We’ve done it both ways and we continue to mix it up depending on specific circumstances. Here are the five things we always consider when making decisions about bringing car seats:
What age are your children?
Kids under 2 fly free as a lap child, so if you’re trying to keep costs down, having your kiddo ride free on your lap will help. That said, kids under 2 who are crawling well or walking might have a hard time being on a lap for an extended period of time. Between 9-18 months of age our boys were not content to sit on our laps for very long! They were not quite old enough to fully comprehend verbal explanations about why everyone needs to stay in their seat, and they really wanted to be moving around!
At this age, at least one of the kids having their own seat on a longer flight was worth it. Kids who regularly ride in car seats understand that being buckled in to that 5 point harness means they have to stay in their seats. They’re also used to sleeping in their car seats if you do any significant amount of driving (we do a lot of road tripping), and nothing makes family air travel easier than sleeping kids.
Once our kids turn 4, we generally don’t bother with bringing their seat on board the plane because they thoroughly understand instructions, are relatively easy to entertain, and (on most domestic flights) aren’t doing much sleeping. If you have older kids and younger ones traveling together, the older kids can be incredibly helpful with their siblings if you give them the chance!
How long is your flight and do you have a layover?
The longer the flight, the more likely we are to bring a carseat on board, mostly because we want to encourage sleep for at least some of the duration of the flight!
What if you have two flights and a layover in between? Car seats are suuuuper awkward to carry. If you have a layover, it can be really terrible. Heaven forbid you’re in a hurry to make a connection or just a little stressed out about navigating through the crowds, and that car seat starts to feel like 1000 pounds of something you wish you had just checked. You could probably offset the awkward bulkiness some with a product like the Go-Go Baby Mini Travelmate. Now that Baby A has made her arrival, we’re pretty serious about trying one out!
What’s your kid to grown up ratio?
Maybe you thought you’d never use math in real life, but ratios might just save your sanity when it comes to air travel with children. 1:2 (one kid per two adults), you have more than enough hands to tote a seat through the airport. But when you have the same number of kids to adults or a larger number of children than adults, you are going to have to decide if it’s worth the hassle of toting a seat (or multiple seats) around the airport. I haven’t tried the CARES harness, but it looks worthy of consideration. It creates that familiar 5 point harness feeling of a car seat, but no bulk. You could be traveling with 2 year old triplets and fit all three harnesses in one backpack! If you’re flying with 2 year old triplets, I’m praying for ya, buddy.
How do you prefer to travel?
Getting settled on the plane takes longer than anyone really wants it to. Even when traveling without kids, I always feel as though everyone is in such a hurry to get on and get off the plane! There’s always some impatient huffing, puffing, and eye-rolling from at least one other passenger. When kids and car seats are involved, you will never be fast. Although Cade prides himself on having a streamlined system of efficiency when installing a seat on an aircraft, it’s never going to be fast enough for the inevitable grouchy person boarding the same flight. If you are a true minimalist traveller, skip the seats. If you’re looking for efficiency and you’re bringing a carry-on piece of luggage, try the GoGo Baby strap. If you’re a minimalist traveller that feels a restraint system is necessary, consider the CARES harness.
What is your transportation situation upon arrival?
If you’re renting a car, the rental company typically has seats you can rent with your vehicle for an additional cost. Usually it’s around $10-$15 per day, per seat. That means you don’t necessarily have to bring a seat at all, checked or on board. AAA members are sometimes offered one car seat rental for free, but usually these are from the more expensive rental companies like Hertz. We’re usually Dollar or Thrifty renters, and have never rented a car seat, but it’s nice to know the option is there. If you’re traveling on a budget and have more than one child who needs to ride in a car seat, it would be more cost effective to at least check a seat even if you don’t use it on board.
If you’re going to use Uber and Lyft to get around, it will cost you can extra $10 per car seat per fare which can really add up!
We always check car seats for the kids if they aren’t using them in flight. We don’t travel with our usual (heavy) seats (we have a Britax Boulevard and a Graco Nautilus installed in Elsa the Minivan), but instead use a less cumbersome Evenflo.
Do you have any family flights coming up? What are you planning to do about car seats? I love seeing what adventures you are all up to!