MoneySavingExpert.com is demanding that budget airlines scrap a 'family tax' that pushes worried parents to fork out an extra £15 each per flight just to guarantee they can sit next to their children.
After booking flights, passengers are given the 'option' of pre-selecting their seat on the plane to ensure everyone in the group sits next to each other.
But on many airlines, this 'option' is actually playing on parents' fears that they may be seated away from their children. MoneySavingExpert.com has heard from worried parents who report begrudgingly paying an extra £15 per person per flight for the "peace of mind" of guaranteeing they'll be seated together.
The policies vary airline by airline, but the worst offenders are Flybe, Monarch and Ryanair. These airlines say families, including lone parents flying with children, should pre-book – which costs more – if they want to be guaranteed seats together.
Easyjet and Thomas Cook say they will seat parents next to children even if they don't pay, although other passengers travelling in groups may still need to cough up more if they want to be sure they can sit together.
Passengers hit by the charge have contacted us to say they are "disgusted" by the "money-making" scheme, which can add an extra £30 to an adult return ticket. See our Budget flight fee-fighting guide for ways to cut costs when booking budget and charter flights.
Here are some of the complaints we've received from angry flyers:
- @Lyndseyphillip2 tweeted: "Having to pay @ThomsonHolidays to guarantee we have seats next to our families, two, four and seven-year-old children on plane! #familytax"
- @ladybirdlaura tweeted: Disgusting I have to pay £40 to guarantee seat next to seven-year-old nephew on flight with @Ryanair.
- SevenOfNine posted in our forum: "Any age child whose parents have paid for their seat but does not cough up the extra to pre-select for the family can be seated across the aisle from the parent, with the other parent anywhere in the plane – even across the aisle and a maximum of one row in front/behind the aisle seat the parent is in.
"How the hell is a parent meant to control their child (or comfort it when landing) with a seat belt sign on?"
- @SiPick tweeted: "£6,000 family holiday to Florida and @ThomsonHolidays charge £30 per person to sit together on flight. Disgusting!"
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Are airlines breaking any rules?
The airlines aren't technically breaking any rules set out by the regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Its guidelines only state that airlines 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 by no more than one seat row.
But MoneySavingExpert.com believes the airlines are using sneaky tactics and not serving families well. This "family tax" is yet another extra cost for holidaymakers looking to get away.
We asked the CAA whether it plans to tighten the guidelines to guarantee parents are seated next to their children for free. It says it has no plans to change the rules.
But it did say airlines should make their fees more transparent, as in practice the CAA says most will make every effort to seat parents and children together when boarding the plane, even when they've not paid to pre-select their seats.
However, MoneySavingExpert.com is today calling on airlines to scrap the "family tax" and guarantee parents will always be given a seat next to their children for free. We also want to see airlines give clearer information about the seat selection policy, as many parents are compelled to pay the money for fear their children could be sat next to a stranger.
If we've not seen progress quickly enough, we'll be pushing the new government policymakers, as well as the regulator, to take action.
'Given the fear factor, every parent will pay'
Martin Lewis, founder and editor of MoneySavingExpert.com, says: "Flights are already often very expensive for families as it is, due to the huge price hikes in school holidays. For airlines to use the fear factor for parents not to sit next to their children, giving them little choice but to shell out for the added extra of pre-selected seating, seems a little bit rich for a caring society.
"If people want extra-legroom seats, it's fine to charge more. Yet to effectively make parents pay extra to guarantee that their young children won't be sat next to a strange adult and that they're able to ensure their kids keep their seatbelt on simply isn't on."
How much do airlines charge to sit together?
The policies differ depending on which airline you travel with, but Flybe, Monarch and Ryanair are the worst offenders. These airlines say families, including lone parents flying with children, should pre-book – which costs more – if they want to be guaranteed seats together.
In comparison, Easyjet and Thomas Cook say they will seat parents next to children even if they don't pay.
Jet2.com and Thomson/First Choice are less clear cut, based on the information given to MoneySavingExpert.com and the messages we've received from angry parents – see the table below.
The table below has airline-by-airline details of how much families and groups will pay, but be aware that the price varies depending on the route and date of travel:
|Airline||Will it guarantee to sit children and parents together without a fee?||Standard adult charge to select a seat|
|Easyjet||Yes||99p – £4.99|
|Flybe||No||From £6.50 (Just Fly ticket)|
|Jet2.com||Unclear (i)||From £4|
||No||From £3.99 – scheduled, £8 – £10 – chartered|
|Ryanair||No||From £5.99 or from £8.99 (depends how bought)|
|Thomas Cook||Yes||From £7.50 short-haul, from £9.50 medium haul, from £20 long-haul (ii)|
|Thomson/ First Choice||Unclear (iii)||£7 – £15 (iv)|
Prices correct as at 26 April. (i) Jet2.com told us it "will always ensure a child is sat next to an adult" and "makes sure infants are seated next to their parents" but could not confirm if a child will always be seated next to their parent. (ii) Child prices are £3.75, £4.75 or £10 (iii) Website says "It's important we know if you have children in your booking in order to make sure they are seated with you" but Thomson told us "we would suggest ... to guarantee seats together customers opt to pay the fee in advance". It adds: "if, in very rare circumstances, a child is initially allocated a seat away from the parent it will be re-assigned (usually at check-in)." However Thomson customers have told us they've paid an extra £30/return ticket. (iv) Child prices are £3 – £7.