Checking car seats on an airplane can be done, but there are some things you should know before doing so. Here are some tips:
1. Please don’t assume your baby or toddler is safe on the plane while in your lap. As an advocate for child safety, I feel very strongly about not using the “lap child” option on aircraft. It’s unsafe. Remember, this is coming from a former flight attendant who has had beverage carts slammed down on her during clear-air turbulence. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does happen it’s scary as heck. Think of it like this, you don’t drive without your little one being in a car seat – you shouldn’t fly that way either. (Forget the rare plane crash. Again, it’s clear air turbulence that can hit anytime and does happen daily.) I’ve discussed this topic before, and a car seat used on the plane is absolutely the safest route for you little one. Infant fares are hard to come by, but check with your airline–especially if flying internationally–to see if you can get a discounted price for your infant. Southwest offers infant fares, but you may need to call to book vs. booking your infant’s flight online.
2. If you do check your car seat on the airplane and your toddler is under 40 pounds, use a CARES (Child Aviation Restraint System) to ensure your child’s safety. Again, clear air turbulence does happen and CARES is the best way to protect your little one and the most convenient option since it fits easily in your carry-on bag.
3. With that said, it won’t cost you anything to check your car seat and other baby equipment, like a stroller. However, there are checked-baggage fees for your luggage on most airlines.
4. My favorite tip: Use a large plastic lawn bag (find them at Home Depot or any other home improvement store) to contain the car seat. You can take it a step further and wrap the seat in bubble wrap for extra padding and reuse it on the return trip. On our last trip to Florida a car seat, just like the one in this picture above, came out onto the luggage carousel pieces at a time. At first we thought it was ours, but fortunately, our daughter’s arrived safe and sound shortly after.
UPDATE 2016: A new option is the reusable Gate Check bags (highly recommended!). I have one and will use always use it for our air travel now that my toddler is old enough to sit in a “big person” seat.
Happy and safe flying!