Last April, European carrier Ryanair stunned consumers by announcing a new initiative called “Child-Free Flights.” The promo, which had been scheduled to launch this October, would have banned children on all its planes, a reaction to a passenger survey that indicated 50 percent of fliers said they’d happily pay higher ticket prices to avoid listening to babies squawking at 30,000 feet. “When it comes to children, we all love our own, but would clearly prefer to avoid other people’s little monsters when travelling,” Ryanair communications chief Stephen McNamara wrote in a company statement.
Given that the release came out April 1, most recognized the story for what it was: an April Fool’s joke—but one that was on to something.
This past June, Malaysia Airlines announced it would institute a “baby ban” in first class on its A380 super-jumbo flights—and that came on the heels of an earlier prohibition against little ones from the first-class cabins of its 747s. The long-haul carrier said it had simply received too many complaints from first-class passengers that screaming babies made it impossible to sleep. (Babies were still welcome—so long as they were in coach.) And Virgin Atlantic and British Airways were also reportedly considering no-kids policies on their jets.
In case you’re raising your eyebrows over the brashness of these moves, consider this: Empty nesters continue to wield a huge swath of discretionary spending dollars, and population dips in first-world countries mean more childless couples than ever. Twenty percent of American women (one in five) now choose never to bear children, up from one in 10 in the ’70s, and the number of married-but-childless couples in the U.S. has reached a high of 27 million. (Perhaps this is due, in no small part, to statistics such as this: the cost of raising a kid now averages $230,000—and that’s without college, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)
All of which means brat bans could well be the next frontier in destination and leisure-product marketing. “More and more resorts in particular continue to move [in this direction],” says a spokesperson for LeaveThemBehind.com, a website that lists vacation spots that welcome parents but not their progeny. Given the hectic pace of the new-media economy, he says, “people are looking to guarantee more peaceful vacations these days and one way owners are attracting them is though a no-children policy.”
Granted, asking mom and dad to leave junior home with a sitter is hardly a new idea. Atlantic City’s Borgata hotel and casino enshrined a no-kids policy in 2003, instructing guards to politely turn couples with children away at the front door. Plenty of resorts have no-childen pools (along with guards to enforce the rule), and cruises including the Celebrity Solstice have declared sections off-limits to anyone under 16—a move that, anecdotally at least, has won praise from passengers. (“We never saw or heard any kids whatsoever during the entire week of blissful quiet,” raved one online Celebrity reviewer.)
Even non-vacation destinations and brands in other segments have begun to experiment with asking their adult patrons to come sans enfants. On July 16, McDains Restaurant in Monroeville, Pa., ceased admitting kids under 6 years of age. This month, a Whole Foods Market in St. Louis is touting “child-free shopping” every Friday. Parents can drop their kids at the café (a monitor keeps them busy) and browse for organic arugula in peace. And for the recent release of the last Harry Potter film, the Vue Cinemas chain in the U.K. instituted “Over-18 Screenings” (for an extra 1.50 euros).
Lauren Ruehring, editor of the website No Children by Choice, says that still more brands would probably hop on this trend, but “it seems like restricting the access of children has long been the ‘third rail’ of marketing”—especially in a conservative political climate when pro-family is a popular platform. Still, she says, “this strategy is rapidly changing. No one is expecting that Applebee’s or Holiday Inn will institute a child-free policy, but in the higher-end world, the examples are hard to argue with.”
For those consumers who truly want to eliminate all risks of running into children, there’s always the town of Firhall in the Scottish Highlands. Would-be residents must agree to the village rule that no household can have even a single child. One dog, however, is fine.