We took our first flight with a Little when my oldest daughter was 5 months old. Many nights before our flight took off, I lay awake, stressing about logistics. I was new to installing car seats, to that point, I’d only installed seats under the watchful eye of a CSPT friend. I wasn’t sure I could install her seat correctly in a strange car all by myself.
It turns out I was right. Even after reading the manual for the “travel” seat we’d bought expressly for the trip for the first time right there in the rental car parking lot at the airport with my entire family watching me expectantly during a snowstorm, I didn’t get the seat in correctly at all.
This is a shocking outcome, I know.
We’ve learned a lot since then and have found a system that works for us, though it evolves a bit with each trip we take. Last year, we wrote an article focused on traveling safely with Littles, this article is a closer look at the logistics of airplane travel with children.
Why We Don’t Rent Car Seats
Renting a car seat at the airport seems like such a convenient option. And it is, in theory. You would just pick up your rental car, then pick up a car seat right there!Except that you’ve likely never installed that kind of car seat before and have to hope you can figure out how to install it since the instructions are more than likely missing. In this seat’s case, it’s not even a seat that’s allowed to be used in the United States. Yet it was being rented to unsuspecting families in the United States.
Renting a car seat means that you’re putting your Little into a seat with an unknown history. You have no way of knowing if the seat you’re given has been in a crash. Or, in the case of this seat (same one as above, still not certified for use in the United States), we have no idea how to install it since it doesn’t have any instructions and it has some unfamiliar parts!
Pictured here were actual seats available for rental at a car counter in Las Vegas. I spotted this gem as I was leaving the amazing ABC Kids Expo in September, 2014. Seeing that highchair tucked in there among some actual car seats was a great reminder of why it’s important to bring my own seats when we travel.
Why We Don’t Gate Check Car Seats
Car seats aren’t designed to be thrown around like luggage, they’re designed to protect your child in a crash. The forces that are exerted on your child’s car seat as baggage handlers throw it into luggage holds and onto the tarmac are different than the forces it’s designed to withstand.
Pictured here is a seat that pretty much destroyed after being gate checked. Learn from this mistake: bring your seat (and install it!) on the plane, or if you must check it, do so in a cardboard box. Thanks to CSFTL user Aleksandra for sharing this picture with us!
If You Must Check the Car Seat
There are situations where it’s impossible to bring a child’s car seat onto the plane. Should that be the case, we’d strongly suggest checking that car seat in a cardboard box. Most airlines don’t charge to check a car seat this way. It will keep the car seat safe during your journey.
Pro tip: car seats checked in a cardboard box are often delivered to the oversized baggage claim.
Choosing A Travel Seat
While many families choose a lightweight seat for travel because lightweight is a big plus when you’re on the go, that first trip with my kiddo changed me. My priority in choosing travel seats quickly became to take the one I can install with the least amount of hassle in the largest number of places.
Confession: part of this choice was motivated by my deep-seated, yet irrational fear of installing with seat belts. I’m proud to say that I’ve overcome that fear and mastered the seat belt install.
From using the seat on the airplane to hotel shuttle buses to rental cars and Grandma’s car, a day of travel can often mean installing and re-installing our car seats 4 or more times.
I needed to know I could do that correctly, every time, regardless of the weather or my how many people were in my audience.
That translated to traveling with at least one Britax convertible seat until the very sad day when my youngest kiddo outgrew hers.
Their ease-of-use features like premium lower anchor connectors, lightweight shells, and open belt path made them my go-to travel seat ever since that horrible day in the parking garage. Since that was the same kind of seat we used for years with both kids at home, I was very familiar with the install and use of that seat so I was able to install it in all of those vehicles and all those situations without issue.
After my oldest daughter outgrew those beloved Britax convertibles, we switched to travelling with a Diono Radian for her for a time. It’s a very narrow seat so it fits in a lot of small spaces and the kiddos could use the tray tables on the airplane since the seat sits so low. Travelling with our Britax Frontier also allowed the child to fully use the tray table but both seats are quite heavy and the Radian isn’t always the easiest seat to install so I sought a lighter seat to travel with.
Lucky for us, the Graco Contender came onto the market and into our lives when I needed it most. We took that Contender on many a trip before my kiddo outgrew it because it’s so lightweight and easy to install with a seat belt, it became my favorite travel seat ever.
Getting Around The Airport With A Car Seat
The GoGo Kidz Travelmate was my saving grace through all of these trips but families with more than one car seat to haul can use a luggage cart. There are additional great car seat travel cart choices on the market now, but when we started traveling with kids, GoGo Kidz was the only option so it became an old friend pretty quickly.
When our family expanded to include two Littles, travel became an even bigger challenge. For a while, we just didn’t go anywhere but as our littlest Little grew, we started taking trips again. A combination of the GoGo Kidz Travelmate to wheel one car seat plus putting the second car seat on the stroller got us through the airports.
At The Airport
I won’t lie. Getting through the airport with all of the gear our Littles seem to require is a pain. There’s no two ways about it. We travel fairly light but even so, the more baggage I can check, the better. The moment I step away from the ticket counter having dropped off even one bag is always a great moment! Many airports offer a Family Lane at the TSA checkpoint. Though there is ALWAYS a solo traveler who is in such a rush, they try to split us up by cutting in front of my kids while I’m putting our items on the conveyor belt in the family lane (seriously, EVERY TIME) most other travelers in the Family Lane are families who are willing to be a little more patient as we go through the line.
Attached to the GoGo Kidz Travelmate, my convertible car seats did not fit through the security screening. They were taken off to a separate area, where they’re given a very thorough screening so don’t be alarmed if your seat goes off with a TSA agent for a few minutes.
The bonus here is that it’s one less thing to manage as we go through the x-ray machine.
Boarding The Plane
Our family travels in two basic configurations: both of us with the kids or just me with the kids. When both of us are there, I leave the kids with my partner in the boarding area, then take the car seat and whatever else I can carry down the jetway. I’m usually able to get the seat installed and the Gogo Kidz stored in the overhead bin above us before they all arrive. These are my favorite trips.
Note: I have found that carrying the car seat over my head while walking down the aisle of the plane (hoping desperately that my carry on bag doesn’t hit too many people in the head along the way) is the easiest way to board.
Other note: Our family’s preferred airline is Southwest. Not only do they not consider hockey sticks to be oversized baggage (always a plus when we’re heading to a hockey tournament!), their open seating means we’re able to sit together.
When another airline unexpectedly rebooked our flight just before we took off, the four of us were split up and we had to rely on the kindness of strangers to swap seats so we could sit together. Getting people to do that on a flight to Orlando was nearly impossible — everyone was travelling with their kids, too. We ended up putting our then 5-year old in front of me by herself, while I begged to sit with the toddler and my partner enjoyed a luxury seat alone a few rows back.
When I’m travelling without another adult, I have the Littles walk down the plane’s aisle ahead of me. This involves a lot of coaxing (though, less is required as they’re getting older), encouragement, and the vain hope that I won’t trip on anything while we walk.
My oldest daughter is able to find our seats. Once we’ve found the row, I have the kids huddle on the aisle seat while I install the car seat in the window seat, then stow our bags.
Car seats that are approved for use on airplanes have a label stating this. Before you board the plane, take a moment to see where your seat’s sticker is. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck in the jetway, holding all of your stuff, turning the car seat over and over to try to find the label while your kids run amok down the plane’s aisle.
Not that this ever happened to me. And certainly not more than once.
Links to FAA Travel Documents
Our article Air Travel Paperwork Summarized does just what you’d imagine — summarizes key documents that spell out your rights and the regulations around air travel with kiddos and car seats.
Installing The Car Seat On The Plane
Airplane seat belts are lap belts with a locking latchplate. Installing a car seat with one of these is pretty straightforward — just thread the belt through the correct belt path (rear facing for a rear facing car seat, forward facing belt path for a forward facing seat), then pull the tail end of the seat belt straight out until it’s tight. That’s all there is to it.
Installing a car seat on an airplane isn’t exactly the same as installing in a vehicle. For example, most rear facing only seats will be installed without the base, and Britax ClickTight seats have different instructions for airplane installation. Take the time to read through the car seat manual before your trip to find out.
Sometimes, we suggest requesting a seat belt extender to adjust the placement of the buckle under or behind the child. We had a flight attendant refuse to provide one, saying it wasn’t approved for that use. The flight attendant couldn’t provide the regulation prohibiting this use, but just the same, wouldn’t provide one to us. It’s possible that you’ll encounter a flight attendant who attempts to enforce a regulation that’s counter to what you know.
The flight attendant has the power to allow you and your family to travel on that flight. So if you’re faced with a request that you don’t agree with, whether it’s about a seat belt extender, rear-facing an older child on the plane, sometimes even just using a car seat on the plane, the flight attendant has the final say. In many instances, your only recourse is to politely provide proof that FAA regulations allow for this or exit the plane and try to get on another flight.
Before you fly, arm yourself with a copy of the FAA regulations on car seat use so you’re prepared to politely inform any flight attendants who have questions about your child’s seat and how you’re using it.
Where Do I Put The Car Seat?
FAA regulations require that the car seats installed on airplanes not block the exit route of adjacent adults. This usually translates to the seat being installed in the window seat. Car seats can also not be installed in the exit row or the row in front of or behind the exit row.
Will The Car Seat Fit On The Plane’s Seat?
In most cases, yes. We get a lot of questions about this on our Facebook group, and with good reason. Airplane seats are not generously sized and some car seats have flared sides that make them quite wide in places. The good news is that most car seats have a base that’s narrower than those flared sides so you’re likely to fit the seat onto the airplane’s seat, even if it means that your shoulder shares space with the flared portion of the car seat.
Pro tip: Put the armrest up to make a little more space for the seat.
Travel With Multiple Littles And One Adult
Our other family travel configuration is me with just the kiddos. It’s often to exciting destinations like Grandma’s. Since we go there on a regular basis, once my oldest daughter was able to sit properly in the airplane’s lap belt, I checked her car seat in the original box, then used it once we arrived at our destination. I left that seat behind for her to use while we’re in town.
This was a lifesaver. Grandpa just loaded it into the car when they come to pick us up and I only had to deal with one car seat on the flight.
In all the trips I’ve taken with just my kiddos, strangers (mostly very kind flight attendants) have only offered to help us a handful of times. So as you’re packing, it’s safe to assume that you’ll be handling everything you need to carry yourself. That was the case for the CSFTL mom who took these 4 kiddos on a flight by herself.
This sucks. I know.
In Case Of Delays
Sometimes, things don’t go as planned and your family ends up spending a bonus night in a city that was only supposed to be a stopover. Bringing your child’s car seat on the plane (or in the overhead bin if it’s a booster seat) guarantees that there’s no panic if you should find yourself in a hotel shuttle van in a strange city in the middle of the night. This happened to two of our admins recently — both of us were relieved to have a safe option at the ready.
When my kiddos were younger, we’d bring an additional restraint on our trips — Ride Safer Travel Vest for my youngest kiddo with us on the plane. It’s not yet approved for airline use, so we stored it in our carry on bag during the flight.
While the RSTV was not a primary seat for us, we brought it along in case one kid needs to ride in Grandma’s car or for unexpected hotel shuttle trips if our travel plans go horribly wrong and we get stuck somewhere overnight. As time went on, the Graco RightGuide filled this niche for us.
When we visited family for an extended period, we find ourselves using that extra seat for one reason or another at least once a week. Because the RSTV requires a fair bit of manual dexterity to thread the belt, it wasn’t the best choice for everyday use for caregivers who suffer from arthritis.
Travel With Older Littles
When my oldest daughter was at the end of her booster seat days we traveled with a backless booster for her and a Graco Contender convertible car seat for her 5-year-old little sister. After trying a few different models of backless boosters, we became big fans of the Chicco GoFit for this purpose. Another option that served us very well was the Graco TurboBooster TakeAlong. Both seats are simple and lightweight enough that she can carry it herself. We take it on to the plane; it stores in the overhead bin while we’re in flight.She also tended to bring it into the house or hotel room and watch TV while sitting on it, so it was quite useful.
It was kind of the Holy Grail when both kids were old enough to wear their own backpacks on the trip. I still packed some snacks and a few things for them to do on the plane, but mostly, they were in charge of their own in-flight entertainment. For my littlest kiddo, this meant half the contents of her dollhouse, inspiring our friend to exclaim, “OF COURSE YOU HAVE A FRIDGE IN HERE!”
But that fridge kept her happy and entertained on the airplane. So she may bring it on any trip she’d like.
So Many Options
Travelling with your Littles presents such a challenge — will you bring everything they need and not too many things that they don’t? Will you be able to get the car seat onto the plane? Will the kiddo be comfortable?
Once you land, will you be able to uninstall the car seat from the plane and get off in time to make your connection? All of these questions inspire such angst in even the most seasoned traveler. Every time I hear the ‘bong’ sound indicating that it’s time to deplane, my heart starts to race in anticipation of all the things that need to happen in the next 10 minutes. And that’s after flying numerous times with my kiddos!
I know it sounds trite, but the more planning you can do before you hit the airport, the smoother it will go. Hopefully some of the things that have worked for us offer your family some solid options for travelling with your Littles. Our original travel post has offers an additional perspective with more options.
Suggested Travel Seats
Families who are on the go often ask us which car seat is the best for airplane travel. Just like seats used exclusively in the car at home, the best travel seat is the one caregivers can install and use properly every time. Important features for travel seats can be a little different than stay-at-home car seats so we’ve compiled a few key things to keep in mind:
- Your comfort level with installing the seat
- How heavy of a seat you’re able to carry through the airport
- How many comfort features your child needs
- Open vs. closed belt path. For forward facing installations, an open belt path can place the airplane seat belt’s buckle directly behind the child’s back. The ONLY option on this list with a closed belt path is the Graco Contender.
- Other factors specific to your situation
We’ve taken these factors into account and put together a few suggestions for travel seats. They’re listed in order of retail price, lowest to highest. This list is mainly convertible car seats — we’ve found that many caregivers prefer to travel with this type of seat but combination and multimode car seats can be great options too!
Lightweight Car Seats
Cosco Scenera NEXT — This seat is lightweight and inexpensive. It’s an excellent option for travel for younger rear-facing kiddos.
Cosco Finale — this forward facing only combination car seat is stunningly lightweight and fairly easy to install. It’s also quite budget friendly. Many families we know keep a spare Finale as their travel seat.
Evenflo SureRide — Lightweight, easy to install, and long lasting. However, it has a tall shell and may not fit rear facing on many aircraft.
Slightly Heavier Car Seats With More Ease-of-Use Features
Graco Contender — The Contender is an all-time favorite travel seat at CSFTL. It’s fairly lightweight, though heavier than the Scenera NEXT or SureRide. It boasts a no reathread harness, a straightforward seat belt installation, and the Holy Grail of airplane installation — a closed forward facing belt path that keeps the airplane seat belt’s buckle away from the child’s back but can be hard to reach once installed.
Essentials by Britax Convertibles — these convertible car sets are heavier than the Scenera NEXT, SureRide, or Contender, but install easily both on the airplane and upon arrival. However, the open belt path can sometimes place the airplane’s buckle right behind the child’s back when installed forward facing. Many kiddos find this uncomfortable.
Graco Milestone — The Milestone is a solid choice for airplane use. At close to 20 lbs, it’s on the heavier side for a travel seat but it installs without too much fuss in all modes upon arrival. It’s a nice option for older children who need a high back booster at their destination — install it in harnessed mode on the plane, then quickly convert it to booster mode upon arrival! The open belt path can sometimes place the airplane’s buckle right behind the child’s back when installed forward facing. Many kiddos find this uncomfortable.
Heavy, Fully-Featured Seats That Are Fairly Easy To Install in Vehicles
Chicco NextFit — this is a very heavy seat for travel, but the small front to back space and seat belt lockoffs make it extremely easy to install at your destination.
Britax Grow With You — this is a very heavy seat for travel, but the Click Tight installation makes installing the seat fairly painless upon arrival. For your convenience, we took the very similar Frontier on a lengthy airplane trip and shared the experience.