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 for our annual holiday vacation to Hawaii. This December we'll be flying Alaska Air Group 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 . 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 . 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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Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication. Check out Tim's Web home and portfolio holdings, or connect with him on Google+Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.The Motley Fool recommends DirecTV. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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