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Tallying the costs of traveling with little ones

Regardless of your feelings about tiny travelers, if you’re forced to travel with one, some airlines make it easier — and cheaper — to plan your trip than others.

It sounds like the beginnings of a bad joke, but on a recent trip to Turkey, we asked ourselves this question: “How many Delta agents does it take to set a rate for an infant seat?”

In our case, the answer was nine, starting with one gate agent who set the fare for our 6-month-old at  $47, another who overrode her fare and set the rate at $374, and, after we complained, a team of seven in the fare department who determined that the fee should be $89.

Now, we’re aware that flying with infants is a contentious issue. Most parents, for whom it’s unavoidable, hope the fares are as low as possible. And naturally there are those like the Flyertalk member who recently responded to a post about Cathay Pacific’s new rate increase (up to 25 percent of the adult fare from 10 percent): “If I had my way, infants shld [sic] be slammed with a 2500% ticket fare.”

Regardless of your feelings about tiny travelers, if you’re forced to travel with one, some airlines make it easier — and cheaper — to plan your trip than others. First, some (very general) basics on how infant fares work:

In general, has found, airlines don’t charge a parent for one infant under the age of two (if the baby doesn’t get a seat of her own) to travel domestically. Most U.S.-based airlines don’t charge an infant fare between the U.S. and Canada, but do charge the same tax as the adult fare (the same is true between the U.S. and Canada on AirCanada). The majority of airline Web sites claim that international fares for infants are around 10 percent of the adult fare plus the same taxes and fees the adult pays (with asterisks indicating that you shouldn’t hold them to this because fees vary).

That’s where things get Byzantine.

Since airlines don’t publish infant fares (with one exception: JetBlue), you have to rely on their occasionally crafty math to get a quote on your kid. Because airline press offices are trained to quote the party line (“10 percent plus applicable taxes and fees”), we called the real experts — the reservations agents. (Note: We’re not using names, as some were likely more helpful than their job descriptions required them to be.) As you plan your trip, keep the following things in mind:

Airlines have different definitions for ‘adult fare
Back to Delta. In fact, when we reserved our ticket via Delta’s SkyMiles Web site at $717 roundtrip from JFK to Istanbul, we had to call to inform them we were bringing a baby, but couldn’t find out the exact fare until we got to the airport. Clearly, $347 is far more than 10 percent of $717. So what gives? $347 was 10 percent of the walkup fare for an adult — not the fare that we actually paid. When we kicked up a fuss, the fare got adjusted down.  At Continental, the 10 percent fare is based on what’s available when you book the child, not 10 percent of the fare you actually paid. Ditto US Airways, so it's best to book your child at the same time you book yourself. But at British Airways, even if the fare skyrocketed before you decided to bring along the baby, you’ll still only pay 10 percent of your own fare. It’s worth asking.

Get quotes and take names
In fact, most airlines will allow you to book your infant in advance. United, US Airways, American and Continental, among others, issue infant tickets electronically in advance. Our advice: When an airline won’t allow you to pay the fee in advance, get a quote from an agent on the telephone, and take his or her name. That gives you a little negotiating power when you get to the airport.

Traveling with infants is a luxury?
According to Continental and Delta agents, parents are sometimes assessed a “luxury tax” on their kids, though this isn’t airline policy; rather, it’s the policy of the country they’re departing, and varies wildly. Two countries that assess the tax on tots: the UK and France.

Some airlines are making money on the exchange
Another reason that $347 Delta fare might have been so high? According to the helpful Delta agent we reached, the fare’s “applicable taxes and fees” might have been charged in Euros! According to the agent (and another we called right after to make sure we’d heard right), for the past six months, Delta agents have been collecting fees from the United States to Europe in Euros, making an additional 50% or so on the exchange. Other airlines we checked with, including United, US Airways, American, Continental and several others, denied this practice.

Beware ‘free’ frequent flier tickets
Also of note: if you cash in miles for an international fare, your infant does not fly free. Expect to pay, on some airlines, 10 percent of the adult fare, plus taxes and perhaps a fuel surcharge. If you're sitting in business or first class and want your baby to fly in the same class of service, which of course you would, that could add up to a very hefty sum.

Get a breakdown online
Most carriers don’t allow travelers to book infant fares online. Some exceptions: Lufthansa recently added an infant booking function to its site, and British Airways will do it, too, even breaking down the fees and taxes from the fare. But with rising fees, booking over the phone can be expensive. Here’s a tip (from a helpful agent of US Airways, which charges $35 to book over the phone): Book your own fare online, and then immediately hang up and add your infant, for whom US Airways will gladly issue an electronic ticket without assessing the telephone booking charge. For now.

Andrea Bennett has written for Travel + Leisure, the New York Post, and the Wall St. Journal, among other publications.