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Traveling by Plane with Your Car Seat: What to Know

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

Traveling with a car seat can be a difficult decision for parents depending on a whole number of factors while traveling. There are some risks when it comes to traveling with your car seat but there are just as many risks that come with not traveling with your car seat.

From my experience, what you’ll want to do is entirely based on the circumstances around your trip. Before you head off on your vacation, it’s important to have as much information as possible in order to make the decision that is best for you and your family.


Why would you need to travel on a plane with your car seat?

  • Purchased a seat for Baby on the airplane and they are too small to sit in the seat on their own.

  • Renting a car once you get to your destination. There are a lot of additional risks when it comes to renting a car seat from the rental car company.

  • Traveling by car at any point on vacation, even when taking a taxi, uber or other rideshare apps.

What alternatives do you have to traveling with your own car seat?


If you decide you don’t need your car seat on the airplane, then you can look at renting from a baby equipment company like Babyquip or buying a car seat at your destination. Alternatively, there are so many incredible places where you can get around without needing a car seat.


Why would you want to travel on the plane with your car seat?


Simply put, airplane seat belts aren’t designed for tiny bodies. The safest option is to put Baby in a car seat on the plane. The FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend using your car seat on airplanes.


The general recommendation is for children under 40lbs to fly in an FAA-approved restraint – either a travel car seat or a CARES harness.


The Network for Public Health Law has a great article about what the law is in regards to airplane and car seat travel, why the FAA has not required car seats for infant travel, and why it can be confusing for parents.


Why you may not want to travel on the plane with your car seat


In order to take your car seat on the plane with you, you will need to purchase a seat for Baby. While in other parts of the world, you can often find discounted fares for infant seats; this is not yet standard for any airline in the US. Especially if you have more than one child, this cost can really add up.


How do I know if I can bring my car seat on the plane?


To find out if your current car seat is approved for use on an airplane, check the car seat’s label. It should read, “Certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.” It may also have an image of an airplane on the label.


Typically, flight attendants are trained to verify that all car seats on the airplane have this label although they may not always check. I have heard of some having to show it at the check-in counter to avoid sending it along with the baggage. In other cases, attendants have asked to show it before installing it on the plane.


To avoid potential problems with your flight, be sure to check the label and verify that you have an airline-approved car seat in advance. You should also be sure to follow all manufacturer’s instructions for your particular car seat when installing on the plane.


Many airlines have further requirements in regards to placement of car seats on a plane. Each airline has different and individual policies in regards to car seats with Baby so it's important to check with your specific airline in regards to their policies when bringing your car seat on the plane.


Car seats typically must fit into a standard coach seat which means the car or baby seat shouldn’t be more than 16 inches wide. They are likely required to be placed on a window seat and not placed in emergency exit rows or a row with airbags.



What happens if I cannot bring my car seat on the plane but I still want to travel with it?


In that case you can always check your car seat to your destination just as you would a bag.


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/ticketing counter or wait and check it at your gate. Depending on the airline, they may have different rules in regards to checking at the gate.


Either way, I highly suggest that you place your car seat in a bag/cover of some kind when checking. This will help keep the car seat clean but also be slightly more protective of the seat while it is being put into the cargo hold.


If your airline allows it and you plan to gate check a car seat, remember to check with the gate agent when you arrive at the gate. The agent will give you a tag to put on the car seat (or any bag you plan to put it in). When you are boarding, you will leave your car seat at the boarding ramp exit door right next to the entrance of the plane. Gate checked seats will usually be returned at the same location on the jet bridge when you deplane.


Pros and Cons of Gate Checking vs Checking at the Baggage Counter


Gate Check:

  • Less likely to get lost or damaged (although never impossible)

  • You can use the car seat through the airport if needed, for example as a part of the travel system.

  • However if you are using a convertible car seat, it can be annoying and heavy to carry around the airport. Especially if you have multiple children with multiple car seats.

  • If there is a chance to get a free seat on the plane, you will have your car seat with you in order to put Baby into that seat. For more info on how that works, you can find that here.

Baggage Counter:

  • You don’t have to carry the car seat through the airport along with all of your other bags and baby. This can be especially helpful if you have multiple children and multiple car seats.

  • You can utilize the baggage, at no extra charge, by placing extra items in your bag in addition to your car seat.

  • More likely to be lost or damaged


What is the best way to get my car seat to the gate?


Making your way through the airport is often the most challenging part of the whole car seat ordeal. You’ll want an easy way of carrying your seat through the airport and luckily there are a few carrying options that will help keep you hands free or at least keep the weight light.

Car Seat Bag - The most popular option to carry a car seat is a car seat bag.


You can get one that is on wheels or one that fits like a backpack. If you’re taking the seat on the plane with you, a thin bag can easily be rolled up and stored in the overhead bin for when it’s not in use. If you’re planning to check the car seat at the gate, try to find one with more padding.


We have used several bags however my favorite car seat bag is this one from Walmart by The Little Stork. Not only is it a great padded bag with some storage, it also has capabilities to roll in any direction (having 4 wheels) and backpack straps!


Car Seat Travel Belt - Car seat travel belts can easily link your car seat to your wheeled luggage or your stroller. This will keep your seat close, but allow for easy installation once you get on the plane. This is typically one of the cheaper options as well.


Car Seat Cart - If you have a heavy convertible car seat, travel carts are the way to go. With car seat travel carts, your seat is turned instantly into wheeled luggage. You can maneuver it with ease, carry items in it, and even cruise your babe around in the make-shift stroller! Once you are on the plane simply fold it up and store it in the overhead compartment or underneath your seat.


Car Seat Luggage - Though it may cost an arm and a leg, some brands offer a unique car seat luggage system. They can typically fit any car seat securely (sometimes two) and provide tons of protection for your expensive seat.




How do you install a carseat on a plane?


Installing the car seat on the plane is generally the easiest kind of installation you can do. There are just a few simple steps for how to install a car seat on a plane:

  • Find the correct belt path on your car seat for rear-facing or forward-facing

  • Loosen the adjustable side of the airplane seatbelt

  • Feed that side through the belt path

  • Reach into the other side and pull the seat belt through

  • Buckle the seatbelt

  • Put your weight into the car seat (possibly with the airplane seat reclined) while pulling the seatbelt tail to tighten

Here are few other tips to help you out:

  • An infant car seat is the easiest style to install since the “belt path” is just two little arms that are completely exposed on the car seat.

  • For a rear-facing car seat, the buckle is usually between your child’s feet or knees so it won’t bother them. As long as your child is on the older side of infancy, it’s ok to install your rear-facing convertible car seat a little more upright. Sometimes that’s necessary on airlines with tiny seat pitches.

  • The biggest challenge with using a forward-facing car seat on an airplane is that the seat belt buckle may end up right in the middle of your child’s back. If your child doesn’t mind, you can shove a sweatshirt or blanket in there after installing the car seat to offer more padding and that’s worked well.

  • Some parents also recommend looping the short side of the seatbelt around the armrest so that the latch plate connects outside of the car seat.

  • If your car seat has a lock-off for seat belt installation, please read the manual to understand your seat’s particulars. The last thing you want to do is break the lock-off on your super expensive car seat.

That’s pretty much it when it comes to car seat airplane installation. The best place to look for details on your specific car seat is in your manual.


In which direction should I install my car seat once on the plane?


The car seat should be installed according to your manufacturer's instructions. This likely means if the car seat is meant to be rear facing in the car, it will also be rear facing on the plane. The FAA says you have to use your car seat per manufacturer instructions.


Occasionally though, you can choose either one and even flip the airplane car seat around mid-flight if you need to. If your child is the right age and size to rear-face or forward-face (and the seat allows for installation this way) then it’s totally up to what you want to do. Change your mind mid-flight? No problem.


Why might you want to flip your car seat back and forth during the flight? On a long flight, you might want to let your child face forward to eat and watch a movie but then flip her rear-facing (which offers more recline) for sleeping.


Alternatively, if you have a child who’s old enough to face forward but won’t stop kicking the seat in front then switching him to rear-facing is the kindest thing you can do for the passenger in front.


Conclusion


Ultimately, your baby or toddler doesn’t have to ride in a car seat when you fly. But it’s safer, and despite the perceived hassle of lugging a car seat through the airport, it might actually make your journey a little easier. Just be sure to check the airline’s policies before making your decision and buying your ticket so you know what to expect when it's time to board.

 

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