Adding a lap infant to an award ticket: Don’t get ripped off


Recently, I tried to add a lap infant to an award ticket and nearly got gouged by American Airlines for nearly 3x what the ticket should have cost. The experience led me to three key finds for those who travel with lap infants. While these finds come late in the game for me (as my son is quickly approaching his second birthday), hopefully they can help other parents planning infant award travel.

The Dilemma: Adding a lap infant to a Cathay Pacific Award booked with American Airlines miles

On the way home from the 40K to Far Away challenge, I flew China Airlines business class from Auckland to Brisbane. After two nights in Brisbane, I flew Singapore Airlines business class to Singapore. Then, after two nights in Singapore, it was Cathay Pacific business class the rest of the way home (from Singapore to Hong Kong to Newark).

We had 4 adults in our group (me, my wife, her sister, and her sister’s husband) plus my son (21 months old). The best deal for business class from Singapore to New York (and really one of the best deals in business class travel) is using Alaska Mileage Plan to fly on Cathay Pacific. Business class was just 50K miles per person one-way plus $94.83 in taxes. That’s a great deal.

In 99% of cases, when you book an award ticket, you are subject to the ticketing carrier’s lap infant policy / pricing. For example, if you use your Air Canada Aeroplan miles to book an award ticket for travel in business class on United between New York and Paris, you pay Air Canada’s lap infant price (which is $100 or 10K miles in business class). If you use Asiana miles to book the same flight on United, you pay Asiana’s lap infant price (which is 10% of the miles price for the adult ticket — in this case, 4,000 miles). If you use United Mileage Plus miles to book the same flight, you pay United’s lap infant price (which is 10% of the revenue fare — which is likely to be several hundred dollars). Again, you pay the ticketing carrier’s price regardless of the operating carrier. Conventional wisdom tells us that the operating carrier generally will not help with any changes (like adding a lap infant) when the ticket is on another airline’s ticket stock (i.e. booked with another airline’s miles).

It’s worth noting that adding a lap infant on a domestic trip is a different story. That’s free within the US and you can generally do it at the airport with the operating carrier no matter whose miles you used to book the ticket (though it’s not always simple: At the airport, I’ve added my son as a lap infant on domestic United flights booked with both Avianca LifeMiles and Turkish Miles & Smiles and each time it has taken the agents several extra minutes and often a call to a supervisor to do it. I’ve tried and failed to add a lap infant to those bookings ahead of time online / via the call center / via Twitter; United won’t do it in advance since they were not the ticketing airline. I’ve had the same problem trying to add my son as a lap infant on a domestic Delta ticket booked through Virgin Atlantic — easily done at the airport, but Delta refused to do it in advance because it was ticketed via Virgin Atlantic.).

But internationally, you normally need to go through the ticketing carrier and you do not want to wait until you arrive at the airport.

Alaska Mileage Plan, however, has long been an exception to this rule: Alaska has long been unable to add a lap infant to partner awards. Alaska is the one exception where you would contact and pay the operating carrier’s lap infant fee. Historically, one has been able to contact the operating carrier for an Alaska Mileage Plan award and add a lap infant directly with the operating carrier subject to that carrier’s fees. However, there were two reasons I was concerned that wouldn’t be a viable option this time: First, Alaska’s site currently has a notice advising that they can not guarantee that lap infants can be added to international partner awards:

That made me think that perhaps it couldn’t be done at all. Second, I’d previously read that Cathay Pacific would charge 25% of the adult fare for a lap infant on flights to/from the US. As the adult fare for my trip was $3337 one way, I wasn’t excited about the prospect of paying $800+ for a lap infant ticket.

Therefore, I booked 3 adults using Alaska Mileage Plan and I booked myself a ticket through American Airlines AAdvantage. American charges 70K miles for the same business class itinerary versus Alaska’s 50K; however, American only charges 10% of the adult revenue fare for a lap infant. As noted in the previous paragraph, if it were even possible to book with Alaska and add my son by calling Cathay Pacific, I expected his lap infant ticket to cost north of $800. I expected adding a lap infant with American to cost 10% of the $3337 fare — just over $330. I therefore figured I would save about $500 in lap infant fees by booking with AA miles and adding the lap infant through AA than if I booked with Alaska miles and added the lap infant with Cathay Pacific directly (which, per the screen shot message above, I thought may not be possible anyway).

However, I think I probably made a mistake in booking with American Airlines AAdvantage. Read on for my 3 findings that explain why.

Find #1: American Airlines might way overcharge you to add a lap infant

American Airlines Planes

I booked my ticket via American Airlines AAdvantage. As soon as the award ticketed, I called American Airlines to add my son as a lap infant. When the agent looked up my itinerary, he commented about how he expected this would be really expensive since my itinerary was one-way international business class. He went on about how pricey one-way international business class can be (something that obviously isn’t a surprise to me, but I’m sure probably does surprise some customers) and how I should always book international fares round trip, etc. I didn’t think much of it because I already knew the adult fare was $3337 and so I was prepared to pay something around $330 for the lap infant ticket.

This was the cash price for my itinerary at the time of booking according to Google Flights.

While ~$330 is not a small amount of money, it doesn’t seem ridiculous when you consider that we’d be spending about 20 hours in Cathay Pacific business class (4hrs from Singapore to Hong Kong followed by the 16hr flight from Hong Kong to Newark plus several hours in the lounges in Hong Kong in between).

However, when the agent came back, he asked if I was sitting down. I thought he was being overly dramatic until he told me it would cost $1,140 for the lap infant ticket. I must have spit out my beverage. I told him that had to be a mistake — at which point he went back to lecturing me about how expensive one-way business class tickets are. I tried to politely tell him that I’ve done this a few times before and I know how much tickets cost but that the fee he was quoting must be based on a first class fare. I told him that the current cash price for my itinerary in business class was $3337. He then told me that Google Flights must be showing a discounted fare, but that American has to charge me 10% of a full J-fare (for those unaware, airlines have many different fare classes — there are different fare buckets for business class, with “J” being the highest business class fare for the route).

I’ve booked my son as a lap infant a number of times now and hadn’t ever been told that the lap infant fare had to be based on a full-fare (i.e. most expensive price) business class ticket. Furthermore, eleven hundred dollars didn’t sound like ten percent of any business class fare I’ve seen on Cathay from Asia to the US. I asked him if he could hold on a second while I checked and he was happy to do so. I then went to ITA Matrix and saw that he was correct that the $3337 fare was indeed a discounted “I” fare class:

However, ITA Matrix allows you to specify fare classes when searching fares (something I wrote about recently). I was therefore able to check and see that the “J” fare on this route was about $6,245.63.

That’s the full-fare (un-discounted) business class price for the route, so $1,140 for a lap infant made no sense at all. I went back to the agent with that info. He agreed to go back to the ticket desk and have them double-check the fare. He came back a few minutes later to say that the full fare that American Airlines had for the route was $9,800 and that with the associated taxes it came to $1,140 for the lap infant and that’s what American would have to charge me. That made absolutely no sense to me as I couldn’t find a fare like that on any date for my route. However, the agent told me that the ticket desk had suggested that I could contact Cathay Pacific directly and they could probably do it for less. I was almost certain that Cathay would tell me to pound sand since this ticket was booked on American Airlines ticket stock, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with this agent, so I thanked him and ended the call.

Before I go any further, let me reiterate something I’ve said before: Always arm yourself with information before you call and never take one customer service agent’s word as definitive. They are often wrong. Thank goodness I know enough about award travel to know that $1,140 was not a correct price. I wonder how many people just get ripped off and pay what the agent says.

Anyway, this call led to Find #2.

Find #2: ITA Matrix shows lap infant fees

This find came courtesy of a Facebook group to which I belong. Not wanting to tip off Greg and Stephen as to my flights home from the 40K challenge (therefore giving them an idea as to where I’d be flying from), I didn’t post this one in our Frequent Miler Insiders Facebook group, though that’s generally where I’d go with an award travel question like this.

I asked members of a different group about whether they’d booked a lap infant on an international business class award with American Airlines and if they knew whether or not they had been charged based on the lowest available fare (i.e. the $3337 fare in this case) or a full-fare (J-class) business class fare.

In the ensuing discussion, someone alerted me to the fact that when using ITA Matrix, you can add a lap infant to your search and see exactly how much a lap infant fare would be.

In order to do so, just hit the link that says “children” next to the number of adults.

Then choose “infants in lap”. I had no idea this option existed.

Then, when you choose a particular flight / fare, it will show the lap infant fee in the fare details:

As you can see, the lap infant fee should be $471.43 based on the cheapest available business class fare ($3337). That’s a bit more than the $330 or so I was expecting, but it was nearly 60% less than what AA was trying to charge me.

I can’t believe I hadn’t known that ITA Matrix had this feature: this would have been very useful in award travel planning stages. I’ve previously wasted time calling for a quote whereas I can now get an idea as to what to expect thanks to ITA Matrix.

For those curious, the lap infant fee on a J-fare ticket (the full, un-discounted business class fare), would have been $761.43 according to ITA Matrix. That was still far below what American was trying to charge me.

Armed with that information, I made my call for find #3.

Find #3: Cathay Pacific can add a lap infant to an award booked with American Airlines miles

In the Facebook discussion referenced above, it was suggested that I contact Cathay Pacific. Having received the same suggestion from American Airlines, that’s what I decided to do. Working on this late at night (after the US-based call center was closed), I called Cathay’s Hong Kong call center directly. This cost just a few cents per minute via Google Voice (and I was able to use my cell phone via the Google Hangouts Dialer).

I explained to the call center agent that I wanted to add a lap infant and provided my booking reference number. After a brief hold, the agent came back with a price of 3693 Hong Kong dollars, which Google told me was exactly $471 and some change — within a few pennies of what I expected based on ITA Matrix. The agent did not mention the ticket being booked through American Airlines at any point but rather made it quick and simple to add the lap infant and pay for it over the phone. The entire call, start to finish, was less than ten minutes and it saved me almost seven hundred dollars over what American wanted to charge me.

In the end, it got even better. On both the flights from Singapore to Hong Kong and from Hong Kong to Newark, Cathay has business class split into a larger “front” cabin and a small “mini-cabin” between the main business class cabin and premium economy. I booked our seats in the mini-cabin on both flights. On the Hong Kong-to-Newark flight, the mini cabin only has two rows in a 1-2-1 configuration. My family therefore had 4 of the 8 seats in the cabin (since my wife and I were traveling with her sister and sister’s husband). In a stroke of luck, the mini cabin had 2 empty seats! There was an empty seat across from us, so our son was able to sleep in his own seat for most of the flight. That was well worth the $470 price tag.

Related experience

Someone else in the Facebook discussion above had a slightly different but entirely relevant experience: he had also tried to add a lap infant to an AA award ticket on Cathay Pacific. Unlike my experience, he had been quoted something like the $470 price by American Airlines and paid that price over the phone. However, a day or two later, American Airlines called him saying that they made a mistake and the correct fee should be something around $1100 and basically demanded that he call back to pay the balance or the lap infant ticket would be canceled. I believe he ended up booking the lap infant through Cathay Pacific also. Since his lap infant was already ticketed, I’m sure he may have had a DOT complaint with American Airlines if they actually canceled it, but I imagine he probably determined that it was easier to just ticket via Cathay and be done with it.

I’m not sure why American was looking for such an exorbitant lap infant fee in either case. Despite some effort, I couldn’t figure out where they were sourcing the fare upon which to base the lap infant fee. However, I now know how to find the correct fare and what to do in the future if I were quoted a higher-than-expected price.

Bottom line

I’ve noted before that it pays to do your research before you get on the phone so you can know what to expect and I’ve further advised not to take one agent’s word for it when their information doesn’t match yours. An additional takeaway this time is that if you’ll be adding a lap infant to an award ticket, it would be wise to call and add your lap infant right away. I’ve often waited and added my son weeks or even months later. While that has been fine in most instances, in this case, I’m glad I called right away. Had I waited weeks to add him to the ticket I may have ended up with a nasty surprise if American Airlines continued to demand $1140 for a lap infant ticket and Cathay hadn’t been willing to help. I’d rather get that kind of surprise while still within the free 24hr cancellation period as there is no way I’d want to pay that kind of exorbitant fee. All that said, in hindsight, I still probably made a mistake: if Cathay was able to add my son to my American Airlines ticket, I feel reasonably confident that they probably could have added it to my Alaska Mileage Plan ticket and I probably could have saved a few miles. At the end of the day, I won’t lose sleep over that since I did get the correct lap infant price, which was much less than American told me.

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