Bringing a car seat on the plane isn't required, but it's the safest way to fly with your young child. Though children under 2 are allowed to sit on your lap for free on domestic flights, you may decide you'd rather buy your baby or toddler a ticket so they can fly in their car seat. If so, make sure the seat is FAA-approved, and reserve a window seat for it next to you. Kids can fly in car seats until they reach 40 pounds, or no longer use a car seat in the car.
Should I use a car seat on a plane?
You're not required to, but experts strongly recommend that children under the age of 2 be securely fastened in certified child restraints on airplanes. That means either an approved car seat or a CARES harness (see below). The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) all echo this recommendation.
Legally you may carry a child up to 2 years old on your lap. A "lap child" is free of charge on domestic flights. For international travel, there's usually a reduced fare. But unexpected turbulence – the most common cause of pediatric injuries on a plane – can send your lap-carried child flying out of your arms. And in a crash, they could be crushed against your body.
The law mandates that everything in an airplane cabin be battened down during takeoff, landing, and turbulence – except children young enough to ride on their parents' lap. The NTSB has been recommending that the FAA require child restraints for children under 2 on airplanes since 1979. But FAA analyses have found that many families would drive instead of fly if forced to buy an extra airline ticket. And driving, they point out, is a far more dangerous way to travel.
Still, nobody denies that using a car seat for a child under 2 is the safest way for them to travel in a plane.
Having your child ride in a car seat on a plane means you'll need to pay for another ticket for the seat – unless you want to chance there being an open seat near you and the airline allowing you to use it. If you bring a car seat onto the plane and an unoccupied, adjoining seat isn't available, the gate agent will check the car seat to your final destination, and your child will sit in your lap.
Voluntarily paying for another ticket can be a tough expense to stomach when riding free on your lap is an option. But in addition to safety, a separate seat can make for a more relaxing trip. Children who are used to being buckled up in the car will know what to expect. It'll also be easier to play games, distract your baby, and offer your child snacks if they're in their own seat.
Also, you may need that car seat at your destination. And if you're bringing a car seat that snaps into a stroller, you can roll the stroller right up to the gate, take out the car seat, check the stroller (for free) at the gate and proceed to board with your car seat.
When your plane lands, the stroller will be waiting for you as you de-board the plane. Snap your car seat back into it, and you won't need to carry the seat to baggage claim, your next flight, or your transportation.
To ease the sting of the additional ticket, you can contact the airlines and ask if they offer reduced rates for small children. Some provide discounted fares. Here are a few other things to keep in mind:
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- If you plan to hold your child on your lap, most airlines require that you add them to your ticket, even though there's no charge. (Ask your airlines.)
- An adult passenger may only carry one lap-held child, so if you're traveling with more than one child under 2, you'll need an adult for each of them (ideally!), or you'll need to purchase a seat for any child without an adult lap to sit in.
- Most airlines require that a baby be at least 7 days old to fly. If your baby is younger, you'll probably need a letter from a doctor authorizing the travel.
Once your child is 2 years old, you'll need to purchase a seat for them. The FAA recommends that children under 40 pounds continue to use a car seat and that children over 40 pounds use the seat belt on the airplane seat. The AAP recommends that you continue to use a car seat on a plane for any child who uses one in a car. Once your child reaches the age that they use a booster seat in a car, they can switch to the airplane seat belt.
What kind of car seat can I use on an airplane?
Your car seat must meet FAA-approved child safety seat specifications. Most rear-facing and forward-facing car seats meet FAA approval, but check your car seat for language confirming this. Look for a sticker that says (in red lettering): "This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft." Flight attendants look for the label, and you may run into problems if it's missing.
U.S. airlines must accept FAA-approved car seats, but international airlines may have different rules. Always check beforehand with the airlines.
The FAA recommends a rear-facing car seat for children weighing less than 20 pounds and a forward-facing car seat for children who weigh between 20 and 40 pounds.
A few more tips about what kind of car seat to use on an airplane:
- Measure your child's seat. To fit into a typical coach seat, the car seat should be no wider than 16 inches (though you can lift the airplane seat's armrest to accommodate slightly wider car seats). Also, some seats are a bit wider. You can verify the width of your seat when you book your flight and reserve your seats.
- You may opt for an infant car seat (which is lighter than a convertible or all-in-one car seat) when traveling with a baby. It's lighter than a convertible or all-in-one seat, and if it's part of a travel system, you can pop it in and out of the stroller to make getting around the airport (and your destination) easier.
- You can also purchase a car seat travel cart for rolling any car seat around an airport. Once you get to the gate, you can check the cart and it will be waiting for you when you get off the plane. There are even travel belts that allow you to fasten a car seat onto your rolling luggage for easy transport.
- Booster seats aren't allowed on planes. Boosters require lap and shoulder belts, which aren't available on a plane. If your child is big enough for a booster seat, they can safely use the aircraft's seat belt.
Be sure to schedule plenty of time between any connecting flights, if possible. You'll need time to gather your child and all your things – luggage, car seat, stroller – get to your next flight and install the car seat on the next plane.
Which plane seats should I reserve?
When booking your flight, you'll want to reserve specific seats when traveling with a car seat. Here are some tips for choosing seats:
- Choose rows with the most leg room, like the bulkhead, when possible.
- To avoid blocking the escape path in case of an emergency, don't place your car seat in an exit row. (Airlines restrict the use of car seats in these rows. Some also restrict the rows on either side of exit rows.)
- Reserve adjoining seats with your child's seat.
- Avoid first class and business class, unless you know the car seat can be installed there. (Sometimes they can't because of the seat angles.)
- Reserve the window seat for your child's car seat. (Many airlines require this placement.) This allows easier exit for everyone in an emergency. And you'll want to avoid the aisle seat anyway, because of the potential danger of nearby beverage carts and items falling from overhead bins. In fact, children under 12 (whether or not they're in a car seat) shouldn't sit in an aisle seat for these reasons.
How do I use a car seat on a plane?
When you get to the gate, tell the attendant that you'll be installing a car seat. They may allow you to board early. (Families with children often get to board early, but if not, hopefully you can board and install your car seat before others start piling into the plane.)
The car seat can be installed rear-facing or forward-facing, depending on which is safest for your child. You'll install your infant car seat without the base.
In some instances, you'll need a seatbelt extension to secure a car seat. Some aircraft seats, typically in bulkhead rows, are equipped with a seatbelt that has a built-in, inflatable airbag. In these seats, an extension must be used to deactivate the airbag, which could injure an infant or young child. The flight attendant can provide you with the extension, if needed, and help you install it correctly.
The FAA provides these directions for installing a rear-facing car seat on a plane (also, read yourcar seat manual for specific directions):
- Raise the arm of the seat.
- Place the car seat rear facing in the center of a forward-facing plane seat.
- Check that the incline of the seat is correct (as you would do when installing in a car).
- The seat belt will travel over the lap of the car seat. So thread the belt through the beltways on each side of the seat, bringing the belt up over the car seat (not behind it).
- Tighten the belt as tight as possible.
- Test the seat. You shouldn't be able to move it more than one inch forward or backward or side to side. If you can, try again until it's tight.
To install a forward-facing car seat on a plane (which is much like installing one in a vehicle using the lap belt), the FAA provides these directions:
- Raise the arm of the seat.
- Place the car seat in the center of the plane seat, facing forward.
- Thread the seat belt through the belt pad, behind the seat pad, as you would in a vehicle.
- Fasten the seat belt and pull it as tight as possible. You may get more leverage if you can press into the seat with your knee as you pull the belt tight.
- Test the seat to see if it's secure. If it moves more than an inch forward or side to side, you need to reinstall it.
- Lower the arm rest, if possible.
Here's a video from the FAA showing the process.
What are my other options besides using a car seat on a plane?
If you don't want to use a car seat and your child is younger than 2, you can hold them on your lap or try these options:
Child Aviation Restraint System (CARES). This is an airplane harness device that's suitable for children at least 1 year old who weigh between 22 and 44 pounds. CARES is the only harness device approved by the FAA. (It's not approved for use in cars.)
CARES is easy to carry (it weighs less than a pound), easy to install, and can be attached to any airplane seat. Like car seats, CARES can be used in a window seat or center seat, except in the emergency exit rows. The devices are sold online and in some retail stores.
Make sure yours has an "FAA Approved" label on it. Counterfeit products are being sold online, and these aren't safe. It should say "FAA Approved in Accordance with 14 CFR 21.8(d), Approved for Aircraft Use Only" or "FAA Approved in Accordance with 14 CFR 21.305(d), Amd 21.50 6-9-1980, Approved for Aircraft Use Only."
Sleeper seat. Some international airlines offer sleeper seats for an added fee. These are three seats in a row with locking seat extensions that create a sleeper seat big enough for a parent and child.
Skycots. Some international airlines have onboard bassinets called skycots for babies under 6 months old and weighing less than 20 pounds. These are attached to the wall and can be used when the plane isn't taking off, landing, or experiencing turbulence. They're available for passengers in select seats for some flights. You can request one when you reserve your tickets.
If you use a sleeper seat or skycot, your child still needs to be buckled into a car seat or held in your lap during takeoff and landing and if there's any turbulence.
- Questions to ask the airline before flying with small children
- Car seat safety: Everything you need to know