Five Things You Should Know Before Flying with a Car Seat

car seat on airplane

A car seat built for travel: Here, the Sit N Stroll has converted from stroller to car seat mode, was easily buckled in around the seat (not behind it) with a seat belt extension, and has a sun canopy on stand-by to help block out reading lights and drafts (especially helpful during redeye flights). See more recommendations in Best Car Seats for Travel.

Flying with a car seat? The very words strike fear in the hearts of many parents, but not to worry. Just consider these five points for families flying with babies and young children and you’ll have a better idea of what to expect, how to prepare, and how to conquer your fear of flying–with a car seat.

1. You must purchase a seat for your child.

Even if your child is less than 24 months and may fly for free on your lap, or for 10% of the adult fare or other stipulated rate as a lap child on international flights, this in no way entitles her to a seat space—and therefore a place to install a car seat. If you want to be certain you can use your child’s car seat on board, you must purchase a seat for your child on the flight, regardless of your child’s age. Most U.S. carriers offer no discount for children or infants, though you can read about how to get a special infant fare from Southwest here (not available through online booking). If you will be flying internationally, know that many non-U.S. airlines do offer child discounts for children under 12 years and some offer even steeper discounts for infants. These discounts are not usually reflected in multi-airline comparison sights such as Fly.com, but must be booked on the airline’s own website. Use the Airlines Comparison Chart in Travels with Baby to see which airlines offer the best standard discounts for infants less than 24 months and children under 12 years old. Also, make sure to reserve–and reconfirm–your child will be in a seat that does not block other passengers, yourself included. In most situations this will necessarily be a window seat.

2. Your car seat must be FAA approved—and you must be able to prove it.

When you bought your child’s car seat, chances are you made sure it was approved for air travel. But in the case of some car seats, particularly those that can later be converted to a safety booster, that statement may not be printed in red on a label on the car seat itself. Before flying, make sure you can either point to the labeling on the car seat itself, or bookmark the page in the car seat’s manual that explains how and when it meets FAA requirements for use in aircraft—and make sure the manual is tucked beneath your car seat’s cover or will be easily accessible from your carry-on. For more on this be sure to read Will your car seat be allowed on the airplane?

3. It might not fit rear-facing.

For infants in particular, a car seat must be reclined enough that their head doesn’t “bobble” forward. Flying with a convertible car seat—one which can be used first rear-facing and later as a forward-facing seat for toddlers and older children, naturally means a taller car seat that will take up much more space reclining in a rear-facing installation. On small planes, this simply may not be possible—even if your forward neighbor has not yet reclined his seat. When flying with infants and babies, using a smaller car seat, such as an infant car seat that may be used with or without its base, is advisable (see our recommended infant car seats for travel here).

4. It might not fit at all.

Regardless of whether or not your car seat is FAA approved for use in aircraft, it might not fit between the arm rests of any given airplane. The FAA recommends car seats no wider than 16 inches—but car seats that actually fit that description are virtually nonexistent (see recommended car seats for travel here—including widths). To help avoid this complication, don’t travel with an extra-wide car seat and remove any optional cup holders and accessories before travel. Also, don’t book seats on the bulkhead row, as arm rests there are almost always fixed in place; other seats are more likely to have arm rests that can be lifted out of the way to allow more flexibility and easier access to the airplane’s safety belt for installation. Some forward-facing car seats also have a high, narrower base, which allows the widest part of the seat to be up higher and possibly fit better into an airplane seat. For more on this theme, be sure to read What can you do if your child’s car seat doesn’t fit in the airplane seat?

5. There is an alternative.

If the prospect of lugging your child’s car seat down the narrow aisle and all the complications that might possibly follow has you breaking into hives, consider the CARES flight safety harness as a possible alternative. The 4-point safety harness slips over the airplane seat and works with the airplane lap belt to provide a car-seat free alternative for children 1 year, 22lbs and older flying in their own seats. CARES cannot be used in motor vehicles, however, so you may still need a car seat on the other end of your flight (see the Worldwide Directory of Baby Gear Rentals). To read more about the FAA-approved safety harness for air travel and see photos of its installation and use, see my full Review of the CARES Flight Safety Harness.

You might also like: Seven Easy Ways to Get Your Car Seat to the Gate

travels with baby book coverHas this book helped YOU?

Please take a minute to rate it on Amazon,   BarnesandNoble.com,   or Goodreads!
As you probably know, customer reviews make a tremendous difference and I greatly appreciate your help in getting the word out. 😀

Previous post: Checklist for Travel with Babies and Toddlers: Ten Things to Do Before You Leave Home (with Printable)

Have you subscribed to Travels with Baby Tips?

More tips and advice are on the way! For help for planning travel of every kind–with babies and children of every temperament–in Travels with Baby: The Ultimate Guide for Planning Travel with Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler.

Have you seen the latest features at our sister site, Family Travel 411?

The 411 on Los Angeles with Kids

Great New Gadgets & Gear for the Traveling Family

The 411 on Guatemala’s Antigua with Kids

The 411 on Valencia with Kids

The 411 on Boston with Kids

The 411 on Traverse City with Kids

Safe journeys,

Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning Travels with Baby guidebooks

Twitter     Facebook     Travels with Baby on Facebook     Pinterest

What?! Your kids aren’t babies anymore? Head over to Family Travel 411

Curious about this content? See my editorial content disclosure.