Air travel with young children is not fun. It’s the worst. If Elon Musk would turn his attention away from the electric car and space travel and onto teleportation for families, I’d really appreciate it.
Air travel might be the fastest way to your destination, but let’s not pretend it’s convenient. This is why I completely understand why parents are not excited when I tell them not to check their children’s car seats as luggage but to always install them on the aircraft. Is it easy? Well, it’s not as hard as you think it might be, but it certainly isn’t without its headaches. Does it have advantages? Yes. MANY! Is it doable? Yes, it is 100% doable, and I’m going to teach you how.
Are you even allowed to use car seats on planes?
Flying with a child? A car seat is the best way to keep everyone safe and provides the greatest degree of protection in case of unanticipated turbulence.http://ow.ly/zmU130g4hW3
Absolutely. Transport Canada says:
Although children who have not yet reached their second birthday may be held in an adult’s arms during a flight, Transport Canada highly recommends the use of an approved child restraint system (car seat) for all phases of the flight. The use of a car seat provides the greatest degree of protection for the infant or child and its use during the flight will help in case of unanticipated turbulence. Using the car seat will also ensure that your child is more likely to be comfortable travelling in a familiar seat and you will be able to use it in the car when you reach your destination.
You must make sure that your car seat is not expired and that it bears the Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (CMVSS) 213 or 213.1 sticker. This is affixed somewhere on your seat. Familiarize yourself with where it is as the flight attendants may ask to see it.
Airlines have different policies in place with regard to car seats. You should be able to find this information on their website, and I recommend printing it out to have handy in case you are met with confused flight personnel. If you are preparing for international travel, definitely make sure you are familiar with the policies of the airlines you will be using during your journey.
As an example, here is WestJet’s policy:
The airplane seat belt is designed to keep adult passengers in their seats during turbulence or rough landings. Young children can easily slide under the belt. A child in your lap is not protected in turbulence or during a rough landing: no matter how tightly you’re holding onto them, the risk of them flying out of your arms and being injured is high. The safest place for them is secured in their car seat, properly installed on an airplane seat.
Transport Canada is considering mandating the use of child restraints on planes following the death of a lap-held infant in 2012. Transport Canada cite these results from a 1994 study by the Federal Aviation Administration entitled “The Performance of Child Restraint Devices in Transport Airplane Seats”:
Adults cannot always properly restrain children in their laps by holding onto them
The regular adult seat belt does not properly restrain a child
Infants could be injured when they are seated on an adult’s lap
Find more info here.
Car seats get damaged when they are put under the plane with luggage.
A bag might keep your seat clean, but it’s not going to protect it from being tossed and jostled and dropped just like our luggage.
How do I get our car seats through the airport?
We needed to travel with two car seats from Calgary to Montreal. At almost 5 years old, my son would’ve been okay on the plane without his seat, but we needed a car seat for him at our destination. I refuse to check our car seats either at the gate or as oversized luggage—the last time we did this our seat was severely damaged.
If the car seats you use in your vehicle are bulky or heavy, it is well worth the money to buy inexpensive, lighter seats exclusively for air travel. We used the Cosco Scenera Next for Miss Cub and the Evenflo Sonus for Cub. Both seats are extremely lightweight and compact, and either can be purchased for $100 or less on sale.
If you only need one seat, honestly, either of these seats could just be carried in your arms. If you’re travelling alone with a child and need the free hands, you can wear your child and use a foldable luggage cart, or even the seat on your stroller (if you are taking one), to transport the car seat.
We used a Britax Car Seat Travel Cart (affiliate link) that I bought second-hand. A regular luggage cart can do the trick, too.
I was able to attach the Next to the travel cart with a luggage strap threaded through its forward-facing belt path. The Sonus was nestled on top of the Next and secured with a bungee cord. It was easy breezy to wheel our seats through the airport this way.
When we went through security, they just patted down the seats and swabbed them. No issues there.
I had to lift the two seats attached to the cart above headrest height to get them down the airplane aisle. This is when pre-boarding for people with young children is your friend!
How do I install our seats on an airplane seat?
First, check your car seat manual. There will be a section on how to use your seat on an airplane. Read this before you are on the plane to make sure you know what to do! The worst part about installing on a plane is feeling rushed: you don’t want to inconvenience other passengers, and sometimes you get some side-eye from the flight crew. Just remember, you have the right to install and use your children’s car seats on an airplane!
If your child is rear-facing, you will thread the plane seat’s lap belt through the rear-facing belt path and pull it tight. If your child is forward-facing, you will thread the plane seat’s lap belt through the forward-facing belt path and pull it tight. For some seats, a seatbelt extender may be required, and the flight attendant can provide this. Sometimes the buckle of the seatbelt ends up directly behind the child’s back which can be uncomfortable. Evenflo suggests using a small towel or blanket to pad the buckle so it doesn’t irritate a child sitting in the forward-facing position. Check your car seat manual!
Rear-facing seats often take up a lot of room, and many will not fit on some planes. The Cosco Next is a recommended seat for air travel because it can be installed safely in a fairly upright position. If your child is rear-facing in your vehicle but you can only fit your seat forward-facing on the plane, then forward-face them on the plane as long as it is safe to do so (i.e., they meet the age, height and weight requirements). This is safer than just having them in your lap or with only the plane’s seat belt.
Note that booster seats cannot be used on airplanes. If your child requires a booster at your destination, you can have them carry their low-back booster as carry-on luggage, and pack the back of the booster (if required) in your luggage.
What are some advantages to using car seats on the plane?
For us, the primary advantage of using a car seat on the plane for our toddler was that she was contained. The few moments we had her out of her car seat, she was trying to climb everywhere. She managed to crawl under the airplane seat in front of us, and she was trying to clamber up over me to go visit the strangers sitting behind us. Even if she was fussing, at least she was contained while in her seat. Once she fell asleep, I wasn’t stuck with a baby sleeping in my arms. I was free to read! Okay, I just napped, but whatever. Sitting rear-facing, it was comfortable for her to have toys, books or the iPhone on her lap.
Another advantage was knowing that our seats were intact and safe to use upon our arrival. As I mentioned previously, the last time we checked a car seat, it arrived with parts broken off. The thing is, you just don’t know how your car seat will be handled once you send it down the conveyor belt or leave it at the door to the airplane. Baggage handlers are rough with them. They can be dropped, squashed or crushed in transit. Sometimes the damage will not be visible to the naked eye.
Finally, our seats were there with us when we reached our destination—no waiting around for them to be delivered to the oversized baggage carousel.
General tips for air travel with car seats:
- Know your rights. Print out the airline’s car seat policy, and bring your car seat manual with you.
- Call ahead. Let the airline know that your child will be flying in a car seat.
- Know your stuff. Make sure you’ve thoroughly read and understood the installation instructions for your seat.
- Go light. If necessary, purchase or borrow a lightweight seat to make travel easier.
- Plan ahead and practice. Find out what kind of car you will be using at your destination. Be sure you can install your car seat easily in your rental vehicle or whatever vehicle you will be using.