Do I need to bring a car seat when traveling? – is the most common question on forums and asked around about traveling with babies and toddlers. Especially if you have more than one child it’s something to think about.
Let’s be real for a second: traveling with a car seat sucks. For older kids, there are various options, but for baby or toddler the only options are big, heavy and rules might be different at your destination so they might be useless.
To answer a question about whether or not you need a car seat I’ll be perfectly honest with you: it depends where you’re going, what will you be doing and what are the alternatives. In some circumstances, I’d say a car seat is a must, but in others that it’s an unnecessary hassle (and might even be illegal).
For the first year of our firstborn son, we visited various countries and we haven’t brought a car seat once. Before anyone jumps at me for putting a child in danger, hold your horses – not once we put Dylan in danger. We just always figured out a way to do without it (and I’ll show you how below).
With our second son Holden we tried bringing a car seat more often and quite frankly there were various circumstances in which it was completely unnecessary.
Here are my best tips for making a trip with a car seat a little bit less annoying than it might be 😉
- Bringing a Car Seat on a Road Trip
- Do Car Seats Count as Checked Luggage?
- Can You Take A Car Seat On A Plane?
- Airplane Safety Harness
- How to Pack a Car Seat for Checked Luggage
- How to Travel with a Car Seat in Airport
- What to Do If You Decide Not to Bring a Car Seat for Travel
- Renting a Car Seat from a Car Rental Agency
Bringing a Car Seat on a Road Trip
If you’re taking a road trip within the US it’s a no-brainer: just bring a car seat. If you’re flying somewhere in the US and then renting a car for a road trip it’s much easier to bring your own car seat.
If you’re traveling internationally, it depends on the destination. US car seats are fine in the Caribbean for example. But not in Europe, Australia, or Canada they are ILLEGAL. There is no exception for visitors!
I always underline that US car seats are illegal in Europe and while you might avoid getting a fine, if (knock on wood) you get into an accident and the insurance company finds out you were using a car seat from the US, even as a visitor, they simply have a right not cover your car bill or even child’s hospital bill.
The same thing about US car seats applies to Canada. Unless the seat has a Transport Canada compliance label on the seat, it is considered illegal to use it and insurance companies can reject any claims.
If you’re traveling by plane, ask yourself a few questions:
1. Are you comfortable holding your baby or wiggly toddler the entire flight?
Some babies hate car seats and will yell nonstop (umm… my second child for example) – in this case bringing one on board is not the smartest move since you’ll need to take the child out. The car seat does give you a hands-free option if they stay there.
If your toddler is very active it might be a smart move to strap him in the seat. But, they might be able to sleep in it because it’s so up-right.
If you’re flying internationally with a baby I’ll always tell you to pick a bassinet over a car seat. You cannot have both as you need to request a bassinet seat (bulkhead row) and installing car seats there isn’t possible, but it’s a game-changer for sleeping and actually gives space for your active little baby to stand and bounce on the floor as well.
2. Is your car seat even legal at your destination?
US car seats are legal in the US and Latin America, but anywhere else they’re not so in those cases it’s simply smarter to leave them at home.
3. How are you getting to your hotel and how do you get around there?
Is there an option of a bus or train? Or pre-booked transportation with a car seat installed? If you’re renting a car then you need a car seat, but if you’re going to Paris, for example, you can just walk everywhere or use transportation that doesn’t require a car seat.
It’s safe to say that you won’t be lugging a car seat around the city. No one does, it would be pure insanity.
4. Can you rent a car seat at the destination?
If you just need a car seat once during a week-long trip, personally I’d just rent it for that day, because it’s simply not worth the hassle. Others might disagree, but that’s simply easier.
The car seat might be different from what you’re used to and it might not be incredible, but it’s a working car seat – it will keep your child safe.
Do Car Seats Count as Checked Luggage?
Car seats count as special items and are free to check if you’re flying with kids. Usually, you can check 2 baby items for free – stroller, car seat, portable crib.
You can check your car seat at the ticket counter or bring it to the gate. It’s much easier not to have to drag the car seat through the airport.
Gate items are usually waiting for you at the gate again once you deplane at most places, but you might to reclaim them at the luggage belt at some. At some airports (Amsterdam for example) it takes up to 45 minutes to get your gate-checked items at the gate, so if you have a short connection I don’t recommend it.
Not always being able to reclaim my items at the gate was one of the main reasons to get a travel stroller that I can bring on board because especially with a baby I don’t want to deal with the hassle of waiting for my stroller to arrive.
Can You Take A Car Seat On A Plane?
Various US-based blogs will tell you that the answer is YES. Sadly, that’s not always true if you’re flying internationally.
Within the US and on US airlines you can bring a car seat on board as long as it’s FAA approved. It’s as simple as you simply roll onto the plane with your car seat (if you paid for a seat for an infant or your toddler is over 2 and has to have his seat anyway) and voila!
To give you a real-life example we recently flew Air Tahiti Nui and two other families brought their Doonas on board. They had to wait till everyone boarded and change seats accordingly to ensure that no passenger in front of the car seat was stuck with no recline option (since this car seat blocks it). It’s a pretty standard procedure on non-US carriers.
Of course, there are rules – such as:
- no car seat in emergency exit rows
- car seat can only be installed on the window seat or on bigger planes in the middle seat of the middle row.
- it cannot be a booster seat, because they require lap-shoulder seat belt
- you cannot bring a base of infant car seat on board. You need to install it without the base.
- (for American Airlines only): If you have a stroller and a car seat only 1 can be checked at the gate as long as your stroller is less than 20 lbs – so travel system is NOT allowed if you didn’t purchase a seat for your child and are sure that you can bring your car seat on board
If you’re using a non-US airline the rules for car seats are different. Airlines don’t have to allow your car seat on board at all and it’s really not common to travel with a car seat inside the plane. In fact, I’ve never once saw a single baby or child on a plane in a car seat in my entire life and I’m European and have taken over 2000+ flights.
Non-US-operated airlines have their own rules and lists of approved car seats. For example, Lufthansa has a specific list of approved on-board car seats. Air France only allows car seats on certain planes.
General rules for car seats outside of the US:
- car seat cannot be wider than 42 cm (16.5 inch)
- during take-off and landing, child car seats may be secured in a rear facing position. At cruising altitude, they must be placed facing forward, to allow recline of the seat in front (which basically eliminates every non-convertible infant car seat – which includes an extremely popular Doona because they limit the recline and can only be rear facing).
- various require a reservation of a car/child seat in advance
Are there any disadvantages from taking a car seat on board?
Once you decide to bring a car seat on a plane with you, you’re pretty much locked into that decision. You cannot just store it somewhere in the overhead (unless it’s a WayB Pico car seat – mifold is an amazing booster but not approved on the planes as it doesn’t have the top seatbelt).
If your baby is fussy and wants to be held you’re pretty much stuck with less space. You cannot lie down with your baby. If your older child wants to play or lie down and sleep it’s also not possible with a car seat installed because there’s simply no space.
What if you want to restrain your child, but can’t or don’t want to bring a car seat onboard? This is why you might want to consider a harness instead (keep reading below).
Airplane Safety Harness
Thankfully, there’s another option – Cares Safety Restain System. It’s the only FAA-approved child flying safety device (for the US), but most airlines around the world approve it as well.
The Cares Safety Restraint System is designed for children over 1 year of age up to the age of 3 or 4 usually (unless your child is big like mine, then just 2.5). The weight limit is 22 – 44 pounds and up to 40 inches tall.
How to Pack a Car Seat for Checked Luggage
Checked car seats, strollers, luggage, anything gets thrown around – there’s no denying of that. If you’re checking a car seat make sure you have a travel bag for it to give it at least some protection. It also applies for gate checking items.
It’s a myth that gate-checked items are thrown around less. If you don’t believe me just google how many wheelchairs are destroyed daily (and they’re only gate checked).
In fact, because they need to drag the items down the stairs and up the plane very last minute, quite often they’re throwing and pulling the gate-checked items more intensively. (Anecdotal evidence, but the 4 times we took our giant stroller it was broken twice – the only times it was gate checked instead of baggage counter).
It’s important to note that not all airlines will take responsibility for damaged items. This is a risk of checking car seats: car seats that have been in a car accident are no longer safe and should not be reused.
Bonus: if you’re checking a car seat in the bag you can stuff some extra items in the bag too. We always do, because it’s free 😉
How to Travel with a Car Seat in Airport
Carrying a car seat through the airport with an infant in it can be hard on the arms. Only bring a car seat to the gate if you want to and can put it inside the plane. Otherwise, there’s no point.
Various sources recommend a “car seat cart with wheels” to wheel it through the airport and while it’s exciting at first, it’s another thing to carry. We tried it (this and this one), along with a car seat strap, and got rid of both after one trip. It was expensive and not worth the hassle in my opinion. It also didn’t fit either of our car seats very well.
In my opinion, there’s no good way to bring the car seat through the airport – especially big airports. You can get a bag that allows you to carry a car seat like a backpack, but let’s face it – it won’t be fun, but it’s also not the end of the world.
What to Do If You Decide Not to Bring a Car Seat for Travel
Various destinations really don’t require having a car seat at all. If you’re heading to NYC you really don’t have to use taxis – you can simply hop on a metro. Most of my European friends don’t even own car seats, because public transportation – buses, trams, metro, work just fine.
This is how we were able to get anywhere in Europe without a car seat in Europe – by taking public transport. We ran into an issue once in Poland when we absolutely couldn’t find a taxi company that would send us a car with a car seat to go to the airport. However, we quickly sold this issue by just using a public bus.
Heading to Mexico? If you’re just going to your resort you can request your pick up to install a car seat for you. On mini buses (colectivos) car seats aren’t even allowed and locals just bring their kids in carriers strapped to their chests.
Renting a Car Seat from a Car Rental Agency
Renting a car seat from a rental agency is a popular option, but it might not always be the best one. To start with, it’s pricy. If your road trip is over a week-long it’s seriously cheaper to just walk into the closest Walmart or other shop and pick one up locally. It’s much cheaper and you get a brand new car seat you can either give away or sell after a week.
If you’re renting from a car rental agency you don’t know the condition of the car seat, to begin with – it might be very yucky. Another thing to remember is that you need to pre-book it and many agencies just have an option for a “car seat”, which as I found out it’s often just for kids over 2.
If there’s a baby rental equipment agency at your destination it’s a safer and often better option. It still might be pricy though so I recommend comparing the cost.