What You Didn’t Know About Airline Travel With Car Seats

Traveling with children is never easy.  It requires extra planning, extra packing, and expecting the unexpected. Inevitably, the dreaded question enters your mind: “What do we do with the car seats?”  Let’s be honest. Traveling with car seats can be a logistical nightmare, especially when flying.  There are a few different options that you can choose from, but none of them are completely hassle-free and without challenges.  I am a Child Passenger Safety Technician and between my three kids I have tried nearly all of these options and have studied about traveling with car seats quite extensively. Let’s take a look at the options you have with airline travel and car seats.

My one year old traveling in our travel car seat (the Cosco Scenera Next) on the airplane.

Bring the Car Seat On The Plane

The surest way for both your child and your car seat to arrive safely to your destination is to take your child’s seat with you on the plane and install it. I used to think this advice was overboard, but after seeing some very scary videos on the news last year of severe turbulence on airplanes, I was convinced.  There’s no way I can trust that I can hang on to a lap child with sudden forces like that.

The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) recommends the following to passengers:

Did you know that the safest place for your child on an airplane is in a government-approved child safety restraint system (CRS) or device, not on your lap? Your arms aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) strongly urges you to secure your child in a CRS or device for the duration of your flight.

But there are several other compelling reasons why you should take your child’s car seat on the plane. Your car seat could get lost or damaged if you check it, leaving you without anything when you attempt to leave the airport.  This could cost you more than an extra ticket on the plane for your baby (many airlines offer infant fares), depending on how much you may need to spend buying a new car seat.  There is no guarantee that the airline will reimburse you, and in my experience it is not likely that they will.  

Tips on Flying With Your Car Seat:

  1. Check to ensure your car seat is approved by the FAA for use on an aircraft.  There will usually be a sticker on your seat and it will be stated in your manual.
  2. Find out how wide the seats are on your aircraft to determine if your car seat will fit 
  3. Plan on placing your child restraint in the window seat.  This is usually required so that other passengers are not blocked from the aisle
  4. Remember that belt-positioning booster seats (without an internal harness) are not permitted on aircraft because the airline seats lack a shoulder belt
  5. Use your travel system stroller to carry your infant seat or consider purchasing a travelmate or similar device to wheel your car seat through the airport with ease
  6. Consider purchasing a lightweight travel car seat to use in place of your regular seat, such as the Cosco Scenera NEXT.  
  7. Plan on extra time going through security.  Some smaller car seats (like the NEXT) may be able to fit face down on the X-ray belt, but if not they will need to be inspected manually.

Using our TravelMate to roll our car seat through the airport.

Gate Check The Car Seat

If you are not able to purchase a plane ticket for your baby, your next best option may be to plan on gate checking your car seat.  You still might have a chance to bring your car seat on the plane if the flight is not full.  Find a flight attendant or other airline employee when you arrive at your gate.  Let them know that you are planning to gate check your car seat (which they will give you a tag for), but if there are any empty seats on the plane you would like to bring it on board for your child.  Most airlines are very happy to accommodate you if they can.   

If not, then you can simply gate check it.  Gate checking your car seat carries some risk of damage, but not as much as checking it with your luggage.  It is also less likely to get lost.  Keep in mind that using a lightweight travel seat with no extra breakable parts, such as the Cosco Scenera NEXT or similar seat, will reduce the risk of damage.  It is one continuous piece of sturdy plastic underneath the cover.  Fewer extra parts=fewer things to break.

Check Your Car Seat With Luggage

This is one of  your more risky options.  Despite the draw of the convenience factor, there is a real risk of damaging your car seat.  Baggage handlers are not gentle and premium features on seats such as energy-absorbing foam, recline mechanisms, and other parts will render the seat unusable if damaged.  It is vital to inspect your car seat upon arrival (including removing the cover to look at the parts underneath) to identify any issues.  If your seat appears damaged, do not use it.  You should report it to the airline right away, but there may not be much they can do.

One way to greatly reduce the risk of damage to your seat is to pack it inside its original box (or another box) with padding or styrofoam.  This gives much greater protection than travel bags which will keep the car seat from getting dirty, but little else.  

Energy absorbing foam underneath the cover can dent or break off if not handled with care

Rent Car Seats With a Rental Car

Avoid this if at all possible.  Trust me on this.  I have done it, and it was a nightmare.  They did not have the age appropriate seats for my children even though I specifically requested them.  Installing unfamiliar car seats in an unfamiliar car was frustrating and took forever.  And there was no one to help me.  I even had to carry the car seats (with my children and all our luggage) to the rental car by myself.  The seats were obviously old and worn out and I would never do it again now that I know how most rental car places take care of and store their car seats (sometimes outside or in hot garages).  There is a high likelihood of rental car seats being expired, damaged, unclean, without directions, or an inappropriate size.  AND it’s usually at least $10/day per child!  Not cheap.  Frankly, it’s not worth the hassle or worth compromising your child’s safety.

Acquire a Car Seat at Your Destination

It might make things easier to borrow a car seat from a trusted friend who can pick you up upon arrival.  For some situations, it might be helpful to order your car seat online and have it delivered to your hotel (call ahead to ask if they will hold your package) or friend’s house.  If you are concerned about having your child (Between 22 and 44 lbs) restrained on the plane without their car seat in the meantime, it might be worth looking into a CARES Child Safety Harness which are specifically made for air travel.

Each of these options have pros and cons.  All of the choices can seem overwhelming, but with a little planning and preparation you can have a successful trip with your children.  I hope these tips can help you navigate through airline travel with car seats a little more easily (and safely!).  

Jet setting mamas, what other tips have you found helpful in traveling with car seats?

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