Checking a car seat on an airplane: 3 risks to consider [+ more important tips]

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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).

Don’t believe me? Reader Amy shared this photo 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. And of course it was late and night and raining (because it always is when you’re traveling with kids and things go wrong).

Some parents assume that gate checking their car seat when they board the plane 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 will ensure the smoothest possible trip for everyone.

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. It 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 protect a car seat when flying

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 car seat travel bag will be fine for cleanliness but can’t guarantee that the structure is undamaged.

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!

What to do if your car seat is lost or damaged by the airlines

Clipboard with travel insurance claim form and pen on wooden desk background

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.

What do you think about checking a car seat on a plane?

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