Let’s face it, for traveling families, car seats are a huge pain in the behind. Trips with little kids are difficult, period. When you add the “beast” (aka car seat) into the mix, they can become a nightmare.
We took our daughter on her first flight when she was ten months old. It didn’t go well, no so much because of the car seat, but thanks to diarrhea. But I really wanted to attend my brother-in-law’s wedding, so we went.
When she was eighteen months old, we took her to Europe to visit family. My sister just had a baby, and I really wanted to meet my new nephew. It was a difficult trip, and dragging car seat was responsible for at least 50% of the misery. I had to install and uninstall the darn thing in four planes and ten different cars. Not fun.
Do you see a common theme? Each time we had to visit family/attend an important event. So that’s my first piece of advice. If you can put off airplane travel until your kids are older, I recommend doing so.
Obviously, it will depend on a trip and its complexity. But honestly, when I see people talking about taking their three little kids (plus their car seats) to Europe and visiting five countries, I cringe.
If you are the type of person who will have fun under those type of circumstances, more power to you. You sir/madam win a “traveling parent of the year” award! But this blog is meant for mere mortals.
Full disclosure: my kids are out of “baby” stage now, and I’m not up-to-date on all the latest gadgets. But the principles still apply. Keep in mind, what worked for us may not work for you because every child is different.
When your kid needs a car seat
If he/she is very little, you can simply bring your infant seat (minus car base) with you. Make sure it’s certified for use on airplanes, which most are. There should be a sticker on the side indicating this. Foreign airlines might give you a hard time about using it during flight, so be prepared to argue your case calmly.
If you do end up bringing infant seat, the most logical stroller solution is a specially designed frame, like this one on Amazon (affiliate link):
That way, you can simply snap the seat into frame when the need arises. And it will! All of this assumes that you bought a separate seat for your baby. If the plane is not sold out, the flight attendant will try to accommodate you. Otherwise, be prepared to check in your seat at the gate. Make sure you have a cover of some sort just in case (a big garbage bag will do).
Things get tricky when your baby has outgrown the infant seat (at around 1-year mark or possibly sooner). You will have several options:
1) Bring a convertible car seat with you
In that case, I recommend getting something light, like this Cosco Scenera model that weighs less than 10 pounds and costs around $50 (affiliate link below):
I took my Britax Roundabout with me (the compact version), but they no longer manufacture it. All Britax car seats are huge these days, so if you have one, I recommend leaving it at home.
You can also get a collapsible Safety 1st Go Hybrid Booster/Car Seat that comes with its own bag. You can’t use it on the airplane, but you can bring it as a carry-on. It looks like the seat was discontinued awhile back, but you can still buy it for $200 via few websites. Here is one (non-affiliate link)
You can watch the full review on YouTube I’m surprised that this hybrid car seat/booster is no longer manufactured because it was quite useful for my family back in the day.
We kept it in grandma’s car when not taking it on trips. It’s compact and handy if you need to fit three kids in the back. Be aware, top tether (comes standard in cars manufactured in 2000 and later) is required.
Also, using latch is way easier than threading a vehicle’s seat belt. I recommend you consider buying it while it’s still available. If you can afford it, of course. This is a truly unique travel product. I haven’t found anything similar on the market, though I didn’t spend hours doing research.
2) Rent Cares harness on Ebay or buy one on Amazon (affiliate link below)
I rented one for my then 2.5 year old son when we went to Canada in 2013. Here are a few observations. I do recommend this contraption, but I think it’s a better fit for kids who are 2-3. It says that one-year-olds can use it, but I just don’t see how. Perhaps your experience was different, so feel free to chime in.
Obviously, if you rent the harness, you will need a car seat when you land. Well, assuming you are not planning to use public transportation 100% of the time (too difficult with little kids, trust me).
You can, of course, rent a car seat from car rental company. If you have a relative picking you up, ask them to buy a cheap model like Cosco Scenera ahead of time. If you plan to fly there a few times per year, the seat will be waiting for you, so may as well invest in it right away. If you only need car transfer from the airport and back, you can book one ahead of time and pay extra for a car seat.
When your kid needs a booster
That’s when things get much easier. Around age 4, you can finally put them in a booster during trips. At home, I’ve kept mine in car seats till age 5, but I didn’t want to mess with “the beast” on vacations.
Boosters are not approved for use on airplanes, but at that point your kid should be fine using a regular seatbelt. So, assuming your munchkin is big enough for a booster, you have several options as well:
1) Buy a booster substitute like BubbleBum (affiliate link below)
I have mixed feelings on this product. On the one hand, it takes very little space, which is always welcome in family travel. It deflates to almost nothing.
On the other hand, I didn’t feel 100% comfortable using it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s better than nothing because it gives your kid a lift when they are not big enough for a regular seat belt.
But this contraption was sliding way too much on the seat and made me feel uneasy. I simply don’t trust it. That’s why after using it in Europe once, I opted to bring a regular booster next time. More on it below.
2) This Cosco booster is cheap, lightweight and doesn’t take up too much space in your luggage (affiliate link below):
Obviously, it’s not as compact as BubbleBum, but to me it feels ten times sturdier. We have this exact model and so far, I haven’t had issues with compatibility in any car we’ve used. YMMV
Here is a helpful comment from reader Erik: “Some countries, like Australia, require high-back booster seats to be legal, so we bought a Harmony Folding Travel Booster seat for our trip. It is light and folds up into a little cube. That cube can fit into a large duffle – you simply have to measure the dimensions and find the appropriate bag. We’ve continued to use these seats in our regular car and they have lasted 4+ years so far. The product link is https://www.harmonyjuvenile.com/us_en/products/high-back-booster-seats/folding-travel-booster-seat.htm”
Dealing with car seats is a pain when you are home, and much more so during trips. That said, I recommend you don’t skip having one on your vacation. Terrible things can happen anywhere. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Sure, you may have to pay extra and put up with nuissance in order to take care of the logistics, but it’s worth it to protect the most precious possession: your child. (Not trying to sound preachy, I promise).
Readers, please share your own recommendations!
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.