Every parent knows that family travel involving toddlers requires quite a bit (read A LOT) of planning.
You need to make sure that you have comfort toys, enough things to hold the children’s attention on public transportation for the entire trip, extra clothes, snacks, the buggy and the car seat. The first three are all items that you can squirrel away in your luggage but the buggy and the car seat are bulky and can be problematic.
The car seat, which is often the bulkiest, also usually gets left behind. I find this fascinating because the car seat also happens to be the most important. And I know, I traveled 3 times before coming across information that made me think that, “Yes, I’m going to be travelling with the car seat for as long as my little boy needs to be in one.”
This guide will teach you how to travel with a car seat sans buggy because our system doesn’t really need a buggy.
Like most parents who love to travel, I wanted to introduce my son early to the joys of discovering new places, people and cultures. He’s now two and has travelled to 3 different continents and 5 different countries several times. Nothing like Mozart yet but that is eventually the plan.
Anyway, it took us awhile to figure out how to travel with a car seat. Now that we have, we’re sharing the information with you.
How to travel with a car seat
There are only three steps you need to take if you want to travel with a car seat for your toddler.
You need to make sure that you choose the right car seat AKA the flight-approved car seat.
Next, you need to choose the right travel accessory. No matter how light your car seat may be, you still need to transport it quickly and easily.
Finally, you need to choose the right airlines. All US airlines allow the use of child restraint systems but if you’re going internationally, you’re gonna have to check. Different airlines have different systems and sometimes it’s best to send them an email so you get an emailed reply.
I’ll be writing a post soon about how important this emailed reply was.
I. Choose the right car seat.
What criteria do you use when deciding what car seat to buy?
If you know that you’ll be travelling a lot, then portability can be a major factor. If you’re passionate about best practice, you’ll probably want to rear-face as long as possible.
Now, in our case, we knew we will be taking a long haul about once every year (with any luck, maybe more) so we knew we needed something that is flight-approved, portable and a convertible.
Another point to remember is that different car seats are available in different countries. So you need to factor in where you’re from and where you’re going.
For example, we decided to buy a Diono Radian 5, available from Amazon UK because it’s flight-approved by TUV Rheinland, the seat folds up so it’s actually quite narrow and it rear-faces up to a whopping 25kg.
The downside is that it looks a bit bulky (which freaks out the ground staff and flight attendants) and it’s extremely heavy because it’s got a steel alloy frame.
This is where choosing the right travel accessory came in.
Anyway, before we give you the secret accessory we used to make travel with a car seat easier, let me give you a list of car seats that you can consider getting if you’ll be doing a lot of traveling.
Top flight-approved car seats in North America
I find it really strange that this car seat barely makes it to any list of car seats to use for travel.
OK, maybe not so strange. It does weigh quite a bit at about 15kgs (26.8lbs) so maybe people think it’s too heavy?
Personally, I don’t think it matters because you’ll be pulling it with your amazing travel accessory, remember?
Anyway, what’s more important is that this seat allows your child to rear-face until 20kgs (45lbs) and forward face until 55kgs (120lbs)!
Also, like our own Diono Radian 5, this has a foldable seat so it’s actually pretty thin. High-backed, yes, but thin so you can squeeze it through the narrow gap that airlines like to call the aisle.
It’s also pretty narrow, not 16 inch narrow but narrow enough to fit most plane seats with no bother.
I would highly recommend this one.
An excellent travel car seat of choice, the Combi Compact Coccoro Convertible Car Seat is half the weight of the Diono Radian (about 7kgs / 15.5lbs) .
It’s also unbelievably compact, measuring a mere 15.5 inches, so you won’t have to do anything more than pull it through the aisle when you’re travelling.
The reason why I personally probably wouldn’t buy it (other than the fact that I’m in the UK and it’s not available here), is that your child can only rear-face up to 15kgs (33lbs).
Since I’m a stickler for road safety (my two year old now says, “Seatbelt on, mam, safety first.”), that upper weight limit doesn’t make me feel too confident.
I won’t go into the details here but let’s just say that current research shows that rear-facing (and for longer) is 5x safer than forward-facing.
A firm favourite, this car seat is usually in the list of best travel car seats.
It’s 17 inches wide and the seat isn’t portable so you won’t be able to pull it all the way to your seat because chances are, it would be too wide to fit through the aisle.
But it doesn’t really matter because the Cosco Scenera Next is extremely lightweight at 4.7kgs (10.4lbs) so it’s really portable. You can just lift it until you get to your seat.
Top flight-approved car seats in Europe
Since I’ve been going on and on about the merits of the Diono Radian 5, of course it will rank top in this list.
Extended rear-facing from birth to about 7 years.
Steel alloy frame.
Comes with a top tether.
The only real drawback that I can see is that it is incredibly heavy at about 11.5 kgs (25.3lbs) but again, thanks to this magic accessory, it doesn’t really matter.
The Britax Römer Eclipse is really the only other alternative to the Diono Radian 5 for flying as it’s TUV-certified.
The reason why I didn’t choose this is because you can’t start using it from birth and my husband and I really just wanted one seat for our son.
Also, although it’s a lot lighter at 7kgs (15.4lbs), the seat itself doesn’t fold, so I’m not sure how to navigate the plane itself since it’s slightly wider than the recommended 16inches.
You’ll probably have to lift it past the seats but, after lifting a car seat double that, I can tell you that 7kgs is really not much weight.
Finally, to be able to use it in flight, you’ll need to get the optional aircraft fitting kit.
I’m not too kee about that because it’s a separate part. And when you’re traveling with a child, it’s so easy to lose something that’s not attached to the seat.
Top flight-approved car seats in Australia and New Zealand
For some reason, I found it extremely difficult to find car seats for toddlers that are also flight-approved in Australia and New Zealand.
It doesn’t seem to be a thing.
I did find out though that New Zealand allows foreign-made car seats that are certified by FAA or EU bodies on the road so any of the above car seats will do, if you’re travelling from those countries.
Australia, on the other hand, seems a bit trickier. It looks like you can fly on the plane but you can’t actually use your car seat on the road unless it has the New Zealand/Australian Standard AS/NZ 1754 sticker on it.
Annoying, because it kinda defeats the whole purpose of taking your car seat with you in the first place.
I’ve checked and so far, if you are in Australia then you really only have four options available if you are thinking of using a flight-approved car seat – the Britax Safe-n-Sound Millenia™, the Britax Safe-n-Sound Compaq™ or the Britax Safe-n-Sound Millenia Tex or the Britax Safe-n-Sound Millenia+.
I’ve sent a message to Child Car Seats Australia to get further information so I’ll update this post once I get a reply.
II. Choose the right travel accessory.
Now that you’ve chosen which car seat to travel with, the next important issue is all about transportation.
The solution is really simple: use a trolley.
You know, those things that we use for warehouse delivery?
You need to buy a trolley that is strong enough to carry the combined weight of your toddler and the car seat.
The one that I bought from Amazon folds and is made of lightweight aluminium so it’s perfect for travel. It also extends so that it accommodated the car seat bulk with no problem. And finally, it came with a pair of bungee cords that I used to secure the car seat.
II. Choose the right airline.
Oh boy, I wish I could tell you that this is easy but it’s not really.
You have to contact your preferred airline one by one and check what their car seat policies are for toddlers because they’re often not published on their websites.
You’ll often find pages about traveling with infants but nothing for toddlers, which I think is strange because toddlers need car seats too.
What I normally do is go onto a site like Skyscanner and key in my dates and destination. The site will then give you different options from different airlines and I’ll send them emails one by one.
I usually start with the flight that covers the shortest distance but you can really prioritise this depending on what’s important to you.
We missed a flight once and the prices increased so much that it was actually cheaper to just book a new flight rather than pay for a rebooking fee plus penalty. So I can tell you that my priority then was to start with the cheapest flight (but you know, doesn’t take 48 hours to get to my destination).
I strongly recommend contacting your specific airline and confirming their car seat policy. Also, ask them to put a note in your reservation that you will be using your car seat in flight and get them to send you an email confirming this.
As I’ll explain later, sometimes ground staff and flight attendants freak out when they see a bulky car seat.
Here are a few more things you need to know that will help you when you’re traveling with a car seat.
Staff and car seats
Just a word of warning: Sometimes the ground staff and flight attendants freak out when they see you wheeling a car seat about. Because car seats generally look bulky, staff tend to say they won’t fit in seats and they should be checked in.
Some airlines say car seats must have a width of 16 inches and narrower, which is ludicrous because most car seats are actually between 17 and 20 inches.
They don’t actually measure your seat anyway so as long as your seat has the flight-approved label (in red usually), you should be fine.
Should be being the operative word.
When I traveled with Thai Airways, I was asked and the car seat checked for labelling about 8 times by the Manila ground staff and another 8 times by the Bangkok ground staff.
I showed them my printed copy of the Diono Radian TUV Rheinland certificate as well as the electronic copy of the email their own customer service sent to me.
One of the staff actually took a photo of the email because he said, he didn’t know that his company accepted car seats approved by other bodies (read: not FAA)!
Then, of course, I arrive at my seat and then got intercepted by the flight attendants who tried to take the car seat away and who told me I couldn’t use it.
Be firm but polite (you do not want to get on their bad side). Just say, it’s a flight-approved car seat and your ground staff and customer service have already checked it. I can show you proof, if needed.
Those were my words exactly and they worked because my son happily used his car seat for our transcontinental flight.
Car seats and the 16 inch max requirement
Okay, so most plane seats are wide enough to accommodate your car seat so that isn’t a worry.
The problem is that the aisle is so narrow that if you’re even an inch off, you’ll have a tight wiggle just to get your car seat through.
And if you have a toddler in tow as well as other passengers behind you, it can make for a very stressful event.
I suspect that this is actually why most airlines say you need a car seat that is narrower than 16 inches – because otherwise, you can’t flipping get to your seat.
So, what do you do if you have a wider car seat?
Well, assuming that you have a Diono, one option is for you to fold your car seat and flip it so that it’s only about 10 inches wide.
It fits so victory!
The bad news?
Your child obviously won’t be able to sit on it.
But that’s fine, because you’ll want to get your car seat installed as quickly as possible anyway and if your child is still strapped in, that could take a few extra minutes.
If you don’t have a Diono? Then you will have a lighter seat that you can conveniently lift past the arm rests until you get to your seat.
And don’t worry, the flight attendants may not be allowed to help you lift something so heavy but if you’re a solo adult travelling with a toddler (and you act exhausted enough), people will help you.
At least that’s how my experience has been.
But my car seat isn’t legal in my destination
This is really such a pain because it’s true!
If you’re traveling from one EU country to another then you have nothing to worry about, you can use the car seat you have at home.
It’s the same if you’re traveling from Australia to New Zealand.
Or if you’re traveling from the US to a country that doesn’t have any child restraint laws or that have laws that don’t regulate child restraint systems, then you’ll also be able to use your car seat.
But if you’re traveling from the EU to the US or vice versa (ie.: from one country with strict child restraint laws to another), then your car seat is all but useless since it won’t be legal in your destination.
I personally think the powers that be should just have an international standard to facilitate travel because parents already have so much to worry about without adding this confusion to the mix. I mean if a car seat has been rigorously tested in the EU and found safe there, then why should it suddenly become unsafe in the US?
That said, I am in no way advocating that you cheat the system and still use your car seat in your destination, if it’s illegal.
You do not want to be the one who got pulled over and then fined for using an illegal car seat. Or the one who was involved in a car crash, where everyone was safe because really the car seat did its job, but because said car seat was illegal, your insurance company voided your claim. Or worse, your child was injured and the you get taken to court for negligence for using car seats that are not legal.
I could go on and on.
Anyway, what are your options then in this case?
Personally, I tend to go to Asia so I just take my car seat because not very many countries have car seat laws.
But in a few years, I will be traveling to Australia with my family and if their car seat laws don’t become more inclusive by then (I’m not holding my breath), I will be leaving our car seat at home, using the Cares Harness on the plane and then either buying a cheap but secure car seat or hiring a car from one of the organisations recommended by KidSafe.
And there you have it.
All the information you need to be able to travel with a car seat for your toddler.
And what your options are if you can’t do that.
So, how about you? How have you survived travel with a toddler and how did you travel with a car seat? Share your best tips in the comments below!