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As most parents of little kids will tell you, flying with a car seat is not very much fun. Car seats do phenomenal things to increase child safety, but they are bulky, they are big, can be quite heavy, and they are not all that easy to get from Point A to Point B when there is an airport and a flight squashed in the middle of your travel plans. However, since there are absolutely big advantages related to safety, cost, and comfort when bringing your own car seat along for the journey, so I want to share a few tips to help make the process of flying with a car seat a little easier.
Bring the Right Car Seat
I’ve flown with our McMonster car seat that seems to be very comfortable for my daughter to sit in, but it is also huge, heavy, and expensive. I’ve also flown with our travel car seat that is lighter, cheaper, and totally adequate. There is a time and place for both, but make sure you think through which car seat is right for your trip, assuming you have access to more than one in the first place. If you do decide to add a lighter and cheaper travel car seat to your fleet, it could also be a good one to leave with grandma, a babysitter, etc. when you aren’t traveling.
One popular smaller and lighter car seat for toddler travel is the Cosco Scenera. There are a few versions of this car seat, but this particular one linked is just 7.6 pounds and the dimensions are 33 x 19 x 18 inches. The price is often in the $50 dollar range (check Walmart as they often have the best price), so it isn’t the end of the world if it should become damaged or lost in transit….which can and does happen.
For Infants, Get a Doona
If you are pregnant or have an infant at home, the best car seat for travel and getting through the airport by a wide, wide margin is the Doona. We have sadly outgrown ours now that our littlest is already 1.5 years old, but for the first year or so of her life it made everything from trips to Target to trips to New York City pretty simple in terms of car seat logistics.
The Doona converts from a car seat to a stroller with ease as wheels shoot out and retract, and this makes it the perfect way to get through the airport, fly on the plane, and then secure your baby in a cab or rental car without a problem.
Get a Gadget to Get the Car Seat Through the Airport
When traveling with a small child, you can check a car seat for free with pretty much every airline I am aware of (yes, even Spirit and Frontier), so the easiest thing to do logistically is check the car seat as soon as you arrive to the airport and see it on the other side. We have done that at times, but I will warn you that doing so increases the likelihood that something will happen to your car seat either while the airline is in the process of getting it through the airport to the plane, that it will miss the flight, etc.
Because of all of that, even when we check the car seat, we often lug it through the airport ourselves and have it gate checked onto the plane. This does not guarantee it won’t be damaged or miss the flight, but I have to think it decreases the odds. Of course you can also have your child fly while seated in the car seat, which we found worked very well for our first daughter as she was a great car seat sleeper.
Whether you bring it on-board the plane or not (assuming you have a seat for your child), you will want to be strategic on how you get the car seat through the airport. With infant car seats, you can often purchase a travel system with wheels that snaps to the infant seat if don’t have a Doona, but once you are relegated to a toddler style upright car seat, you need something else to help you get it through the airport.
We often just strapped the car seat to our backs using the cover shown below. It wasn’t fun and we looked ri-dic-u-lous, but it worked. However, others have had great luck with a gadget like the Traveling Toddler or Go Go Babyz TravelMate that allows you to roll the car seat through the airport probably with much more grace than our ridiculous looking backpack approach.
Install the Car Seat on the Plane
In an ideal world, one parent boards the plane with the car seat as early as possible in the boarding process to get it installed and not whack others’ heads while getting it down the aisle of the aircraft, while the rest of the family boards a little later. Getting the big car seat on the plane is tricky, and installing it isn’t always the easiest thing in the world either, so just board as early as you can and have some patience with yourself.
Also remember that the car seat typically needs to be installed in a forward facing seat next to the window and it can’t go in an exit row or the rows just before or behind exit rows. If the car seat does not fit in your assigned seat, the airline must try and reseat you in a larger seat in the same cabin of your ticket if one exists. Some seats, especially some premium cabin seats, do not permit car seats due to their built-in seatbelt air bags or similar.
Those are the rules that typically apply for US based airlines, but if you are flying an international carrier you should check with them for their seat belt rules and regulations.
Get a Cover for Your Car Seat
If you are going to check the car seat on the flight instead of having your little one sit in it on the plane, you probably want a cover in order to keep it clean, dry, and a bit more protected. There are lots of options for Car Seat Covers, but we have the JL Childress Ultimate Travel Bag as it is padded, has straps you can put on your back, and has served us well for years. I have also seen a wheeled version that might work better for some who don’t want to turn into human pack mules.
Don’t Bring a Car Seat
There are plenty of very legitimate reasons to bring your own car seat on your trips, but you don’t always have to. We recently flew without a car seat as our toddler was a lap baby on the plane, and we simply used Uber Family when we arrived in New York City. This way she had a car seat in the Uber cars going to and from the airport, and we didn’t have to lug one along halfway across the country for no good reason.
We have also skipped bringing our own car seat when we rented from Silvercar last year since they provide car seats and booster seats at no additional charge.
If you are renting a car seat from the rental car company, or otherwise have access to one at your destination, you can also consider just flying with a FAA approved CARES Harness if you need an alternate way to keep your toddler a bit more secure in-flight. Our first daughter didn’t do great in her CARES harness compared to a car seat, but it is logistically much easier to just throw in a carry-on bag.
If you do decide to rent a car seat, remember that one is free for AAA members when renting from Hertz using that CDP code.
If you have any tips when flying with a car seat to add to the mix I would love to hear them!
Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.