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One of the biggest decisions when it comes to traveling with children is deciding whether or not to travel with a car seat. This decision depends on your destination, how long you will be there, how you will get to and from the airport to your accommodation, whether you are renting a car or if there are alternatives to bringing your own child’s car seat.
Will there be public transportation and the ability to walk, with little or no need to ride in a car? Are you flying to a big city where you can ride on trains or buses? Or is your family taking a cruise? You may not require a car seat if you take a shuttle from the airport to the port. Will you be limited on where you can explore without renting a car? If you will be driving in a car at your destination then you’ll need to bring your child’s car seat. Or consider renting or borrowing one.
You also need to consider if your child will be using their car seat on the airplane. And the logistics of transporting the car seat through the airport and at your destination.
How to decide if you should travel with a car seat?
There are many factors to consider when deciding whether or not to travel with a car seat. There is not a simple answer. In this blog we will discuss child safety on an airplane, our experience of traveling with and without a car seat. The logistics of how to travel with a car seat including at the airport and on the airplane, including must-have items to make this easier. Plus various types of car seats to consider, and the alternatives to traveling with a car seat.
Use the Table of Contents below to quickly skip to any section of this post.
In the days before parents would travel with a car seat
I remember as a young child sitting in the back of my parent’s sports car on a cushion. No seat belt. No car seat. Just a cushion to lift me up so I could see out of the window. As my Dad took me for a spin through the quiet English countryside! My husband remembers taking road trips in the back of his family’s station wagon. He would lay out in the rear of the vehicle to sleep as they traveled through the night to the beach.
And I shudder to think about the third row rear facing seats, also known as the ‘way-back seat’. As kids we piled in the trunk to ride rear-facing in the back of the car. Do you remember those seats? Or did I just date myself?! 🤣🤣🤣
Life in the 1970’s and 80’s was a different world. Our society is much more safety conscious in this generation. There’s more for parents to consider when making safety decisions for today’s children.
Deciding whether to travel with a car seat depends on various factors
As a parent you must decide whether or not to take your child’s car seat on a plane. There are multiple factors that play into your decision, such as your family’s needs, budget and risk tolerance. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. Everyone has to decide what is right for their own family.
Some parents feel more comfortable using the car seat on the airplane. Others feel OK to take the car seat through the airport, then gate check the car seat before boarding the flight. Other parents prefer to check the car seat at the luggage counter and not mess with it in the airport. Also, if you prefer not to travel with the car seat then consider whether you can rent, buy or borrow a car seat at your destination. Certainly if you will need to drive during your trip.
Child safety on an airplane
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommends that all children use a child restraint on board an aircraft from birth to 40 pounds. Many parents choose to save the cost of an extra airplane seat and take their baby or toddler (less than 2 years old) as a lap child.
In the case of unexpected turbulence it would be extremely difficult, and unlikely, that you would be able to keep your lap child safely in your arms. The safest option is for your child to be buckled in to an FAA approved car seat.
The reality is that most flights do not experience extreme turbulence. And many parents fly safely with a lap child every day. The decision about airplane safety is every parent’s personal choice.
If you would feel more comfortable flying with your child in a restraint then consider a Child Airplane Travel Harness.
The CARES Safety Restraint System is a safety harness designed specifically for air travel. It is for children 1 year and older weighing 22 to 44 pounds and up to 40 inches tall.
Our experience of traveling without a car seat
For the most part we have arranged our travel plans to avoid needing to travel with a car seat. As our children have become older, we have either traveled to places where we didn’t need a car seat. Such as big cities with public transportation or cruises with a shuttle from the airport. On the occasions where we have needed to drive at our destination, then we have rented or borrowed a car seat from family / friends.
I prefer to avoid managing the car seat in the airport when trying to keep up with active child(ren). I have always been comfortable with my decision, except for one time in Ottawa.
Riding in a taxi without a car seat
Our daughter was 2 ½ years old and we traveled from the United States to England and then on to Ottawa, Canada. We didn’t want to drag our car seat around for the entire 4 week trip. In England we used Grandma’s car seat or took public transportation. When we arrived in Ottawa we took public transportation from the airport to our hotel.
During our time in Ottawa we could easily walk or use public transportation to visit everywhere we wanted to go. We had no need to ride in a vehicle until it was time to make our return journey to the airport. It was an early morning flight, it had been snowing and the sidewalks were extremely icy. We felt more comfortable taking a taxi for the short 10 minute ride from the hotel to the airport. Our daughter rode in the back seat with us without a car seat. I strapped her in next to me and prayed for safety the entire ride!
In Ottawa taxi drivers are exempt from the child car seat and booster seat requirements when transporting passengers for hire. Your child can ride, legally, without a car seat in a taxi but she must wear a seat belt. They must not ride on a lap. This was the law when we visited Ottawa, it is not the case for every city. If you are considering using a taxi, or ride sharing service during your trip, make sure to check on the local car seat laws for your destination.
Traveling in a taxi with children
You may feel more comfortable using a harness in a taxi such as Ride Safer Travel Vest. This is for children 3 years and above and weight range is between 30 lbs and 110 lbs. If your child meets the requirements for a travel booster seat, look into the Mifold or BubbleBum travel booster seats. I wish I had been aware of these products when my daughter was younger.
Make sure to check all the current age, height and weight requirements for travel booster seats or the Ride Safer Travel Vest.
Options when you need to travel with a car seat
It is not always possible to avoid traveling with a car seat. If you will need your child’s car seat at your destination there are multiple factors to consider about how to make this happen. You must think about whether you will need the car seat on the plane. Or how you will maneuver the car seat (and your child) through the airport? If you are traveling solo with your child(ren) it will be extremely cumbersome to keep up with your kids and a big heavy car seat. Do you have multiple children, then how will you manage with multiple car seats through the airport?
If you decide to check-in your car seat at the baggage counter you run the risk of it being lost or damaged at the airport or on the plane. There’s the possibility of damage that would be unseen, but could compromise the car seat safety features. For this reason you should consider purchasing a light-weight travel car seat that may be lighter and easier to maneuver than your expensive everyday car seat.
Flying with a car seat
If you choose to take your car seat on-board the airplane then make sure the car seat is government approved. It should have “this restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft” printed on it. The FAA website has additional information about keeping your little one safe when you fly.
I recommend calling your airline to verify that your car seat is approved for use on the plane and will fit in the airplane seat. Make sure to reserve adjoining seats as your car seat must not block the escape path in an emergency. Many airlines have policies that require a car seat to be placed in a window seat, and not in an exit row.
Flying with a lap child
If you are flying with a baby or toddler less than 2 years of age, then you have the option to book their flight as a lap child. For more details read our post about traveling with a baby. If you want to take your baby or toddler’s car seat on the plane then you would need to purchase them an airplane seat to use with the car seat.
Flying with a convertible car seat
If you are flying with a child 2 years or older, then you will have purchased a seat for your child, and would have the option to use their car seat in the airplane seat. Consider whether you think your child will stay in their car seat. Or if they will want to be out of it and you’ll get stuck holding your child on your lap the entire flight. Would having their own car seat allow your child to feel more comfortable and more likely to nap in a familiar environment? Will it be a long-haul international flight, or a short domestic flight?
Flying with a booster seat
If your child is older and uses a backless booster seat then be aware that you cannot use a booster seat on the airplane.
All these factors will play into your decision of whether or not to take the car seat on the airplane. Every U.S. airline allows you to check a car seat free of charge when traveling with a child. You can check your car seat at the airport baggage counter or wait and check it at your gate. If you are flying internationally check with any overseas airlines about their policy prior to purchasing a ticket.
Flying with an infant carrier and stroller travel system
My favorite time to fly with a baby is when they are less than 6 months old, before they start crawling or walking. I love being able to strap the baby to me using an infant carrier such as the Ergo or Baby Bjorn which allows me to have my hands free.
Then I use the stroller to transport other items like the diaper bag, carry-on suitcase, winter coats, or even an older sibling who may be tired from traveling.
The nice thing about using a travel system is that the infant carrier will clip into the stroller, so I can keep that car seat with me. I will then gate check both the infant carrier (car seat) and the stroller.
Check in your car seat at the baggage counter
Most airlines will allow parents to gate check bulky baby gear, like strollers and car seats, at no additional charge. If you decide to check the car seat at the baggage counter, then you don’t have to carry it through the airport.
Car Seat Travel Bag
You may also choose to stuff your car seat travel bag with extra shoes, bulky clothing, diapers or blankets, and then check in the car seat. This provides extra padding to protect your car seat safety features. It also allows more weight allowance in your checked bags. Just do it out of sight of the airline attendant, before you get to the baggage counter 😉 Otherwise you may be charged for extra luggage!
Take advantage of gate check
At the gate request gate check tags from the gate agent. Attach one tag per item and then leave it at the bottom of the jet-way as you board the airplane.
Use a stroller gate check bag and a car seat travel bag to cover and protect your baby gear from dirt and damage. This is especially important if you’re traveling in the winter with snow when there’s salt everywhere!
Gate checked items will usually be waiting for you on the jetway at your destination when you leave the airplane. Occasionally these items must be retrieved from baggage claim, depending on the airport.
Remember to check with your airline before your flight regarding their gate check policy, and to find out about their luggage allowance.
How to transport your car seat through the airport
If you decide to travel with a car seat then you must consider how to transport your car seat through the airport. You will need to navigate airport security with your children and all your baby gear.
Car Seat Stroller
There are options to wheel the car seat using a car seat stroller when you fly with a car seat. Your child can sit in the car seat while you pull it through the airport.
Car Seat Luggage Belt
Another option is a Car Seat Luggage Belt that turns your rolling carry-on suitcase into an ultra-portable travel solution that works for all car seats that have a top tether.
Car Seat Travel Bag with Wheels
Or consider a Car Seat Travel Bag with Wheels that are multi-directional upright rolling without needing to tilt. You can easily push or pull the bag in any direction.
There are several different options depending on the type of car seat you have, and it makes traveling with a car seat so much easier.
The different car seats to consider for travel
What type of car seat should your child use? Depending on your child’s age/weight/height will help determine what type of car seat they need. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website has a very useful Car Seat Finder to assist you with choosing the right car seat for your child.
There are different types of car seats including:
- rear-facing infant carrier (some can be used with a stroller travel system)
- forward-facing convertible car seat with a harness and tether
- high back booster with a 5 point harness
- backless booster seat (used with the vehicles seat belt)
Keep in mind a booster seat is not approved for use on an airplane. If your child meets the height/weight requirements, then a travel booster may come in handy. Consider the Mifold or BubbleBum travel booster for a short ride in a taxi or a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft.
Traveling without a car seat
If you decide not to travel with a car seat, but you will need a car seat at your destination then you have several options – to borrow, rent or buy a car seat at your destination.
Borrowing a car seat
If you are traveling to visit family or friends they may have an extra car seat that you can borrow during your trip. This is what we typically do when we take our girls to visit their grandparents in England. They already have the car seats installed and ready to go when they pick us up from the airport. We greatly appreciate this after a long flight.
Make sure it is the correct type of car seat for your child’s weight and height.
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Renting Vs. Buying a car seat at your destination
There are several things to consider when deciding between renting or buying a car seat at your destination. You could rent a car seat from a rental car company or a baby gear rental company. Consider whether the rental car seat will be clean and in safe working order? Can they guarantee the correct car seat will be available when you arrive and need to use it for your child?
After a long journey, when everyone is tired, do you want to install a car seat you’ve never seen before, in a car that is not your own? In addition to trying to manage your kids in the rental car parking lot! Some parents prefer not to deal with this stress and uncertainty, but it’s up to your personal preference and what you feel comfortable doing.
If you are renting a car and not dropping it off at the same location where you picked it up, then you may need to buy a car seat. Or if your trip is for an extended period then the cost of renting a car seat can mount up quickly. Find out if there is a place near the airport or your accommodation to buy a car seat. Compare the cost of renting a car seat for the length of your trip vs. buying a car seat.
Ultimately, the question of whether or not to travel with a car seat, does not have a simple answer. There are so many variations of what is logistically possible and this is different for every family. It will evolve for every trip you take as your family’s needs change. I hope this post has helped you to think through all the various possibilities, and know what options you have to travel with a car seat. Now you can decide what’s right for your family and how you will be comfortable when traveling with your children.
Please comment on this post to share with our community about your experience of traveling with a car seat. Or how you managed without taking your car seat on the airplane. I’d love to hear about your family adventures.
And remember, let’s BE Family so you can enjoy the journey.
Until next time,
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