Military families like mine face some unique situations when it comes to safe travel with children. What should we do with our cars and car seats when we have to move as part of a PCS (Permanent Change of Station)? What happens if we move overseas? What about traveling? Several of the Car Seats for the Littles team members are military spouses, so we understand the problems and issues that can come up during the years we spend moving around and traveling. Since our first child was born in 2007, our family has lived in Hawaii, Europe, on the East coast, and now in the Southwest. That’s a lot of moving, especially by plane. Now we have four children, and over the years have ended up facing most of the common military related travel issues.
If you’re new to the military lifestyle, or don’t have a family member in the military, a lot of the terms and acronyms I’m going to use will sound like gibberish. Here’s a quick rundown of those words and their meanings:
- Dependant – the family members (spouse, children, etc.)
- ETS – Expiration of Time and Service – when a military member retires or leaves active duty service.
- HHG – Household Goods shipment
- OCONUS – Outside of the Continental United States ; refers to locations like Hawaii and Alaska, but also Europe, Asia, and anywhere else that is not a part of the continental United States.
- PCS – Permanent Change of Station; when a military member is officially moved from one location to another “permanently” (until the next time they move.)
- POV – Personally Owned Vehicle
- Sponsor – the military member of the family
- TDY/TDA – Temporary Duty/Temporary Duty Assignment; when a military member is sent to a location for a shorter period of time
So, what do I do when we PCS?
Well, it depends on where you’re going and how you’re getting there. If you’re moving from one duty station within the continental US to another, you’ll probably drive there. If you’re moving OCONUS or back from a OCONUS assignment, you’ll be flying (with the exception of Alaska, as some choose to drive there, too.) What all assignments have in common is that you’re going to have all of your stuff packed up in boxes so it can be shipped to your new location.
You may choose to pack your own belongings, but usually the movers will do it for you. That brings up one of the most common questions we’re asked about military travel; “What do I do with my extra seats so they’ll arrive in one piece when we get our HHG?” First, accept that some things will get broken. It will happen sometimes no matter what you do.
If you’re packing and shipping everything on your own, I’d recommend using the original boxes if possible. If that’s not possible, then use a sturdy shipping box, and add packing paper if you feel it is necessary. Why is a cardboard box adequate to protect your car seat? Cardboard boxes are actually a lot stronger than they appear. Manufacturers ship car seats in cardboard boxes and, usually, they end up at their destinations safely because of the protection provided by this packaging. Even if the box is a little dented, odds are good that the car seat inside is unharmed.
If the movers are packing your household goods, you may want to do a few things. First, document the items you have (this can go for anything of value) with photos and/or proof of purchase/value. Make sure that the item is noted specifically on the itemized list, and get it on the high value list if you can. This can help you to get reimbursed for damages if/when they happen.
Moving to a new place
Once all your stuff is gone, what’s next? If you’re driving to your new duty station, make sure that your restraints are properly installed. There may be some re-arranging or puzzling of car seats, which I refer to as “car seat Tetris.” You may want to try a few combinations before you ship any spare seats, and before you start on your trip. You’re probably going to be moving a lot of stuff in your vehicles, and you want to make sure that things are stowed properly. Store luggage in a storage area or trunk, when possible. This is a photo of a lightweight fabric bin filled with basics for the kids in our car; books, extra clothes, small toys, sunscreen, etc. My reusable grocery bags are tucked in on top and I have lots of room for other things in the rest of the cargo area.
We always recommend having an in-person seat check with a CPST, so schedule a seat check before you leave. That way, any potential issues can be addressed and you can discuss placement of all the car seats with a CPST. Having another set of eyes and ears to help figure out the best set up can be very helpful, and alleviate some stress before a big move. Read about what to expect from a CSPT during a seat check here.
What about my vehicle?
Sometimes, people ask if they can ship their spare child restraints in their vehicle (sometimes called a “POV” or personally owned vehicle.) Usually, you’re not allowed to keep much personal property in the vehicle. That rule can vary by shipping company. If you would like to keep your spare restraints in the vehicle, you will need to contact the shipping company and verify that they’ll let you do so. You will also want to make sure that there is insurance that will cover the restraints and any other personal property. There’s not a huge chance that there will be damage or mishandling, but there is a possibility, and you want to be prepared just in case your restraints require replacement. It may end up being easier to just ship the spare restraints with an advance shipment, if you’re sending one, so that they arrive before the main household goods shipment. Often, people want to send their spare restraints in with the POV so that it will get there sooner than the household goods, so having an advanced shipment may be something to consider since that will also get to your destination sooner than your regular baggage.
Usually, assignment to a OCONUS duty station presents more complicated issues. You’re overseas where rules are different, you’re traveling by airplane, orders, paperwork, shipping cars… it can be overwhelming! Try not to panic. Let’s break down some of those concerns one by one. First, your sponsor will make sure that everyone (even newborns) is on his or her orders. This is a necessity, because everyone on orders gets their own airline ticket. Remember that your sponsor will need to get orders amended for any newborns who are born after the orders are cut but before the move actually happens. We know that even babies need to have their own seat on the plane since they need to be restrained just like any other passenger. Our Leaving On A Jet Plane article details rules for airline travel, tips for traveling with children, and gives links to agencies like the FAA and NTSB, which discourage the practice of having a lap infant for safety reasons. You’ll likely fly a commercial airplane to your next duty station, so all the information in that article also applies to you.
You’re overseas, and everything is different! Yes, it is! Enjoy the adventure… but first, let’s figure out what happens with the car seats. The rules for using an American car seat OCONUS can vary by where you live. In the UK, there is rumored to be a rule which requires Americans have to use UK child restraints. I have not actually been able to find any documentation supporting this claim, so I can’t verify that it is true. I’d recommend contacting someone in the office where you get your overseas driving license, and perhaps also asking someone at the MP(Military Police) station. Unfortunately, sometimes half-answers or non-answers are the answers we get, and that’s the case here. Yes, there are differences between our car seats and the ones in the UK, but our vehicles are also different. We use tethers with our forward facing seats and their seats don’t have chest clips, but really the differences boil down to very different laws and regulations regarding child restraints in general.
In the EU, the rules are much more clear. We’re allowed to use our US restraints. There is no official rule (again, that anyone can provide to me) dictating the use of EU seats in EU vehicles or US seats in US vehicles. It seems to be suggested that an EU restraint should be used with an EU vehicle and an US restraint should be used with an US vehicle, because, again, there are differences between them. Generally, an EU seat will fit better in an EU vehicle. EU vehicles do not usually have vehicle belts with pre-crash locking mechanisms (that means their belts do not lock) and they also do not have tether anchors. Read about the ways to lock a seat belt in this article, Lock It Up! Vehicles in the EU and UK do have ISO-Fix systems, which are similar to the lower anchors in our LATCH system. In my experience, many Americans choose to use their US vehicles and their US seats. It is certainly the more simple option. I’d recommend purchasing a seat before you leave the States if you know you’ll need one shortly after you arrive in Europe, as it can be hard to find a retailer which will ship to an APO address. There are a few that will, though, and Amazon.com is usually a good bet. Unfortunately, AAFES does not usually stock a large selection of child restraints either in stores or online, and they also don’t ship many restraints to FPO/APO boxes, so don’t rely on that option while you’re living in Europe.
In Asia, you’ll probably run into the same general situation. There may be little, or absolutely no, guidance locally as far as child restraint usage goes, but generally Americans are still allowed to use their US child restraints there, as well. Hopefully, you can find someone who will be able to give you concrete information. As we know, sometimes there is a “Yes, no, maybe, everything” sort of answer when we’re dealing with the military, and sometimes that answer changes day by day. If you are not sure of what your local rules will be, double-check.
Patriot Express and Space A travel!
If you’re moving overseas, you may end up using the Patriot Express. These are chartered planes flying from specific US airports or military facilities to military facilities overseas. If you want to travel while stationed overseas, you will hear about, and probably consider using, Space Available (Space A) travel. This can be a good way to get around as long as you are very flexible. Many families specifically choose to use Space A travel when living overseas. Problems can arise on these flights because a. they generally require, if not very strongly encourage, the use of child restraints and b. oftentimes the airplane will not be a commercial plane and the positions of the seats in the plane won’t be compatible with a child restraint. What do I mean by that? Many military planes have seats that sit sideways or even backwards. In the child restraint manual, you’ll find that it states that a child restraint can only be installed on a seat in the vehicle that is facing the front (this goes for both motor vehicles and air planes) so that’s where we run into the first possible incompatibility issue. The other possible incompatibility issue can come from the belts themselves, as sometimes military planes have seats with a 4 point harness or some other system. Child restraints are tested in certain ways, and there are even some vehicle belts in regular cars that can’t be used to install them. We don’t know if it is possible or safe to install a child restraint with any belt not specified by the manufacturer.
Well, that’s a bummer, right? There is some conflicting information, since we know that Littles need to be protected by being properly restrained in a car seat and now we know that there may be no way to correctly install a restraint on certain aircraft. This is a time when we’d recommend calling the manufacturer of your child restraint, discussing the situation with them, and then making an informed decision based upon the information you have. Parents just have to make tough choices, sometimes. It is generally unlikely to know what kind of plane you’ll be on if you’re traveling Space A, but you can discuss generalities with the manufacturer when getting their input on the situation. When calling your child restraint manufacturer, it may be best to ask for their CPST representative, or have your question answered by one of their engineers. This will ensure that the information given is the best that you can get.
The Little in the photo above is secured in his car seat, which is installed on a forward facing airline seat. We can see in the background that there’s a lot going on in the plane, and there could be projectiles. We know that every precaution will be taken to stow all items and keep passengers safe, so we don’t have to worry all that much about projectiles. Always remember to stow luggage and personal items how and when you are directed to do so.
Whether you’re changing duty stations for the first or fourth time, you’ll find that there will always be something new to deal with. Moving with Littles can be even more unpredictable, too, because you not only have to worry about the Littles, but all of their things as well! As parents or caregivers, you’ve probably spent a lot of time and effort picking out the right car seats for your family, and you definitely want them to arrive safe and sound, along with the rest of your things. Luckily, there are some simple ways to help make the move easier to handle. Packing things, or making sure that they’re being packed properly, is one of the most basic but one of the most overwhelming tasks. Try to keep it simple and use the boxes your car seats came in if you can. Packing or shipping boxes are sturdy, but adding packing materials can’t hurt. Take steps to prepare your vehicle for a long drive if you’re driving to your new home. Organizing and stowing items will not only mitigate the risk of projectiles, but you’ll probably also find that your trip will go more smoothly with less mess since there is a place for everything.
Always be aware of local laws and regulations. Just because you’re living in another country doesn’t mean the physics of a crash are different. Always try to do the best you can to keep your Littles safe in the car. If you’re not sure what to do about car seats overseas, or need to know more about your options, contact a CPST for guidance. Overseas travel is a unique benefit for military families, and you should take advantage of the opportunity if you can. Don’t be afraid of traveling on military planes, but do try to consider backup plans just in case you run into a problem on the plane. When in doubt, contact the car seat manufacturer for guidance.
Originally written by Laurel, edits maintained by CSFTL.