Does my car seat fly for free?
On US Airlines you can always check a car seat for free at the ticket counter or at the gate, whatever is more convenient for you!
On International Airlines some count it towards your checked luggage allowance or only allow it to fly for free if the child is under 2 so be sure to check with your specific airline.
Protecting your checked car seat!
The only thing I thought about my first time when checking my child's car seat is all the germs from multiple people touching it, it touching the belt conveyor at baggage claim, being under the plane and all the dirt that come with that and then putting my precious, clean baby in their to catch all those germs. I highly recommend purchasing a protective bag! I did forget mine once and on my flight to my destination I asked the counter for a garbage bag and they provided me with one but on the way back that counter didn't have any so don't count on the airline providing something. All the baby stores have several types and sizes depending on your needs, I bought a sturdy one as we travel a lot and didn't want to risk the cheaper material ones ripping after multiple use but if you don't plan on using it much don't break the bank!
Risks of checking a car seat?
Car seats that have been in a car accident are no longer safe and should not be reused. We also know airlines damage people's luggage all the time and there are no exceptions for car seats. The chance of an airline damaging your car seat where it is no longer safe and functional is unlikely BUT the problem is there is really no way to tell as you have no idea what happens to your car seat once you check it and not all car seat damage is visible.
The only way to 100% prevent the mishandling of your car seat is to bring it on the plane with you. However, purchasing a seat for your child under 2 can be a big expense not everyone can afford so what are your alternatives?
1. Checking your car seat at the gate will eliminate a lot of handling as it's walked over to the plane and handed right back to you upon landing but of course still no guarantee.
2. Consider purchasing a cheaper car seat just for traveling purposes.
3. If you plan on renting a car at your destination you can also rent a car seat through the rental company. There is an added fee (up to $13.99/day) for them to provide a car seat but if you have a AAA membership Hertz gives you one child, infant, or booster seat for free! They also have other savings which you can find here. The problem with renting a car seat is that you never know the condition it will be in.
4. If it is a place you travel frequently, say visiting grandma/grandpa consider purchasing a car seat for their car that way you never have to travel with yours!
Getting your car seat to the gate
If you are checking your car seat at the gate or having your child sit in it on the flight it can be daunting thinking of how you are going to manage. Car seats can be heavy, not to mention impossible to carry if you already have a carry-on bag plus a child to carry. Here are some ways to get your car seat to the gate: Get a car seat bag that has backpack straps so you can carry it or wheels so you can pull it, snap the car seat into your stroller frame if you have an infant car seat so you can push baby in it, or get a car seat transporter (these have wheels so you can have baby strapped in a pull it and some can even be tied to your carry on suitcase so you can pull both with one hand). For details on the car seat transporter I use click here.
Using your car seat on the plane
If you plan to have your child sit in their car seat on the plane you will be required to purchase a seat for them. Some airlines offer discounted child fare but most don't. Your car seat MUST be FAA approved to be used on an airplane. How do you know if it is? The car seat will read "this restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft" or "for use in aircraft" on the label. If the label is missing or unreadable it will be in your owner's manual or you can call the manufacture to ask them and have them provide you with a letter stating so. Remember that just because your car seat is FAA approved doesn't mean it will fit in the airplane seat so be sure to measure your car seat and check with the airline that the specific plane you would be traveling on has seats wide enough for your car seat.
Car seats are not allowed to block the exit paths of others in the row so that pretty much means the car seat would need to be installed in the window seat on a typical 2 column plane. If it is a bigger plane that has 3 columns the car seat could also go in the middle seat of the middle column.
Please note that some NON U.S. based airlines require you to provide the car seat details at booking over the phone, do not allow children to sit in car seats during the flight at all, and/or require the car seat to be forward facing so be sure to contact the specific airline prior to booking or always book on a U.S. based airline when traveling internationally.
Consider leaving your car seat at home
If you are traveling to somewhere like NYC, Chicago, or Tokyo where public transportation is in abundance or everything is in walking distance decide if you really need a car seat. If you are only taking trains and buses a baby carrier and/or stroller will suffice. For toddlers in major cities Uber will provide you with a car seat for a small surcharge. Click here for details.