Flying with Children
It’s a lucky parent who hasn’t had to travel by plane with a young child. Some minimalist parents have it down, but the rest of us use up every last cubic inch of space we’re allotted, stuffing it with things we might possibly need like hair ties, mismatched infant socks, carabiners, and Ziploc bags that get thrown out eventually. Think back to your last trip on a plane alone when there was a small child—what was that child doing? Standing on the parent’s lap screaming? Waving at uncomfortable adults who waved once but then wanted to disengage from the outgoing child? Were you trying to eke out that last bit of nap before descent when that screech jolted you out of slumberland? Did that parent look happy or like she was going to cry herself?
Kids have that natural tendency to want to move and explore their environments when they’re in their parents’ arms. Parents naturally provide a safe place for a child . . . everywhere except in a moving vehicle, which is what an airplane is. Most of us who have traveled with children and carseats can attest that our kids have been better behaved in their carseats and have found their carseats to be safe pods for them. When was the last time *you* were comfortable in an airplane seat, after all? Kids in harnessed carseats are protected against turbulence and against runway incidents, such as aborted takeoffs and landings, and overshots. And think about it: coffee pots and Coke cans are required to be secured during flight. Don’t our kids deserve the same respect?
Can I take any harnessed carseat on the plane?
Maybe. It must have a sticker on it that says the carseat is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft. That part will be written in red ink so it’s easy to find. Your owner’s manual will also have this wording. Be prepared to show the sticker to a gate agent and/or flight attendant because they may ask to see it as you board the plane.
Can I use a booster seat on the plane?
Let’s get our terminology down first. A booster seat is a belt-positioning booster used by older kids. It’s used only with a lap/shoulder vehicle seat belt. Since a commercial airplane doesn’t have a lap/shoulder seat belt, no, you cannot use a booster seat on the plane. A harnessed seat isn’t called a booster seat. If your seat has a harness that also can be used as a booster later on, we call that a “combination seat.” Most combination seats are approved for use on airplanes only when used with the harness; that’s because you can install it with the plane’s seat belt. You can, however, take your booster seat on the plane with you as carry-on luggage for your child to use in the car when you get to your destination. If you have a backless booster, it fits perfectly under the seat in front or in the overhead bin. If you have a folding booster, it fits in the overhead bin. If you have a booster where the back comes off, you can pack the back in your suitcase and carry the bottom on with you.
What are my rights regarding carseat use onboard an airplane?
We have an article that explains what you need to know. Also, know where the certification sticker is on your carseat and bring a healthy dose of patience. Between oddly intimate security searches, our knees being jammed into the seats in front of us, and man spread by guys in the center seat, flying saps the last bit of patience of everyone. Flight attendants receive very little to no training on carseats on aircraft, so the best tactic is one of “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” If there’s confusion, it’s OK to show them the carseat owner’s manual and smile. Remember that they can (and have in the past) remove ticketed passengers from flights.
How far should I push the rear-facing issue?
If you’ve been online at all, you’ve heard of travelers who have had problems rear-facing their kiddos: the flight attendant misinterpreted the flight attendant handbook, which requires carseats to be installed on forward-facing passenger seats, and they had to turn their 3 mo. old forward-facing. At some point you pick your battle with the flight attendant (with a smile–remember, he or she is just doing their job) and the likelihood that something catastrophic will happen is slim. Turning an 18 mo old forward-facing on a plane probably isn’t going to end the world. If you’re still unsure, I suppose you could whip this regulatory requirement out.
What are the best travel carseats?
For babies, use their rear-facing only infant seats. These seats are great for travel because they’re usually pretty lightweight in the first place and they’re made to be portable. Perfect! Here’s where the Average Parent will stop in their tracks: your infant seat is made to be used without the base. Say what?! Yep. Those hook-like protrusions on top of the carrier about where the child’s thighs are hold the lap-portion of the seat belt. You can use those belt guides to install your infant seat on the plane! And in cars! (Did I just knock you over with a feather?) OK, so it’s old news to some folks who have been around, but I come across a lot of parents who don’t know that little factoid. If you’re not up on your baseless installations, see Kecia’s recommended carseats for airplanes blog where she demonstrates how to do it. Impress your friends and stun your neighbors—share that news! And leave the heavy base at home while you travel.
Infants and Toddlers
If you prefer, or if your babe is bigger, you can use a rear-facing convertible on the plane too. I know you’re wondering how it’s going to fit because *your* knees don’t fit in between the plane’s rows, but it will. If you’re flying with a newborn, you’ll want to choose a row where you can have the carseat more reclined—buy the extra legroom row or pay for the A1-15 boarding passes so you can board first and get the best seats. Otherwise your rear-facer will be pretty upright AND the person in front won’t be able to recline. Too bad, so sad. In today’s flying environment, no one is comfortable. It’s a fact of life. You can offer to buy a snack or a drink if they look hostile to smooth feelings over.
When you fly, you want lightweight and narrow. Sure, you can drag a carseat on wheels through the airport, but you have to heft it over the plane seats to your row while guiding your kid and carrying your luggage. Anything over about 15 lbs. is going to feel gargantuan, especially if you have connections to make.
Cosco Scenera NEXT: 5-40 lbs. RF, 22-40 lbs. FF. It weighs just 7 lbs. (lighter than some infant seats!) and installs very easily both rear- and forward-facing. It’s a short seat so it will fit nicely RF on the plane and in small rental cars. It must be used RF until at least age 2 and even fits newborns well. The Cons? It’s a small seat, so kiddos will outgrow it quickly and some parents will see the age requirement of rear-facing until age 2 as a disadvantage (even though we see it as a bare bones minimum around here).
Combi Coccoro: 3-33 lbs. RF, 20-40 lbs. FF. The Coccoro is small and light at 11 lbs., which makes it ideal for travel. Because it’s short, like the Scenera NEXT, it will fit nicely rear-facing on an airplane seat. It’s a feature-rich convertible that acts somewhat like an infant seat because of its size and the way it installs. The downsides? It’s a small seat, so kids will outgrow it quickly and it can be complex to install in a vehicle. Plus the price tag is around $200 which is a lot for a travel seat that is hardly bigger than many infant seats.
Evenflo SureRide: 5-40 lbs. RF, 22-65 lbs. FF. It weighs only 9.7 lbs. and will fit newborns well too. The SureRide is also narrow and is a very tall seat; so tall, in fact, that this convertible is often recommended for preschoolers instead of a combination seat that converts to a booster. Because of its height, it won’t be able to be reclined all the way unless you’re flying in first class, but it’s still a great travel seat. Its Cons? It has only one recline angle for rear-facing, so in small rental vehicles, be ready to eat the dashboard.
Evenflo Tribute: 5-40 lbs. RF, 20-40 lbs. FF. This is another seat that’s pretty short, like the Scenera NEXT, and it’s lightweight at 9.2 lbs. The downsides to the Tribute: It’s a little bit more difficult to install than the NEXT in that you have to remember to flip the recline foot forward and backward depending on how you’re installing it and it won’t fit newborns well because the bottom harness slots are high and the crotch buckle strap is long.
Safety 1st Guide 65: 5-40 lbs. RF, 22-65 lbs. FF. It’s a versatile seat, like the SureRide. It has tall top harness slots and an EPS foam-lined headrest. The Guide 65 is 11.3 lbs—still pretty lightweight for a convertible. Cons? The bottom harness slots are very high, so it won’t fit a baby until they are several months old, and the headrest is adjusted separately from the harness height. The Guide 65 also has a tendency to over-recline over time as you use it.
Preschoolers to Early Booster Riders
Evenflo Maestro: 22-50 lbs. FF with harness, 40-110 lbs. and at least age 4 as booster. This is a lightweight combination seat that weighs 10 lbs. and has tall harness slots. It’s an easy carseat to use on the plane and at your destination and in a pinch, can be used as a booster for your child if he’s old enough. The Cons? The headrest isn’t adjustable, so a child can easily outgrow this seat by height before weight when using it as a booster.
Evenflo SecureKid: 22-65 lbs. with harness, 40-110 lbs. and at least age 4 as booster. It weighs a bit more than the Maestro, coming in at 12.4 lbs., but the SecureKid is a better overall combination seat if you’re buying a seat to use as your main seat. The harness slots are about the same as the Maestro, but the headrest is adjustable, so it makes a better booster seat. The downsides to the SecureKid? The harness is a little narrow at the shoulders, so it may bother some kids’ necks.
IMMI GO: 22-55 lbs. This is another alternative seat that’s been around for years, first as the SafeGuard Go Hybrid Booster then as the Safety 1st Go Hybrid Booster, and is a harnessed backless booster that requires a tether anchor for use with the harness, so it cannot be used on the plane. It packs down into a travel bag, weighs just 10 lbs., and easily fits into the overhead compartment of a 737. I recommend LATCH installation with this seat.
If your big kid is in a booster, I suggest bringing it along even though you won’t be able to use it on the plane. After all, the physics that affect you at home, affect you on that delightful tropical isle and you don’t want to be spending any time in an out-of-network hospital, do you? Nope.
If your child’s booster is a high-back booster and the back comes off, you can pack the back in your main luggage for protection and carry on the base. Remember: boosters require lap/shoulder belts so they cannot be used on airplanes, so they get tucked under the seat in front or put in the overhead bin. A booster is a safety device: don’t check it. Carseats don’t count as carryon items (check with your airline—most don’t count them), so it shouldn’t be a problem. If you want a special travel booster, here are some suggestions since some are lighter than others.
BubbleBum: 40-100 lbs., 4-11 years. This is the *ultimate* travel booster. The BubbleBum is an inflatable booster that deflates and rolls up to fit inside it’s own carry bag. It’s obviously lightweight and fits in tight spaces. The downsides? It’s very small, so “hippy” children won’t fit well on it, and the belt guides can be a bit of a pain. It’s also more expensive than the average backless booster, but because of its narrowness, some folks continue to use it in 3-across situations after their trips.
Cosco Ambassador: 40-100 lbs. This bare-bones booster costs less than $15 and is very lightweight. Cons? You’ll definitely lose the armrest covers in the airport, so either take them off before traveling or tuck them in your luggage.
Harmony Youth Booster: 30-100 lbs. The Youth Booster is under 3 lbs. and narrow, so it fits in tight spaces well. It has lots of kid-friendly covers too all for under $13. Cons? Bigger kids may find this booster a little tight.
Safety 1st Boost-A-Pak: 40-80 lbs. This booster is a backpack booster rolled into one, which makes it a great travel item for a kid who likes to take adult-eyerolling kid stuff on a trip. There are a few requirements for this booster and I suggest you read our review to see what they are. The Boost-A-Pak weighs about 3.5 lbs., so it’s still light enough for a child to load it down with good stuff on the plane. The Cons? It has a low 52” standing height limit, which is lower than many boosters.
Safety 1st Incognito Kid Positioner: 60-120 lbs. Yeah, we don’t even like to call this a booster—it’s a “kid positioner.” Only the biggest kids rock this seat. The Incognito is one of our very favorites and it’s one designed to get those kids who are too embarrassed to be seen in a booster to use a booster to the bitter end—the passing of the 5-Step Test. The Incognito is made of dense foam and weighs less than 1 lb., so it’s highly portable. The downsides? It’s not well-padded, but no booster really is since they’re designed to keep a kid up and in position. The minimum weight limit is 60 lbs.—it’s truly designed for bigger kids.
What about carseats or harnesses marketed as “travel seats?”
There are a few seats marketed specifically for travel, like the CARES Harness. The CARES Harness, 22-44 lbs. and at least age 1, is used only on an airplane seat in conjunction with the airplane seat belt. It’s FAA-approved and folds up very small, so it fits quite easily into any carryon. It doesn’t have a crotch strap, so wiggly kids can slide down underneath the lap belt, which can be a problem on longer flights when children get tired and want to adjust to sleep. You also don’t have a carseat available for use at your destination (or maybe you do, in which case this can be a good purchase for you).
Diono Radians, Rainier, Pacifica, and Olympia: Radian RXT: 5-45 lbs. RF, 20-80 lbs. FF, 50-120 lbs. as booster; Rainier: 5-50 lbs. RF, 20-90 lbs. FF, 50-120 lbs. as booster; Pacifica: 5-50 lbs. RF, 20-90 lbs. FF, 50-120 lbs. as booster; Olympia: 5-45 lbs. RF, 20-70 lbs. FF, 50-110 lbs. as booster. These convertible carseats fold and a carrying strap can be purchased so you can sling the seat over one shoulder to carry it through the airport. The carseats do fold narrow enough to fit in an overhead bin, but size-wise would take up a good portion of the length of the bin, which would cause other travelers to no doubt give you the stink eye if you didn’t use the seat on the plane. Why didn’t they make the cut of our recommended seats above? The heaviest, the RXT and Rainier, weigh 26.5 lbs. ‘Nuf said. When used rear-facing, these seats require a separate recline foot to be attached which causes them to sit very reclined—they won’t fit between the standard rows of airplane seats unless you take another separate piece of foam with you called the Angle Adjuster. Even with the Angle Adjuster, it will be a tight fit. Don’t forget to ask a flight attendant for a seat belt extender before trying to buckle the seat rear-facing or you won’t be able to get the airplane seat belt unbuckled at your destination. The closed, narrow rear-facing belt path means you have to plan in advance. Forward-facing on the plane, they’re awesome because they sit so low that the tray table can be used at its normal position. If you want to use your Diono seat onboard, go for it, but go to the airport with eyes wide open.
Lilly Gold Sit ‘n’ Stroll: Newborn-30 lbs. RF, 20-40 lbs. FF. This is a carseat that has retractable wheels! It can be used on the plane, in rental cars, in a restaurant as a booster seat! Use it as a stroller, use it as a carseat! That’s what the claims are, but you have to install it each time and the seat belt goes over the top of the child both rear- and forward-facing. Very experienced techs have trouble getting a good install—will you, as an average parent, be able to install it well? It only has a 30 lbs. RF weight limit, which American babies outgrew 10 years ago. The carseat weighs 33 lbs., so imagine trying to push 33 lbs. of stroller plus a 30 lbs. kid with a so-so handle? And besides, you know the saying: Jack of all trades, master of none.
The Baby B’Air has been around for years and years, so I guess people continue to buy it. It’s like a dog leash for your child that attaches to your seat belt. Does that sound safe? Nope. Don’t buy it. Waste of money and dangerous as well should an incident occur.
Flyebaby Airplane Baby Comfort System: Doesn’t this one look safe? Mom sure looks happy that her baby’s head will slam down on her knees when the tray table opens suddenly when its lock fails. Seriously, save your money and CT scan for your babe by foregoing this purchase. Or beware the angry passenger who has to share the seat with the joyful kicking baby for a 2-3 hour flight. This might go down as the worst product ever.
OK, I’ve got my carseat picked out. How do I get it through the airport?
You have several choices for getting your carseat through the airport. You can strap it to a stroller, put it on a luggage cart, attach wheels, or put it in a backpack bag. Your goal here is to get the carseat and your family through the airport while maintaining your cool. Keep in mind that carseats must be scanned at the security checkpoint (Yes! You *will* be using it onboard the airplane, silly). Place it face down on the conveyor belt to allow it to fit through the machine and don’t forget to empty your pockets.
You can use any luggage cart and even your suitcase if you want, but make sure it rolls nicely and the carseat won’t slide off the edge when you go over bumps. Remember there are lots of bumps between your vehicle and the gate, your child will have a tummy bug, and you will inevitably be late. If you secure the carseat well enough, your child can even ride in the seat.
Britax Car Seat Travel Cart: Designed specifically to use the carseat’s LATCH connectors to secure the carseat to the cart.
Go-Go Babyz Travelmate: This cart has straps that secure the carseat to the cart.
Traveling Toddler: This simple strap secures around your rolling carryon and uses your carseat’s LATCH connectors to secure the carseat to your suitcase.
Go-Go Babyz Travelmate Car Seat Luggage Strap: Go-Go Babyz takes the Traveling Toddler idea and puts a ratchet on the end of the strap.
If you’ve found some great ideas for getting your carseat through the airport to the airplane, we’d love to hear them! We know that necessity is the mother of invention and we want to share any ways to keep our kids as safe in the air as we do on the ground.
UPDATED: May, 2017