Air Travel With Child Car Seats: Everything You Need To Know

Flying with children can be stressful enough—but when you’re traveling with young children, things can get even more complicated. One of the biggest points of confusion for parents when it comes to air travel with small children is whether kids need to be strapped into car seats during a flight.

By having a better understanding of the Federal Aviation Administration’s stance regarding car seats on plans and by understanding the nuances of bringing a car seat onto a plane, you can ultimately make the decision that’s right for your needs and your child’s safety.

Does Your Child Need a Car Seat While Flying?

There’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to FAA requirements for car seats. If a car seat must be used for children under certain weights/heights in a motor vehicle, certainly a car seat should also be used on a plane…right?

Actually, the FAA’s actual stance might surprise you.

What the FAA Says About Car Seats on Planes

The FAA actually does not require that children be strapped into a car seat while traveling by plane, regardless of age or size. In fact, many airlines do not even require children under the age of 2 to have their own seat; they can be carried on a parent/guardian’s lap at no additional charge.

On the flip side, parents absolutely are permitted to bring and use a car seat aboard any flight within the United States, if they so choose. An FAA-approved car seat never counts towards a passenger’s carry-on allowance, either. Regulations for international flights can vary, so parents wishing to strap their children into a car seat for a flight abroad should check with their airline first.

The FFA’s stance on car seat usage may be surprising, but it all boils down to profits. Specifically, the FAA conducted studies that found that most families would choose to drive instead of fly if they were required to purchase a separate airline ticket for a child under the age of 2.

How a Car Seat Could Protect Your Child on a Plane

So, if the FAA doesn’t require the use of car seats on planes, why do some parents still insist on using them? There are actually some compelling reasons to consider using a car seat—turbulence being a major one. In instances of severe and sudden turbulence on a flight, a lap infant could be injured by the abrupt jerking motions or by an accidental fall from a guardian’s lap. And of course, in the unlikely scenario of a plane crash, a child will be better protected from impact in a car seat.

Some parents also find that their small children nap/sleep well in a car seat, so bringing one aboard a plane can improve the chances of a child sleeping through the flight. For exhausted parents, this possibility alone can make it worth all the extra hassle involved in hauling a car seat through the airport and installing it before the flight.

Ultimately, the Choice is Yours

As a parent or guardian, the decision of whether to bring use a car seat for your child on your next flight is entirely up to you. If you fly regularly, you’ve probably seen plenty of unrestrained children, as well as a handful of children secured in car seats. Ultimately, you’ll want to weigh the pros and cons as they apply to your situation.

For example, if you’re traveling alone with your infant and you already have half a dozen bags to schlep around the airport, the added hassle of carrying a full-sized infant seat may seem impossible. That’s okay. Or perhaps you’re flying with an airline that doesn’t offer a cheap infant fare; if you’re on a tight budget, foregoing the car seat and carrying your child as a lap infant can save you a lot of money.

The bottom line is that there is no “right” or “wrong” decision, and both choices are perfectly acceptable.

Which Car Seats Can You Use on a Plane?

If you’re leaning towards using a car seat on your next flight, you’ll want to confirm that the car seat you plan on using is FAA-approved for airline travel. This is not the case for all car seats. To be sure, check your car seat manual or look for an “FAA-approved” sticker located on the car seat itself.

Infant Carriers and Convertible Car Seats

Infant carriers (such as those that come with travel systems) and stand-alone convertible car seats are typically easiest to install on airplane seats.

Infant carriers are ideal for young babies, as they can be easily carried and transported without removing the child. This is ideal if you have a baby who is sleeping in his or her car seat when you arrive at the gate and you don’t want to have to disturb/wake him or her to board the flight. The same applies if your baby falls asleep during the flight; rather than waking him or her up to remove the car seat and continue onto your destination, you can simply un-strap and remove the infant carrier from the seat while your baby continues to rest.

Convertible car seats are a little bulkier, but they accommodate larger babies and children more comfortably. They can be installed rear- or forward-facing, depending on your child’s size. The biggest drawback to traveling with a convertible car seat is that you’ll need to remove your child from the seat in order to transport it.

The CARES System

One alternative to consider to lugging a full-sized car seat around the airport is purchasing the FAA-approved Child Aviation Restraint System (CARES). This device weighs just one pound and can be stored in a bag small enough to fit inside your carry-on. The restraint system slides over an airplane seat and provides a secure, five-point harness for your child during the flight. It is approved for children at least 12 months of age weighing between 22 and 44 pounds. This is a great option to look into if you fly with your child frequently and want to save the hassle/stress of carrying a car seat around the airport.

Be aware, however, that this device is only approved for airline travel. It cannot be used in a car, so you’ll still need a traditional car seat to get around via rental car or taxi once you arrive at your destination.

What About Booster Seats?

If you plan on traveling with a booster seat for a toddler or older child, make sure it is not a backless booster, as these are not approved by the FAA. This makes sense when you consider that backless boosters require a shoulder harness to install, and airplane seats typically only come equipped with a lap seatbelt.

If you wish to use a child booster seat on a plane, be sure that it has a back so it can be properly installed.

Pro Tip: Check Seat Measurements Ahead of Time

Keep in mind that even if your car seat is FAA-approved, this doesn’t guarantee that it will fit on any given airline seat. After all, seat dimensions can vary greatly from one airline to the next. Your best bet at making sure there are no unpleasant surprises when you board the plane is to call the airline ahead of time and inquire as to their seat dimensions. From there, you can measure the width of your car seat to make sure there is plenty of room to work with.

If you board the plane and your car seat doesn’t fit properly on any of the seats, you may be required to check the seat instead. If this is the case, the airline should check the car seat free-of-charge to you.

How to Install a Car Seat on a Plane

So, you’ve checked to make sure your car seat is FAA-approved—and you’ve called the airline to ensure the dimensions are compatible with their seats. Now it’s time to make sure you know how to quickly and properly install your car seat once you board the plane.

Check Your Car Seat Manual

First and foremost, check your car seat manual and make sure you’re familiar with the installation instructions using a seatbelt alone. If you’re currently using a LATCH system in your car, this system likely will not be available to you on an airplane—so it’s important that you understand how to install your seat with a lap belt alone. You may even want to practice this installation a couple of times in your vehicle so you can familiarize yourself with the process.

Rear- vs. Forward-Facing

Should your child’s car seat be rear- or forward-facing on the plane? The answer will depend on your car seat’s recommendations for your child’s specific size. In general, you should follow the same recommendations on the plane as you would in your own vehicle—so if your child is still rear-facing in your car, he or she should also be rear-facing on the plane.

Just keep in mind that when installing a car seat on a plane, you always want to be installing it on an airline seat that is forward-facing (the direction of plane travel). If you’ve been assigned a seat that faces the rear of the plane, be sure to let a flight attendant know so you can be re-assigned.

What if There’s Confusion With the Flight Crew?

Flight attendants receive a great deal of training, and all should be familiar with the safe and proper use of car seats aboard flights. However, it is not unheard of for an inexperienced flight attendant to make mistakes here. For example, a flight attendant may approach you and ask you to install your child’s car seat to be forward-facing, even though he or she is still within the weight/size requirements for rear-facing.

If you run into any confusion or misinformation with a member of the flight crew, it is perfectly acceptable to ask him or her to refer to current FAA regulations. Some parents even choose to fly with a copy of these regulations or keep them pulled up on their phone. If a flight attendant still insists that you make changes to the way your child is restrained, it’s generally best to comply and contact the airline’s customer service after your flight. The last thing you want is to be kicked off the plane.

Tips For Traveling With a Car Seat

If you’re committed to traveling with a car seat for your next flight, there are some tips and tricks you can keep in mind to minimize the hassle and stress.

Save Money With an Infant Fare

Because your child will take up his or her own seat, your airline will likely charge you a separate fare, regardless of your kid’s size or age. This means you could end up paying the same fare for your child as you do for yourself. Yikes! Before you shell out your hard-earned money, however, check with your airline to see if they offer a discounted fare for small children. Not all airlines do, but some are a little more sympathetic to those traveling with infants and toddlers.

Consider Using a Travel System

One of the biggest challenges of using a car seat on an airplane is lugging it through the airport and onto the plane, especially if you have other luggage to carry on. This is where using a travel system can really come in handy. Specifically, travel systems include a stroller with an infant-carrier car seat that “locks” into place inside the stroller itself. This allows you to simply push the car seat (and your child) around in the stroller, making it much easier to travel throughout the airport.

Once you arrive at your gate, you will likely be asked to check the stroller. However, you can still carry the infant seat without removing your child. Keep in mind that while most travel system car seats have weight limits up to 40 pounds or more, a lot of babies “outgrow” using these car seats comfortably by the age of one year. Therefore, this option is best suited for those traveling with small infants.

Purchase a Car Seat Carrier

If you’ll be using a convertible car seat on the plane, investing in a car seat carrier will probably be your best bet. Car seat carriers come in a wide range of styles and configurations, including those with telescoping handles and wheels that allow you to roll your car seat through the airport just as you would your traditional luggage. Other car seat carriers can be worn in a backpack style. Take some time to explore your options and determine which will be best-suited for your needs. And of course, check to ensure that your specific car seat will be compatible with the carrier you select.

Bring Your Car Seat Manual

Even if you’re confident in your ability to install a car seat on the plane, it’s never a bad idea to travel with your car seat manual just to be safe. Many car seats even have storage compartments specifically designed for the manual so you never have to worry about misplacing it.

Having your car seat manual can also come in handy if you run into a conflict with a flight attendant. For example, if he or she requests that you incorrectly turn the car seat to a forward-facing position, you can politely refer to the manual for clarification. And of course, if there is any confusion as to whether your car seat is FAA-approved, this should be confirmed in the manual as well.

Request Assistance From Flight Crew

One of the few benefits of flying with children is that for most airlines, this entitles you to an early boarding position. Typically, you’ll be among the first passengers to be seated on the plane. This should give you extra time to get your kid(s) settled in while also installing any car seats as needed.

If you need any help with boarding, don’t hesitate to ask a member of the flight crew. A flight attendant can help you, for example, haul a car seat from the gate into the plane itself. He or she may also be able to assist you in locating the best seat or row for you and your family, provided that seating hasn’t already been assigned.

If You’re Not Using a Car Seat on the Flight…

Even if you won’t be using a car seat on the flight, there’s a good chance you’ll still need to travel with one. After all, your child will still need to be in a car seat if you’ll be driving a rental car or even being picked up by a taxi/ride-sharing service after you land.

Any reputable airline should allow you to check a car seat free of charge or bring one as a carry-on aboard your flight, but be sure to check with your airline ahead of time to be sure. Of course, checking a car seat may also subject it to rough handling by the crew, so this may not be recommended if you have an expensive car seat or if you want to avoid staining.

An alternative option for getting your car seat to your destination is to have it shipped. Or, if you have family or friends where you’re heading, you might consider ordering a car seat ahead of time for them to have waiting when you arrive.

Seating Configurations When Flying With a Car Seat

If your airline allows you to pick your seat(s) at the time of booking, there are some tips and tricks worth keeping in mind that can make your life easier once you board with a car seat and child in-tow.

Check Out the Online Seating Chart

When you book your flight and are prompted to select your seats, check out the seating chart to get a better idea of how full your flight might be. If you’re booking last-minute and there are still a lot of seats open, you probably won’t have a full flight, which can alleviate some stress when traveling with kids.

Aim to Reserve a Full Row

Whenever possible, you’ll want to book a full row to yourself when flying with children and car seats. If it’s just you traveling with one other child, consider booking the window and aisle seat, thus leaving the middle seat open. Unless the flight is very full, it is unlikely that somebody will choose the seat in between you. This will give you the privacy and extra space of having the entire row to yourself.

If you aren’t able to reserve a full row or if your options are limited, aim to reserve a window or center seat for your child. Most airlines won’t allow a car seat to be installed in an aisle seat, but check with your airline to be sure. Keep in mind that FAA regulations prevent car seats from being used in emergency exit rows as well.

Speak With a Flight Attendant

If you’re flying with an airline that doesn’t allow reserved seating (such as Southwest), it never hurts to speak with a member of the flight crew once you arrive at your gate or as soon as possible upon boarding your flight. These professionals have experience and training to assist you and provide you with additional guidance on which seat(s) will be best for your needs. If needed, they may even be able to encourage passengers to switch seats around so you can be best accommodated.

Keeping Things Civilized When Flying With Kids

Whether you’re using a car seat or not, flying with kids of any age can be stressful. Fortunately, there are some practical tips you can follow to make things go at least a little more smoothly.

Be Prepared for Air Pressure Changes

For toddlers and babies especially, air pressure changes inside the cabin can be uncomfortable. You can help to alleviate this discomfort during take-off and landing by offering your child a bottle or breastfeeding (if you’re currently nursing). The suckling motions can help to reduce pain due to air pressure changes at varying altitudes.

For older children, consider offering a piece of chewing gum.

Dress Your Child in Layers

The temperature on an airplane can be unpredictable, so it’s best to dress your child in layers so you can add or remove clothing as needed. For babies, a light muslin blanket can also be a quick and easy option for keeping your child comfortable without the hassle of removing or adding clothing.

Don’t Forget the Birth Certificate

If you’ll be flying with a child age two or under, there’s a good chance that you’ll need to provide his or her birth certificate or other identification before you can board. And if you’re flying internationally with your child, understand that he or she will need a passport regardless of age. It is a common misconception that newborns and infants don’t need passports, but they do.

Pack Plenty of Snacks and Toys

One of the biggest challenges of flying with children is keeping them entertained, quiet, and civilized during the flight. More than likely, you’ve been aboard a plane with an unhappy child before. The crying, the seat-kicking, and the overall restlessness of small children can affect the entire cabin. Nobody wants to be that parent—and while there’s no way to guarantee your child will be a perfect angel for the entire flight, there are some steps you can take to keep him or her occupied and (hopefully) quiet.

Start by packing plenty of snacks that your child enjoys. You might even bring some new snacks along to distract your child. Toys are also a must; consider visiting a local toy store in preparation for your trip and allow your child to pick out a toy that you only use on the plane. This will ensure the novelty and excitement of it doesn’t wear off before your trip.

When choosing toys, be mindful of other passengers. Toys that play music or make other loud noises could disrupt other passengers, as could light-up toys on a red-eye flight.

Book Flights During Naps or Bedtime

Another option to consider is booking your flight so that it lines up with your child’s usual bedtime or nap time. If you’re lucky, your child might sleep for the entire flight. Of course, it’s still a good idea to have a back-up plan, especially for children who are easily distracted or may be too excited to sleep.

For children who sleep well in the car, this is yet another reason to consider bringing a car seat with you on the plane. Your child may like the familiarity of it, and it may help him or her sleep in a new environment.

The Bottom Line

While you are under no obligation to use a car seat for your child on an airplane, there are some compelling reasons (both practical and safety-related) to consider this option. Remember that all domestic flights regulated by the FAA permit use of a car seat, so long as it has been approved by the FAA. For international flights, you’ll need to check with your airline.

If you plan on traveling with a car seat, using a travel system or a car seat carrier can make getting through the airport and onto your plane easier. Still, if you need any help, an experienced flight crew member should be able to assist you. From there, you and your child can get to your destination safely—and hopefully with as little stress as possible!