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Traveling with a Car Seat: Tips & Tricks

Traveling with a Car Seat: Tips & Tricks

Do I need to bring a car seat when traveling? – is the most common question on forums and asked when talking about traveling with babies and toddlers. Especially if you have more than one child, it’s something to think about.

Let’s be realistic: traveling with a car seat sucks. For older kids, there are various options, but for a 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, it depends on 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, it’s an unnecessary hassle (and might even be illegal!).

My Experience Traveling With and Without a Car Seat

For the first year of our firstborn son, we visited various countries and never brought a car seat once. Before anyone jumps at me for putting a child in danger, hold your horses – not once did 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 😉

Infant cozy in a faa approved car seat on an airplane, gazing curiously, with a snug blanket for in-flight comfort.
Infant car seats onboard are allowed on US airlines, but it’s NOT allowed on most European, African, and Asian carriers. On Australian carriers, it’s not allowed to bring a car seat from outside of Australia.

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, where they are ILLEGAL. There is no exception for visitors!

I always underline that US car seats are illegal in Europe. While you might never get 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 to cover your car bill or even child’s hospital bill.

If you’re traveling to Australia, don’t even try bringing your car seat from abroad. Unlike in Europe where fines basically never happen, Australian police can and will fine you for using a foreign car seat that’s not approved in Australia. These fines range between $220-360 depending on the state.

The same thing about US car seats applies to even 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.

Two images contrasting a baby secured in a car seat with European vs American car seat straps
US car seat on the left, non-US car seat on the right. Visible differences are that US car seats have a chest clip which is illegal elsewhere.

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 (like 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. And if your toddler is very active, it might be a smart move to strap him in the seat. But, they might not be able to sleep in it because it’s so upright.

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. Plus, it also gives space for your active 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 in most cases. It’s simply smarter to leave them at home to avoid costly surprises.

Baby smiling in the car in a European travel car seat
Driving from Switzerland to France with a European travel car seat

3. How are you getting to your hotel and how do you get around there?

Is there an option for 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, I’d just rent it for that day. It’s simply not worth the hassle of having to bring one. 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.

Car seat in French Polynesia
Driving in French Polynesia where we ordered a car seat from the hotel. Ironically, our toddler had to sit on our lap because the hotel minivan was full.

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 and/or portable crib, but some airlines will only let you gate check a stroller – not a car seat.

You can check your car seat at the ticket counter or bring it to the gate. It’s much easier not having 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 have to reclaim them at the luggage belt at some. At some airports (like 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?

Car Seats on US Airlines

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 on US airlines you can bring a car seat on board as long as it’s an FAA-approved car seat. It’s as simple as rolling onto the plane with your car seat in hand (if you paid for a seat for an infant or your toddler is over 2 and has to have his seat anyway) and voila!

Of course, most airlines also have extra car seat rules such as:

  • no car seat in emergency exit rows (kids aren’t allowed in these rows either)
  • 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 a lap-shoulder seat belt
  • you cannot bring the base of an 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 the 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

Car Seats on Non-US Airlines

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 seen a single baby or child on a plane in a car seat outside of the US in my entire life and I’m European and have taken over 2000+ flights.

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). In the end, one Doona had to be gate-checked because the flight was full. It’s a pretty standard procedure for non-US carriers.

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. On Australian carriers, you won’t be allowed to use a non-Australian car seat.

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 airlines require a reservation of a car/child seat in advance

Are there any disadvantages to 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 store it somewhere in the overhead (unless it’s a WayB Pico car seat).

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 either. 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).

Baby resting in an airplane bassinet with a sibling asleep next to them, highlighting the difference between a car seat vs bassinet

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 years). 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 car seat 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 exclusively gate-checked).

In fact, because they need to drag the items down the stairs and up to 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 😉

Car seats packed in a travel bag
The orange bag is an infant car seat. The blue bag contains our a double stroller. On top is WayB Pico Car Seat (that we usually put in the bag, but it can be taken on board and go into overhead if you wish).

Can You Use Car Seat without a Base?

Yes, you absolutely can, as it’s safe and normal. This is how most people travel, simply because bases are heavy.

You need to install the car seat using a seatbelt of the car. It’s pretty simple and every car seat has instructions on how to do so.

How to Travel with a Car Seat in the Airport

Carrying a car seat through the airport with an infant 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, but while it’s exciting at first, it’s another thing to carry. We tried this , 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. On the other hand, it’s also not the end of the world either.

A car seat on a car seat trolley with baby strapped in being pulled through the airport

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 everywhere in Europe without a car seat – 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 solved 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.

Toddler and a fluffy white cat sharing the backseat while traveling with a small car seat

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 pricey.

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.


Wednesday 27th of December 2023

I have been trying to find recommendations or gadgets that would make sleeping easier on the plane for a 9 month old... it seems they would be too big for the bassinet. He hates the car seat so I feel a bit limited. Any suggestions?


Sunday 18th of February 2024

@AnnaEverywhere, thank you, this is super helpful! I am struggling with the decision whether to bring a car seat on our Italy/Scotland trip with our ten month old. We have two weddings and are traveling with family so less ability to craft the perfect baby friendly itinerary.

Flying Delta, connecting through CDG to Naples. Returning Glasgow through Amsterdam. We did buy a ticket for baby, as I have a bad elbow and less ability to hold her for long periods. I was hoping to travel without a car seat in the plane, and get one of the airplane beds. Reading your article though it seems like we may have to fly with car seat in plane. Thoughts? We have a Nina Pipa RX lite.

We are doing a car service with in laws to get to/from Amalfi Coast from Naples. Amalfi is not an easy place to haul a car seat around! But also not sure if I trust car services to have reliable seats. We are then flying Jet2 Naples to Edinburgh where we will be renting a car for the week.

It’s a rather complex trip. Would love your thoughts!


Friday 5th of January 2024

Honestly, I would say practice falling asleep on you or on you with a carrier. There are these airplane beds, but they're banned by numerous airlines and technically speaking they might not let you use it for a baby under 2 anyway. At this age they'll be small enough to sleep comfortable on you. It was the only thing that worked for our 2nd who also hated the car seat


Monday 14th of November 2022

Thanks for so many interesting articles. I would love to travel without a car seat but we are travelling to Portland and Seattle and I don't understand how we can get taxis without having a car seat (we have a babyzen yoyo). I also don't want to put my child in a car seat all day but the only other option is to carry the car seat in a backpack which sounds crazy! Any thoughts?

Anna Karsten

Monday 14th of November 2022

Carrying the car seat all day sounds like madness :D Having traveled to Seattle and Portland with two little kids I can speak from experience. For Portland, renting a car is the best option. Rent a car and keep the car seat in your car. For Seattle, we haven't used a car seat once - Seattle was super walkable so we didn't need it. The only time we used the rental car was when we went to Olympic National Park. Depending on the age of the child you could hang the WayB Pico car seat from the Yoyo, but it's an additional item to carry so a rental car combined with walking is your best option.

Ryan Castillo

Tuesday 16th of August 2022

Hi, those tips are awesome and really helpful! By the way considering transportation laws, lugging car seats can be a nightmare! Did you know that Kidmoto can solve that problem for you? Ditch the car seats when flying with a baby! A life-saver, I promise! :) You can learn more at

Anna Karsten

Friday 26th of August 2022

You guys have a good idea, but it's sadly not available all over the US and not internationally, so it's not always a solution :(

Ryan Castillo

Wednesday 12th of January 2022

Nice! Those tips and tricks about traveling with a car seat will definitely help!

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