Loading

How to travel with car seats (without losing your cool)

best convertible car seat for travel

How to travel with car seats (without losing your cool)

Whether or not to bring a child’s car seat for travel and how to fly with a car seat without going crazy are always burning questions for family travelers. We’ve been through these situations many times with our own children over the years, so in this post we’ll try to address the most common questions about car seats & travel we hear when parents are planning a big trip with little kids. We’ll show you how to find the best travel car seat for your needs our best hacks to make traveling with your child’s car seat easier!

Why you should bring you child’s car seat when you fly

Let me start by acknowledging the top reason why some parents elect not to bring their children’s car seats when they travel: convenience. Lugging a child safety seat, especially a bulky convertible through airports and across continents just isn’t as much fun as not taking it, right? (Not nearly as much hassle if you have travel car seats, of course.)

Now that we have that out of the way, there are so many reasons why you should bring your child’s car seat with you for travel.

Safety on the airplane

According to the FAA, children under 40lbs are safest in an approved restraint (though they’re wrong about forward-facing at 20lbs!). There are loads of FAA approved car seats that are lightweight and easy to use – check out our recommendations below for the best car seats for airplanes. There are two times when it’s critical to have babies and small toddlers properly restrained: during take-off and landing (in case of abrupt actions) and during in-flight turbulence.

There have been enough viral videos over the last few years showing just how rough turbulence can be, and we’ve had some terrible trans-oceanic flights with our own kids when we’ve been glad to have them properly strapped in. If the coffee pots need to be tied down, your kids do too! A parent’s arms aren’t strong enough to hold a 2yo in heavy turbulence, making him a projectile – a risk to the child and the other passengers. Even if the child has a seat, the FAA has been clear that standard airplane seat belts alone won’t keep a child under 40lbs properly restrained.

Pro tip: A booster seat can’t be used on the plane, but your child can take it as his carry on!

faa approved car seats

Snug, safe and happy in her Chicco Keyfit on the long flight from LA to Germany

A word about checking car seats on a plane: it’s not recommended for several reasons. Have you ever had a suitcase damaged by baggage handlers? I have! But at least it wasn’t a life-saving device. I’ve seen videos of car seats, even those that were gate checked, being tossed around during the loading and unloading process. There may be no visible signs of damage when you get your car seat back, but there could still be undetectable stresses to the material that would diminish the seat’s ability to protect your child in a serious accident. My children have been in a major accident that left both cars totaled and I’m grateful that they were in car seats that had not been compromised in any way – they both walked away without a scratch or a bruise. The other potential problem with checking a car seat is loss; most of us have had suitcases lost by airlines as well. What should you do if your car seat is misplaced by the airline? First, make sure to file a claim before you leave the airport. Second, if you’re traveling with two adults leave one at the airport with the kids and send the other in a taxi or rental car to the closest store to buy a new seat.

Comfort on the airplane

Do you sleep well on long-haul flights? Me neither. But our kids have generally slept better than us thanks to their car seats! Especially when installed rear-facing, kids get a much more comfortable ride than the rest of us. Young ones can even prop their tablets against the seat back for their own in-flight entertainment system.

best convertible car seat for travel

Combi Coccoro (3yo) on a plane

Safety on the ground

Once you arrive at your destination, your child will need a car seat or booster seat if you plan to ride in a car. Can’t you just rent a car seat? It’s not ideal. You have no way of knowing the history of the car seat you’ll be provided: Was it in a supposedly-minor accident that could have left it compromised? Were the straps washed in a way contrary to manufacturer instructions? There’s also no way to ensure that the seat provided will be one that you think is appropriate for your child’s age and development. A car rental company may say that they have a seat for your 18mo baby, and that could be a forward-facing only combination seat. You’d potentially be left in a lurch if you realize that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends rear-facing until 2yo at a minimum, but ideally as old as 4yo. Even worse, some of the bargain-priced seats that rental car companies stock may be outgrown early and there may be no seat available that fits your child.

 

Do you need a car seat for other types of travel?

Taxi with car seat

Just because local car seat laws don’t require kids to be in a car seat, that doesn’t change the laws of physics. Kids need to be in a rear-facing car seat until at least 2, a forward-facing car seat until at least 4 and a booster seat until they can pass the 5-step test (usually 9 at the youngest). 

portable car seat for travel

Ride Safer Travel Vest (3yo) and Bubblebum (6yo) in an unexpected rental car – perfect seats for taxis if you have preschoolers or older

Do you need to bring a car seat for train travel?

No! Children on trains don’t need car seats, and there are no seat belts so at best you can store it on the luggage rack (which we’ve done). That said, if you will be flying and your child is under 40lbs or you plan to take a taxi at any point… bring the seat.

What about taking baby on the bus?

If your ground transportation revolves around buses and you don’t plan to take any taxis, you might be able to get away without car seats! Buses have a few safety advantages over passenger cars: they’re big, so they fare better in a collision; city buses tend to drive very slowly (though that’s not true of long-distance buses); and they are often built with compartmentalization in mind to prevent passengers from flying around. If you’re taking long-distance buses and you think (or can confirm) that they’ll have seat belts, taking a car seat for babies and toddlers is probably a good idea.

Bringing car seats on a cruise ship

Cruises can present unique challenges when it comes to baby gear due to the extremely limited storage space in state rooms. If you don’t plan to disembark during your voyage or will remain within walking distance of the ports, you can probably leave the car seats at home and just enjoy you time at sea! If you’ll need your car seat before or after the cruise you can always request that your seats be stored in the cargo hold so that they don’t occupy the precious closet space in your room. Some large group excursions will use tour buses, in which case you probably don’t need to bring car seats (see the bus discussion above); however, if you plan to rent a car, take a taxi or go in a van for an excursion you’ll want to pick a portable car seat from the list below.

 

How to transport your car seat through the airport

One of the biggest reasons parents don’t like to bring a car seat on the plane is the hassle of getting through the airport. Look, it’s definitely more of a hassle than not lugging a seat through the airport. But there are a few great options for how to take a car seat through the airport that will make your life easier.

Use the stroller as a trolley

Our favorite strategy for transporting car seats through the airport is to use the stroller! There are a few different configurations and it depends in part on the stroller and car seat you have.

If you’re bringing a small seat like an infant car seat or my beloved Combi Coccoro car seat and your stroller has a big basket with good access, you can try tucking the car seat underneath! We’ve done this many times with our Baby Jogger Versa (now the Baby Jogger City Premier) and it would be a great strategy if you have the Uppababy Vista or Uppababy Cruz.

If you have a short, lightweight car seat (check out our recommendations below) you can also extend the canopy of your stroller and rest it on top with the car seat upside down. I’d only recommend this trick if your stroller has a big canopy like the Baby Jogger line or the Uppababy line (I’ve done it with our G-Luxe). Obviously this configuration can be more precarious than the basket, but it does the trick for getting through the airport.

Pro tip: If you’re doing this with a lightweight convertible car seat like the Combi Coccoro convertible car seat or the Cosco Scenara, try looping the attached top tether strap around the stroller handle bar for extra stability.

car seat transporter

Chicco Keyfit on top of an Uppababy G-Luxe – it wasn’t pretty, but it did the trick

The easiest place to put a car seat when you’re moving through the airport is in the stroller seat itself. We do that very often, typically with the stroller seat reclined fully, and then we pile our carry on bags in the car seat. The kids either walk or ride in our Tula carrier (we started with the standard size, but have now upgraded to toddler size).

car seat transporter

Chicco Keyfit in the basket and Combi Coccoro on the seat of our Baby Jogger Versa

Car seat transporter accessories

If you don’t mind buying another accessory, there are a few accessories you can buy to ease the burden of transporting your stroller through the airport.

Car seat travel cart

A car seat travel cart can be a great help for getting through the airport. These carts essentially add wheels to your seat so that you can pull it along like wheeled luggage – all while your child is riding comfortably! You can even wheel them straight down the aisle of the airplane and then fold them to stow in the overhead bin. These designs are supposedly universal which means that they’ll probably fit your car seat, but they’ll also require a few straps to be secure. These carts tend to be pricey, so they may only be worthwhile for frequent travelers or those who can split the cost with family or friends.

Car seat strap

Instead of turning your car seat into stroller, you could attach it to your wheeled suitcase! This option is much less expensive and takes up much less space, but it won’t work for backpackers. There are a few different strap designs but they all work with the same concept. One time we even used bungee cords to do the same thing.

Standard rolling luggage cart

If you’d rather not buy a specialized product, you can always just take the car seat on a standard folding luggage cart. They’re affordable and you can find lightweight models, but please don’t try to let your child ride along through the airport.

Best car seats for airplanes

If your child is a frequent traveler, owning a lightweight car seat for travelling abroad is crucial for getting through the airport, rental car shuttles and taxis. We love our full-sized, full-features seats at home but would never dream of transporting 50lbs of car seats to the other side of the world. Here are our favorite travel-worthy car seats for kids of all ages (we actually own most of them).

Best car seat for travel with an infant:

You’re in luck! Usually you can just use your infant car seat. Our Chicco Keyfit served us well for many trips. To save weight and bulk, leave the base at home and install with the seatbelt instead. In some countries, the seatbelts do not lock at the retractor so you’ll need to bring an old-school locking clip. If your car seat didn’t come with one, you can buy a locking clip here. Here’s a great video from The Car Seat Lady on how to use a locking clip.

A few infant car seats have a built-in lock off, so you can avoid the locking clip hassle altogether.

 

If your infant will have more passport stamps than a flight crew or you live in a big city where you mostly take public transit check out the Doona car seat stroller combo, the infant car seat that magically becomes a stroller! I haven’t used one in a car but I did get a chance to play with it and I was impressed. Others who have used it say that it lives up to the hype. Stroll up to the taxi door, retract the handle and wheels, then install as you would any other infant seat.

If you want to skip the infant car seat step and plan to fly with baby often, check out the Combi Coccoro car seat below.

 

Travel toddler car seat options:

Here are some choices for the best convertible car seat for travel. We look for light weight and ease of installation. Every country we’ve visited in Europe has had lower anchors for LATCH/ISOFIX, though top tethers for forward-facing kids are not yet universal; if you’re traveling outside of the developed world you should bring a locking clip just in case and know how to use it.

 

Combi Coccoro Review

We love the Combi Coccoro! Shoshana actually rides in this seat daily at home and we’ve taken it on every trip for the last five years. While it’s a pricey seat, after two kids we feel we’ve gotten our money’s worth. This is our favorite portable car seat for travel, and the one that we’re bringing on our year-long family trip around the world. It’s an especially great car seat for travelling abroad due to the multiple installation methods.

What we like:

  • Light and compact – no problem rear-facing on tiny planes
  • Narrow seat is great for 3-across
  • Lots of padding makes it comfortable for kids
  • Comes with a simple external lock-off for rear facing and has a great built in lock-off for forward facing – ideal for travel to countries with seat belts that don’t lock, which is much of the world
  • Premium push-on LATCH connectors
  • Easy to install at a range of angles, so you can recline your child more for sleeping in-flight

What we don’t like:

  • Combi Coccoro infant insert is required until 25lbs
  • Rear-facing mode is outgrown at 36” or 33lbs (average 2.5yo)
  • Forward-facing mode is outgrown at 40” or 40lbs (average 3y9m)
  • It’s pricey, especially given the relatively short lifespan

Cosco Scenera NEXT Review

The Cosco Scenera NEXT is not designed as a travel seat; rather, it’s designed as an affordable way for families to keep their children rear-facing until at least 2yo (as the AAP recommends) but as long as 4yo. Note that rear-facing is required by this seat until at least 2yo, and that the forward-facing mode is outgrown around 3yo (versus ~4yo for rear-facing). It also happens to be a popular travel car seat for preschoolers because of its light weight and $50 price tag. If you’re an infrequent traveler, this is the car seat to buy. Pro tip: the solid colors have much nicer, more cushioned covers than the patterns.

What we like:

  • Ultra-low price tag for a functional seat
  • Light weight convertible car seat – only 7lbs!
  • Narrow seat is great for 3-across
  • Rear-facing mode fits newborn until almost 4yo

What we don’t like:

  • Patterned cover has absolutely no padding
  • Taller shell makes it harder to install on planes with narrow seat pitch
  • Car installation/removal isn’t always easy – cheaper hook-on LATCH connectors, and pull strap can be very stiff to tighten
  • Continuous harness can be tough to use for a heavier child, especially forward facing; sometimes pulling the strap causes the entire seat to pivot when installed on leather seats

Safety 1st Guide 65 Review

We haven’t tried this seat (though friends have), but we’ve heard that it can be a good choice for travel with older infants and toddlers. It’s almost as affordable as the Cosco seat above, with some versions priced under $75. It offers more room forward-facing and a higher weight limit, but isn’t as ideally suited for younger travelers. It weighs a moderate 15lbs, but probably wouldn’t be my top choice as a car seat to install in unfamiliar rental cars.

What we like:

  • Affordable price tag
  • Compact for kids over 22lbs
  • Relatively light weight

What we don’t like:

  • Doesn’t fit average babies until 6mo – don’t buy this for a newborn or young infant!
  • Required recline position for babies under 22lbs is very reclined and takes up a lot of space, not ideal for smaller cars found in many countries
  • Installation can be tricky and might require a pool noodle

Travel car seats for older preschoolers and early elementary:

Once your child is ready to turn forward-facing, around 3 or 4yo, a combination seat (forward-facing harness that changes into a high-back booster) is a great light-weight option if you choose the right one. When your child is old enough and mature enough (usually around age 5) you can move on to a portable booster seat to make your travels even lighter – keep reading to find the best travel booster car seat or combination seat.

Evenflo Maestro Review/Evenflo Securekid Review

Evenflo’s combination seats are a great choice for travel thanks to their light weight and ease of use. We use the Securekid every day! The Maestro’s lifespan is a little shorter than the Securekid’s due to its fixed headrest, but they’ll both last kids for several years, are light enough for travel and can be found under $100.

What we like:

  • Affordable price tag
  • Lasts from age 3 (as a forward-facing harness) until roughly age 9 (as a high-back booster seat)
  • Extremely easy to install in a range of cars (especially the Securekid DLX)

What we don’t like:

  • No built-in lock-off
  • No harness strap covers

Ride Safer travel vest (Ride Safer Delight) Review

Check out our full review of the latest Ride Safer travel vest, the Delight, but it’s now an indispensable piece of travel gear for our family. The Ride Safer travel vest is truly a game-changer, in that it provides a safe restraint for kids 3 and up (though we feel more comfortable using it for age 4 and up, especially if there’s no top tether and/or parent sitting in back).

What we like:

  • Extremely portable
  • Provides better support and protection than a traditional booster seat, especially for sleeping kids
  • Works in any car with a lap-shoulder belt – no worries about compatibility with an unfamiliar rental car
  • Only as big as your child, perfect for tiny rental cars abroad

What we don’t like:

  • Not as easy to use as a car seat
  • Can get uncomfortable after several hours of driving
  • No view out the window

Read our full review of the Ride Safer travel vest (including video demos!)

Bubblebum car seat

We recently started using the Bubblebum as backup for Jacob (almost 6yo) and it’s certainly convenient to have around! It’s an inflatable cushion that has a positioning clip on each side to keep the lap belt in place and an optional clip to position the shoulder belt at the right spot. It’s an awesome portable car seat for travel! It folds up into a small stuff sack, about the size of a very compact sleeping bag. Inflating is a breeze and Jacob is learning how to get himself in and out.

What we like:

  • Extremely portable
  • Easy to set up and use
  • Kids can still see out the window
  • Comfortable
  • Very narrow

What we don’t like:

  • Adjusting the optional shoulder clip to the right height takes a little practice
  • No support for sleeping kids

Car seats & travel – wrapping up

Anyone who has traveled with a young child before knows that you have to accept bringing along some extra gear. Just as you wouldn’t consider car seats option when driving around at home, you should consider them optional on the move. Hopefully some of these suggestions while make travel with car seats easier for your family. Please leave any questions below!

Some links in this post may be affiliate links, for which I receive a small commission at no additional expense to you. Using these links helps support the site and keep our family traveling. Please see the full disclosure for more information.

Pin it for later!

Do you have questions about how to travel with your child's car seat? Click to find all the answers you need! We'll tell you when you do (and don't) need to bring a car seat, how to get it through the airport, and the BEST portable car seats for travel! #familytravel #kids #safety #carseats #baby #toddler

Wanderlust Kids

Plutonium Sox

Melissa

5 Comments

  • Momma To Go

    wow thats alot of info! right now, my kids are 6 and 8 so we have been through all the stages and are now at the point where they are both in a backless booster. We check those with the luggage and its all good. easy to use on the cab to and from airport and they are fine with the lap belt on the plane. BUT we have been through the snap and go with the infant seat, and then I had a Britax Boulevard – the smallest Britax of the line (I bought it in 09) and it fit in the airplane seat. I had a JJ Childress backpack to transport it. At one point we had two kids in big car seats and had two of the backpacks. those were great. I even did an CARES harness rental one time for my son. When he really didnt need the big car seat on the plane BUT I didnt trust him to keep the lap belt closed ( I think he was about 3.5) great wrap up

    September 11, 2017 at 7:41 am
  • Wandermust Mummy

    This is an essential read for parents. We always travel with ours

    October 4, 2017 at 1:43 am
  • TravelingWithOurKids (@twok_blog)

    Great post. We have rented a car seat on a few occasions but always turned out more stressful than needed. So now we travel with our own car seats. So much easier! #fearlessfamtrav

    October 4, 2017 at 1:44 pm
  • Plutonium Sox Blog (@PlutoniumSox)

    This is really helpful, I never would have thought about needing a car seat in a plane. I just had my little girl on my lap when I travelled with her as a baby, I can see having read this that a car seat would have been saver. Lots of brilliant tips, thanks for linking up to #familytraveltips
    Nat.x

    October 13, 2017 at 4:02 am
  • BattleMum

    Wow, what a brilliant and comprehensive post. A great post for families who travel with young children. It gives clear options for most stages and alternative ideas to rent-a-car seats. Thanks for linking up to #wanderlustkids

    October 19, 2017 at 7:34 am
LEAVE A COMMENT

Tell us what you think!

%d bloggers like this: