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You’re headed into the friendly skies with kids in tow. It can seem complicated, but we’ve got guides covering flying with babies, toddlers and beyond. Here’s the latest – a guide that includes everything you need to know about bringing a car seat on a plane.
Bringing A Car Seat On A Plane? Complete Guide for Parents
Did you know that the Federal Aviation Administration regulates what type of car seat you can bring on board with you? We’re going to walk you through how to use a car seat on a plane, what you need to know before you go and what other child restraint systems are out there for you to use. It’s just one more thing to think about when you are traveling with babies and toddlers. Here’s what you need to know.
Why You Want to Bring Your Car Seat on the Plane
Carry-on or Checked?
First off, let’s explain why you want to carry your car seat onto a plane. Have you ever had an accident with a car seat in your motor vehicle? Car insurance companies will work with you to replace the car seat because impact from accidents (even if the car seat isn’t directly damaged) can affect the effectiveness of the seat. Now imagine you gate check or even check that car seat. If it’s tossed around? The safety could be impacted. The safest spot for your child’s car seat is on the plane with you.
Also, if you’ve ever tried to wrangle a one year old who has recently become mobile, you may understand why strapping them into a harness will improve the flight experience for everyone involved. Otherwise, you’re basically holding an angry octopus on your lap for the flight. Plus safety-wise your child is safer in a car seat than in your arms, as extreme cases of turbulence can make it difficult to hold onto Junior.
TravelingMom Tip: We know that flying can be expensive and lap children may be necessary from time to time. If you do need to check your car seat, try to pack it in a box with the original Styrofoam packaging if possible. Most airlines will check car seats for free. If you are packing it in a box, you may want to wait to tape it up at the check in counter. I’ve been asked to show that it’s a car seat inside before.
Buying the Ticket
Let’s start with the obvious. Your child will need his own seat if you plan to bring a car seat on, so be sure to purchase an additional ticket with the child’s name on it.
You may say, “But I’ve brought on my infant car seat for my infant lap child before without having to buy a seat.” Yes, every once in awhile if a domestic flight isn’t full, a nice flight attendant will allow you to board with and utilize your infant seat. However, as someone who has flown with babies for 15+ years, I can tell you these lucky chances are dwindling down. With my older kids, I used to treat them as a lap child and hope for the best. However, with my youngest, I started flying family-friendly Southwest and just booking him a cheap seat in advance. Those “free” airplane seats? Fewer and further between.
FYI- if you’re flying internationally, lap children sometimes still have to pay a portion of the fare. It is usually around 10% of an adult fare. It can be worth asking for a discounted infant fare to get them their own seat for the comfort of both of you. Always call the airline ahead when you’re traveling internationally with a lap child. Even Southwest, which doesn’t charge a fee for a lap child internationally, requires that you pay the infant’s taxes and fees ahead of time.
How Can I Tell if My Child Safety Seat is Airplane Approved?
Take a look at your car seat’s sticker. You want to see this phrase in red: This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.
If that phrase appears, you’re good. But just because the seat has an airline approved sticker on it doesn’t mean it’s the right seat to fly with. Your plane experience will be better if you follow a couple of our favorite car seat on an airplane guidelines!
Our Best Airplane Car Seat Tips
* Lighter is better.
Keep in mind you’re not only going to have to carry the car seat through the airport, but you’ll have to get it down a plane aisle while also tracking a child. I have a big Britax Advocate Click-Tight seat for my car at home. It’s a beast that weighs 30 pounds! I love it for home because my son is still rear-facing at three and it’s super safe. I would NEVER travel with it. We travel with an Evenflo Tribute LX car seat. It’s still at a safety rating that I’m comfortable with but is under 10 lbs.
* Bring a bag for it.
When I travel with kids, it’s frequently just me and at least three kiddos. My oldest daughter carries my car seat, and if it’s in a bag with straps, she’s much happier. I love this bag because it has a spot to put your contact info, it’s got backpack straps and a rubber handle. Plus it’s under $20.
* Tons of airplane accessories exist.
They are usually pricey and often unneeded. We tell it like it is here at TravelingMom. I see tons of very pricey accessories like car seat trolleys to wheel car seats through the airport. Are they helpful? Maybe to some folks, but it’s one more thing to fold down and send through security and one more item to find a spot for on the plane. Most of them can’t wheel down the plane aisle way, so then you’re carrying it.
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The Go-Go Babyz is commonly recommended. It turns your car seat into a stroller-type kiddo mover. At a cost north of $150, you’d have to be an extremely frequent traveler for this to make financial sense. But if it’s important to you that your kiddo can ride in their car seat through the airport, it’s an option.
There are straps to fasten the car seat to carry-on luggage (obviously kiddo can’t ride in it then). These run under $10. As mentioned above, I’m a bag and carry fan. I utilize a baby carrier to haul kiddo around.
* Think comfort.
Obviously you want your kiddo to be comfortable, but you also don’t want to haul too much gear. Depending on how long your flight is, it’s a good idea to consider a few extras. When your little one is in a car seat, her legs hang unless she sits with them folded. Hanging feet are uncomfortable; in fact, one of my girls would wake up screaming on road trips at night if she didn’t have something to put her feet on. She’d start kicking and wake up. We found this footrest (lifesaver) but it’s too bulky for planes.
For planes, you can fasten adult-sized foot hammocks around the car seat to use as a foot rest. It’s not always pretty. I sometimes use easy tear pieces of duct tape to hold it in place. Voila – happy kiddo who has something to rest his feet on. (They also work awesome for young children who aren’t in car seat but whose feet can’t reach the floor. Stops them from kicking the seat in front!).
Bringing a Car Seat through TSA
Ah the fun of family travel! Many five-point harness high back car seats do not fit through the smaller scanners at TSA. When you get to the security checkpoint, be sure of the following:
That all buckles, latches, etc are in the seat and not hanging loose. They can and do get caught in rollers (ask me how I know this). Flip the car seat so it’s face down to the belt. Most fit through the machine best this way.
If your car seat is in a carrying bag and cannot fit through the machine, you will need to remove it and put the bag through by itself. TSA will hand inspect the car seat.
Make sure nothing else is put in the car seat. This means no sweaters or anything else you’ve taken off at security.
Where Can I Install a Car Seat on a Plane?
The basic answer is in a window seat that is not in an exit row. Some airlines also don’t allow safety seats in the rows in front of and behind the exit row. Airlines require car seats to be installed by the window so that they don’t impede the evacuation of others in case of an emergency. If there is an empty seat by the window you may be allowed to install it in the middle. So keep in mind no aisle seats, no bulkhead seats and ask a crew member for help if you have trouble!
How Do I Install a Car Seat on a Plane?
Installing a car seat on a plane is extremely similar to installing it in a motor vehicle, except the space will likely be tighter and people will be impatiently watching. What a joy, I know. I like to baby wear my kiddo on my back down the aisle and carry the car seat in front of me. When I get to the seat I stick the car seat on the window seat. Then I unstrap kiddo and set him on the seats across from me if there’s no one there. Put the armrests up. Extend the seatbelt to its longest length.
Now comes the tricky part. You need to stick your arm through the belt path. I’m going to give you my best tip here. Carabiner with a piece of paracord attached. Clip the carabiner in the seatbelt hole. Stick paracord through the path and just drag it through. Way easier than trying to fit your arm.
For infant car seats ,you may need to ask for a seatbelt extender from a crew member. I’ve never had to but I’ve heard from some friends that they have. The most important thing in all this? Stay calm. Enlist help if necessary to entertain kiddo. Attempt to move out of the aisle. Breathe.
I Don’t Want to Carry a Car Seat. Is There Anything Else I Can Use?
Currently, the CARES Child Aviation Restraint System is the only FAA approved harness-style restraint. The CARES harness is authorized for kiddos who are 22-44 lbs and up to 40 inches tall. They must be able to sit up on their own. This device is fantastic for parents who don’t want to carry a car seat or who are juggling kids of multiple ages and can’t carry more than one seat. It weighs just 1 pound and can fit into a 6″ stuff sack. The harness fastens around the aircraft seat and you fasten the 5 point harness around your child. Although you might see other similar devices being sold, the CARES harness is the only one FAA certified for all flight parts- taxiing, take-off, turbulence and landing.
Best Car Seats for Airline Seats
The average economy seat on an airline is about 17″ wide. Most car seats are 18″ or more in width. This obviously creates some comfort issues for the parents sitting next to that car seat. The best seats for airplane travel are light, narrow, easy to install and still safe for motor vehicle use at your destination. Here are a few of our favorites car seats for air travel that you can easily order from Amazon.
This Cosco is a budget friendly choice for flying families. At 17″ it still allows the parent riding next to the car seat to be comfortable and weighing in at 12 lbs it’s not too unwieldy to lug through the airport. It can accommodate kiddos 5 lbs and up and can rear-face up to 40 lbs, which is great for a lightweight seat.
For less than $100 this seat is a great match for toddlers between 22 and 50 pounds. The seat is 17″ wide, making it perfect for air travel.
If you’re traveling with an infant who is still in a bucket style seat, you may have additional questions about car seats. Most infant seats in vehicles snap into a base, but that can be unwieldy to travel with and an airplane seat doesn’t have a LATCH system. For this reason, we recommend choosing a seat that has a European belt path system, as it is a safe way to install infant seats using a vehicles seat belt. The Graco is a great budget-friendly choice. It is just over 18″ wide, but a great, safe choice for an infant and there are lots of strollers that the Graco fits on that you can gate check ranging from larger travel systems (which we don’t recommend for travel) to compact car seat “frame” strollers that give you the convenience of a stroller without the bulky weight.
Read More about how to install a car seat without a base here.
Dionos aren’t light, but they are narrow. At 16.1″ wide, these seats easily fit three across in a car’s backseat and provide plenty of room for parents in flight. They can accommodate infants starting at 5 lbs and be both rear and forward-facing in vehicles. Be aware though that the recline angle of a rear-facing Diono will likely NOT fit in a traditional airline seat. Truly a jack of all trades, this seat converts to hold up to 100 pounds of kiddo! The bonus is that even though it’s heavy, it folds, making it easier to carry and strap onto a carry-on suitcase.
TravelingMom Tip: Utilizing a new travel car seat? Be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Some lighter seats have reduced rear-facing weight limits and may require your older toddlers to ride forward-facing.
Booster Seats- What Do I Do With Them?
You may need a booster seat in your rental car or vehicle at your final destination. Booster seats may meet safety standards in motor vehicles, but cannot be used on an airplane, nor would they need to be. Since planes have lap belts, there’s no safety advantage to boosting up an older child.
You can either check a booster seat or place it in a carry-on bag. We strongly recommend investing in a travel booster seat substitute. Bubble Bum and MiFold are two that I’ve used that are easy to travel with. The Bubble Bum is an inflatable booster seat that fits in a bag for travel. Hiccapop is similar at a slightly lower price point. The MiFold is a very small folding seat that has a seat belt adjuster clip for vehicle use. Both are great options for older kids.