Traveling with Car Seats – A Complete Guide

Author: Celine Brewer

Last Updated:

One of the most difficult decisions parents often need to make when traveling with a baby or toddler is whether or not to travel with a car seat. There’s never one right answer to this common travel dilemma for parents.

In our experience, the answer to the question, “Do i need to bring a car seat when traveling?” is dependent on so many variables. For instance, where we are traveling to? How we are getting there? How long we will be there? Are we renting a car? And, are there any alternatives to traveling with a car seat of our own?

After all the places we’ve traveled with a baby or toddler, we’ve had experience with nearly every scenario when it comes to traveling with car seats. In this complete guide to travelling with car seats, we’ll discuss each of the scenarios and their alternatives to help you make the right decision for your next international trip with a baby or toddler.

As you can see, the traveling with car seats topic can get a little complicated! Don’t worry – we’ll get you through it!

a toddler sitting in a travel car seat smiles while reading a magazine

Why is this such a difficult decision? Isn’t it safest flying with car seats on planes? Don’t you need a car seat no matter where you go?

While we can all agree that the answer to these car seat questions is ‘Yes’, there are always other factors at play. No parent should be judged for making the best decision for their family.

If you’ve read any of our other posts on our baby travel website, you’ll know that we don’t believe there’s ever a one size fits all solution when it comes to traveling with toddlers or babies. Each of us parents need to make our decisions based on our own family’s needs, budget and risk tolerance.

Below you’ll find the five things you need to think about before traveling with car seats followed by each of the alternatives to traveling with a car seat. In addition, we’ve included tips on how to travel with car seats and when each of the other options would work best. 

a flight attendant holds a child to help parents who are flying with a toddler

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5 Things you Need to Think about Before Traveling with Car Seats on Airplanes

1. Are you comfortable holding your baby on your lap for the flight?

If you are not traveling with a baby car seat, your baby or toddler will be on your lap the whole flight. You’ll need to answer the following questions:

  • Are you comfortable holding your baby or toddler for the duration of the flight?
  • Are you ok having them on their own seat without a safety restraint?
  • Would you feel more comfortable having your baby in a car seat during your flight?

If you aren’t comfortable with a lap baby or having your toddler sitting on the seat next to you without a safety restraint, then you should fly with a car seat; to guarantee the ability to fly with a car seat, you’ll have to buy a seat for your baby or toddler. If you’re ok either way, you may get lucky by snagging an extra seat.

a mother flying without a car seat holds her infant in her lap

2. How will you get from the airport to your hotel?

Are you renting a car from the airport or taking a taxi? Is there public transportation or a hotel shuttle from the airport to your hotel?

If you are renting a car, you’ll need a car seat. We don’t recommend renting a car seat from the car rental agency, as few will actually guarantee one will be available.

If you plan to take public transportation, a car seat is generally not required. Hotel shuttles or other types of private transportation will each have their own car seat requirements – inquire in advance.

3. How will you get around at your destination?

Once you are at your hotel, can you get everywhere you want to go by walking or taking public transportation? Will you be limited to where you can explore without a rental car?

Again, if you plan to rent a car, you will need to have a car seat for you child. This might mean traveling with your own car seat or renting a car seat.

a toddler sits in a travel car seat
in a rental car on a family vacation

4. How often will you be in a car?

Will you be in a rental car traveling to different cities or areas? Will you be using a ridesharing service like Uber?

5. What alternatives do you have to traveling with your own car seat?

If you decide you don’t need your car seat on the airplane, then you can look at renting or buying a car seat at your destination. Alternatively, there are so many incredible places to travel with a toddler or baby where you can get around without needing a car seat. Visiting Europe with a baby is especially good for being able to travel without a car seat.

Traveling with Car Seats on Planes

Traveling with Car Seats on Airplanes

Do you need to bring a car seat when traveling? It generally makes the most sense to travel with your own car seat on airplanes when you will be using it frequently on your trip or if you don’t want to fly without your baby in a car seat during the flight.

Pros and Cons of Traveling with a Car Seat on an Airplane

The benefits to travelling with a car seat of your own:

  • Your baby is familiar with it.

  • You’ll have a safe car seat any time you plan to take a taxi or get in a car.

  • If you bring it on the plane, you don’t have to hold your baby or toddler for the entire flight.

  • Using a portable toddler car seat on the plane, will help keep toddlers contained.

  • A car seat may help your toddler sleep better on the flight.

  • You don’t need to worry about getting a dirty car seat from the car rental company, or conversely giving back a returning a (previously clean) dirty car seat back to them.
a mother plays with her lap toddler on a flight without a seat of his own or a car seat

The downsides of traveling with your own toddler or baby car seat:

  • Car seats are big and bulky. Traveling with a car seat makes carting around your other luggage more difficult. If you don’t have a rental car, the car seat will take up a lot of room in your hotel.

  • If you are gate checking a car seat, you need to carry it all the way to the gate.

  • Even if you purchased your child their own airplane seat for their car seat, they still might decide to spend the entire flight in your arms.

  • Your car seat risks getting damaged if you check it with your luggage.

  • You might not need it for the duration of your trip and still have to carry it around.

  • Your car seat may not be legal in the country you are traveling to.

How to Decide to Fly with a Car Seat

Flying with a car seat really isn’t all that difficult. Getting your car seat to the gate will probably be the most difficult part, especially if you aren’t checking the car seat with your luggage. This gets to be a bigger hassle if you are traveling with multiple car seats.

The first decision you need to make is whether or not you’ll be buying a seat for your baby. If you’re flying with a toddler (over 2 years old) or preschooler, then you will already be buying your child a seat. Otherwise, you will need to buy a seat for your baby or toddler to ensure you can bring your car seat aboard and use it.

flying with baby in airplane seat

It is widely considered safest to have your baby or toddler in an FAA approved child seat for flying. In case of unexpected turbulence, it will be extremely difficult and unlikely that you would be able to keep your baby or toddler safely in your arms. Now, that doesn’t happen every day and people fly safely with a lap infant or lap toddler every single day, so that’s a personal choice.

So you really need to decide if you want the extra expense of a seat for your baby and whether your baby would even stay in their car seat on a flight. If you buy a seat and your baby hates her car seat, you’ll end up just holding your baby with your car seat empty on the extra seat.

For busy toddlers, you might find it’s worth the cost of the extra seat to keep your toddler contained in their travel car seat for the duration of the flight! Your baby or toddler may even sleep better in the unfamiliar surroundings if they are comfortable in their familiar car seat during the flight.

How to Get Your Travel Car Seat to the Airplane

travel with car seat stroller combo

Save yourself some time and DON’T hand out goodie bags to fellow passengers on the plane!

If you are flying with a car seat, you will need to come up with a solution for how to get the car seat onto the airplane. There are several options here, the easiest is using a stroller and carseat combo to wheel it all to the plane. (See our tips on flying with a stroller).

A car seat travel system will work really well here, especially if your baby is still in a bucket seat that attaches to your lightweight travel stroller. Alternatively, you can look at a travel car seat with wheels like the Doona infant car seat, which is a car seat and stroller in one.

For options that don’t require a stroller (or if your car seat doesn’t fit properly on your airport stroller), you can use a car seat travel belt to attach your lightweight car seat to your carry on luggage and roll it that way. Alternatively, you could buy a small car seat travel bag with backpack straps or a travel cart with wheels.

Gate Check Car Seat

Gate checking your car seat means bringing your car seat all the way to your gate, then giving it to airline staff moments before boarding the flight. You’ll typically get your gate checked car seat back moments after disembarking.

Though you aren’t actually bringing your baby or toddler car seat on the plane, you still need to get the car seat to the airplane. All of the options mentioned above will work to gate check your car seat and you can protect it in a car seat gate check bag.

Another benefit of gate checking your travel car seat is that sometimes parents traveling with a baby or toddler can sweet talk their way into getting an unused seat. If this happens, the airline staff will try to shift around the seating such that you can have the extra seat next to yours. If this happens, you can simply bring your car seat onto the flight instead of gate checking it!

Checking a Car Seat with Luggage

Checking a car seat with your luggage at the airport makes getting through the airport significantly easier (and lighter). Just be aware that there is a risk your car seat can show up at the other end damaged.

Many people choose to avoid this situation to keep their child car seats safe. Imagine getting off the plane, picking up your luggage and finding a damaged car seat. From there you’ll not only be dealing with the airline to get reimbursed, but you’ll also still need to find a replacement car seat to continue on with your vacation. This is not going to be fun after a long flight.

How to Protect Car Seat when Flying

Wondering how to check a car seat? It’s pretty easy, first make sure to protect your travel car seat with a padded car seat travel bag then drop it off along with the rest of your luggage. But make sure it’s well protected.

What’s the best way to protect a car seat when flying? One option is to ask the check in agent for a large plastic bag, but we recommend you putting the car seat into a padded car seat travel bag. We own and quite like this J.L. Childress padded car seat travel bag because it comes with a padded back and sides, plus it’s one of the BEST car seat travel bags for flying.

There’s usually extra space available, so we pack as many jackets, blankets, diapers, etc. in as possible. Not only does this free up room in our real luggage, it adds extra padding for extra car seat protection.

a travel car seat in a car seat travel bag for extra protection

Flying with a Convertible Seat for Toddler or Preschooler

Is it ever a good idea to bring a large convertible car seat for a toddler or preschooler? One of the more difficult times to travel with car seats is when your toddler/preschooler is in a large convertible seat. Those things are heavy!

While there are other smaller alternatives (which we cover below), it won’t be so bad to travel with a convertible toddler seat if you have a direct flight and will be getting a rental car for entire trip.

We traveled with our large convertible seats on the airplane once when we flew to Nashville with kids. We checked the car seats with our luggage in a travel car seat bag (the J.L. Childress car seat travel bag was even large enough to fit our big Britax seats).

a father carries a convertible car seat in a protective travel bag on his way to checking in for a family flight

It was a direct flight, so we knew the child seats would only need to be put on the plane and taken back off once (rather than transferred between planes in a rush). Maybe this wouldn’t make a difference, but it made us feel better about it.

We packed any extra diapers and blankets we had around the car seats for extra protection. They made it to Nashville in good shape with no damage to the car seat travel bags or the car seats.

traveling with a convertible car seat for a toddler
Comfortable in his own car seat!

If you still want your toddler or preschooler to be as safe as possible during the flight, you can check your large convertible car seats, then use a Cares safety restraint harness on the airplane. Just keep in mind the restraint harness is only for children 1 year and older who weigh between 22 to 44 pounds and up to 40 inches tall.

Renting a Car Seat from Car Rental Agency

There are circumstances during a trip when you might need to rent car seats from a car rental company. This isn’t typically the most advisable way to go. Though we’ve had some positive experiences doing this, we’ve also had some nightmare ones.

The first thing that always bothers me is when trying to book online, you’ll sometimes see a line that says the car seats availability isn’t guaranteed. That’s a deal breaker for me. What parent can take the risk of the car seat not being there? Imagine having to sit there and wait while your partner ran to the nearest Walmart to buy a new car seat.

Secondly, the type and condition of the child car seat isn’t guaranteed either. I have found that the car rental staff are basically clueless when it comes to choosing an acceptable car seat for babies and toddlers.

Finally, they won’t install them for you. So after a long flight, you are faced with trying to figure out how to install this seat you’ve never seen before in a car you don’t own. All the while your baby is screaming or your toddler is crawling all over you. It’s a nightmare!

Renting a car seat from a car rental agency is my absolute last resort when it comes to kids car seats. We rented car seats for a family trip to Prague and had to sit around while they tried to find appropriate ones. They had to go back several times before I finally accepted the offered car seats. They weren’t all that clean, but at that point we had no choice.

We had a similar experience renting in Iceland with kids. We arrived late in the day, so we were all exhausted and had to deal with car seats. The first two car seats they brought out were ridiculous. One was a bucket (capsule) car seat for my 4 year old and the other one was broken. I sent those back.

They came back with two more. In the end, they ended up giving us a brand new one out of the box that only worked rear facing for our 2.5 year old. I was perfectly happy to have him rear facing but it took me a while to figure out how it worked.

All while my husband tried to manage two very tired kids in the middle of a parking lot. It probably took us over an hour to figure it out.

All that being said, we had an exceptionally positive experience renting car seats in Norway with kids. We arrived at the Hertz car rental agency and they not only had two car seats perfect for our kids and sparkling clean (if not brand new) but they were already installed! I double checked them, of course, but what a treat!

a happy child in a rented car seat

So why would you ever rent car seats from a car rental company? Here are the circumstances that have caused us to rent car seats from car rental companies:

  • Our trip was several weeks long and we only had a rental car for two small portions of it, which would have meant carrying our own car seats around for weeks (usually on public transportation).

  • There were no baby equipment rental companies we could rent from.

  • We had one-way car rental, meaning we couldn’t rent from a single location baby equipment rental company.

  • The baby equipment rental companies couldn’t deliver to us or were cost prohibitive.

So what are the other options to renting from a car rental agency?

Look for a baby equipment rental company in the area, buy a car seat at your destination or look into alternatives that you can carry around (even if you won’t be using them the entire time).

Renting from a Baby Equipment Rental Company

Depending on how long and where you will be traveling with your baby or toddler, car seats can be rented from a baby equipment rental company. If you don’t plan to travel with your car seat, then check out our guide to renting baby equipment for travel. Car seats from a reputable baby equipment rental company will be in better shape and clean/sanitized for you.

Renting child seats from Baby Equipment Rental Company

Most baby equipment rental companies will meet you at the airport and might be able to give you some tips on installing the car seat. You should also know in advance what car seat brand and type you will be getting so you can find the installation instructions in advance to help you install them easier.

The only real downsides of renting from a baby equipment rental company are:

  1. Cost – this tends to be a pricey option.
  2. Availability – there isn’t always a company in the area you are traveling to.
  3. Return – the car seat typically has to be returned to the same place.
  4. Several Destinations – you might be traveling to several locations, and it’s time consuming to be constantly picking up or dropping off car seats at each new location.

We’ve rented car seats from baby equipment rental companies in Sedona, San Diego and even Mexico. We were met at the airport car rental agency and had great experiences all three times.

two rental car seats are waiting for us at our car rental agency in Cancun, Mexico

Buying a Car Seat at Your Destination

When would you buy a car seat at your destination? When the other options for traveling with car seats aren’t available or viable, it’s worth it to price out the cost of buying a car seat when you arrive.

In fact, it’s worth doing a cost comparison between buying and renting (either from the car rental agency or a baby equipment rental company) especially for longer trips. Assuming you have a place to easily pick them up or have them delivered.

Travel Booster Seat for kids in Ireland

We recently traveled to Scotland and Ireland for 7.5 weeks with our kids. We planned to rent a car for a portion of the time in Scotland and a portion of the time in Ireland, but not for the whole time.

We looked into the Ride Safer Travel Vest, but it wasn’t currently approved in the UK. We could have brought our own car seats, though I knew they aren’t technically legal either, what are the chances that we’d be pulled over and that they would even check or care as long as our kids were safely strapped in.

But our own car seats are far too big to bring along – especially when we would only be using them for a couple of weeks. We are also well past the point of buying a lightweight car seat for travel and neither of our kids is ready for a travel booster seat, like the Mifold or BubbleBum inflatable booster seat.

After determining that renting a car seat from a baby equipment rental company wouldn’t work (since we weren’t able to find one at our starting destination) and we preferred to not rent from the car rental company (the cost was ridiculous), we looked at the possibility of buying one.

It turned out that it was a pretty low cost to buy two high back booster seats for our kids and we could get them at a store within walking distance to our Airbnb.

rented car seats delivered right to the rental car agency

We looked into the child car seat laws for the UK and determined both our kids met the requirements for that particular seat. On top of that, they were lightweight enough that we could easily carry them in between when we didn’t have a rental car.

This was an inconvenience for sure, since we were taking public transport (bus, ferry, etc), but it was worth it for the peace of mind to have legal, safe and new seats with us.

Travel with lightweight booster seat

Options for Portable Car Seats

What other portable and lightweight options do you have for traveling with car seats?

Buy a portable car seat for travel. You can buy something like the often recommended Cosco Scenera Next as a lightweight travel car seat for your baby. Though check the height and weight requirements, since some kids may grow out of these quickly.

For infants, the Doona is a lightweight and portable car seat for infants plus it’s a stroller too.

Preschool and toddler convertible seats for car travel are the heaviest and the most difficult to travel with.

If your child meets the requirements for a travel booster seat, look into the Mifold or BubbleBum travel booster seats. Another option is the Ride Safer Travel Vest which can also be paired with a booster seat.

Make sure to check all age, height and weight requirements for travel booster seats or the Ride Safer Travel Vest. For example, the minimum age for the Ride Safer Travel Vest is 3 years old.

Booster seats aren’t recommended until at least 40 lbs and even 5 years old, plus your kid should be able to sit properly without slouching or leaning over. This is an excellent post about when your child is ready for a booster seat and this one for choosing the best portable booster seat.

How Can You Travel Without Car Seats?

If you can find a destination where you can get around without having to rent a car, you can avoid the hassle of traveling with car seats.

Do these places exist? They certainly do! We’ve spent a lot of time researching and coming up with places we can travel without needing car seats. We love the hassle of not traveling with them!

Here are the questions you need to ask when looking for destinations where you won’t need to travel with a car seat:

  1. How will you get to and from the airport? If public transportation isn’t readily available from the airport, or you aren’t interested in taking it with your luggage, then you can either take a taxi or Uber. We have a post that covers ridesharing with a baby or toddler.
    • For a taxi, make sure to determine what the rules are for car seats in taxis.
    • A better alternative is to book a private airport transfer that provides car seats like Welcome Pickups or Suntransfers.

  2. How will you get around? Can you walk almost everywhere?

  3. How is the public transportation? Is it possible to see everything you want to see by walking, bus or train?

  4. How will you get between cities? If you want to visit other cities or areas, can you easily get there by train or bus?

We took our first trip to Barcelona with a baby (she was 3 months old and we were slightly nervous first-time parents). We had specifically chosen Barcelona because we knew we’d be able to easily get from the Barcelona El Prat airport to our hotel using public transportation and during our stay we could get around by walking.

a proud mother holds her 3 month old while traveling in Barcelona with a Baby

Knowing we wouldn’t need an infant car seat was one less thing we’d have to worry about. For the first time flying with an infant, we booked airline seats with an airplane bassinet so we didn’t need to hold our baby for the entire long haul flight. She slept soundly in the airplane bassinet for almost the entire overseas flight.

We made it easy on ourselves and just used a baby carrier for travel. We rented a stroller and had it delivered to our hotel (it was waiting for us when we arrived). So all we had to worry about was our baby and our luggage.

We spent some time in London and Paris with a toddler, and this time we flew with our own car seat with an extra seat for our child. There were no issues with using the car seat on the plane or getting to the plane with our car seat stroller combo. 

a Dad holds his baby while traveling in Paris

We gate checked our stroller on the flight to London, but we didn’t get it back until baggage in Gatwick so we had to carry the car seat the entire way. Although we expected to use the car seat more, but it turned out we got around with our baby in London and Paris with public transport or walking, so it sat unused in our vacation home rental apartment until we needed it for our final taxi to get to the airport in Paris*.

London with a Baby

*make sure to bring locking clips if using your car seat in Europe!

We traveled in Italy with toddlers for a month without needing car seats. We used public transportation when we got to Rome with our toddlers and managed to get around by trains and ferries in Italy.

Getting around in Italy with toddlers without a car seat

(Full disclosure, we did take two taxi rides with our kids in the back seat with us not in car seats. Once was on the Island of Elba and the other was a very early morning ride to the Florence airport as we were leaving).

In Norway with a toddler, we used public transportation in Oslo, a train to Bergen and public transport to get to the airport to get to Alesund where we rented a car. We were able to get out to Geiranger with kids without needing car seats too.

Norway with a toddler

In the two weeks in Japan with toddlers, we were easily able to get around using public transportation and trains.

two toddlers play in a beautiful garden on a family trip to Japan

If you’re going to NYC with a baby or toddler, we’ve also done that and used only public transport to get around!

new york city is easy to visit without a car seat

What about an all-inclusive vacation to Mexico with a baby? We traveled to our resort on a big bus so we didn’t bring a car seat, which we would have only used on the shuttle bus.

All Inclusive Mexico with a Baby

We also managed to get around Croatia with a toddler and preschooler without needing car seats, this included getting out to Plitvice Lakes with a toddler and preschooler. From there we continued on to the Croatian of Hvar and Korcula by bus and ferry with our kids.

Plitvice Lakes with Toddler

As you can see, there are plenty of places around the world where you can easily travel without needing to bring a car seat.

Summary of Tips for Traveling with Car Seats

It can get pretty complicated when trying to decide whether to bring car seats (either the ones you use everyday or a portable travel car seat) on your family vacation. This decision is especially hard if you plan on moving around a lot during your trip.

The best place to start is by deciding if you will be purchasing a seat on the airplane for your baby or toddler. Next decide how you will get your car seat either to the plane or protect it for checked luggage.

Don’t miss all our airplane activities for babies and toddlers PLUS these screen free toddler travel toys.

From there you need to know if you’ll be renting a car for the duration of your trip or using public transportation.

If you aren’t renting a car, or you won’t be in the same car the entire time, you need to map out your trip. How often will you be in a car (including Uber or taxi)? What are your options for car seats?

This is a lot of think about, we know! Because it can get so complicated, we recommend working through each leg of your trip to determine if you need to travel with car seats!

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This post was written & edited by: | Website | + posts

Celine Brewer is the owner of Baby Can Travel. Not only does she have years of experience traveling with babies & toddlers, but she's helped millions of new parents travel with their babies and toddlers for over a decade. In addition to writing on her baby travel blog, she has shared her expertise on traveling with a baby or toddler by contributing to articles about traveling with a baby with the Washington Post, USA Today, the Lonely Planet magazine and Pregnancy & Newborn magazine.

Celine also writes about family travel on the site, which she co-owns with her husband. Being from the Canadian Rockies, she shares her passion about her home and travel to Banff National Park and area on their site

Read more about Celine Brewer.