Airplanes & Car Seats Part II: General Tips

Know What You Need
In general, make sure you know the car seat laws at your destination. Car seat laws vary by state in the US. For example, a child who can ride in a booster seat in California may need a seat with a five point harness in Washington State. This Website has links to car seat laws in the US and Canada.

Checking A Car Seat
Most airlines do not consider car seats and strollers as part of your baggage allowance. (e.g. United). Other airlines do count car seats as part of the baggage allowance. For example, Southwest and Northwest allow you to check in a child safety seat or stroller as a substitute for one piece of checked baggage (i.e. it counts towards your allowance). If you plan to check your car seat (or stroller) check with your airline for their specific baggage allowance, and remember that domestic and international flights often have different baggage allowances.

Use caution when checking a car seat. Remember that advice not to use a car seat that has been in a car accident? I've always been worried about the way the seat might be handled, and the other baggage in the cargo hold shifting around during flight. I've also heard horror stories from friends who checked car seats only to have them not show up (or show up damaged) at their destination, even in a carry bag. Some parents carry their seat through the airport and then gate check it to minimize the risks (this works only for domestic flights). Other parents use the car seat onboard the flight (remember that booster seats cannot be used on-board)

Many airlines consider car seats and strollers to be "fragile items" and do not accept liability if they damage a car seat (or stroller) checked in as baggage. Be sure to find out what your specific airline's policy is before checking in your items.

If you do choose to check your car seat, you would ideally place the seat in its original packaging (which was designed to protect the seat from damage during shipping). If the packaging is not available, place the car seat in a protective bag and consider padding it well with spare clothing.

Avoid Bringing A Car Seat When You Can:
The best way to avoid lugging a car seat through the airport is to arrange things so that you don't need a car seat at your destination. We generally try not to travel with a car seat. I have extra seats at my parents house and at my husband's parent's house (it's cheaper and safer than renting) Another option is to borrow a car seat from a trusted friend at our destination. When we can, we do without a car altogether at our destination and use public transportation instead.

Renting A Car Seat
Be very careful about renting a car seat. While we've had some fine experiences renting seats from Avis and Hertz, we Learned our lesson the hard way with a rental car discounter. Since we wrote our expose (and the resulting ABC news story aired) we've heard from many parents who have had similar experiences at many different rental car agencies. If you must rent, read these Safety Tips for Renting Car Seats

Carrying On Your Car Seat
There are times when you absolutely need a car seat at your destination. In those cases, your best bet is to carry your car seat on board.

Not all flight attendants are equally well versed in the minutia of car seat installation and airline policy, so it can be helpful to bring along a printed copy of the airline's regulations and to make sure that your car seat is clearly marked as "FAA Approved."

Here are a couple of points to remember: Car seats are not allowed in exit rows. Furthermore, many flight attendants will require that the seat be installed in the window seat (so that it doesn't block anyone who needs to exit in an emergency), but individual airline policies vary. If you want to install the seat in the middle or aisle, be prepared to move the seat or to make a polite but firm case for keeping it where it is (and to back up your case with the appropriate documentation). Many parents have also reported flight attendants questioning a rear-facing installation (and some business class seats do not accommodate rear-facing installations). We recommend bringing along the car seat manual to help address any questions or issues that might arise.

Our next post in this series will discuss carriers that help you get your car seat through the airport, and our fourth post will cover Travel Carseats. Over the coming weeks, we'll also be posting some more detailed reviews and great giveaways, so be sure to check back!

Read the other posts in this series:
Part I: Which Babies, Toddlers and Kids Need a Car Seat Onboard A Plane
Part III: Airport Car Seat Carriers (Product Reviews)
Part IV: Travel Car Seat (Product Reviews)

Related Links:
DeliciousBaby: Flying With Babies, Toddlers and Kids
USA FAA Infant and Child Restraint Rules
Australia CASA Infant and Child Restraint Requirements
CAA UK Infant and Child Safety Aircraft Laws

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  1. soultravelers3 on February 28, 2008 at 5:42 a.m.

    Great topic! Perhaps I missed it, but another great option for slightly older babes (30 LBs plus) is the travel seat vest:

    My daughter was 5 but just barely 30 lbs when we took off on our trip around the world some 19 months ago and it has been one of our smartest buys. It is very light and portable and easy to switch in different vehicles.

    There is a picture of her in it doing some homeschool while we drove in the beautiful Alps this fall:

  2. Charity on April 24, 2008 at 1:28 p.m.

    Hi Debbie,
    I've only had two flights so far with my son, and on the first one I had some issues with the car seat on the plane similar to what you have mentioned. I thought I should share for those that read this post.
    He was only 4 months old and had a travel system that uses an infant carrier that clicks into a base which is buckled in. The base was very large, and rear facing made it protrude even farther. We were flying in the small economy seats from Seattle to Houston, a 4 hour flight. I didn't realize it at first, but we had trapped our neighbor in the window seat because the baby was in the center with his huge car seat blocking the aisle. I wasn't really sure what to do, as it had taken herculean energy to try and install it by myself while also holding the baby, all in cramped quarters. The thought of doing anything at all seemed beyond me. Thankfully, my neighbor was an extremely thin and understanding woman with a large bladdler who was able to squeeze by when she used the restroom only once on the long flight. I realized later the wisdom of trading seats in order to put the baby next to the window, and putting him forward facing.
    Then on the flight back home to Seattle, I had to use a seatbelt extender in order to buckle the base in a forward facing position. However, that created lots of extra buckles along the length of the belt, which was threaded through the base. When I snapped the infant carrier in, it jammed up against one of the many buckles! When I tried to leave, there was no amount of prying that my wimpy little arms could do to get it unjammed. Thankfully a helpful young man was able to succeed through brute force, without any visible damage to the seat. I would recommend to anyone owning such a seat, to just try to check it or leave it at home. Here is a link to the seat I had :
    Thanks so much for your blog Debbie! It is really helping me to plan our flight for next month. Now that he is 18 months things are going to be completely different. I wasn't sure what to expect, but your articles have given me some great ideas!

  3. Sylva on February 12, 2009 at 8:14 a.m.

    Hi Charity, or anyone else with a travel system,

    Just FYI it is not necessary to use the base for the infant car seats. We left ours at home while our DS used it, and simply strapped the seat in as Graco allows. Generally the directions for installation without the base are on the side of the seat. It's so much easier while traveling.

  4. Tara Brown on July 8, 2010 at 5:52 p.m.

    We are traveling to multiple destinations for the rest of the year and there is just no way we can get away with not having the carseat. My son is 4 months old and it makes me feel sick to my stomach having him in a car, even a taxi, without a good carseat.

    We did check the carseat in all the way from LA to Singapore and back and LA to France. So far so good, it hasn't been damaged.

    We were picked up by a friend at CDG and he didn't have a carseat and in Singapore we used a taxi because we had too much stuff to take the subway.

    Even though it is a bit of a pain, I'm glad we did it. If we weren't staying for a month or 2 months at a time at our destinations I might reconsider taking it.

  5. Nadia on July 9, 2010 at 1:16 p.m.

    Hi Debbie -

    We are traveling to our family home in Greece where there is no carseat (its on a small island that I think just doesn't have a good selection of this stuff) so we need to bring our seat. I've flown twice with my 10-month old this past month to New York having him on my lap and it was really hard. For this trip (since it's 16 hours of flying plus all the other travel time), we got him his own seat. however, to get there (SFO - ATHENS), I'm flying alone with him and am really on the fence about whether to take his seat on the airplane or to check it. The times I've flown with him have been most difficult because "his" space was "My" space and because he's really strong, walks and is very mobile (hyperactively so). I read your piece on different ways to carry/take carseats (we have a check in bag already) but how do you take a stroller, carseat (on back) and all the essentials you need for two days of travel? Any thoughts?

  6. Becca on December 31, 2012 at 9:22 a.m.

    I just wanted to say that on Southwest checking a car seat or stroller does not count towards your luggage. you are allowed 1 car seat and 1 stroller per child without it counting as a piece of luggage. i fly with them all the time and that is how it has always been for me.

  7. Debbie on December 31, 2012 at 1:11 p.m.

    @Nadia I would recommend using the CARES harness onboard and checking your carseat - that would greatly reduce your load. Here's a link:

    @Becca You're right! most airlines do not charge to check a carseat or stroller

  8. Esmi Johnson on August 3, 2015 at 3:27 a.m.

    For kids safety while traveling the proper arrangement is very much needed that's why the right kind of seat selection and installation is very much needed.