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Car Seats on Airplanes: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (Part 1: At the Airport)

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 in your air travels. Do you check your car seat or does that introduce to 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.

Holiday Air Travel - Baby in Carseat on Plane
Prepared with his car seat and an iPad mini for a successful flight!

I’ve endeavored to come up with a list that covers every question I’ve ever heard, read, or experienced when it comes to car seats and air travel. Fair warning: it’s quite a long list! But after 100+ flights with kids, my family has done and seen just about everything when it comes to car seats on planes. A comprehensive guide to car seats and airplanes is long overdue here at Trips With Tykes. There is simply no reason for others to be confused or suffer from bad advice on the topic.

This guide is divided into three parts, because it just got so long! Here is everything you ever wanted to know about flying with kids and car seats on planes.

(Note: this advice applies only to domestic air travel within the United States unless otherwise specifically noted).

(Trips With Tykes uses affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission if you purchase through links in this post. See our full disclosure policy linked in the menu at the bottom of this site.)

Car Seats on Planes - Infant Seat

Car Seats on Airplanes Part 1: Car Seats At the Airport

1. Is there a charge for checking a car seat?

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.

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 I’ve checked a car seat several times and haven’t worried that much about it. 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.

Cosco Scenera Next
Cosco Scenera NEXT is an inexpensive and lightweight car seat for travel.

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?

Bag your car seat when you check it to protect from dirt and grime.
Bag your car seat when you check it to protect from dirt and grime.

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. 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 padded J.L. Childress Ultimate Car Seat Travel Bag) or one that has wheels if you need to transport a car seat more easily.

JLChildressPaddedBag
The J.L. Childress Car Seat Bag has some padding for extra protection and backpack straps for carrying.

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.

Use a stroller frame and infant car seat as an easy transport option with younger babies.
Use a stroller frame and infant car seat as an easy transport option with younger babies.

If you have an infant, I’d recommend taking your infant seat and a simple stroller frame (like the Baby Trend Snap N Go, Graco SnugRider 3 Elite, or Chicco Keyfit Caddy). 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, here are the top products to make your convertible car seat more portable in airports (note that prices vary, particularly on Amazon):

Go Go Babyz Travelmate: This 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. Go Go Babyz also makes a mini version and a deluxe version, depending on how many bells and whistles you need. See my full Go Go Babyz review for more information.

Go-Go-Babyz Travelmate
Go-Go-Babyz Travelmate

Britax Car Seat Travel Cart: Similar in price and ratings to the Go Go Babyz Travelmate.

Britax Travel
Britax Car Seat Travel Cart

Munchkin Brica Smart Move Car Seat Travel Cart: Similar to the Go Go Babyz Travelmate, but a bit cheaper and also a tad slimmer.

Go-Go Babyz Travelmate Car Seat Luggage Strap: A simple very inexpensive strap that allows you to connect your child’s car seat to your roller bag. Only works if you plan to take a roller bag with you through the airport, of course! Reviews indicate, however, it can slip on some bags and doesn’t fit all models of car seats.

5. Are there reasons to wait to gate check my child’s car seat?

Maybe.

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 (but just make sure you check with the gate agent for approval to bring your seat on board and claim the extra seat).

Stay tuned for the rest of the car seats and airplanes series coming soon!

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Flying with kids? All your questions answered about taking car seats on airplanes for your baby, toddler, or young child. From a parent who has been on 150+ flights with young kids!

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Car Seats on Airplanes: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (Part 2: On the Plane)