Traveling with Car Seats

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If you are a member of our Travel with Kids Facebook Group, you know that the minute a car seat post hits, it becomes a knock-down, drag-out battle of the moms. Some moms are practical. Other moms are sanctimonious. And then there are always the moms that just pop by for the comments. In an effort to give other moms basic information, travel car seat considerations and some additional resources, here are my feelings on traveling with car seats. (Note: The below is my personal opinion, based on experience and in some cases fact and law. As a parent, the final decision rests with you).

Does my child need a car seat on a plane?

Legally, no. There are no laws that require a child to be in a car seat on a plane. Under the age of 2, a child can fly on a parent’s as a lap child for little to no additional cost (depends on your destination and airline). For this to be possible, your child must be under 2 at the time of EACH flight. If your child turns 2 during the trip, the return flight will require the child to be a ticketed passenger in their own seat. Often purchasing a round trip ticket will be cheaper in that scenario.

Should my child be in a car seat on a plane?

Most experts (airlines, the AAP, & the FAA) feel that, yes, when possible a child under 2 is safest when properly secured in an FAA approved car seat. While air travel remains the safest form of travel, severe turbulence and runway mishaps are two of the more obvious ways that an unrestrained child could be injured. According to the AAP, the most common in-flight injuries are burns (hot beverages) and lap children falling. Both of which could be mitigated by a child being properly secured in a car seat in a window seat (which is the recommended and often required placement of car seats on airplanes). The AAP article also notes that while children under 2 make up less than 1% of all airline passengers, they account for 35% of inflight injuries. So the argument can easily be made that there is room for improvement in the safety of how young children travel.

How can I guarantee my child can fly in a car seat?

To ensure that your child can use a car seat on the plane, you will have to meet the following conditions:

  • Have bought a separate ticket for the child
  • Are flying on a US domestic flight or an international flight on a US-based airline (watch for codeshares here… if you are flying to or from the US, you should be fine. If you are flying a partner airline on a flight entirely outside of the US, even if the flight has a US airline flight number, the flight is operated and governed by the host airline, which may have different rules).
  • Have a FAA-approved and labeled seat (The FAA sticker or wording is in red and specifically says the seat is approved for flying)
  • Ensure that the child intended to fly in the seat is within the listed height and weight ranges for the seat.

If all of the aforementioned conditions are met, the child can and should use the seat for the entire duration of the flight.

Can children rear-face when traveling with car seats?

If the child is within the rear-facing limits of the seat, the child should sit rear-facing.

What if my car seat doesn’t fit in my assigned airplane seat?

If you purchase a separate seat and the FAA-approved car seat that you bring with you does not fit in your assigned seat (due to seat pitch or fixed armrests, etc), the airline must make a reasonable effort reseat you within the same class of service in a seat that the car seat does fit in. There is more information about that here. They are not required, however, to upgrade your fare class.

Traveling with car seats in First Class

The answer here varies by the configuration of the business or first class seats of the plane you will be flying on. The FAA prohibits the use of car seats in oblique seats, also called angled seats, with more than an 18″ angle.

Can a lap child use a car seat?

Even if you do not buy the child a seat, there is still a chance that you will be able to use a car seat on a flight with open seats. (This can be arranged by checking with the gate agent and while sometimes is possible, it should not be relied on). If you are traveling with a baby, you should inquire immediately if flight bassinets are available on the flight and how to reserve one. (Note: they are typically only available on long haul flights and generally there are only a handful per flight. Reservation of bassinets varies by airline)

Can older children use car seats on planes?

On US airlines, any child under the age or 18 can use a FAA-approved car seat that is appropriate for their height and weight. Practically speaking, with the exception of a handful of harnessed boosters (the Britax Frontier and Chicco My Fit Harness among them), most harnessed seats max out at 48″ tall. You cannot use a belted or backless booster on a plane.

On international flights, the rules vary by airline, so you will have to check your airline’s policy. Some will not allow seats at all. Others allow seats for under 2 only. Some will only allow seats in-flight and not at takeoff or landing (totally weird IMO). While you can complain all you want, most will find that the airlines are strict in their policy.

What are the best FAA-Approved seats for travel?

All FAA-approved seats are fine for air travel. However, some people prefer to purchase lighter, more travel-friendly seats rather than to bring along a 20 lb+ seat. Here are the most popular seats for travel (including their size requirements).

Traveling with Car Seats for Babies or Toddlers

  • The Cosco Scenara Next – From a travel perspective, the Cosco Scenara Next is hard to beat. It’s just over 10 lbs, usually under $50 and will accommodate most kids up through 3ish. Rear-facing specs are for 5-40 pounds (19” to 40”). Forward-facing specs are for 22-40 pounds (29” to 43”). Not surprising, it is one of the most popular travel seats. It also has a narrow profile and can typically seat 3 across (at least in a mid-size US rental – rental cars overseas can be much smaller). You can buy the seat at Walmart here.
  • CARES Harness – The CARES Child Aviation Restraint System is another alternative for children over a year old weighing between 22 and 44 pounds. This exact harness is the only harness system approved by the FAA (watch out for knock-offs on Amazon, you should only buy sold and shipped by Amazon here to guarantee authenticity). This harness system works with the plane seat belt to properly restrain children who are too small for the belt alone. It costs around $75. While the CARES Harness is FAA-approved, it cannot be used in cars. The CARES Harness totally makes sense if you will not need a car seat at your destination or if you absolutely need to travel light and your child is between 30 and 44 lbs allowing you to complement with a Ride Safer Vest for the car (30-44 lbs is the overlap range of both products). You can check out the CARES Harness at Walmart here.

Traveling with Car Seats and Bigger Kids

  • The Cosco Finale – For bigger kids, the Finale offers the same features of the Scenara (budget and travel-friendly) but with higher harness and weight limits. This seat accommodates kids who are 30-65 pounds
    Forward-facing in harness mode (up to 49″). You can check out the seat at Walmart here.
  • The Evenflo Maestro – The Evenflo Maestro is also a popular travel option. It is also lightweight, though a bit more expensive than the Cosco seats (usually around $80). It also only allows the use of the harness to 50 lbs and 50″. On the flip side, overall, it offers more padding is typically considered to be a more comfortable seat (something to consider for long haul flights).

Do I need a car seat for my trip?

This is where your child’s age and size intersect with law and practicality. The most conservative of child safety and car seat advocates will argue that a child should always be in a properly fitting car seat until they reach the size and age where the belt fits AND they are mature enough to stay seated properly. While we fundamentally agree, we also understand that travel can become complex.

Here are the considerations we have used over the years to weigh bringing a seat or leaving it at home. (I will preface by saying that we never traveled with lap children and our kids flew in seats until they were older… so the following considerations were for our older children (in the 4-5 range, all well over 40 lbs). My personal opinion is that whenever possible, children under 2 should have their own seat assignment and fly in a car seat. I do, however understand that this is not always possible.

  • Where are you going and what will be your means of transport when you arrive?
    • If you are headed to Disney to take the Magical Express and plan to use Disney transport for the duration of your trip, you probably don’t need to haul along a car seat. Even Uber has a “family” car seat option.
    • Many cities such as New York City exempt hired vehicles from car seat laws. You may choose to use public transportation. I can assure you that if you are hailing a cab with a full-size seat in hand, no cabbie will be stopping for you. They are often stopping in travel lanes, the added time of seat install/uninstall, depending on traffic, can itself be dangerous. It’s also worthy of mention that carrying said seat or seats all over the city will probably not be the highlight of your trip. The Ride Safer Vest is a great option for city travel if your child meets the size specs.
    • If someone is picking you up at the airport and has the appropriate seats for your children, you likely do not need to bring along seats. This is a situation in which the CARES Harness would be a great option for children that are too small for a good lap belt fit (assuming they meet the specs).
  • What are the laws in the area you will be traveling to?
    • Within the US, as mentioned above, some cities exempt hired transport from car seat laws. You should always research the laws of your destination. This particularly applies to children over a year old. Within the US, some states only require rear-facing until one-year-old and 20 lbs. In other states, it is 2 years, sometimes with an associated minimum weight, sometimes without. The same holds true for minimum ages for booster seats and minimum age and height restrictions for using a seat belt alone. When traveling to a state with more stringent car seat laws, you are held to that state’s laws, not the laws of your home state.
    • Booster seats can be a tempting travel option. Some booster seats state that they can be used from just 30 lbs. Even if a child meets minimum weight for a seat, does not mean that the seat is appropriate, safe or legal for the child to use.
    • Outside of the US, car seat laws can vary widely. Many European countries have more stringent laws and less developed countries may not have laws at all.
      • Some will argue that for travel to Europe, you need to have a seat approved for travel in the region. Unfortunately, that is not always practical or feasible. Personally, we chose to follow the age/height/weight guidelines, but brought our own seats. If you are traveling to the UK/Europe, the CSFTL – UK & Europe Facebook Group can help you with the best seat option. If you are renting a car, pay attention to the size of the rental. Economy cars are tiny and rear-facing in many American seats may not be a viable option.
      • Many countries have less stringent or no laws regarding car seats or even seat belt use. When traveling to such an area, you will need to use your best judgment.
        • Just because a country doesn’t require a 3-year-old to be in a car seat doesn’t mean that it is safe.
        • Many less developed countries also have high accident frequency and higher than average accident fatality rates.
        • You should under no circumstances rely on a rental agency to provide seats. On our last trip to Costa Rica, we saw the seats that Avis has to offer… Even if a rental company is an American company, they are often locally franchised.
      • Very seasoned travelers will say they strapped their kid to the top of a tuk tuk (not really, but close enough) and that you see entire families riding on dirt bikes or mopeds with no helmets. Extensive international travel certainly has the ability to soften your personal comfort zone with car seat safety, but at the end of the day, after doing your research on exactly what the car travel safety environment is, you have to go with the decision you are comfortable with.

What is a good booster seat for travel?

The good news is that there are some great, easy booster seat options.

  • As mentioned above, the Cosco Finale and
    Evenflo Maestro are great options for forward-facing kids over 30 lbs, but under 49″-50″ (see above for seat specific specs). Most kids in this size range are 3-5 years old and should still be in a high back booster even if they meet minimum backless booster requirements.
  • For older kids, the Bubblebum is an inflatable backless booster that runs about $30. It’s lightweight (under 2 lbs and easily stows in luggage). On the flip side, across Europe you see big kids carrying on and stashing traditional backless boosters. They don’t count against carry-on luggage and both the Harmony and Cosco versions weigh right around 2 lbs. By the time kids are big enough to use them, they are usually old enough to easily carry one.

Can I check a car seat?

The technical answer here is yes and it’s free. However, checking a car seat in a bag or on it’s own is not recommended. Luggage, car seats included, is tossed around or often dropped. The safest way to check a car seat is in its original box and packaging. The original packaging is designed to prevent damage to the seat during the shipping process.

If you are bringing a harnessed seat on US flights, you can use this seat on the plane. A strap like this will attach a seat to a rolling carry on bag. The Go Go Babyz is the most popular universal car seat cart. As a bonus, your child can ride in the seat when it’s attached. Finally, car seat brands like Britax have their own carts, compatible with their seats (and may be compatible with others). Another option is to use a bag or a backpack to carry the seat through the airport. With the lighter seat options mentioned above, most adults could easily manage the bag over a shoulder. If you are checking a stroller, they have a bag for that here too!

Where to find the best deals on car seats

In addition to our Travel with Kids Facebook Group, our Kids Steals & Deals Facebook Group posts daily deals on kids stuff, including car seats. Click here to join!

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Traveling with Car Seats

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