If you’ve flown with a baby, toddler, or young child, chances are that you’ve thought way too much about car seats. Car seats are one of the biggest sources of confusion, misinformation, and frustration for parents flying with kids. There are all sorts of logistics involved to bringing (or not bringing) a car seat along for air travel. Do you check your car seat or does that introduce too much potential for loss or damage? Do you bring a car seat on board the plane or is carrying it around too much of a hassle? Do you chance it with a rental car company’s car seat?
Needless to say, there are a lot of factors to consider and decisions to make. After hundreds of flights with kids, my family has done and seen just about everything when it comes to car seats on planes.
Seven years ago, I endeavored to come up with a comprehensive list that covered every question I’d ever heard, read, or experienced when it came to car seats and air travel. The result was this guide, which has now been updated multiple times in subsequent years as I’ve experienced even more and new products and solutions have come onto the market.
As you might imagine, the guide got pretty darn long, so I divided it into three parts based upon the different logistical stages of an airplane trip – at the airport, on the plane, and once you arrive at your destination. Here is everything you ever wanted to know about flying with kids and car seats on planes.
- Part 1: Car Seats at the Airport (you are here)
- Part 2: Car Seats on the Plane
- Part 3: Car Seats at Your Destination
(Note: this advice applies only to domestic air travel within the United States unless otherwise specifically noted).
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Car Seats on Airplanes Part 1: Car Seats At the Airport
1. Is there a charge for checking a car seat on an airplane?
No. Every U.S. airline allows you to check a car seat free of charge when traveling with a child. You can check your car seat at the airport baggage counter or wait and check it at your gate.
If you plan to gate check a car seat, remember to check with the gate agent when you arrive at the gate. The agent will give you a checked bag tag to put on the car seat (or any bag you plan to put it in). Drop your car seat at the boarding ramp exit door right at the entrance to the plane. Gate checked seats will usually be returned at the jetbridge when you deplane.
If you check a car seat at the ticket counter, it will usually be returned at baggage claim. Often car seats are not loaded onto the usual conveyer belt with suitcases to protect them from damage. Look for the oversized luggage area at baggage claim to retrieve a car seat.
2. Are there risks if I check a car seat?
Potentially. If you fly often, you’ve probably had a checked suitcase damaged at some point. The same can happen to car seats. While some types of damage would be visible, not all damage necessarily is. As parents, however, we all decide what risks are acceptable to us, and many parents choose to check car seats every day. I’ve checked a car seat multiple times myself. But it’s your call.
That said, the only way to ensure that your car seat doesn’t sustain any damage during air travel is to buy a seat for your child and bring and use the car seat on board the plane. Sometimes trade-offs like budget or simple logistics, however, make that option too difficult.
If you do plan to check your car seat, I highly recommend that parents buy a cheaper car seat for travel in case it does get damaged. We have used the Cosco Scenera NEXT and its predecessors with great success with both of our children. Check out my full Cosco Scenera NEXT review. We loved that it is even more compact and lightweight and allows for longer rear-facing use. Consider a protective bag to protect against grime and some damage.
3. Will the airline provide a protective bag for my car seat if I check it?
Sometimes. Some airlines will wrap your car seat in a giant clear plastic bag if you choose to check your car seat when you check your luggage, but that option isn’t available at all airports or from all airlines. It doesn’t prevent real structural damage, but it will protect your seat from grease and grime.
I’d recommend bringing your own bag just in case. Our family has had good luck with the inexpensive red “Gate Check” bags. You might also consider a padded bag for a little more protection (like the backpack style padded J.L. Childress Ultimate Car Seat Travel Bag) or one that has wheels if you need to transport a car seat more easily.
4. Car seats are so bulky. Are there products to help me transport a car seat during my air travels more easily?
Yes! Lots of them, in fact.
If you have an infant, I’d recommend taking your infant seat and a simple stroller frame (like the Baby Trend Snap N Go). Stroll your baby through the airport to your gate. Then gate check the stroller portion as well as the car seat portion if you don’t have a seat for your infant on the plane. If you’ve booked a seat or are given a free empty one at check-in, then take the infant seat aboard and use it.
If you have older children, there have been a lot of products available over the years to make your convertible car seat more portable in airports. The most well-known, the Go Go Babyz is hard to find anymore and has a number of models unavailable, so check out these more current brands and products:
Britax Car Seat Travel Cart: This simply device turns your car seat into the equivalent of a rolling suitcase. Strap your car seat onto the cart and then your child into the car seat for easy wheeling through airports.
Car Seat Travel Belt: If you don’t need to put your child into the car seat but rather just need to lug a bulky seat more easily, this belt is the best choice. Use it to secure an empty car seat to your rolling luggage as an attachment.
5. Are there reasons to wait to gate check my child’s car seat?
First, gate checked bags are handled a little bit less, so if the risk of damage really concerns you, your chances may be a little bit better if you gate check your car seat. No guarantees, however.
Second, if you are traveling with an infant, a bucket car seat and stroller frame combination makes for a great travel system (see #4). Use the combination as your stroller for transport through the airport and gate check both.
Finally, if you are traveling with a lap child, you may want to wait and have the seat with you in case you find yourself on a flight with empty seats. A gate agent may be willing to allow you to have an empty seat for your lap child and bring your car seat aboard to use.
If you are flying Southwest Airlines with a child, your chances of snagging an extra seat are the highest because of its open seating policy. If there is a single empty seat on the plane, it’s probably yours to claim! Just make sure you check with the gate agent for approval to bring your seat on board and use it the extra seat.
More Car Seats on Airplanes Questions Answered
So now that you know what to do on the first part of your journey with a car seat through the airport, what’s next? Check out the second and third parts of this guide at the links below.