I recently added Baby M to our summer award tickets to Germany so I thought I’d just share my experience in case it helps anyone. Adding an infant ticket to an award is always a little bit of a minefield and can be a huge hassle. Still, a lot of times you can benefit from the simple fact that most agents don’t really know what they’re doing. Anyway, here’s my experience (although it’s not quite complete); I’ll be sure to update as things further unfold!
Before I begin, I’d like to point out that Jason Steele over on The Points Guy’s blog has what I consider the definitive post on booking infant award tickets. He has an excellent chart pointing out what different airlines charge to add a lap infant to an award. Generally it’s 10% of the cash fare, although it varies by carrier. Also note you only need to pay fees for an infant traveling internationally, domestically you need to add them to the ticket but they are free.
Now for United, a lap infant on award ticket should cost 10% of the lowest applicable fare. What exactly does that mean? Well if my experience was any indication, United agents themselves don’t even know! Here are your different options for adding an infant to an award ticket on United – you’ll see how in my opinion some are better than others.
Option A: Book lap infant directly on united.com when booking the award
Out of the four major US airlines, United is the only one who allows you to book a lap infant on its website. The other airline I know of off the top of my head that allows you to do this online is British Airways, which has the added bonus of charging 10% of the mileage plus taxes and fees.
Anyway, adding a lap infant is pretty straightforward. When you are searching for an award ticket, there is a place where you can select an infant in an adult’s lap.
If you click through to book the award, it will price out the infant award. Now I had booked a roundtrip award to Munich from Boston through Toronto in Lufthansa first class back in November. I couldn’t recreate the exact award but I input a search for a similar award next week. Once I got to the checkout screen, here’s the price united.com gave me for the infant ticket.
As you can see, the infant award ticket comes out to a whopping $1301. Now, this makes some sense to me because I checked to see how much these flights cost on ITA Matrix; they cost about $14,000. It’s not exact, but $1301 is around 10% of that (it probably has something to do with taxes and fees or something). Bottom line: booking the lap infant on united.com costs over $1000.
Option B: Call United after booking the award to ticket the lap infant
For various reasons, I decided not to book Baby M her seat online. I decided to call to ticket her lap infant last week. After an hour on hold, the agent came back with a quote of $576.10 for my itinerary (which again is similar to the one above but not exactly the same). I was a bit confused by all this, but I wasn’t going to question the price they gave me. The important thing to note here is the agent said the ticket wasn’t going to be issued immediately and that United probably wasn’t going to ticket the infant until a month before travel. Huh? That was pretty weird, but I figured it was fine and I’d call back in a week.
Fast forward to this week. Lucky posted that Montreal to Munich space was wide open in Lufthansa first, so I decided to change my award. After changing the award, I realized that meant that Baby M’s infant ticket was going to need to be changed too. (For the record, United said infant changes cost 10% of normal change fees since they treat it like a cash ticket).
I called United and wasn’t surprised when they said that her ticket hadn’t even been issued yet. In fact, they hadn’t even charged my credit card, so they just deleted that from my record. I’m not totally sure how that was all supposed to work but that was the reality. So, a friendly agent who told me “most agents don’t know how to do infant tickets” priced out the lap infant for the new award. When she came back on the phone (after only 15 minutes on hold, so maybe she was indeed more experienced), she quoted me a price of…$269.10. What? She went through some mumbo jumbo about how she found me a cheaper price, but none of it made sense to me. Anyway, I took the even lower fare and ran.
What’s going on here?
My hypothesis for what’s going on: The original agent charged 10% of the lowest fare he could find. If you look at the screenshot below, you can book a roundtrip trip to Munich from Boston in first class for about $6000. And if you look closely, before fees it’s about $5800, and 10% of that is around $570 which that first agent quoted me.
Now, how did that second agent charge me $269.10? I have no idea, but she actually managed to charge my credit card, so at least I can believe this time that the ticketing is going through (although 24 hours later it still hasn’t). I should also add that I was still given the same song and dance about the ticket not being issued until June – though this time I’m slightly more confident my price will stay locked in since the card has been charged and they have a receipt of that over at United.
What have I learned?
So, let me distill what I’ve learned from my experience into a few concrete lessons:
1. Nobody knows what they are doing
Speaking to multiple agents, it’s clear to me that adding a lap infant to award tickets is a bit of a morass. I think if you talked to 100 different agents you’d hear 75 different stories, which I think is something you can use to your advantage.
2. United.com probably prices lap infants on award tickets via some sort of algorithm
I don’t want to blow your minds, but it’s pretty clear that united.com uses some sort of algorithm to price lap infants. The clear pro to booking directly on united.com is that you get your infant confirmed immediately, but the con I think is that the algorithm generally costs a lot of money. In this case, I think united.com wants to charge 10% of the FULL first class fare.
3. United agents use humans to price lap infants on award tickets, which COULD possibly result in cheaper prices
Now, both agents I spoke to told me they were calculating Baby M’s taxes and fees manually (or they had someone else do it). And both times they came up with numbers significantly lower than what united.com wanted to charge. Here’s my thinking: if you book on united.com, then you probably will get the “correct” price. But if you call an agent, there’s a chance they give you a cheaper price. And the reality is, once the infant is in the system, I don’t think they really care. We flashed a paper ticket for Baby M while flying Alitalia last year and they barely even looked at it (and it wasn’t the correct ticket, though we had paid for it, but that’s another story altogether).
The way I see it, the WORST case scenario is that at the counter in Germany, Lufthansa agents tell me I didn’t pay enough for Baby M’s ticket and try to charge me the difference. But I find that highly unlikely, since it’s United’s job to issue the ticket – another must bookmark post, this time by Matthew on upgrd.com. But even if they do, I’m likely just going to pay as much as united.com wanted me to pay in the first place. I’ll risk a little bit of hassle for the $1000 in savings.
My suggestion? If you can deal with the potential hassle, take the risk and call up after you book the tickets for the adults. For $1000, I’ll gladly spend hours on hold. In the end as long as Baby M is attached to the reservation, I don’t think Lufthansa is going to care and it’s worth the risk for me.
Hopefully this post wasn’t too convoluted. Though if it feels that way, it’s because the process of adding a lap infant to an award is super convoluted in and of itself! But the bottom line is, from now on I’ll always be calling agents to add an infant onto an award and hope they give me a better price than united.com. After all, human’s are better than robots…right?
There is an option C by the way – just have them book the infant ticket when you’re at the check in counter. That is an option I’d never consider unless I was actually booking a ticket right then and there, because the potential for things getting messed up is way, way too great. Plus if the phone agents are any indication, it could take so long that you might miss your flight.