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.
Five important things to know before you fly 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).
For international flights, 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 point to this labeling on the car seat itself. And if not, 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. Your car seat 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).
Have you pinned this to your travel board?
4. Your car seat 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 the airplane.
The FAA recommends car seats no wider than 16 inches. However, car seats fitting that description are virtually nonexistent (see recommended toddler car seats for travel here—including widths). To help avoid this complication, don’t travel with an extra-wide car seat. And by all means, 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. This “pedestal effect” 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 to flying in a car seat (for kids 1 year+).
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. Together they 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.
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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.
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Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning Travels with Baby guidebooks
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