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Bringing a car seat on a flight isn’t exactly fun. So why should you consider it? Checking a car seat on an airplane seems so much easier and everyone seems to do it? In this article we’ll discuss the pros and cons to help you decide if you should baggage check or gate check a car seat or if you should bring it on board with you.
The risks of checking a car seat on a plane
1. There may not be a safe way to restrain your baby
The FAA strongly recommends that little kids ride in a car seat. Airplane seatbelts may be fine for you and me, but they don’t properly restrain passengers under 40lbs (give or take). Little hands also love to fidget with airplane seatbelt latch plates, which open extremely easily.
Read more: 10 things you NEED to know about flying with a car seat
Air travel is still one of the safest options around, but things can definitely go wrong. Runway events are blessedly rare, but severe turbulence is increasingly common due to climate change. Remember, even the coffee pots need to be secured for rough patches so that they don’t become projectiles. It’s not in anyone’s best interest for a 30lb toddler to go flying through a plane! Even in regular conditions, kids who ride as lap children face injuries from falls, food service and more – learn more about the pros and cons of flying with an infant on lap.
While airlines in other countries offer a “belly belt” to get around this problem when you fly with a baby, safety testing has shown that these devices can turn your baby into an airbag in the event of an emergency. Therefore, they are illegal in the US and Canada.
You do have one option worth considering if your child is 22-40 pounds. The AmSafe CARES harness (full review here) attaches around the seatback and adds shoulder straps to keep little kids better positioned. It’s the only FAA-approved harness, so don’t be fooled by the cheap knock-offs on Amazon! Two caveats: many parents report that it fits better beginning around 30lbs, and with smaller kids they can “submarine” and slide through the bottom. Get more info here.
2. Your car seat may be damaged by the airline
Car seats are basically designed as single-use items. After one major impact, they need to be replaced because they might not fully protect your kid in a second impact.
After seeing how checked baggage is treated by handlers the world over, I don’t care to entrust my kids’ future safety to them. A flimsy gate check car seat bag might protect from dirt and grime, but not much else. Here are some examples of what your checked items go through when they’re separated from you:
Unfortunately we’ve had reports in Tiny Globetrotters of car seats coming off the conveyer belt with pieces of foam completely broken off! Sometimes airlines are helpful and provide a replacement, but usually they aren’t responsible for damage according to their Contract of Carriage (which has exclusions for special items like strollers and car seats – this is one of those “read the fine print” situations, which in the modern era means “follow all the links”).
Don’t believe me? Reader Amy shared the photo below with me. That’s her bent, shredded, mangled car seat inside a “heavy duty car seat bag”. The airline gave it back that way when she arrived at the top of the jetway. Even the seemingly high quality car seat gate check bag couldn’t protect the car seat when flying. And of course it was late and night and raining (because it always is when you’re traveling with kids and things go wrong).
Poor reader Angie likewise entrusted her car seat to the airlines after securing it in a car seat bag for flying and this is how it was returned to her (late enough that all the local stores were closed):
Some parents assume that gate checking their car seat when they board the plane (generally in a designated car seat bag for airplane use) will avoid potential damage. It should definitely decrease the likelihood, but it can still happen. And in some airports, gate checked items like car seats and strollers are returned to you at baggage claim rather than on the jetway. So your gate check car seat may face the very perils you were trying to avoid!
Read more: Important info for traveling with car seats
3. Your car seat may not meet you at your final destination – at all
Unfortunately we’ve also had reports in Tiny Globetrotters of parents who check their car seats and don’t receive them at all on the other end. Sometimes the car seat never left the departure airport, sometimes there was confusion during a layover. Sometimes it’s anyone’s guess.
But the airline may not have an age-appropriate seat to hand you when you land and need a car seat. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. In my book, uncertainty and travelling with kids don’t mix well.
If you’re lucky, a rental car agency has one – but that’s not a guarantee even if you’ve reserved one, and they could try to offer a booster seat for your 2 year old. Alternatively, if you are traveling with another adult one of you can stay at the airport with your child while the other takes a taxi to the nearest shop (if it’s still open) try try to buy a car seat that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Not how you want to start a vacation!
If you decide on checking your car seat on the plane…
Fortunately most of the time things work out ok even if you do need to check your car seat. It’s not a risk we choose to take for our family, but everyone makes their own risk calculation. What should you do if you’ve decided that checking in a car seat on an airplane is the right choice for your family? These important tips for how to check a car seat on a flight will ensure the smoothest possible trip for everyone.
Do car seats count as checked baggage?
Not usually. You are usually allowed to check in a car seat – whether on its own or in a cardboard box – without it counting toward your baggage allowance.
Can I gate check a car seat? Is it better to gate check a car seat than to check it with luggage at the ticket counter?
It might not be as convenient as checking your car seat with baggage or even curbside, but gate checking your car seat minimizes the time and handling of your car seat by someone else. That means less opportunity for loss or damage! Check out these options for getting your car seat through the airport.
If you’re planning to gate check a car seat because you’re traveling with a lap child, you can walk up to the gate agent with your car seat and politely ask if there’s an empty seat where you can seat your baby safely in her car seat. It works a lot more often than you’d think! Remember, it’s in the crew’s best interest for babies to be strapped into a car seat so they’ll try to help when they can.
If you won’t be able to use it on board, pack it in one of these gate check bags for the flight. This car seat bag for travel offers a little bit of padding along (unlike cheaper options) and has backpack straps to carry it through the airport.
My favorite option? Bring a folding car seat and stick it in the overhead bin.
How to pack a car seat for checked baggage
Pack it really well.
If you’re baggage checking a car seat at the airport, try to pack it as best you can. Ideally you’d use a big cardboard box like the ones used for shipping – even the original one the car seat came in. Those corrugated cardboard boxes are designed to absorb energy to protect their contents! A basic car seat travel bag will be fine for cleanliness but can’t guarantee that the structure is undamaged.
There are a few heavier-duty car seat bag options that you may want to consider. If you’re traveling with a convertible car seat, readers love the Clek Weelee (compare prices here too). It’s got tons of padding and structure but folds down when not in use. The space is enough to fit even the biggest convertible and combination car seats, but some families report that they can fit two small car seats or a car seat and a booster inside. Thanks to the wheels and handle, it’s easy to get around the airport. The downside is that it’s almost as expensive as buying a new car seat and throwing it away after every trip. And there’s always the possibility that it’ll get lost in transit or misdirected.
If you’re looking for a travel bag for an infant car seat, there are two new interesting options to consider but only if you’ve already purchases a really expensive infant car seat. The UPPAbaby MESA Travel Bag and the Nuna Pipa Series Travel Bag both offer warranty coverage if you car seat is damaged by an airline while checked in its dedicated bag. It only covers their car seats in their bags and you must buy the bag new (and register it before your flight). We use UPPAbaby’s travel bag for our G-luxe years ago and it’s a very high quality product. You just have to weigh if it’s worth spending that much money on a travel bag versus purchasing an inexpensive infant car seat for travel.
Inspect thoroughly for damage
If you do check your car seat, the minute it’s back in your hot little hands you’ll want to strip it down as much as possible. Sometimes, as you’ve seen above, car seat damage is really easy to spot. Other times you’ll need to poke around. If you decide to check your car seat on a plane, commit yourself to this step! A car seat is a single-use safety device, and if it’s been damaged in-flight there’s no guarantee that it will perform as expected in a subsequent car crash.
Under the cover you need to examine the shell for stress marks – they’ll look like white streaks in the dark plastic shell. If you see clear stress marks you will need to discontinue use of the car seat. Pay special attention to the area of the shell around the belt path you use for installation (whether rear facing or forward facing).
Check the foam on the headrest and sidewings, as these pieces often break or detach with even a little abuse. If you see that kind of damage, message your manufacturer on Facbook ASAP – frequently they’ll tell you to glue the foam back on or mend it with duct tape. It’s not ideal, but can be a temporary fix if you find yourself at the airport with a damaged car seat. Depending on the extent of foam damage, your manufacturer may tell you not to use the car seat again. Note that many of the inexpensive car seats like this one don’t have foam so that’s one less thing to worry about.
If you didn’t check the car seat in a bag, take a look at all of the webbing: harness, adjuster strap, LATCH strap and top tether (if forward facing). Sometimes the webbing can get caught on the baggage equipment and shred, which would make it unsafe to use in some situations. If your LATCH strap was damaged, be sure to install with the seatbelt instead.
Don’t check your really expensive car seat
You may love your Foonf or Rava at home, but you probably don’t need every bell and whistle on the road (nor the weight). Instead you can pick up a really cheap travel car seat (or a slightly more expensive but much nicer one) to bring with you.
If it’s lost or damaged you’ll certainly be frustrated and annoyed since it’s a shitty way to start vacation. But at least you won’t be heartbroken and out $500! The pricey car seats also have more things that can break or be damaged.
Are car seats free to check? Yes, but only if the car seat is usable at the other end of your flight!
What to do if your car seat is lost or damaged by the airlines
Don’t leave the airport baggage area. The worst thing you can do if the airline loses your car seat or it’s visibly and seriously damaged is to leave the airport.
Instead, find the airline’s baggage desk and file a claim right on the spot. Make sure you take down the info from the luggage tag and snap a pic of the damage and the filled out form.
You can also try filing a claim with your travel insurance, either a separately purchased policy like this one (which has been very good to us) or through some higher-end credit cards designed for travelers.
Checking car seat on plane FAQs
Yes, on all US airlines and most non-US airlines you can take a car seat on board and use it to keep your child safe during the flight. Get more info about flying with a car seat.
Yes, all airlines permit you to check a car seat though it’s not recommended. Car seats can be lost or damaged when checked, and children under 40 pounds are safer on a plane when riding in a car seat. A car seat check bag will only prevent some superficial damage, not structural damage, so if you really need to check your car seat it’s best to use a strong cardboard box.
No, you do not have to pay to check a car seat. Airlines do not charge for checking at least one baby item per child.
No, a car seat is not generally considered a checked bag. It is considered a baby item (also sometimes called a “comfort item”). While that means it’s not part of your checked bag allowance, it also means that airlines have limited liability if your item is lost or damaged.
Yes, you can gate check a car seat. That’s a better choice than checking with luggage, as the car seat is out of your possession for less time.
Gate checking a car seat is safer than to checking it with baggage, but there’s still the risk that baggage handlers will treat it roughly and toss it on the ground. I’ve seen it happen!
What do you think about checking a car seat on a plane?