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Everything You Need to Know About Flying with Car Seats

A toddler in a forward facing car seat in a window seat on an airplane.
Michael Brin/Shutterstock

Air travel with small children is tricky before you even factor in lugging around a car seat. Here’s a rundown on flying with your kiddo and a car seat—and keeping your cool.

A big hurdle for families with small children considering air travel is figuring out what to do with your child’s car seat. You have to consider the options, such as if you’ll need a car seat at your destination, how to keep your child safe and secure on the plane, and what type of car seat is best for air travel. We’ll go over the basics, and show you how to make air travel with children successful, or, at least, a little less stressful.

If you’ve never flown with your kids before, don’t worry. Plenty of parents say that even though it’s a lot of work, the benefits outweigh the extra challenges.

So read on, and trust us when we say, you can totally handle this.

Invest in a Travel Car Seat

If you get a separate travel car seat, it gives you many advantages. First, you can purchase a cheaper, more lightweight option, instead of lugging around your child’s full-sized, throne-style car seat, which probably weighs over 20 pounds. Plus, if the cheaper car seat gets damaged or lost, at least it wasn’t the $200+ model.

But why are travel seats so cheap, and are they safe? The answer is yes! Many people don’t choose them for everyday use because they don’t always come with all the bells and whistles. They might not have cup holders, soft padding, a comfy pillow, fun colors, and so on. Some are just lighter-weight, regular car seats. You can definitely use any of the “travel” options as a regular car seat if you want.

Make sure the car seat states that it’s FAA-approved. Check where the sticker is on the seat, so you can show the flight attendant when you bring it on the plane.

Here are some of our top car seat choices for air travel:

  • Cosco Scenera NEXT: One of the most popular options, this car seat only costs around $50! It weighs about five pounds, so it’s definitely the lightest, and it makes airport navigation so much easier. It accommodates babies and kids weighing 5 to 40 pounds (rear-facing) or 22 to 40 pounds (forward-facing), with a height limit of 43 inches.
  • Doona: This seat is great for newborns and babies (with a weight limit of 35 pounds). It has wheels that fold underneath, so it’s a car seat and a stroller—talk about convenient! It weighs about 15.4 pounds. But be prepared—it sells for around $500, so it’s definitely an investment.
  • Combi Coccoro: You can use this seat for babies and children 3 to 33 pounds rear-facing, or 20 to 40 pounds forward-facing, with a height limit of 40 inches. The cost is in the low $200 range, and it weighs 16 pounds.
  • Safety 1st Guide 65: An economical choice (it costs below $100), you can use this seat rear-facing for 5- to 40-pound kids who are 19 to 40 inches in height. For forward-facing, they can weigh 22 to 65 pounds and be 34 to 52 inches in height. This car seat weighs 15 pounds.
  • Evenflo Maestro: Suitable for kids who weigh 22 to 50 pounds with a height limit of 50 inches. This seat weighs only 11 pounds, making it another great lightweight option. And it’s priced under $100.

Not sure what to do with your travel car seat when you’re not traveling? You can install it in another car, or leave it with the babysitter or Grandma.

Check, Gate Check, or Carry On

Almost all airlines in the U.S. allow you to check a car seat or bring it on the plane for free. (We’ve never encountered an airline that doesn’t allow this). The free car seat rule even applies on low-budget airlines, such as Frontier. The majority of international carriers don’t charge for car seats either (just double-check in advance). This is a huge relief if you’re worried about the cost factor.

You have three choices when it comes to bringing a car seat on the plane. We’ll go over the pros and cons of each option.

Check the Car Seat with Your Luggage

This is by far the easiest option when it comes to traveling with car seats. You check it with your other bags, and then pick it up at your final destination. A lot of parents do this, although, there are some risks with this option. Your car seat could get damaged or lost (and some do). This is a risk you have to take if you want the convenience of less stuff to haul through security.

If you decide to go this route, we recommend you use a car seat travel bag to avoid scuffs, scratches, and bangs. Some parents also pack extra blankets, coats, diapers, and other soft stuff in the car seat travel bag as extra protection (and to avoid checking another bag). Or better yet, you can get a padded travel bag.

The checked car seat doesn’t count toward your baggage allowance, nor does it incur a fee. And even though most airlines won’t even look inside your car seat travel bag, there have been occasions where they’ve asked parents to remove any extra items stored in there. So have an extra bag handy in case this happens to you.

If your car seat does get damaged while checked with your luggage, or even gate-checked, make sure you file a claim while you’re still at the airport. If you have another adult in your party, send them off in a taxi or rental car to a nearby store to buy a new car seat (Walmart often has the cheapest options). If you’re traveling solo with kids, you might need to rent a car with a rented car seat. Do not use the damaged car seat.

Gate Check the Car Seat

Many parents go with this option since it feels safer. And in reality, it probably is as the car seat spends less time getting bounced, banged, and tossed around the baggage handling system.

However, your car seat can still get damaged or lost, even with gate checking. Plus, you have to maneuver it through security, and then wait at the gate to collect it, which can cause delays if you have a tight connection.

If you do decide to go this route, still use a travel bag to protect your seat.

Bring the Car Seat on the Plane

A toddler sleeping in a forward-facing car seat in a window seat on a plane.
Alina Reynbakh/Shutterstock

If your child is in a car seat on a plane, it ensures his safety—especially during takeoff, landing, and periods of high turbulence.  If your child is under 2 years old, make sure you purchase an extra seat to use on the plane or ask the attendant at check-in if there are extra seats available.

This is also a great option for long-haul trips, especially if your child sleeps well in her car seat.

Traveling solo with kids? Definitely bring the car seats on board. It’s more of a hassle in the beginning, but at least you’ll get some time to close your eyes without worrying your child is going to bolt down the aisle.

Hauling a Car Seat Through the Airport

If you’ve decided against checking a car seat, here are a few items that will make your life easier while you manage children, carry-ons, and a car seat or two:

  • A car seat dolly: You strap your car seat to this and pull it like a wheelie suitcase. You can also strap your child in his car seat and pull him along, too. If your child is old enough, he can pull it himself, with his backpack securely fastened inside. The Go-Go Babyz Mini Travelmate is the most popular option.
  • A car seat travel belt: This allows you to strap the car seat directly to your carry-on luggage, so you can pull it through the airport. It’s easy to snap on and off when you go through security. There are mixed reviews about whether you can put your child in the seat while you pull the suitcase with this, so do so with caution.
  • A car seat backpack: You’ll look like a fool, and probably knock out random bystanders when you turn around, but it’ll get the job done. The J.L. Childress Ultimate Backpack is a great choice.
  • A stroller: Some car seats click into a stroller base. You can also use your regular stroller as a trolley. Turn the car seat upside down and place it on top of the stroller. Use any of the buckles or straps to secure it. Obviously, you won’t be able to put your child in the stroller with the car seat in there. You can use a baby carrier, or your child can walk if she’s old enough.

Installing a Car Seat on a Plane

Take advantage of early family boarding whenever possible. Check your car seat’s specifications about rear- versus forward-facing.

Most airlines require that you put a car seat next to the window. This is so an adult doesn’t have to climb over it in an emergency. The exceptions are planes with a middle row, in which case you can put the car seat in the center of that row.

Car seats aren’t allowed in exit rows, or in front of or behind an exit row. And many premium seats, like business class, aren’t suitable for car seats.

Always check with your airline in advance, so you know what to expect. Also, make it a point to check the international requirements, as they might vary from what’s allowed in the U.S.

Ditching the Car Seat

A toddler secured in a plane seat by a CARES harness.

There are some things to consider if you decide to leave the car seat behind or simply don’t want to wrestle one onto a plane (we get it—it’s not ideal).

CARES Harness

If you don’t need your car seat at your destination or decide to check it, but still want a way to secure your child onboard, consider the CARES child restraint system.

This convenient, lightweight harness fits into a small bag that’s easy to toss in your backpack. It’s advertised for kids who weigh 22 to 44 pounds. However, most parents find it works best when your child is 30+ pounds—otherwise he might slide out the bottom (unfortunately, there isn’t a strap that goes between their legs).

You do have to lower the seat tray of the person behind you to slide the harness in place. If you board early, this isn’t a problem (the tray can be closed after the harness is secured). If this annoys the people behind you, reassure them this is the only way to confine your squirmy escape artist; you’ll be surprised how quickly people step in to help out.

Rent a Car Seat

You can rent a car seat at your destination. This can get a bit pricey, but it prevents the possibility of your car seat being damaged. The common range is usually from $8 to $15 a day, but there are sometimes discounts on longer-term rentals.

Hertz waives the car seat rental fee for AAA members, and Silvercar provides a car seat for free if you request it in advance.

Some countries have excellent baby rental services. At Baby On the Move in New Zealand, you can rent high-quality car seats, strollers, travel cribs, and anything else you might need for your baby or toddler. They even meet you at the airport, and an expert installs the seat for you!

In addition to the cost, another downside of this option is you can’t guarantee the condition or cleanliness of the car seat you get. Some places are better than others, so make sure you read the online reviews. If you doubt someone’s ability to install a car seat correctly, do it yourself.

Overall, though, this is still a great option to consider as it’s much easier to navigate airports without a car seat.

Buy and Donate

Lastly, some parents buy a car seat at their destination and donate it before they leave. This is a great option if you have the funds. Just keep in mind, someone will have to leave the airport to hunt down a car seat, and then find a way to donate it before your departure.

You can also buy extra car seats and leave them at frequently-visited places, like Grandma’s house.

Traveling with kids is a lot of work—especially when you consider all the extra stuff you have to haul along. Figuring out what to do with a car seat can be a headache. If you plan ahead, though, it’s definitely manageable. You can invest in a lightweight travel car seat and a strong travel bag, and away you go! Don’t forget to take lots of pictures!

Jill A. Chafin Jill A. Chafin
Jill A. Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist, dancer, food enthusiast, outdoor adventurer, and mama, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Read Full Bio »
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