Should we take my toddler's car seat on a plane to Europe?
June 13, 2019 12:31 PM   Subscribe

We will be flying with my 2.5 year old son to Europe this fall. We need to bring a car seat, and are debating whether to check it or to have him sit in it on the flight. Help me decide!

The seat: a Cosco Scenera, so it’s light and pretty quick to install (though we’ve never tried it on an airplane).

The flight: on the way there it's overnight (leaving at 11pm) so I’m definitely hoping my son will sleep. On the way home it's during the day. Time in the air is about 6-7 hours.

The kid: 2.5 years old, experienced traveler but only for shorter flights (3 hours) and we've never brought the seat onboard before. Also previously he couldn't operate the seat belt buckles but now I'm sure he can. Strong-willed, active.

Here are the pros/cons as I see them:

Pros for car seat on plane:
-Head support for sleeping (this is my primary motivation)
-Easy to restrain child when needed
-Safer for turbulence (I’m not super worried about this since strong turbulence is rare, but technically it’s better of course)

Cons for car seat on plane:
-I’ve heard this brings their legs into range of kicking the seat in front of them, and I can definitely imagine him doing this. I don’t want to fight with him about this the whole flight.
-Can’t bring the tray table down for coloring or other play. Hopefully not an issue on the way there, but could be a problem on the flight home.
-Maybe he’d actually be more comfortable sleeping NOT seated? He’s never been an amazing car napper, he gets annoyed/wakes when his head falls forward or is otherwise uncomfortable. Without the seat I imaging him sleeping sort of half on his seat half on my lap.
-Have to install and uninstall
-Can’t use the car seat bag for packing extra odds and ends (normally we throw in diapers or other random stuff if the suitcase is getting too full and we're checking the car seat)
-Once the seat is there, it’s THERE. If he really hates it, there’s not much we can do (other than have him sit in our laps for 6 hours I guess), whereas with an empty seat if he is fidgety there’s more flexibility.

Looking over this list I feel like it makes me want to check the seat. I really have no idea how he will sleep on the plane, he's strictly sleep-trained and usually when we are with him he's too excited to sleep (but maybe not at 11pm??). HELP!

Note: I’m not really considering the CARES harness because it’s pricey and has no neck support for sleeping. If it was a bit cheaper I’d consider it for the restraining factor (so that if he’s a wiggle monster I can just strap him in), but I’m not really excited about spending like $80 for that.

Also I am possibly pinning too many of my hopes for the *perfect flight* on this damn car seat issue....
posted by Bebo to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
You may be able to rent a CARES harness for the trip - check local baby-gear rental companies. (If you’re in Boston I can recommend one.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:52 PM on June 13, 2019

Your list of pros and cons covers nearly everything. But add to the down side that the car seat limits your options on seating arrangements. The airlines told us the car seat had to be by the window so as not to impede egress for others.

My wife and I opted to bring the car seat (a heavier model that was a true pain to tote around airports to make connecting flights) for two main reasons. One was safety. Instances where the seat will make a difference are extremely rare, so perhaps this was an emotional reaction rather than truly reasoned. So be it; our peace of mind was greater with the kids in an approved seat.

The other was ease of sleeping. The kids were quite accustomed to dropping off to sleep in car seats, whereas being seatbelted in an adult seat was a novelty - not conducive to quieting down.

Probably either option will be alright for your son, and you'll make it work. Good luck and safe travels !
posted by wjm at 12:54 PM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Definitely bring it for sleeping. The only places my kids (now 3 and 5) still nap occasionally are car seats. Neither of mine ever slept on a plane without one and by god that is not a flight you want your kid to be fighting sleep on.
posted by lydhre at 12:57 PM on June 13, 2019

I personally would be cautious about checking the seat. From the car seat groups I'm in on Facebook, it's not recommended to check a seat as you don't know what happens to it between check in and getting it back (ie, now has an unknown history). More info here. My vote would be to bring it on board.

As I understand it as well, it's much safer for to have babies/toddlers in carseats on planes. Is he forward facing now? Could you install it rear facing on the plane so that he is kicking the seat it is installed into instead of the seat in front? You may find that rear facing would also be more reclined him to encourage sleep! Lots of good suggestions for using your specific seat on airplanes here.
posted by snowysoul at 1:01 PM on June 13, 2019

My preference is to not bring the seat at all for either of my little ones and rent one from the rental car agency.

Depending on where you're going the seat may be required to be free which is nice.

I personally find lugging the seat around, installing and uninstalling it, are just 100% things I don't want to do while also managing tiny people. I've found the key to traveling long distances with my kids (now 7 and 3) is to bring as little as possible, no strollers, no car seats. Rent when needed.
posted by French Fry at 1:17 PM on June 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Once the seat is there, it’s THERE. If he really hates it, there’s not much we can do (other than have him sit in our laps for 6 hours I guess), whereas with an empty seat if he is fidgety there’s more flexibility.

Why? If it's a total failure, just take the seat out and put it on the floor in front of his seat. Tuck as much as you can under the seat in front of you, but you only have to keep the floor clear for takeoff and landing, not all the time. And it's not like he really needs the legroom at 2.5yo.

I think it's a 50/50 on whether it will be better or not; definitely better for sitting, but he might want to do the lay down half on / half off. So if you can potentially take the seat out if you bring it on, that preserves as many options as possible.
posted by true at 1:23 PM on June 13, 2019

We flew cross-country (6 hours) with my 16 month old in the exact same carseat, and it was pretty great for nap (2 hours! I got to read a book using both hands!) -- but he also spent a lot of time out of the seat walking around and sitting on our laps for a change of pace. (We weren't flying overnight.)

We also flew to Europe (6 hours) with my 2.5 year old, and left the carseat at home (fun fact: American car seats may not be street-legal in the EU unless they specifically tell you they are, because the regulations differ). He slept most of the flight curled up on the seat next to us. It was also okay.

Is your kid used to actually sleeping 4-5 hours in a carseat? Mine aren't, and that can be a problem if he, say, wants to roll over in the middle of the flight. On the other hand, not having to hold onto your toddler the whole time is *magical*.

The most helpful thing for a perfect flight is to get their sleep on the departure day to work out right, so that they nap early enough and then run around in the airport enough that they are tired and want to sleep. I realize this is easier said than done!
posted by puffyn at 2:10 PM on June 13, 2019

We used the car seat in flight. Same model. While the need for it is rare, if something did happen that would have been preventable using the seat I couldn't live with myself.
posted by crunchy potato at 2:18 PM on June 13, 2019

We always checked our car seat but we made sure that it was handled as fragile or oversized. We never had it damaged in the dozen or so trips we made during that period our kid needed a seat. When you have a kid you already feel like a pack animal so I personally wouldn't bring it on board. Add to that navigating the narrow aisles, the narrow seats, the unpredictability of your fellow passengers in embarking and disembarking - all make for more trouble then I'd be willing to deal with.
posted by Ashwagandha at 2:23 PM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

We've done a couple long overnight flights, at 2yrs, 3.5, and 4. We did not bring a carseat and have zero regrets - we all had so much more room to move around and stretch! He slept for a long time sprawled out in the seat with his head on my lap. One time we brought a good sized stuffed animal for company and as a pillow. He could stand up in his seat and stretch. He could just...shift and adjust how he was sitting. Put the tray down for snacks it coloring. Swap seats so he could look out the window or play with dad or sit near the aisle for frequent walls. I can't imagine fitting a carseat on the floor in front of a seat - even if it goes is taking up a ton of room. Also, could not legally use our Aussie carseat in the States. Another ding against the cares harness is that the one time we rented one (after checking with the airline) we weren't allowed to use it in the end anyway.
posted by jrobin276 at 2:26 PM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Interesting! Looks like you know the pros and cons. For what it's worth, we travel a LOT with our kids (our 4 year old has lived in 4 different countries and we fly 4-5 times a year, twice transatlantically.)

I have never ever seen anyone on a flight in Europe or even transatlantic flight from US to Europe with a car seat. (Though maybe I just never noticed it!) It never occurred to me to bring one (though we don't have a car, so my kids don't see them as lovely places to take a nap but as torture devices. Sleeping across our laps seems to work better.) I never even thought of safety stuff. I have a hard time imagining what crazy set of circumstances would mean that a car seat would make a difference -- but I don't have that vivid an imagination. If you do, and your kid is comfortable in the car seat, then it would be worth it for peace of mind!
posted by EtTuHealy at 3:01 PM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

We’ve brought our 2.5-year-old to Europe a few times since she was born and haven’t brought a car seat with us on any of the trips and I don’t regret it for a second. While our daughter sleeps great in her car seat, she gets cranky when she strapped in for more than an hour. Are you confident that yours will sleep soundly for 6 or 7 hours strapped tightly in a single position? Mine needs to move. She slept soundly in her own seat with her head on my lap. There were parents on one leg who lugged a car seat onto the fight and they looked harried and stressed. When you’re traveling internationally with a toddler, less is more. Also, the car seats you get from car rental companies are great.
posted by fso at 3:28 PM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is me every six months and with two kids. For us, definitely no car seat on the plane once they become legit toddlers—which a 2.5-year-old is. No way do they want to be strapped in for that long, even if you’ll get maybe some kind of “car nap” effect for an hour or two. You’re exactly right that they’ll probably sleep best sprawled halfway on the seat and halfway on you. We aim to be airplane minimalists in the name of controlling as many variables as possible.
posted by whitewall at 4:24 PM on June 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

our son has spent a lot of time in the air, he lives in the US, grandparents in Taipei. never brought a car seat, certainly not when he was young enough to fly for free - yes, we held him on our lap from east coast US to asia.

the one time we checked a car seat on a trip to India, it got lost. I'd go without and rent in country if necessary.
posted by askmehow at 5:55 PM on June 13, 2019

You may already be on top of this, but make sure to check whether your airline requires pre-approval for car seats, or mandates specific safety certifications. You don't want to bring a car seat that they won't let you use.
posted by zamboni at 5:56 AM on June 14, 2019

I have flown across the US with that car seat and a kid that age. It's very easy to install on the plane and not much hassle in the airport. We did find it helped make the flight easier, she napped well in it and it was just familiar enough to make it seem normal (and my kid HATED the car at that age) - but this also wasn't her usual seat, it was new and different. You can install it rear-facing to keep them from kicking the seat ahead of them, my daughter couldn't reach it at that age but your kid might be bigger. You should check your airline to see if they require a carseat or booster for little kids. Some of them do require some sort of additional restraint in addition to the lap belt in all seats.

Agree with the earlier comments - I know people do it, but it is pretty strongly recommended not to check your car seat.
posted by john_snow at 9:47 AM on June 14, 2019

Many, many years ago I called the airline about traveling with a baby and was advised to bring a car seat in the interests of the child's safety. So I brought one, and the baby was bumped from her paid seat onto my lap, and the car seat would have either had to be abandoned at the airport or checked as luggage. I checked it.

I don't know if this could happen to you, or if rules have changed, but if you do travel with the car seat and the baby be prepared for something stupid like this, and check in early to ensure your young one and his seat are not bumped.

I would always prefer to travel with a car seat, because safety trumps inconvenience.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:18 PM on June 14, 2019

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