Here are some things to consider when planning a trip needing a car seat.
If you use a car seat, you are using an airline seat and will usually be expected to pay for it. At times, we've gotten lucky. When my daughter was under two, we would carry her on our lap for shorter flights. If we boarded early, we would try to put the car seat in one of the seats we paid for and then another parent would try to find a seat nearby. It worked a few times. Letting you use an unoccupied seat is always a discretionary thing for flight attendants, whether you want to plug in a car seat or just stretch out. But with a baby, some friendly flight attendents will do their best to accomdate you. Be very nice and have low expectations. If there aren't any seats, you'll need to quickly gate check your car seat before the doors close.
We haven't flown on an airline that will supply or rent a car seat, though one reader wrote to say British Airways can now supply carseats (they call it the “new toddler seat and carrycot facility”) if you arrange it ahead of time (Thanks Roberta!). Still, to be safe, if you want a carseat, it is best to bring your own.
We got another update from a reader that pointed out that these seats on British Airways cannot be used during take-off, landing or turbulence – seat belts for use on a parent's lap are provided instead. You can learn more and check weight limits here
Check with your airline ahead of time about whether the car seat will be counted as baggage or not. This is especially critical if you'll be flying on a busy route, when most seats will be full and the airline is trying to limit carry on pieces.
The same thing applies to car seats (or strollers) that you intend to take with you as checked baggage. Contact the airline in advance so you can plan ahead; extra baggage charges can be quite offensive and expensive, especially on long international flights. If your trip starts off as a domestic one (i.e., Cleveland to New York, then NY to London), when calling be sure to emphasize you'll also be going abroad in case the airline has different rules for domestic and international trips.
We note that one reader (Thanks Kathy!) has written in to say “I did have some insight in regards to the car seat thing on airplanes, though it may only apply to travel in the Middle East. We have been strong believers in using the car seat with a fully paid seat for each child. However, most of the airlines in the Middle East, i.e. Saudia, Emirates, and Egypt Air, will NOT let you use them. We have only been successful twice in the past six years and that was after a tense standoff! They believe that the child is unsafe in them. Even British Airways would not let me use one out of Bahrain and London. It seems most U.S. domestic flights are okay with it.”
Where to Sit
Or, maybe we should call this part, “Where You Have to Sit.” A car seat can only be postioned next to the window or in the very center of a cabin with a middle row, as sometimes car seats have parts sticking out, or loose straps, that might snag when people walk up and down the aisles. A very few European made carseats that do not protrude past the edge of the airplane seat are thus usually not subject to this restriction. This is just as well, because your child will be less likely to be bumped or whacked as the flight attendants move the food carts around.
Also, in the U.S. at least, regulations prohibit child seats from being installed in the exit row, and one row in front of or behind an exit. You should remember these restrictions when making your seat assignments, as more than one of us has installed a car seat, stowed toys, disassembled Legos and set up feeding gear only to find we had to be reseated (thanks for the tips Sarah!).
Extra Baggage Anxiety Fun
Sometimes “gate checked” items (including fold-up strollers) are conveniently available just as you get off the plane at your destination, and some times you'll only see them again at baggage claim along with all the other junk. You wouldn't want to rush off into the airport while someone waits with your stuff at the exit gate, and nor would you want to try and sort this out in Turkish with the well-meaning airport staffer who does not know to just tell you to march on off to baggage claim and all will be well.
We've also heard from parents who bought car seat carryalls and swear by them (as opposed to at them I suppose). These are actually backpack like things that allow you to carry a car seat strapped to your back. They are not meant for you also to carry the kid in the car seat, just as a hand-free way to lug the car seat from one place to another. For an on-line source to buy these, try One Step Ahead.
You might be able to accomplish the same thing with a very large duffel bag. We've used a gigantic bag for years as an outer cover for our backpacks. The duffel keeps all the straps tucked in away from the baggage handling machinery and absorbs much of the rough handling (in some odd places, the duffel also was camouflage against those nasty “NO BACKPACKERS” signs that can still pop up).