To Car Seat or Not to Car Seat?

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The easiest way to spot a traveling family in the airport (other than the actual presence of children) is the big car seat that is getting carried, wheeled, pushed, or kicked through the airport. I have done many trips both with and without the car seat, and yet am still conflicted on some trips whether to bring it or leave it at home.

I’ll share some of the pros/cons that help me decide whether to lug it or ditch it on any given trip, and then I would love to hear how other parents decide what to do for their trips.

Benefits of Bringing the Car Seat:

  • It is safer. I know if the plane plummets to the ground from 36,000 feet that having a car seat or not isn’t going to make a heap of difference. However, a hard landing, nasty turbulence, etc. would be much safer to deal with in a car seat than without.
  • My daughter sleeps much better in her car seat on planes that without. Recently she has started falling asleep in her car seat before the plane even gets off the ground. Once she is asleep she stays asleep much longer when she is in her car seat.
  • I am familiar with my car seat and trust its quality over what I may get at car rental agencies when I land. That doesn’t mean it is always easy to install as some vehicles are easier than others, but at least I am familiar with and trust the seat.
  • I don’t have to pay to rent a car seat at my final destination. There are some codes out there that help with this, but I am totally immune from any extra fees when I just bring my own.

Leaving the Car Seat at Home:

  • The number one reason I sometimes leave the car seat at home is it is a royal pain to lug around, especially when it is just Little C and I on a trip. It is so much easier to just throw the CARES Harness in my purse than to deal with the car seat the whole time.
  • It is much easier for toddlers to kick the seat in front of them when they are in a car seat on a flight. The car seat puts them so close to the seat in front of them that there is a tremendous temptation to just kick and kick and kick while on the flight. Of course, this problem is mitigated if you are in a seat with extra legroom or you know the person in front of you, but even then it is still an issue.
  • The car seat may not comfortably fit or even be allowed on the flight. Some of the more advanced/fancy airplane seats (especially the ones with outer shells) don’t allow car seats to be used at all. Also, some car seats are so large that they don’t fit in some of the more narrow airplane seats, so be sure to check the dimensions of your airline seat and your car seat.
  • If you are planning a trip such as “backpacking through Europe”, then having a car seat to lug around on public transportation for the whole journey would be quite cumbersome.

There are some gadgets that make bringing the car seat easier. One example is to get something like the Go Go Baby Kidz Travelmate. This allows you to place your kiddo in the car seat and push them around the airport, so it is solving two problems at once. You have a secured child, and you have an easy way to push the car seat around. Of course, if you are already managing lots of bags or a stroller this is of limited use. There are many different types of similar products available.

Another idea is a strap that connects the car seat to one of your carry-on roller bags and then you are potentially solving three problems at once. Those straps are typically much less expensive than the carts that connect to your car seat, but the process is only as good as the roller bag that you have.

You can also get a padded car seat bag that doubles as a backpack so you can be the stylish parent strolling down the terminal with a car seat on your back. All the cool dads are doing it!

For a while I was so obsessed with the convenience of the CARES Harness that we left the car seat behind quite a bit, however I quickly grew tired of the crummy car rental car seats, and I hated how my kiddo was hardly ever comfortably sleeping on flights. We have since gone back to bringing the “extra” car seat whenever we can.


We leave our big and fancy Britax at home and bring the less expensive, small, lightweight Cosco Scenera model with us. Bringing the car seat still does get tricky when it is just me, but I have managed by building a mountain of luggage and placing the car seat on top. It may not be the best plan, but it works. If you have several kids in car seats, then my Mt. CarSeat strategy would not really apply.


Considering that children have to be in car seats until they are about 18 years old now, this is not an issue we will escape in the immediate future. What plan does your family use? How do you manage multiple car seats? Which type of car seat and other gadgets do you use to make your travels easier?


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  1. A trick we often use is to pack our son’s carseat in an Eddie Bauer carrying case (about $20 at Target) and check it. Checking a carseat is free, and the bag is so big we still have a ton of room for toys, extra snacks, etc. we want when we get there.

    I also agree on not renting car seats from the rental car places. Our experience has been they usually won’t install them in the car for liability reasons. So, instead of wrestling to install someone else’s seat that we are not familiar with, we’d rather wrestle with our own.

  2. I hate traveling with a car seat on planes after about 18 months. They are big, awkward, puts kids at the right angle to kick seats, and generally are a hassle. We check ours in a padded car seat bag, and have never had an issue. I know there is a train of thought that this isn’t smart, but it works for us. We are getting a Diono Radian seat which folds for our next overseas flight in a few months for our younger child, so if she hates it or it gets to be too much we can put it above.

  3. Traveling with 3 under the age of 6, the problem multiplies because you then have to worry about getting the rental car that is too small to fit 3 seats across. Have to either pick the full size option and hope for the best or go for the 2x cost of a van. In the end, we have always just relied on public transit and only rented once for a weekend in Denver. We flew Southwest there, so we just checked the seats.

  4. MP. Thanks for the post. We are traveling next week with a 18 month boy. I’m not bringing car seat but have reserve one from the rental car. Just wondering where I can get the free promo code. Could you guide me?

    Oh, kids have to be in car seats until 18? Really?

  5. Ah, I don’t miss those car seat days! Of course, there are different downsides to having a moody 15 year old traveling with you…

  6. @The Mile Guy, you are right they won’t install them. Great plan to pack some extra goodies in the car seat bag!
    @Andrea, let me know how the overseas flight goes!
    @Jason, traveling with three under six would be a trick!
    @Urey, here is a post with two different code options
    I was exaggerating about 18, but they are in car seats or boosters for quite a long time!

  7. Good post. My daughter hasn’t flown since she was a lap child, she’ll be 3 next week. And now we have a new baby. I think I’ll get the Cares harness for my daughter and check her car seat. For the infant seat, we take a backpack when we travel and I use a carabiner to attach the infant seat shoulder straps to the loop handle on the very top of the backpack, and then tighten up the infant seat straps so the infant seat just fits neatly over the back and top of the backpack so it ceases to be something else I have to carry.

  8. We installed our car seat REAR-FACING after making sure the person in front was okay with not being able to recline. Most don’t care to recline anyhow.

    Rear facing is safer and also let him rest his feet against the seat back rather than dangling in space which meant more comfort. How do you like your legs dangling in space? More comfort means longer naps.

  9. So far we’ve only flown with my 3 year old to one destination, where his grandparents always meet us at the airport with their carseat. Guess we’ve been spoiled! Will have to figure this one out once we start venturing to other places… Thanks for all the great info!

  10. Thank you sooooo much for posting this. My daughter is 3 1/2 and a frequent flyer and I debate every time about bringing the carseat on. I think she does so much better with it. It’s “her” seat. She sits higher, sleeps better, and I never have to worry about her wiggling around. I use the Gogo Baby and people stop me all the time to ask about it. But it’s a total pain in the a** hauling the seat on the plane, and the Gogo baby doesn’t fit through the aisle and like Alaska has airbags installed in bulkhead, so can’t have those seats. I’ve used CARES too, especially in Europe where they won’t let you keep your car seat on the plane and my daughter is too restless, especially when she’s tired and cranky, to be comfortable. I feel like I get about 20 minutes of peace on the flight using the CARES belt before she wants it off and starts wiggling around, so that’s the tradeoff. Thanks for letting me ramble! Most people I feel don’t seem to debate this…they just don’t bring their seats, so I appreciate knowing someone else feels this way!

  11. For most of three and four, it was the GoGo Kidz through the airport and then the CARES harness on the plane. We would check the seat and pick it up and install it on the other end. Now that she’s almost five, we’ve switched to an inflatable booster seat. Lightweight and easy to carry, it’s made traveling super easy.

  12. MP, what is the policy (e.g. price) on bringing car seats and strollers onto planes? I am flying Delta for Thanksgiving and have a 3-month old. Need to bring car seat and stroller, but without high cost. Are they considered carry-on or baggage?

  13. My sons are now 5 and 8, and last time we traveled with backless booster seats that we gate checked to use in the rental car in San Diego. I have since discovered the inflatable booster seat, called the Bubblebum Booster Car Seat, and plan to purchase them before our next trip involving a rental car. These are made by a British company, but Target sells them in the US. The Bubblebum meets Federal Safety Standards, and while it may not be as safe as the 5 point harness seat we use at home, I think it is plenty safe for a rental car. Plus you can fit three of them in the back seat of most rental cars if you have the need.

  14. What a joy it was when we “graduated” from carrying a car set to a back-less booster and then later when we could leave the booster at home.
    For “regular” destinations (grandparents, etc) we’d make sure there was a car or booster seat stored there permanently. For other destinations (when checking luggage) we’d travel with a half-full army-style duffel bag (with outerwear, shoes, etc) and dump the seat in at the check-in counter.
    Although we have the modern American obsession with car seats and seat belts, I shudder to think of some of the conveyances we’ve used with our kids in Mexico and Asia.

  15. We gave up bringing the car seat on board when our daughter was 22 months old and kicked the seat in front of her for five straight hours on a flight from Hawaii to the West Coast. For longer trips where renting a car seat with a car is more expensive, we will occasionally check our own car seat. But for weekend trips, we just rent from the car rental agency. Not worth the loss of mobility having to lug the monstrosity from cabs and airport trains to rental car shuttles and the like!

    Quick tip that has worked for me a lot recently… Hertz gives you one free car seat with your rental if you have a AAA membership. Hertz is often a lot more expensive than other agencies, but if you make your reservation through the AAA website, you can often grab a good coupon code that makes the price competitive or even better, especially when you factor in the cost of a car seat for many days. You can also get free Hertz #1 Club Gold with your AAA membership, which makes the whole process so much easier!

  16. I have a 2 and 4, and planning an Asia trip. Not sure if I should bring our car seats. I know the girls would sleep better in the long haul flight but we for sure would not use them in Asia Since we will be using public transit.

    To would be the girls 1st long trip
    Any suggestion

  17. we bring them. we check the one for our 4 year old along with the base for the one for out 1 year old. We bring the 1 year olds carry seat with us to the gate in the stroller. If there is no room on the plane for her to occupy a seat (lap infant) we gate check the carry one and stroller. If it is not a full flight they allow us to put her in her seat in a seperate seat.

  18. We lugged two full booster/car seats to Hawaii with us along with not checking any bags. It was a nightmare! On the way home we decided to check them, and they lost one of them. Good luck getting home from the airport without a car seat for one of your kids!

    We’re going to Florida next year and their car seat laws are much more relaxed so both my kids don’t even need a booster. I was so excited when I found that out!

  19. We have Sunshine Kids (now known as Diono) Radian car seats for our 4 and 2 year old girls. This seat has some unique features: 1) It folds flat. This means you can put it inside a large (i.e. 34″) reinforced duffle bag, either to check or carry it on the plane. 2) Unlike many car seats, it has a steel superstructure. This allows the seat to be strong but less bulky (which is why a duffle bag is an option, but it is also easier to maneuver down the aisle). 3) Due to #2, you can fit 3 of these seats in the back seat of an average sized family car. Alternatively you can wear it on your back, but the downside of the steel is that it is a little heavier than a Britax, Graco, etc. (that’s why we use the duffle).
    For flights of 2-4 hours, we probably won’t bother bringing the seats on board, just check them and use the CARES harness. For longer flights, though, we usually bring the seat on-board for our 2-year old (she sleeps better) and check the 4-year old’s seat (she is big enough that she sleeps OK in the CARES).
    I’ve never really considered renting a seat from a car rental place – it’s just not for me. The price is a bit ridiculous, especially for 2 kids, and you never know what you are going to get. I’d rather have the peace of mind to bring my own.

  20. We always justs suffered and hauled them along.

    All hail booster seats and inflatable air mattresses. I hated carrying the car seats and pack and plays.

  21. We tried the GoGo Baby Wheels on our car seat exactly twice. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit down the aisle of either plane without picking it up. We also couldn’t get the seat belted in without removing the wheels which is a fairly long process. Consequently, we abandoned it.

  22. Fortunately there’s a relatively short window to worry about this, if your child is tall. Since turning 4 and reaching 50 lbs., we haven’t had to worry about a car seat or even a booster for him.

  23. Best way with gogobabyz travelmate:

    One adult loosen the straps and WEAR the seat onto the plane like a backpack.
    Arrive at row first remove travelmate stow overhead
    Secure seat, preferably rear facing.

    This worked smoothly for us. Forget bringing a bunch of carryons folks that’s why we have baggage allowances! I bring only a book.

  24. Well you just shouldn’t have kids or you should not fly with them. Why, when I was a kid, we never flew! And if we did, my father would bear me if I kicked anything!
    ONLY KIDDING!!!!!!!!!!!
    But I have actually heard THESE comments before both online in places like FlyerTalk AND within the travel area itself (like on planes, etc.) There are some INSANE people out there.
    Anyway we had suffered through the years of toddler time without bringing them and lucked out but many times we wished we had them. The pain is also that you have more to carry or less to be able to pack (if you use up your check in allowances on car seats. But later when the kids were now just in those small boosters, it became easier. Why, you could sling one of those around the back of your carry on back pack as though it were an accessory on a strap and be able to bring it everywhere!
    I wish planes were more amicable to family flying. I have pipe dreamed about say, some wide body flight headed across the country or the world which has an entire section dedicated to families or kids. Why, there could even be like airline employees or young hired specialized and trained high school volunteers or something that work a whole in flight day-care section or something! As a father I would pay extra to sit in or use such an area because lemme tell ya, a 7+hr flight with a 3 year old who NEEDS to walk the isles or be carried through them at undead-o’clock in the morning when everyone else on the plane is mouth-open drooling alseep on their way to Europe is not a fun scene. So many people travel with children these days there just NEEDS to be a better way! And games or ipods only start to work when they are around 5 or so, where they kinda start to get it anyway.
    I wish someone would invent the inflatable car seat or kid airplane seat. I wish baby milk were exempt from any and all TSA liquid issues (especially the coveted gold of breast milk which MUST be pumped and thusly used or sadly tossed) and I wish airline employees and higher ups and other humans would begin to understand that they were kids too once.

    • Brest milk doesn’t need to be pumped, the baby extracts it quite well on it’s own.

      Overnight flights are certainly the way to go though with 3yos. Fireman sam and Frozen work for a while though.

  25. We have taken our now 3 year old son on multiple airline vacations. For us, we didn’t need the car seat on the airplane, so that wasn’t a consideration. However, paying $10/day to rent a car seat was not an expense we wanted to pay. So for each vacation I purchased a used car seat from craigslist (cleaned/sanitized thoroughly once in my hands) and we checked for free on the flights out. After we returned the rental cars on the way back to the airport, we just left the seats in the rental car. I paid $15 for each seat, netting in pretty good savings (each vacation was at least seven days). I call this my “disposable car seat strategy”, and I already have one for our upcoming vacation this winter. Worked like a charm!

  26. The rental agent who finds the car seat in the car could also use it or even sell it! So now there’s an idea! Seriously… it could be like those cities that tried to let people borrow a bike and then leave it off so someone else could use it. But this could work and instead, this could be called car seat swap. And some cleaning supplies are purchased for a minimal fee to give it a once over but it gets passed on to the next person, and you can reserve it on some online thing that is non profit but gives all the money to breast cancer research or something. I dunno.

  27. We always travel with a Cosco Scenara, and we travel A LOT. But we always check it in one of those big bags. Getting to the curbside check-in isn’t that bad with one and we can manage to fit TONS of extras in the bag for no charge. Which is extremely handy.

  28. Can’t decide! Its our first trip with our 2 yr old. Very short 1.5 hour trip but its around nap time and I feel like if he is in the car seat then he is more likely to sleep instead of being excited in a big airplane seat for the first time.
    What to do, what to do!!!

  29. I am in the same situation. 2 year old and first longer haul flightoverseas, almost 7 hours going and almost 8 hours coming back. Although there are many helpful tips I am totally undecided whether to bring the almost 30 pound car seat (chicco nextfit) on board or to let him sit in the seat. I will also be traveling alone. It seams like I should bring the car seat so that he can sleep better, but so worried about lugging everything around plus the loveable, little terrible two!!!!!!!

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