Should Family Members Fly In Separate Cabins?

Live and Let’s Fly writes about a United flight where a father sat up in business class and left his 8 year old kid back in coach.

He thinks that was inappropriate, though notes that United allows unaccompanied minors to travel on international flights and that’s essentially what this is except that the father went back occasionally to check on the son.

United Airlines Boeing 777-300ER Economy

I think it’s absolutely appropriate and maybe even the right thing to do to fly business class and have your teenagers back in coach.

  • When I was a kid I was certainly used to flying in back, I certainly hoped for an empty seat or even row on a long haul flight but that’s just how I flew. I didn’t know anything different.

  • Once you fly in a premium cabin it’s harder to go back.

  • Teaching kids to experience travel, and spend time with family is great but so is the need to work for what you have. I worry about eventually spoiling my own kids.

Still, leaving an 8 year old alone on a long flight seems a little more challenging.

A couple of years ago I wrote about a supposed trend of husbands flying up front while leaving their wives and girlfriends in coach.

  • A husband travels business class for work. His wife comes along so they can have a holiday at the end of the trip. They aren’t going to pay out of their own pocket for her to travel business, but there’s a reason his employer is paying for business class — so he can go straight to meetings. That all seems pretty reasonable, until you learn it’s his company.

  • A husband who is so insufferable to travel with, complaining so much about economy, that they only way they enjoy their trip is if they don’t fly together in the same cabin. The wife insists he fly business class so she can get some peace. And he feels guilty over it so he’s extra attentive while they’re on vacation.

  • A guy who just seems like a jerk, with homes all over the world, he flies the woman he’s dating with him in coach while he flies up front — until she gets pregnant. While she’s carrying his child she gets premium cabin tickets. It seems how much he’d invest in her tickets depended on what he thought of her at the time.

American Airlines Boeing 787-9 Business Class

Before I got married I was given the cliched advice, “happy wife happy life.” And I’m fortunate to have plenty of miles.

It’s clear though that some couples simply don’t like each other and prefer not to be around each other.

‘It just didn’t work. I wanted to chat, while Arrun was totally preoccupied with his work. He had to ask me to be quiet. It felt very awkward.’

…’Even when we get off the plane we’re like strangers to each another. Arrun will have a chauffeur waiting for him. The car whisks him straight to meetings.

I have to find myself a taxi. At least he does text me to check I’m en route to our hotel.’

…Arrun is unashamed about his love for business class travel without his wife. ‘I love travelling this way. I dine well and always get a good night’s sleep,’ he says.

How would traveling in separate cabins work out in your family?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I have flown in business while the wife in coach. She is fortunate to be able to fall sleep in the seat within minutes so she doesn’t justify the need to go business.

  2. I think that’s BS. If you’re traveling as a family, you should travel as a family– together. Don’t make other people babysit your kid. Be responsible.

  3. Flew Bangkok to Hong Kong about a year ago. Well dressed middle aged Chinese guy was in business with me. Everyone exited the plane and briskly started the walk to immigration. A few minutes later a younger well dressed Chinese woman (side girlfriend?) ran and caught up to him – and instead of being annoyed or angry that not only was she was in coach but also that he didn’t wait for her, immediately commenced to hugging and kissing him like he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. He clearly had her trained to know her place. Straight up baller.

  4. There’s another option. When I fly with my wife for pleasure/family visits, we often buy coach. If Delta decides to offer just me an upgrade, I accept, but let my wife use the upgrade. In my case, she appreciates it, and I have no regrets for making that choice. Sometimes the old “happy wife, happy life” has some truth.

    Sometimes for family vacations when my kids were younger (elementary school ages) I put them both in coach, and my wife and I sat up front. It was a terrific way to start our vacation. We had an adult cocktail party, and the kids usually got some flight attendant dotting, and everyone was fine. Of course the kids were prepared for a long trip with new coloring/activity books. Everyone was happy.

  5. Having teenagers in a separate cabin seems ok but not an eight year old. As far as putting one party in the back, that’s fine as long as you switch on the return. Even if it is a situation where one spouse must go right into a business meeting on arrival (not a good idea IMO even when flying business class) that usually doesn’t apply on the return.

    I prefer the cliche happy spouse, happy house, since that is more of a two-way street, but it still depends on what that takes. Ideas on what makes for a happy marriage change over time. Thirty years ago my pastor suggested that Saturday night beatings were helpful and to be sure to take the wife out for dinner once a month.

  6. I think it depends on the kids’ ages. I still remember watching the movie Home Alone where all the parents sat in Business Class and all the kids sat in coach. Since they were a large group and had teenage children who could take care of the younger ones, that scenario sounds fine to me.
    If that 8 year old had an older sibling with him in coach then I think that would be ok too. Then again, if the 8 year old son is used to being alone and behaves well, then I don’t see this as an issue at all.

  7. One a long haul flight some years ago, British Airways upgraded both my wife and me to business class from premium economy and then, at the gate, upgraded me to First. I would not have taken the second upgrade had my wife, who knows how I relish the occasional upgrade, not urged me to do so. We did visit during the flight, although I had to go back to see her. So don’t automatically criticize those who do not sit with their wives until you understand how the wives feel about it. (I assume she was not, as some in this thread apparently were, happy to get rid of me.)

  8. I guess we must be different than most people. After 52 years of marriage I still love my wife and want to travel with her beside me. If we decide to book business class, I make sure I can afford the ticket for both of us.

  9. @Gary – we have five kids. We flew the Coach family route for years. Now that I’m a Delta DM, I make sure the PNRs are split so my wife and I can get upgraded together. The kids (now late teens/early 20s) are fine with this arrangement (dad pays ticket).

    One year we flew and FC was only $70 more MSP-MCO. It was one of those ancient 757 or 767s with six across FC seats and like six rows. We didn’t tell the kids until boarding. That was a fun surprise.

    If my wife comes along and we are on separate PNRs, she gets the upgraded seat. I, too, heard that “cliched advice” (above) when we married almost 30 years ago and it’s the best I ever received.

  10. When I was engaged many years ago, I was offered an upgrade to first class and I declined. Now that I have been married for over 20 years, I was offered an upgrade recently and I accepted. My wife stayed behind in economy. The lady sitting next to my wife could not believe I did that. My wife was OK with it.

    Typically I would get biz class for my whole family (wife and daughter) using points and I would pay cash, points or be on business for myself. Our last flight is a good example. I paid $$$, wife and daughter flew BA in biz class from JFK to LHR using points. We are doing this again when my daughter goes to college – we live in Europe and they will fly premium economy one way and my wife will fly biz class on AA from PHL to AMS using points.

  11. The father should have let the 8 year have the Business class seat. It’s certainly what I would have done. He would have been thrilled 🙂

  12. Not commenting on the kids-in-coach question. But there’s more than a bit of sexism in presuming that the MAN in a couple is on business and “wifey” is along for the ride.

  13. I grappling with this question right now. I have a bad back. I can’t survive crammed into coach for an international flight. But we can’t afford to bring all of us in business class. Since my wife and son can sleep anywhere it makes sense to split up but I feel very selfish doing so. It’s not how we normally do things.

  14. As a flight crew member, we don’t like it when families spilt. Period! On international flights, children and/or spouse like to ‘come up’ and visit. This happens most often when meals are being served. This makes it difficult for crew members and usually disturbs other passengers. Crew members are not baby sitters (yes we are and you know who you are.) Oh, and stop sending your wife/girlfriend back to coach (more than 90% of the time.) And lastly, stop sending back drinks and ice cream sundae’s to coach. It pisses other passengers off and let’s it well known you’re and a**hole for sending your partner back to coach while you sit up front!

  15. Hahahahaha

    Guys who fly up front while relegating wives to the back are seriously playing with fire. No matter what the wives say.

    Pay me now or pay me later.

  16. When we travel internationally, my wife and I fly business with our 3 kids in coach. I’m not spending the extra miles to put them in business and they are getting spoiled enough by the ability they have to see the world. On domestic trips, I typically split our reservation so that I will get upgraded, then I switch seats with my wife and sit back with the kids.

  17. OK…so @Gary, is it wrong for me to think the father should be hauled off and shot?

    From where I sit, while our kids were young, we ALWAYS flew WITH our kids. “With our kids” doesn’t mean on the same plane; it means next to them — the same row, or the row in front or behind them. When we took our (then) young daughters to Europe when they were 10 and 12 (well, the youngest actually turned 10 in London, and celebrated by having high tea at Harrod’s), we *all* flew in Economy. Whether it was domestic or international, sometimes we’d be in (e.g.) A-B-C and then me in D, other times it was (e.g.) A-B and A-B, but it was always¹ together.

    Now, of course, we’re all older and I try to fly domestic First, or Business if traveling across the Atlantic/Pacific, as much as possible. The girls, now in their mid-20s, aren’t necessarily traveling ANYWHERE with us! ;^) But when they do, we’re still all in the same cabin — maybe it’s First on AS/VX; maybe it’s Economy; who knows? But at least I’ve taught them the benefits of having certain credit cards and what points can do for them now that they’re (more or less) on their own. Indeed, they flew off to LAS today on WN using points…

    Now *IF* the father was traveling with his teenage son and, say, his son’s friend, it’s a completely different situation than being 8 years old and traveling “alone.” But, if that were the case, I can see maybe flying J while the two boys are in Y. At that age, the “kids” will have more fun without a parent looking over their shoulder, so to speak. But I’d still go back and check on them periodically…
    AND I’d ask the FA to let me know if they were misbehaving in any way.

    ¹ OK, ***ONE TIME*** Air France upgraded our kids on a flight from CDG to LHR to business, while keeping us in the back. Literally, that was the one and only time we haven’t all sat together.

  18. Hey Parents,
    I personally think everyone should fly together with young children. God forbid, there’s an emergency situation where you need to evacuate the plane to save your life. Imagine that situation when you chose to sit up front and your child is in the back some 20 rows away having to evacuate on their own.

  19. Starting when I was 7, I flew unaccompanied to CH to see family every summer. Has it become so problematic that a kid can’t even sit on a plane without people worrying? I remember at least one or two kids doing the same long haul with me: LAX to ZRH and a memorable time when the kid in the row in front of me had 8 bars of gold with him! Often the flights weren’t full so we got a whole row to ourselves. This was early 80s and continued through college.

  20. @Beat Navy —> Me thinks thou hast missed the point…

    It is NOT an issue of UM flying to Switzerland, or anywhere else for that matter. UM’s fly back and forth all the time — whether it’s to see family in the Midwest, on the Coast, or overseas; or as they are shuttled between mom & dad, now divorces and living in separate cities.

    In this specific case, the 8-year old was not an UNACCOMPANIED minor, he was an abandoned minor — abandoned by his day having cocktails in the front of the plane while his kid was in steerage. As a UM, the inflight crew KNOWS that Seat 22F is a UM and will check-in on him/her during the flight; the airline makes sure the UM gets on/off the plane alright (from check-in to baggage claim), etc., etc. Here, the father simply parked the kid in Econ, and all but left him there. To the dad’s credit — yes! — he did “check-in” once or twice on his son, but otherwise abandoned him, leaving him to his own devices while the FA’s bore no responsibility whatsoever…

  21. When I was flying for corporate clients, policy was fly in coach for flights of 5 hours or less. So, I would always book cheapest. (This was before the days of Basic E.) I would often get upped to F, due to status. Sometimes, if going somewhere nice, I would take my wife with me. If I was upped on that flight, I would give my wife the up, and didn’t mind the coach seat for me. She always appreciated the gesture.

    Now that I pay for my own travel, we fly together in front. I will switch flights or airlines if we can’t be together in F. Life is too short at our age for the hassles and B.S. of anything else, and we enjoy each other’s company too much.

    We’ve been happily married 25 years. Gary is truly right — “Happy wife, happy life.”

  22. Since I have a history of DVT, my husband makes sure I fly business class on anything longer than 3 hours. While I do my best to use points to get the whole family to fly with me, sometimes the budget just doesn’t work that way. My husband and kids insist that they are perfectly happy in economy while I am up front.

    Unitl my kids are well into high school age, I would not feel comfortable letting them sit alone in back, but, with my husband with them, I don’t worry.

    Still, I am always torn between feeling terribly guilty and feeling wonderfully blessed to have such a considerate family. It must look strange to outsiders who have no idea that there are medical reasons for the separation.

  23. My wife abd I usually fly business or first international. When we flew on quantas to australia i could only get one first and gave it to my wife. I took business for myself. I am twice her size but i knew she would appreciate it. When I took my 16 year old nephew to africa I flew business and i got him a bullkhead coach seat. Didn’t feel guilty at all. If my stepkids are going with us I would try for PE for them but if they only got coach I wouldn’t feel quilty. I had to earn my way to afford business and until i could flew coach. Too much entitlement in the world today. I taught them about accumulating miles so if they want to they can use them for the upgrade. IMHO

  24. Arrun’s wife needs to leave him and take half his miles.

    He sounds like a typical jackass too important for anyone typical work flyer. Really unimportant in his job, but pretends he’s the boss.

  25. I’ve read too many horror stories about small kids being sexually abused on flights to think it’s ok for dad to put an 8 year old in coach alone voluntarily. And I agree with the point about an 8 year old UM being treated differently than a random kid being put in back to fend for himself/foist on flight attendants and seat neighbors to baby sit. No free cocktail should be worth your kid’s safety.

  26. On a recent flight for work a kid if 9 sat down across the aisle from me. His dad was seated about 7 rows back. For a few moments I considered switching. The question racing height my head was: were they a late reaccomidation on a really full flight? Or did they book basic E? The former I would have switched for in a heartbeat. The latter I don’t want to enable.

    Turns out, the kid was great. You could totally tell he had flown seated by himself many a time.

  27. I think that the child should have an adult or at least another sibling over 12 with them. That being said, I do not feel children belong in First class, no matter what. If you are travelling with children, the highest class, you should be in, is business class. When that Casey Niestat flew BA First to South Africa, his 2 yo child, cried the whole way. If I was in First on those flights, I would have asked for compensation from BA.

    But the children in the back thing, should only be if the child is old to take care of themselves. Otherwise a parent needs to be with the child.

    Furthermore, I would not travel, with my spouse in another class on the aircraft. We fly together or not at all.

  28. Funny you wrote this post today. Today, I had one Y seat and four J seats on a family trip (award travel). While my name was on the Y ticket, one of my teens took the Y flight there and another took the Y flight back.

    I sat in back more than once while everyone else was up front when the kids were younger. 8 is a bit young to sit on your own.


  29. Many airline ppl will tell you not to split kids and parents between cabins, if there is an emergency the natural instinct of the parent would be to go to where the child is, could very well cause issues during an evacuation.

  30. I arranged international travel with our team for hundreds of coworkers. Our particular project was a sweet deal for our coworkers given the destination and quality of trave arrangements, in addition to the highly visible work effort. We are allowed to fly business class. We did not encourage coworkers to bring a companion. If they did, I would have a conversation about the coworker in business with the companion in coach. In particular I would highlight the complaints we all had to often hear from the companion while on our trip. So, the advice was put them in business (use miles) or leave home. If the companion came and was in coach, and they started to whine while with us, I would take the coworker aside and politely tell them to have a conversation with their companion that we do not want to listen to the complaints. If it continued, we would inform the coworker that they would not be invited back for a future trip.

  31. Sexual abuse on planes. Many unaccompanied children have been assaulted on planes. Taking this risk is the primary issue with the child separation question. It is a risk you can prevent, so as a parent, you suck it up and take care of your kids.

  32. Hell yes I leave the kids in coach while my spouse and I sip Champagne up front. I don’t stole there with separating the kids away from us: we stay at the Four Seasons while the kids slum it at Four Points

  33. When booking tickets my husband and I always book the same, if we can get it Premium Economy. If for some strange reason only one of us got upgraded I think my husband and I would take turns. Of course we would split and take the upgrade, but then the next time it happened the other one would take the upgrade. It would just depend on how each of us were feeling who sat in business class.

    If he had a bad nights sleep the night before I would tell him to take it, if my legs were bothering me he would tell me to take the upgrade. We are together all the time 24/7 working together since our early 50’s so being separated on a flight is no big deal. However for couples who have traditional jobs where they are separated at their respective workplaces everyday I can see turning down an upgrade to travel together.

    Arrun does not seem like a very nice man. The tip off is that when he arrives at his destination he leaves his wife on her own to find her own transportation into the city. If his business provides a car and driver, that is nice, however he should accompany his wife and make sure she is on her way before getting in his private hire car. Arrun is not a nice guy, I wouldn’t stick with him.

  34. I get Premium upgrades and give them to my partner while I fly in coach. He is happy with me, and I do not mind coach at all.

  35. …while leaving their wives and girlfriends in coach.
    I remember coming back from a trip to Italy. I tried to upgrade to biz, and the gate agent said that I would almost certainly get the last seat because the two in front of me were a couple travelling together. Not so – he took the upgrade, and she sat in coach. I asked to be moved to his vacated seat (closer to front). The loser tried to come back to talk to her during the flight, but she pretended to be asleep. We talked most of the flight though, and now she is my girlfriend and his ex.

  36. Why are these people even married if they can’t spend time together or don’t want to spend time together? I would never ditch my wife and child in coach to fly business or first without them.

    Since getting married I’ve had to adjust my points redemption goals and frequency but I want to spend time with my family. I used to be able to redeem a premier class seat for one person and now I need to use those same miles for coach for three people. Even if I got a free upgrade I wouldn’t leave them in coach.

    It sounds like these people need to get some couples counseling.

  37. I think it is irresponsible to ask others to watch/ entertain your young child, while you enjoy your drink in first class. Sit with your child.

  38. @Alex —> I’m with you! I was a top-tier elite (Gold) on Virgin America, while my wife was mid-tier (Silver). Even so, *we* were never upgraded unless VX could upgrade BOTH of us. I cannot recall a time when VX even offered an upgrade to me alone, as long as we were traveling on the same reservation.¹

    Now that I’m Alaska MVP Gold (and my wife MVP), AS does the same thing — if we’re on the same reservation, they will only upgrade the two of us, and I’m perfectly content with that.

    Speaking of upgrades, another time flying VX (but alone this time), I asked if there were any upgrades available. The gate agent said he’d get back to me a little closer to departure. Now, for those of you not familiar with VX’s A320s, Rows 9 and 10 are both Exit Rows with the accompanying extra leg room, but the seats in Row 9 do not recline for safety reasons. On flights under 2-2.5 hours, I really don’t recline my seat, so who cares? For me, it’s not an issue. So, when he announced my name, I came up to the podium to receive my upgrade, he said, “I wouldn’t take it if I were you.” I raised my eyebrow, and he continued, “You’re in 9C, an aisle seat; all I have is 3B. It’s a middle seat with the same legroom you already have.” I thanked him and said I’d pass on the upgrade.

    ¹ They did upgrade me once, but we were traveling on separate reservations/confirmation numbers for some reason which I cannot recall at the moment. When I explained I was in fact traveling with my wife, and so I wouldn’t take the upgrade, they upgraded her too!

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