantic tried to seat my two year old daughter away from the other eleven people in our group for a nine-hour flight back from Orlando. The staff at the airport didn't care and left it to kind hearted passengers to reorganise themselves."
  • Karen says: "Jet 2 sat a party of seven in four different rows last year. We had to juggle so the youngest at age three wasn't sat alone."
  • Sarah says: "Flew with Thomson recently and we were sat all over the plane. Absolutely fuming – tears at airport as check-in said plane was full, so we boarded and refused to sit and cabin crew had to sort. A two-year-old by herself?"

'Ryanair sat my three-year-old alone'
A snap of the Parr family on holiday in Portugal (Kim, Harry, Lily and Chris from left to right)

Airlines that charge the family tax

Policies differ by airline, but the table below has airline-by-airline details of how much families and groups will pay, although prices vary depending on the route and travel date:

What airlines charge to pre-select seats, per flight

Airline Will it guarantee to seat all children and parents together without a fee? Standard charge to select a seat
Easyjet Yes £1.99 - £5.99
Flybe No From £6.50 (Just Fly ticket)
Jet2.com No From £4
No (i) From £3.99
Ryanair No From £5.99 or from £8.99 (depends how booked)
Thomas Cook Yes Adults from £7.50 short-haul, £9.50 medium, £20 long. Kids £3.75, £4.75 or £10.
Thomson/ First Choice No (ii) Adults £7-£15, kids £3-£7.

Prices correct, 9 June. (i) It is free to pick a seat from 6-24 hours before departure on all flights to and from Alicante, Faro, Dalaman and Tenerife. Monarch adds that "it would not sit a child without an accompanying adult from the same group/family" as per its FAQs, but when booking, there's a 'seats together' charge for both adults and children. (ii) It told us: "If, in very rare circumstances, a child is initially allocated a seat away from the parent, it will be reassigned (usually at check-in)." Most complaints we've had on this topic are about Thomson.

If you don't want to pay a charge, it is best to check in as early as possible to increase your chances of sitting next to family or friends.

If you're not allocated a seat when checking in, or you're seated away from family or friends, get to the airport as early as possible to ask check-in staff to reseat you.

'It beggars belief a three-year-old would be allocated a seat away from family'

MoneySavingExpert.com's consumer editor, Steve Nowottny, says: "It beggars belief that a three-year-old would be allocated a seat on an international flight away from her family. Yet it's exactly this kind of incident that forces worried parents to cough up extra.

"For most parents, sitting next to their young children is simply non-negotiable – to ensure they're safe, to help them put their seatbelt on and make sure they're not disruptive to other passengers. It's disgraceful that airlines are using the fear factor to make families shell out more for pre-selected seating."

Our 'scrap the family tax' campaign

We want to see airlines give clearer information about the seat selection policy, and we will be pushing the new Conservative policymakers, as well as the regulator, to take action.

Since our story was published, Monarch has introduced free online seat allocation on four of its routes and adds that it hopes to extend this across all of its routes by the end of June.

Airlines aren't technically breaking rules set out by the regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Its guidelines state they should "aim to sit parents close to children", or if this isn't possible, they should not be separated by more than one aisle and one seat row, but we believe the airlines are using sneaky tactics and not serving families well.

A CAA spokesman says: "Check-in staff and cabin crew can assist parents who have seating concerns, so parents should not have to pay to avoid a situation where their child is seated in a different part of the aircraft, and we are actively working with airlines on this matter.

"The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is due to publish updated guidance on seating policies for all European airlines later this year. We will be working to make sure UK airlines follow this guidance and will continue to push for greater transparency to help consumers make informed choices about their flight bookings."

What does Ryanair say?

A Ryanair spokesperson says: "Ryanair endeavours to seat travelling companions and families together, however, the only way to guarantee that customers are seated together is by purchasing allocated seating."