Navigating: Car Seats on the Plane

Flying solo with a baby or toddler can be stressful, but this part is straightforward if you’re prepared.

Q. Do I have to have a car seat for my infant on the plane?
No. You don’t have to use a car seat, or even buy your child separate seat at all, as long as they are 24 months or younger. However, both the Federal Aviation Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommend using an FAA-approved child restraint device like a car seat.

Q. Do I have to buy a separate seat if my child is using a car seat?
Yes. If your child is young enough to ride free, you may be able to find an unsold empty seat for him on the day of the flight, but you don’t want to count on that.

Q. Are there special “airplane” car seats, or can I use the same one I use in the car?
Look for a label on the car seat that reads, in red letters: This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.

CARES Harness

Q. What are the other “child restraint systems” that will work on the plane?
The Child Aviation Restraint System (CARES) harness is the only FAA-approved alternative. It’s only for children over 1 year, between 22 and 44 pounds, and under 40 inches tall. You can buy them from Amazon for $70.

Q. Will my regular car seat fit in the airplane seat?
The FAA recommends that seats be a maximum of 16 inches wide. However, parents who travel frequently report good luck with seats up to 18 inches wide.

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 Q. Which car seats do most people use on the plane?

Popular FAA-approved narrow seats include:

Graco SnugRide
Chicco KeyFit
Cosco Light ’n Comfy
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Cosco Scenera NEXT

Q. How do I secure the seat once it’s on the plane?
Airlines seats only have a lap belt, not shoulder belts or LATCH. Practice installing your seat rear- or forward-facing with a lap belt before your flight, if possible. Attendants are generally not prepared to help with installation, but with a little practice, you won’t need them.


Q. How am I supposed to carry my baby, the car seat, a stroller, a diaper bag, and my own luggage? By relying on one of humankind’s most genius inventions: the wheel! Here’s how it works: Get to the airport, put your baby in a carrier, rent a luggage cart, and pile everything on it. Check your luggage, including the stroller but not the car seat or diaper bag. Dump the rental cart—you can’t take it through security—and put your car seat and diaper bag into a rolling transporter like the Brica Roll ’n Go ($60) or Go-Go Babyz Travelmate ($85). As long as your baby’s in a sling, wrap, or soft structured carrier, you can carry her through the scanners and TSA check-in.

Brica Roll ’n’ Go Transporter

Q. I can’t carry my baby!
If you have a stroller that holds an infant car seat, keep using it to hold your baby and gear until you get to the gate. Take your baby out, fold the stroller, and put the car seat and stroller on the security conveyer. Ask the staff for help if you can’t do this one-handed. Your stroller will be checked and waiting for you in baggage claim. The CARES Harness used with a gate-checked stroller, or a luggage strap like the ones below may also work well.

Q. I have twins. What now?
Start with the suggestions for getting to the plane from “I can’t carry my baby!” above. Use a twin baby carrier and a twin stroller with car seats. Alternately, the Go-Go Babyz Travelmate is sold in a 2-pack for $140 and works for kids aged 6 months and up; you can pull both behind you and sling your diaper bag across your shoulder.

Q. I want to carry on my suitcase.
Inexpensive (about $20) straps from The Traveling Toddler and Go-Go Babyz harness your toddler’s car seat to carry-on luggage. Then you can carry your baby, or put him in the car seat for a roll-along ride.

Q. Can I really get all this stuff on the plane?
You can and you will. Most airlines offer families traveling with young children the chance to pre-board, or you can ask for early boarding at the gate if you need time to set up.