Car seats are one of the most frustrating, confusing, and confounding aspects of air travel with babies and toddlers. But they don’t have to be! Before you ever get on that plane, ask yourself these three simple questions to minimize your car seat travel hassles.

Baby in car seat on airplane

Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

It’s the bane of every flying parent’s existence: the car seat. If you are one of the many who has dragged a giant car seat through a busy airport while also juggling a cranky toddler and a suitcase or two, you know what I mean.

As parents, however, we all want to make sure our kids travel in the safest way possible. Those dreaded car seats are also necessary, important, and sometimes life-saving. I can’t promise that travel with car seats is always easy, but there are certainly ways to lighten your load.

Always ask yourself these three important questions before you board a plane with your car seat. Answering them may well make your trip logistics easier, all while still keeping your traveling kids safe.

Car Seat Question #1:  Do I really need a car seat on this trip?

If you have kids, you definitely need a safe way to transport them in your travels. Bringing a car seat on the air travel portion of your trip, however, doesn’t always make sense.

If you are headed on a trip to grandma and grandpa’s house, for example, consider buying an inexpensive car seat to keep and use there. Have grandparents pick you up at the airport, and your car seat problem is easily and cheaply solved.

Also consider whether you are headed to a large city that has excellent public transit. You may not really need a car seat for those kinds of destinations. New York City, Washington DC, and Philadelphia now offer UberFamily service that includes car seats for kids ages one and up, so you could conceivably take that service from the airport to your hotel and then use transit to explore around town.

CARES harness on toddler in airplane

CARES harness in action on a flight.
Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

But what about safety on the plane, you ask? Consider a CARES harness instead. It is an FAA-approved child restraint device for kids who weigh more than 22 pounds that you can easily throw in a diaper bag or backpack. It has become a toddler travel necessity in my family.

Car Seat Question #2: Have I planned how I will physically transport a car seat with everything else I’m bringing?

The biggest challenge of car seats and air travel is the bulk. You only have so many hands available to carry luggage and kids. How do you manage it all?

I recommend visualizing your trip from start to finish. There are multiple points where having a heavy and bulky seat can slow you down or make the logistics of your trip challenging.  Plan for those scenarios.

First, are you driving to the airport?  How will you get your car seat, luggage, stroller, and kids from your car, onto a parking shuttle, and then into the airport? Can you manage it all? If not, consider a car service (or the service of a generous friend) that can drop you off at the airport curb.

Child in car seat

Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

Similarly, think about the logistics once you land. Are you renting a car at your destination? Can you manage to get on and off a rental car shuttle if needed? Should you instead send one parent to pick up the car while the other parent waits with the luggage and kids?

As long as you aren’t bringing lots of bags and don’t have multiple children of car seat age, most families with two parents can usually manage even the most difficult of logistics fairly easily. For parents traveling solo (especially with more than one child), car seats can present some logistical challenges.

I recently witnessed a very brave mother flying solo with three children all in car seats. She was beyond struggling. The only way for her to get on the plane was with gate agent and flight attendant assistance. After boarding, our plane had a mechanical problem and we all needed to be moved onto another aircraft. She had to go through an unplanned disembarkation and then re-board a new plane with three car seats and three kids, making what was already going to be a challenging travel day even more difficult.

Flight attendants and fellow passengers helped her a lot, but you can’t count on the kindness of strangers in all circumstances, especially when something like a flight delay puts everyone on edge.

Situations like this can’t always be avoided, but try to make yourself as mobile as possible when flying with kids. Use whatever products will help you achieve this: a cart to wheel your car seat or a CARES harness for use on the plane instead.

Car Seat Question #3: Have I made all the preparations for easy car seat use on the plane?

There are plenty of situations where you will want to use a car seat in-flight, so make the right preparations for that stage of air travel as well. First, you need to make sure your car seat will fit. While airlines are supposed to move you to another seat if your car seat is too big, don’t make life harder on yourself. Buy a slimline and lightweight seat to make sure you won’t have any issues (at just $44 at Walmart, the Cosco Scenera NEXT is a great choice).

Make sure you’ve also reserved the right seats for yourself in advance so you don’t find that your family is suddenly split up. Book a window seat if you plan to use a car seat; car seats aren’t allowed in any locations where they will block the exit paths of other passengers. Also make sure you aren’t in a bulkhead seat if you are using a car seat. While the extra legroom can be nice, those seats are often narrower because the tray table is located in the armrest. Not all car seats will fit.

Still have questions about car seats? Be sure to check out the complete guide to car seats on airplanes that answers 22 common questions about air travel and car seat use.

For even more car seat tips, read 4 Car Safety Seat Reminders.

  • 3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Taking a Car Seat on a Plane

    Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom