Making family travel easier with car seats and strollers
Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.
Towing child car seats and strollers through airports and around the world isn’t the most glamorous part of family travel. Thankfully, there are ways that savvy parents can minimize both the hassle and expense of transporting this gear.
Here are some basic facts about traveling with a car seat or stroller, and a few of our favorite strategies.
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Traveling with a child car seat
We’ve flown with our heftiest car seat that seems to be very comfortable for my daughter to sit in, but which is also huge, heavy and expensive. I’ve also flown with our travel car seat that is lighter, cheaper and totally adequate. There is a time and place for both options, but make sure you think through which car seat is right for your trip, assuming you have access to more than one in the first place. If you do decide to add a lighter or cheaper travel car seat to your fleet (the Cosco Scenera Next and Pico Travel Car Seat by WAYB come to mind), you could also consider leaving it with the grandparents, a babysitter or other helper when you aren’t traveling. That extra seat can make their lives a little easier — and give everyone a break from removing and installing car seats when it's time to switch caregivers.
Car seats travel for free
All airlines I have ever run across will accept child safety seats and strollers as checked baggage for no additional charge. This even applies to low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier. When it comes to checking a car seat, I strongly recommend placing it inside a large bag (you can shop for a dedicated car seat bag, but a few garbage bags or even a large duffel do just as well) to keep it from being soiled and to ensure parts don't get lost or catch on aircraft-loading equipment. Some parents have been known to pack extra diapers, beach towels or anything else light and soft in the bag to help keep it cushioned a bit. This is also a savvy trick that will help free up some space — and save a little weight — in your other checked bags. Unless the car seat bag is ridiculously heavy, chances are you won't even be asked to open it to show what's inside.
We recommend not checking any super-expensive and potentially bulky car seat from home if you can avoid it. Instead, pick one up that you use specifically for travel.
Related: Best car seats for travel
Using a car seat on board an aircraft
Parents have mixed views on using car seats on the plane. Some view bringing a car seat on board as a bit bulky and cumbersome, especially on airlines where seats are smaller than average. There are also numerous reports of parents having conflicts with flight attendants who incorrectly prevent them from using even an FAA-approved child safety seat. (FAA-approved car seats usually have a sticker saying so on the side, so make sure yours does before boarding.) Some kids sleep better when strapped into their car seats, which can be an added incentive to bring one on board, particularly on an overnight flight. Bringing a car seat on board also means you can avoid any trouble with the airline losing it, or any delay in having it returned to you.
Your child is certainly safer, to some degree, strapped into a car seat — but air travel is statistically very safe to begin with.
What can tip the scales is whether your child is most comfortable in his or her car seat. But you have to consider your personal comfort, too, since you will be the one lugging it through the airport — especially if you have layovers and other carry-on bags with you already.
If you do plan to bring the seat on the aircraft, I recommend trying a product such as the Go-Go Babyz Mini Travelmate, which makes transporting the seat much easier.
A good compromise for toddlers, instead of a bringing car seat on board, is to use the CARES child restraint system, which is lightweight, compact and inexpensive. A CARES child restraint system is much easier to throw in your backpack and use on an airplane than a car seat. Just keep in mind that it's for use for kids weighing between 22 pounds and 44 pounds, in a forward-facing seat only.
Smaller is better for travel
Peruse the aisles of any store that sells child safety seats and you’ll notice some compact designs alongside some very large “thrones.” Since all of these models are certified to the same safety standards, you’ll be better off using one that’s compact for travel. Happily, these models are usually less expensive as well (although not always).
When we need just a basic booster seat, we use the Harmony Youth Booster Car Seat. It’s small enough to carry on board, which has saved us time checking and retrieving bags. (Do note that booster seats are not approved for use on the aircraft — you’ll just have it ready for the car when you land.)
Travel light and live off the land?
American pioneers crossed the continent by foraging locally rather than carrying it all with them. Likewise, parents in the 21st century can rent or purchase car seats at their destination. Unfortunately, rental car companies make this option pretty costly, especially for longer trips, with most companies charging somewhere between $10 and $20 per day. (Weekly rates may be available.)
Keep in mind, too, that car rental companies may only offer car seat rentals at their airport locations, not at city storefronts or other outposts. When in doubt, call the local or national office ahead of time to better understand your options at your destination.
Notably, Hertz offers a free rental child seat or infant booster seat to AAA members. Even better, Silvercar offers free child seats to any customer upon request (based on availability) — and their car seats are top of the line Peg Perego seats. Just be sure to request one in advance.
Outside of Silvercar, which has been pretty consistently wonderful with car seats, the disadvantage of renting a seat is that you’ll never be assured of its quality and cleanliness, and its setup will be unfamiliar to both parents and children. Since studies show that the majority of child car seats are installed incorrectly, we prefer to travel with our own seats that we know how to install properly.
One other strategy some traveling families use is purchasing a car seat at their destination and then donating it to a charity upon departure. The problem is that an adult would have to drive off the airport to buy the car seat, and then return for whoever was left behind with the child, sucking up valuable vacation time. You’ll also face a similar logistical challenge upon your departure if you choose to donate it. If you have a place you frequently visit, such as where your child’s grandparents live, you might consider buying an extra seat and leaving it there with them.
Traveling with a stroller
Check through or gate check?
Every time we have to travel with a stroller, we carefully weigh whether to check it through with the other luggage or use it all the way to the gate. Like car seats, strollers can be checked for free both at the check-in counter and when you board. The advantage of gate checking at the plane is that you can use the stroller at your departure and arrival airports (particularly useful if you're traveling with a baby or any child likely to be snoozing when you land or leave). The downside is that it can sometimes take 10-15 minutes before it’s delivered to the jet bridge once the plane arrives at its destination, which can be an uncomfortable wait in very hot or cold weather. If you have a connecting flight with a tight layover, you may not want to risk losing time waiting for a stroller to arrive on the jet bridge.
Waiting for a gate-checked stroller also often means that you’re last in line at customs and immigration behind the hundreds of other people on your flight.
If you check a stroller through to your final destination, you don’t need to worry about it until you arrive at the baggage claim. However, you may then have to carry (or wear) your child through a large airport.
Another idea is to purchase a stroller that will fit on board the aircraft, such as the UPPAbaby Minu Stroller or the gb Pockit Stroller.
If you are pregnant and planning ahead — or have an infant at home and are still gearing up — the best car seat to invest in for travel and getting through the airport by a wide, wide margin is the Doona. That's because the Doona converts from a car seat to a stroller with ease, as its wheels shoot out and retract. This makes it the perfect way to get through the airport, fly on a plane and then secure your baby in a cab or rental car without a problem.
Related: Best strollers for travel
Use the cargo space
One upside to carrying a stroller through the airport is that many of them can double as a small cart for your diaper bag or other “personal items.” All you need to do is to buy one with a little bit of cargo space below, which you can find on many strollers. Reading reviews before you purchase is a good way to learn if users are satisfied with the size of the storage space and also how easy it is to access.
I strongly recommend traveling with the smallest stroller you can find that will meet your needs.
I’m stunned when I see parents plodding around an airport with their children in a gigantic jogging stroller, because it can’t be easily transported in rental cars or on buses and trains. Many airlines also have weight limits on strollers they'll allow to be gate checked, so that's something you'll want to investigate before you fly if you're considering bringing something on the larger side.
Ironically, we’ve found so-called “travel systems” impractical for travel, as they include an extremely bulky stroller designed to accommodate a child’s car seat on top. Some of the best travel strollers are so compact they can be pushed down the airplane aisle while you're boarding or deplaning.
When our three children were infants, we loved using an extremely compact Snap-N-Go stroller that held our child’s car seat and had storage space below. We were able to use this system at airports and then gate check both pieces right before stepping on the plane, placing the car seat in a duffel bag. The stroller folds nearly flat and its narrow track is crowd-friendly, allowing you to squeeze through tight spaces a larger stroller could never navigate.
These days, the Babyzen YOYO+ also gets fantastic marks as a compact (but pricey) travel stroller that's narrow enough for airplane aisles.
Buy local or ship
Rather than traveling with your stroller, it might be easier in some cases to buy an inexpensive new stroller at your destination or have a new one shipped directly to your hotel, assuming the hotel can accept and hold deliveries for you.
In some areas, like Orlando, you can also rent a stroller for the duration of your trip. Keep in mind, too, that at any place you plan to leave your stroller in public while you play, like Orlando's theme parks, it's a good idea to use a cheaper stroller, so you won't miss it too much if someone swipes it.
We hope these tips give you some ideas to lighten the load on your next trip. If you’re looking for more advice, read TPG’s advice for flying with a car seat. And if you are shopping for a new stroller, be sure to reference TPG’s list of the eight best strollers for travel. Looking for a double stroller instead? We’ve got some suggestions for double strollers, too, although we can't promise all of them will be able to be checked at the gate (their large size might mean they need to be checked with your regular baggage).
Additional reporting by Summer Hull and Benét J. Wilson.