Flying with kids, how paranoid do I need to be about safety?
May 2, 2016 4:07 PM   Subscribe

We're flying with two small kids in a month. The younger is barely under two, and we planned on taking her as a lap child because the tickets are $$$, and it'd be nice if the four of us could sit together in a three seat row. And we're driving on the other end, so we had planned to check both kids car seats. The internet is making me feel like this plan is tantamount to letting them play with bottlerockets, matches and switchblades in a highway medium, and that I am an unfit mother who doesn't love her children for even considering it.

I went online to find out whether I should buy one of those covers for the car seats for checking, and instead I found several blog (yeah, I know) articles about how checking a car seat was basically the same as it being in a car crash and you should replace a car seat that had been checked because they are completely compromised. They were also very adamant about using them in the plane.

The thought of schlepping two toddlers, their gear and two car seats through an airport and then trying to install them, and then having to keep the kids strapped in there while adults walk around (the whining - "why do they get to walk around?") they aren't fans of carseats, and having to sit in separate rows because you can't have two car seats in one row, and doing it on the other end, and another $600+ spent, and, and... well, just ugh.

But I love them good and proper and want to protect their sweet little selves.

So what do you all think? Where does our initial plan fall on the negligent (1) to overprotective (10) scale? What about the car seat all the way on the same scale? What would you do?

I'm not looking for imagined horror stories of what might/could happen. My overactive imagination can do that on it's own, and I understand that having children strapped down into a protective shell (and backwards) at all times would be just safer all around. I'm looking for a reality check.
posted by pennypiper to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have done this and I strongly recommend renting or borrowing a carseat at your destination. I don't think there's a safety issue at all, just a convenience one.
posted by michaelh at 4:26 PM on May 2, 2016 [9 favorites]

Well, if it was me, I'd be checking in those seats (covers seems like a good idea!), and letting the kids sit on seats/laps as suits you. Two sounds like a pain to have on a lap, though, unless it is a lot less wiggly than my tow year olds were, or the flight is pretty short? (Fingers crossed for you for a short flight).
posted by glitter at 4:27 PM on May 2, 2016

I personally would fall on the side of thinking your plan is fine. That said, the FAA and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend children under 40 pounds use a restraint system (pdf link). Though I've never seen any child using the harness thing they suggest for 22-40 lbs.

As for the durability of the seat if checked, the Manufacturers Alliance For Child Passenger Safety released the following guidance (pdf link):
Car Seats Gate-Checked or Checked as Luggage
Car seats are designed to withstand most motor vehicle crash forces. In general, the MACPS does not consider a gate-checked car seat or a car seat that is checked as luggage to be one that has experienced forces equivalent to a motor vehicle crash. Once the destination is reached, it is recommended to inspect the car seat to make sure no visual damage has occurred and all aspects of the car seat function properly.
(August 2012)
posted by Wretch729 at 4:28 PM on May 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

Rent carseats at the destination. Most car rental places offer them.

Flying with a carseat is a gigantic pain. We did a carseat when kiddo was an infant on a very long flight, but he spent most of his time in our arms anyway due to general fussiness.

Now that kiddo is older, we use an FAA-approved seatbelt adapter.
posted by erst at 4:29 PM on May 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Find out if they'll even let you put your car seat into the plane seat. We took our 1yo on a long trip that included 3 flights over 26 hours. Planes 1 & 2 were fine but for the last leg, the airline let us carry the thing on but when we buckled our daughter in, a flight attendant came and said we couldn't and that the child had to be on our lap!!! They sold us a seat for her but She wasn't actually allowed to sit in it. We caved because it was hour 24 by then.

I've never seen anyone else put their car seat into the plane seat. We've flown lots and I have 3 kids so I tend to notice other families and the joys of flying with little ones. If the older kids are 3+ they'll be fine once they see they have their own screen.

I've seen plenty of checked in car seats. I think it'll be okay but it's just my opinion.
posted by stellathon at 4:30 PM on May 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Checking the car seats is fine. Leaving yours at home and renting seats along with the car when you get there is also fine.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:35 PM on May 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

We've flown on planes a lot with our kids (twins + singleton, 2 years apart in age), with many combinations of checking carseats, taking carseats on the plane, doing lap child, etc. Here are some semi-random observations:

The kids really were more comfortable in carseats then just in the plane seats. In the plane seats, they'd wind up kind of slouched down in the seat with the lap belt ending halfway up over their bellies. They were much happier sitting in seats that were actually their size. One thing to ensure is that the seats are FAA certified to be used on a plane. They'll have a sticker that you can point to if the plane crew gives you any guff about installing it.

On the other side of that coin, we've checked our carseats many times just fine too. However, they are Diono Radians, which are steel framed beasts with custom-fitted bags for checking, shoulder straps for carrying through the airport, etc. I'd be slightly more wary of doing the same with other, more plastic-y seats, but I would probably still do it.

Also, take advantage of family boarding if the airline offers it, giving you more time to handle kids, seats, or whatever. We won't fly on airlines that don't offer it.
posted by zsazsa at 4:38 PM on May 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I mean, anecdotally I check my car seat all the time and have never worried about it being useless afterward. I do like putting it in one of the big plastic airline bags though, just to keep all the belts and things contained.

Just a word of warning on the lap infant, if you haven't done it before: I know how expensive fares are, but my daughter is 18 months and having her on my lap now is a goddamn nightmare. I never get to eat a meal, I can't have a hot beverage (or a cold one that stains), I don't get to sleep unless she sleeps (and she basically never sleeps on flights any more because SO MANY PEOPLE TO LOOK AT AND TALK TO), and in my lap she's basically in a constant state of transition between standing and sitting which means my upper body gets a crazy good workout. I've taken her on flights as a lap child from 2 hours duration to 14 hours duration and even the 2 hour ones make me miserable. YMMV of course, but we have a number of other flights scheduled between now and when she's 2 and I'm booking her own seat for all of them.

I do intend to try to take her car seat on board; I also have never seen anyone do it but it's a good psychological "time to sit still and have a nap" indicator for her so we're giving it a shot on a 6 hour international redeye next month. If that psychology doesn't work on your kids, then that's a good reason not to do the car seat thing for them, and I think the car seats will be just fine checked in.
posted by olinerd at 4:44 PM on May 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I recently had to call an international airline to ask if their plane seats were compatible with car seats for something akin to this purpose, and the customer service rep I talked to seemed pretty confused by the idea of NOT doing the lap infant thing. So I'd say that what you want to do sounds unlikely to result in immediate death.
posted by Sara C. at 4:51 PM on May 2, 2016

Yay! yay! yay! Thank you all. Okay, I feel much better. Plan A shall commence.
posted by pennypiper at 4:58 PM on May 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you have 2 grownups, you can pass the 2 year old between you. I did have one of my twin's carseats smashed when we checked it, and you know what? It was ok. The airline paid for a new one, and we did just fine. You can always buy / rent a new one.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 5:28 PM on May 2, 2016

Check out the GoGoBabyz car seat to stroller adapter. It will turn your car seat into a stroller and takes about 90 seconds to attach. It was the most fabulous thing to be able to strap my kid safely into her seat and wheel her through the airport- no carrying, tugging or pulling along a grumpy, tired child. Also, imagine, just imagine, having to hold your little one in your lap for HOURS. Their little, sharp feet digging into the soft flesh of your thighs and belly. No. Just, no.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 5:34 PM on May 2, 2016

To add to the "lap babies are fine" chorus, the FAA says that 58 people per year are injured on planes while not wearing a seatbeat -- that's 58 people total, not even 58 infants. Meanwhile, the number of passengers per year is 699,000. If you do the math here...the chances of something terrible happening are very very low (my guess is that it's much, much safer than putting your kid in a car WITH a carseat).
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:35 PM on May 2, 2016 [10 favorites]

We checked our car seats for one trip and it didn't even enter our mind that it could be a problem. We also put our kids in our laps when they were under 2. If there was an actual plane crash it wouldn't have gone well for them (as shown in the scene with the watermelon in Fearless) but the odds on a crash are pretty long.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:41 PM on May 2, 2016

the number of passengers per year is 699,000

Actually, that's 699,000,000 (almost 700 million). I don't know if your stats for injuries are off by 1000 as well, but I'm guessing not (I think if 58,000 people per year were injured on planes, we'd know about it).

So the risk is roughly less than one in ten million.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 5:58 PM on May 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

I fly a lot and have flown a lot with my toddlers (two very long international trips and so many cross country trips I've lost count). I agree with above - although I think my kids would probably do better in a car seat, getting them onto the plane seems like an incredible inconvenience, and I've never seen any other family doing it either. I have heard good things about the seatbelt adapter thing and probably should have purchased one by now - the plane seatbelts are definitely useless and impossible to keep on a 1-3 year old.

Don't cheap out on the bags for checking them though. I thought my husband was crazy for buying these "pricey" bags when we checked the seats en route to New Zealand (I was thinking we would just wrap them in garbage bags or something), but he bought one of the more flimsy one on Amazon that costs about $10, and one of the more padded one that has backpack straps that costs almost $40, and when we reached New Zealand, the flimsy red one had been torn to shreds. We were lucky there was no noticeable damage to the fabric of the seat underneath. These are $275 car seats (at least ours are) so protect your investment. Plus you can use the space inside the bag as free extra checked luggage space!
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:06 PM on May 2, 2016

You can get faa approved harnesses that are approved for use with standard airplane seats. Way easier to carry than a child seat if your kid/s are between 22 & 40lbs.
posted by wwax at 6:21 PM on May 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Give yourself extra time to navigate the airport. Getting around an airport with your normal luggage AND two car seats AND two kids is a pain in the butt. You'll need to check in at the counter like everybody used to have to do- you may not be able to print a bag tag at a self-service kiosk for your car seats. Again, this will probably require extra time, especially if you're used to traveling with only carry-ons. Your car seats may be with oversized baggage at baggage claim, be sure to check there if you can't find them.

We've found that it's much easier to fly with kids if you don't have to change planes. If that's not possible, try for longer layovers.

If your kids are runners, be sure that they know they can't run away from you in the airport. Keep an extra tight hold on them around the security screening checkpoints.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:53 PM on May 2, 2016

Just an FYI from flying with kids over the last decade - I don't think a lot of modern carseats will even fit into the smaller seats and tighter rows of modern aircraft.

Ten years ago I had a Graco monster that barely fit into the seat and tray area of a DLH transatlantic A323. And that's a HUGE plane. God forbid you're flying a North American carrier (glares at UA).
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:36 PM on May 2, 2016


Many pilots and flying in my family. I don't care what the regs are -- can your children be safe from bouncing around in unexpected situations??

This is your only concern. Just do this.

Flying is kinda serious.
posted by jbenben at 10:46 PM on May 2, 2016

posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:06 AM on May 3, 2016 [8 favorites]

As someone with recent experience flying with a toddler in rear-facing carseat (as opposed to some of the out-of-date anecdata in this thread): on the six (? maybe eight?) flights we've been on in the last year, about a third of the other young kids we've seen have had carseats, but nobody with or without one ended up injured.

Any carseat with the FAA sticker must be accommodated by law -- if it doesn't fit in the seat you're assigned (which only happens if it's nonstandard in some way or the armrest is stuck), they have to give you a different seat that it does fit in. In those 6 or 8 segments I've had one fight with a flight attendant who didn't believe that rear-facing carseats were allowed, so it's good to know how to install your seat backwards or forwards, especially if, as we did, you get a cheap lightweight one only for traveling.

If it's a long flight, it's a lot easier to have a sleeping toddler in a carseat than on top of a parent cutting off their circulation and preventing them from going to the bathroom.
posted by nonane at 6:25 AM on May 3, 2016

I have flown multiple times in the last five years (average of 3 flights per year) with my children in car seats and on my lap. I have seen many other people on flights with their kids in car seats. I have also seen many children flying without car seats. In other words -- do what seems best for your family, depending on your kids' temperaments, the flight length, and how much tolerance you have for holding a lap child for the duration.

For us, putting my older kid in her car seat was the only way I could hope to have her sleep for any portion of a flight, once she was too old to fly on my lap. So our default has been to fly with the car seat. I do agree with others that airplane seats are not sized right for little kids, so if you don't bring the car seat on, it is more likely that your child will end up in your lap, on the floor, or somewhere that is not sitting in their seat, buckled up.

Flying with two kids is trickier because of space issues, of course. We bought a CARES harness for my older child once we had two, and while I think it is only marginally safer than just the lap belt, we'll keep using it because it helps keep her properly positioned and seated in her seat. Once the baby is too old to fly as a lap child, we'll bring his car seat on the plane and split across rows -- it's not ideal, but it's better than flying with a lap child. (We've been lucky a couple of times to be on a flight with a few empty seats and have had to do this.)

I will note that we fly with our small convertible car seat -- a Combi Coccoro -- which is narrow, light, and easy to install rear-facing; it's a little trickier front-facing, but still totally worth it. I would not have brought our Britax Marathon on board, but I've seen other people do so. As long as the seat has the FAA sticker, you can bring it on.

We have a GoGoBabyz cart and wheel the baby through the airport in the car seat and then we GATE CHECK both. Gate checking car seats is generally free and avoids some of the risk of damage, since the seat is not being manhandled as much.

Lastly, I would recommend against renting a car seat at your destination, not necessarily because of safety issues but because it will be unfamiliar and you will likely have to be the one installing it in your rental vehicle. I know how my car seats install, and I know that it usually takes me a good 15 or 20 minutes with the seat and the manual the first time I install them. I don't want to be figuring all of that out, in an unfamiliar car, in a vacation destination, with two small kids. So I always bring my own car seats.
posted by devinemissk at 7:51 AM on May 3, 2016

We have a three-year-old son and an 8-month-old daughter and while I usually wear the baby for convenience sake and take her as a lap baby, we do bring on our hulking Britax Clicktight seat for the three-year-old. We use a GoGoBabyz with an extension strap to get it (and him) through the airport with a minimum of fuss, and check the baby's bucket seat. When she's too old to be a lap baby, we'll probably check both seats or rent a booster for him, but she's much more laid back and might actually sit correctly with a CARES harness.

I've never had a problem checking a car seat, though; we wrap them in bubble wrap and put them in a bag and it's NBD. I have had problems with rental car seats, though; you're really getting the luck of the draw. Sometimes they're great, sometimes they're terrible, dirty, and missing the manual so you can't even be sure if you installed it correctly. I made AVIS at the Pittsburgh airport go and buy a new carseat because they promised a convertible seat and only had a (filthy) bucket available; since then, we always fly with ours.

CARES harnesses are great but there's no crotch strap, so if your kid is one who might be predisposed to sliding out of the seat entirely for whatever reason, the harness won't prevent that from happening or really help keep him put.
posted by ThatSomething at 8:14 AM on May 3, 2016

Lots of good feedback and information. We're pretty confident that sans carseat will be the best for overall family happiness. It's a relatively short flight (one 4.5 hour leg), and knowing my kids there would be NO sleeping no matter what (probably not even on a red eye in the middle of the night, sigh), so we're going with the "make it super fun" approach.

Jbenben - your response is much more in line with the blog entries I found, and while I understand the underlying logic, it's not really helping me better weigh the reality of the risk.

In a lot of situations it's easy to abstractly say that absolutely, yes, it's obvious. But it seems that often times people's perspectives are a little more nuanced when they are personal experience with a situation. I'd be very interested in what pilots with children do faced with the same situation. Your pilot family members, do/did they travel with small children? Were they adamant about having their children in car seats when flying? Thanks!
posted by pennypiper at 8:49 AM on May 3, 2016

I also came to recommend the Combi Coccoro + stroller frame combo. Not just for safety, because I agree that the odds of injury are quite low, but because toddlers on your lap for 4.5 hours are basically my idea of hell, even when they're mine.
posted by snickerdoodle at 10:36 AM on May 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Late to the game, but here's how we do it:
1) Our heavy expensive carseats stay home.

2) We have a lightweight carseat that we use for travel and also for the second car (only used on weekends). It's a Cosco Scenera, and while you do need a pool noodle to install it rear facing in most cars, it's very light and easy to carry. It's cheap, in case it gets damaged and needs replacing, plus it feels like it's unlikely to get damaged by its own weight. At the airport, this gets bungee-corded to a roll-aboard suitcase (you route the bungee cords through the front-facing belt path, one around the body of the suitcase, one up around the handle. Works GREAT. It's really not unwieldy at all.

3) Carseat gets gate-checked. This for me is the optimal balance of minimizing time out of my hands with hauling a goddamn car seat on an airplane. We actually HAVE taken the car seat on the airplane once before and it elevates the kid so that they basically can't not kick the seat in front of them. Let me tell you, that is a great way to get yourself murdered by your fellow passenger. We use the cheapo red gate check bag and it has accumulated a lot of grime that would otherwise be on our carseat, so I recommend it. We put it on after we arrive at the gate.

3) For our older child, we bring a RideSafer travel vest instead of a carseat. This thing is a GODSEND. Your kid has to be 3 years old and 30 lbs to use it, and of course they have to not unbuckle the seatbelt. Now that our kid is older, we trust him totally; when he was right at the cutoffs, we supervised him closely and he was fine. It is small, light, fits in your carryon, and means you don't have to travel with two carseats. This is HUGE.

4) On the airplane, we use a CARES harness for the non-lap child, which many have linked above. It is less restraint than a 5 point harness, but it does seem to trigger the "let's be still and behave" receptors, and we've been in some severe turbulence where I was happy we had it. In the early days, the seatbelt buckle was veeeeery tempting and I highly recommend you bring a sock with the toe cut out to thread the seatbelt through. This at least reduces the frequency of kid undoing seatbelt. Locate the FAA approval label sewn on it in case a flight attendant gives you attitude (most are happy with it but we had one once who was about to not let the plane take off unless we uninstalled it and screw that.)

5) Lap child is a lap child until they have to not be. Kids are expensive, and commercial aviation is safe compared to driving. You can definitely cram 4 of you into a 3 person row - Elder Child presumably has a non-adult-sized butt, and you can crowd into his space a little. We were always secretly a little glad when our kids aged out of being lap children, but they were lap children to the bitter end. I have experienced turbulence that was unnerving but I have never experienced turbulence where I actually felt that I couldn't restrain the child. In bad turbulence I positioned child facing me, sitting on my lap, with my arms crossed behind their back and gripping their shoulders or my opposite forearms. I have also worn drowsy child on plane in front-carry Ergo; you have to have the back unbuckled during takeoff and landing, but I've felt that the little bit of extra support came in handy during turbulence. I would keep the back unbuckled during turbulence, though, in case there is an emergency and you need to get it off fast.

6) We are super strict about screen time EXCEPT ON AIRPLANES. Airplanes are a non-stop electronic screenfest (headphones or sound off, of course). I am not even a little sorry about this. Nor are my fellow passengers.

7) I would avoid renting a carseat if possible. I've heard too many horror stories of expired, filthy, damaged, or otherwise Bad News carseats. It's worth it to us to bring one we know has been well cared for. We also bought a second Cosco Scenera to leave at the grandparents', since we travel there often.

8) For locomoting through the airport, we would bring one cheap umbrella stroller and the Ergo carrier. Older kid rides in the stroller, younger kid rides in the backpack. Similar to the carseats, we never bring the heavy expensive stroller.

9) Have fun! You can do this! Even if it sucks, it'll be finite, and hopefully you'll have a great time once you reach your destination.

10. This wasn't part of your question but let me urge you to pack a small cheap thermometer (not your good one), a bottle of fever reducer and measuring device, and a tube of diaper rash cream even if you don't usually use it. You don't need the best or the biggest but just trust me on this one.
posted by telepanda at 2:32 PM on May 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

« Older How do I deal with my in-laws' rejection of my...   |   Not another narcissist? (covert) Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.