Are you a worried parent who is planning to board a plane with a car seat? Flying with a car seat can be a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be! With a little bit of planning and preparation, you can make the process much easier.
I have been flying with my kids since they were babies, and I have learned a thing or two about how to make the process go smoothly.
In this guide, I will share all my tips and tricks for flying with a car seat. I will cover everything from how to choose the right car seat, the way to transport it at the airport, and how to keep your child safe during the flight.
Important note: All advice and recommendations in this guide apply only to domestic air travel within the United States.
Can you take a car seat on a plane?
The simple answer is yes. In fact, by law, you have the right to bring a car seat with you on the plane when flying in the US, as long as it’s FAA-approved and it meets the size limits for your child.
Both the AAP and the FAA recommend that you use a car seat for young children (2 years old or less) on airplanes.
Can you use a car seat for international flights?
Car seats are legal in the US and Latin America but they may not be elsewhere. I have never seen a car seat used on a plane in Europe.
The best way to know for sure is to check with the airline you’ll be flying. Some airlines accept boarding with car seats, while others don’t.
If an airline does accept car seats, they will have special requirements maybe a TÜV-approved seat instead of an FAA-approved one.
If you are flying internationally it’s also good to check what kind of car seats are used when driving in the country.
US car seats for example are illegal in Europe and you have to buy a European car seat to use while in the country.
Why is bringing a car seat on the plane important? Is it OKAY if I do not?
Think about the fact that children under 2 are the ONLY ones not restrained during taxi, take off, and landing. Everyone and everything is!
The use of infant car seats and child restraint systems on the plane is VERY important to the safety of your child during unexpected turbulence.
When turbulence happens, a child in your lap is at a higher risk for serious injury, or worse. Your child is also less likely to be injured if they are in their own seat and using an age and size-appropriate car seat.
Also, flying with your car seat means having it ready to use on the road when you land. Depending on your destination, car seat laws and guidelines differ.
In the US, using a car seat when driving is required and you will be fined if you don’t.
Disadvantages of flying with a car seat (on board and checked-in)?
While you are not required to bring a car seat on the plane, it is highly recommended by the FAA and pediatricians for the safety of your child.
Flying with a car seat does have some disadvantages you should know before deciding to bring one on board or check it in.
Lugging it through the airport. Car seats are bulky and can be difficult to carry, especially if you have other luggage.
If you decide against using the car seat, there is no place to store it. You are locked into your decision.
Having a car seat on board means less space to use even if you hold your child in your lap, the car seat will still have to be installed.
Installing a car seat for your baby requires purchasing a seat ticker. What if your child likes your lap more? You end up with wasted space and money.
Check-in of a car seat may result in damages, thus buying a new car seat.
Gate checking may protect your car seat but you will have to drag it all the way to the plane.
Your car seat may ben be illegal where you are going.
Choosing the appropriate car seat for the trip
Not every car seat is designed to fly. Look for these important factors when choosing which car seat to bring on the plane:
The car seat must be FAA approved
Your child will be able to use her car seat on all US domestic flights. Whether it’s a rear-facing infant seat or a forward-facing toddler seat, they can all be used as long as they are approved.
When deciding on a car seat for your next flight with your little one, make sure that it’s AAP and FAA-approved and check your airline’s approved car seat list to just double-check.
To make sure that your seat is FAA-approved, look for a notice that says “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft” in your car seat.
If the label says “Not for aircraft use,” the car seat should not be used on a plane.
You may be asked to show the label at the check-in counter or maybe before installing it on the plane.
The car seat must be size appropriate
You’ll also want to make sure that the car seat is appropriate for your child’s age, weight, and height.
Check the car seat’s manual or contact the manufacturer, If you have any questions about whether your car seat will work.
The car seat must fit in the plane seat
Most plane-approved car seats will fit in an airplane seat. The car seat’s weight and dimensions must be on the label.
Check if it matches the airplane seat’s size (which you will find in the car seat section on the airline’s website or check this list of US airlines policies).
It’s always best to call the airline and ask if you have any doubts because if the car seat is too big for the plane seat, you won’t be able to use it and the child will have to sit in your lap.
The airline may have policies that dictate the specific safe seat locations for specific planes.
The car seat must not be a booster seat
Boosters are not designed to be used with the airplane’s lap belt only, so they can’t be used on board.
Only the 5-point harness car seat will keep your child secure in case of turbulence or an emergency landing.
Use CARES instead
You can use a CARES instead of a harness car seat, if your child is 1 year or older and weighs between 22 and 44 pounds.
CARES is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration as an alternative to car seats.
How to get around the airport with a car seat?
Getting around the airport with a child (maybe 2 or 3), luggage, and a bulky car seat on top may be the most challenging part of flying with a car seat.
Fortunately, some smart people have invented ways to transport a car seat without too much hassle. Here are some of the options that may make your life easier at the airport:
Use a car seat bag
This is the easiest way of transporting a car seat to the airport. Car seat bags come with either back staps (to use it like a backpack) or wheels.
The one with straps option keeps your hands free but a lightweight car seat may be required if you are not strong enough for a heavy load (I’m not).
The wheeled bag is great if you don’t have much with you and it’s easy to move heavy things (like a car seat) around.
Keep in mind that most bags don’t offer enough protection against mishandling. Look for padded car seat bags instead, if you want to check your car seat.
Use a foldable car seat cart
These carts are great to transport heavy car seats. It converts your car seat into wheeled luggage that’s easily maneuvered. You can also put more items on it.
Once onboard, Fold the car seat cart and store it under the seat compartment or the overhead bin.
Use a car seat belt
Do you have a carry-on or a stroller and a car seat? Easy, use a car seat belt to attach the car seat to your carry-on or stroller.
It will take some time to figure it out but it’s not that hard.
Where do you install a car seat on the plane?
Always refer to the airline policy about flying with car seats to know where you can install your car seat.
But as a general rule, most airlines don’t allow car seats near the emergency exists (front and back rows of emergency exists).
You can not install a car seat (or place a baby without a car seat) on an aisle row. By doing that you are blocking the escape path in an emergency. This will also endanger your baby if anything falls or happen in an aisle row.
The safest place for kids (hence car seats) is on the window seat or on a seat in the middle line of a plane with two aisles.
So, the best way to know is to check your airlines but if you don’t find anything in their online guide, reach out to them by call or on their Twitter account.
How to install a car seat on a plane?
The easiest part of flying with a car is actually installing it. Whether you are using a rear-facing or forward-facing car seat, the installation steps will be as follow:
Raise the armrest of the plane seat
Locate the belt bath of your car seat (forward facing or rear facing belt bath)
Extend the adjustable side of the plane seatbelt.
Feed the extended belt through the selected car seat path.
Once the seatbelt is through, buckle it up
Tighten the seatbelt on the car seat as much as you can. Press down while putting your weight on the car seat to remove any slack when tightening. The car seat must not move more than an inch when tightened.
Place your child and buckle her up properly as you do in a car.
Lower the armrest
Always ask for the cabin crew’s help if you struggle with installing the car seat. Never leave it improperly installed.
Note: When installing a forward-facing car seat on the plane, the seat belt buckle often ends up in the middle of the car seat and right under the child’s back. In this case, put a small towel or piece of clothing to give extra padding underneath the child.
Keep in mind that your little one must be properly installed in her car seat during taxi, take-off, landing, and during turbulent patches or whenever the seatbelt sign is ON.
Flying in a car seat with no child
If you are not traveling with a child but still want or need to fly with a car seat, you can check it in at the check-in counter or at the gate. But The question is: Will it be free or charged?
The answer depends on the airlines. My personal take on this is that most airlines won’t make a fuss about it as long as you don’t. Car seats and strollers are free of charge and I have heard about so many parents (with children and without) that flew with a car seat and they didn’t pay for it.
Also, if you gate check your car eat, I doubt that the agent will ask “where is your child?“
What if the car seat is new in a box? If the car seat is in a box, I would recommend checking it in as luggage (given that the box is made for travel purposes and its sizes don’t exceed the airline luggage limits)
Normally, it’s not a good idea to check a car seat as luggage but if you make sure the car seat is safer in the box go for it.
Flying with a car seat for a challenged child
Children with special needs that are age 18 or less can use their safety seat or restraint system in the plane.
The FAA confirms that airlines must allow physically challenged children under 18 to use their travel-approved system.
The seat must be appropriate for their weight and height and must be authorized to use in aircraft.
Not planning on using a car seat on board?
If you are not planning on using a car seat on the plane for your baby, but you still want to travel with it, check it in.
For most airlines, checking a car seat is free and you don’t have to check it at the baggage counter. This applies to all kinds of car seats.
But from my experience, I recommend you check it in at the gate as it’s much safer and it won’t be put in and handled with the rest of the luggage.
Another major reason why I don’t recommend checking car seats at the luggage counter is that if the car seat gets lost, you won’t have a safe option to transport your child from the airport when you land.
Buying an affordable car seat just for airplane travel may be a smart option to protect your top-of-the-line car seat.
Make arrangements to bring your own protective car seat bag if you are planning to check your car seat in. Most airlines don’t provide a bag for your car seat, and that may expose it to grease and dirt. You may also consider a padded car seat bag, it adds an extra layer of protection.
If you still have the original box the car seat came in, it may be a great idea to reuse it for check-in. The car seat box is designed to protect your car seat during transport.
Tip: Stuff more things in your car seat bag if you are checking it in. It’s free, so why not?
Helpful tips when flying with a baby car seat
Let the person at the counter check that you are traveling with a lap baby. They may keep the seat next to you empty (for free) to put your baby in with her car seat.
When traveling with a car seat, give yourself plenty of time ahead. A car seat is a big item and it requires extra time for handling. That includes security checks, counter officer checks, transport through the airport, and so on.
A lightweight and compact car seat can be a life-changing thing when it comes to using it on an airplane. You will easily transport it, handle it and install it even in small and narrow airplanes.
Let the gate boarding crew that you are flying with a car seat. They will arrange to board you early so you can have enough space and time to install your car seat.
Consider buying a travel car seat only for flying. A car seat that you can dismantle and store in the overhead bin in case you change your mind about using it.
The Bottom line
Whether you decide to use your car seat on board or not, it’s always good to know your options. Flying with a car seat may be a bit more challenging than without one, but it’s worth it when you know your baby is flying with a high level of safety.
This guide provides all the information you need to make the best decision about flying with a car seat. But it’s necessary to contact your airline in advance to get their specific policy.
Did you decide on a car seat flight? Congratulations! Now, make sure you choose a lightweight car seat and have all the great accessories you need to ensure a smooth and fun flight for you and your child.