Car seats are a necessary evil – you have to keep your kids safe when coming and going, but they’re heavy and cumbersome and aren’t always the most pleasant thing to try and install after a long day of travel.
Full disclosure: I am a bit of a car seat junkie and have always erred on the side of caution. My 8 year old can legally ride in the car without a car seat now, but he still rides in a high back car seat in our vehicles, and if given the choice, I always have him ride in a backless booster when carpooling or in grandparents’ vehicles. As a bone fide car seat junkie, however, I have now taken numerous taxi rides and plane trips with / without car seats and can share what has worked for us and what hasn’t.
Will I need a car seat at my destination?
The obvious first question is — do we need a car seat at our destination? There are many variables to consider:
- Will you be doing a lot of travel by car? While a car seat may be critical for a trip to Los Angeles, it is less necessary and likely superfluous for a trip to New York City.
- Can you rent/borrow a car seat? Most rental car companies give you the option of renting a car seat. I have friends who have had awful experiences, but also friends who have had wonderful experiences. We rented a car seat once – for a 24 hour layover in Munich – and had a perfectly acceptable experience. We also recently had neighbors who had family visiting from the UK and needed two car seats – happily, we were able to loan them our spare car seats during the duration of their trip.
- Do you have alternative options? For a solo trip to LA where I needed a high back booster, I decided to just purchase a car seat and have it shipped to my mother. My brother installed it prior to picking us up from the airport and we happily left the car seat with them for future trips. This is an option to consider if you will be flying somewhere to visit family and plan on making frequent return trips.
How will we get to/from the airport/train station?
The second question we always have to answer is how we are getting to/from the airport or train station. When my son was 8 months old and we were flying to Orlando where we did not need a car seat, I opted to walk to/from the metro station with my son and metro to the airport in lieu of riding in a taxi cab with him unrestrained. I did the return walk to/from the metro station with him in a stroller on the trip home from the airport. Eighteen months later, when the same son was 2.5 years old and we were making a similar trip, I decided to just let him ride in the back of the taxi cab instead of making the trek to/from the airport via metro. Why? Because he was older and I felt safer riding in the backseat with him, versus a still relatively floppy infant who couldn’t be restrained at all. The fact that the airport is less than 5 miles from our house with a speed limit of no more than 40 miles per hour also informs that decision. So, part of “how will we get to/from the airport/train station?” also involves “how much risk am I willing to take?” While legally, children in our state can ride unrestrained in a “for hire” vehicle, each parent needs to decide what they are comfortable with given their unique circumstances. Given the option, if we are bringing a car seat, I prefer to install the seat in the cab/uber because safety is almost the most important!
What car seat do I need?
Everyone’s favorite question when it comes to young kids – what gear do I need? The age/weight of your child dictates what gear you need and, of course, as the kids get older, the more options you have!
Infant Car Seat:
There is no replacement for the infant “bucket” car seat. We have owned two Chicco Keyfit 30’s and have been happy with them. Although it is one of the heavier bucket seats on the market, it didn’t really bother me much as both my kids outgrew them in terms of comfort well before we started seriously traveling with them by plane. Moreover, I loved the ease of the keyfit stroller caddy, which made it possible for me to transport sleeping babes to and from just about anywhere, providing me with a few precious additional minutes of peace and quiet!
The Convertible Car seat:
The convertible car seat is the most difficult car seat to travel with, in large part because it’s so heavy and cumbersome and, during the age your child is in the convertible, there’s very little by way of “other” options. For both kids, we used the Britax Marathon and simply took them with us everywhere. We would install them using the LATCH mechanism on taxis/cabs, set them up in the airplane seat (if needed), and then install at our destination.
Although there are accessories you can purchase that are designed to alleviate the burden of hand carrying the car seat, we never used them. My husband simply tightened the car seat straps and carried them over his shoulder. If needed, he would double bag it in a black trash bag before checking it, but for the most part, we simply gate checked it and had no problems retrieving it on the other end of our trip. Both my sons loved the familiarity of having their same car seat on our trips and we never worried about the quality or condition of a rental company car seat.
The Harness Booster:
At some point, your child may outgrow the convertible car seat and you may decide that you’re not quite ready for your child to ride in a backless booster. I fell squarely in this camp and purchased a Graco Nautilus which is what my older son has been riding in for the past four years (since he was 4 years old)! The nice thing about these car seats is that they grow with the child. You can keep them in a five point restraint, then adjust to a high back booster + lap belt, before adjusting to a backless booster + lap belt. Unfortunately, the high back booster set up of this car seat is the opposite of built for travel as the back is not attached to the base (they simply click together), so there’s no way of carrying this car seat without it coming apart. I believe we took one trip with this car seat and quickly swore never again – it was large and cumbersome and extremely difficult to keep together. This was also definitely a car seat we had to check at the curb – there was no way we could have carried it with us to the gate without completely losing our minds.
The “travel vest” was purchased immediately prior to a trip to NYC where we would be traveling by train – AMTRAK and Subway. I didn’t want to lug around a car seat with us, yet didn’t quite feel comfortable letting my 4 year old ride around in a taxi or friend’s car without some kind of restraint. A friend suggested the travel vest and it turned out to be a lifesaver! The seat comes in a little bag that is easy to carry and is extremely light and not-bulky. It can be tossed into a large carry on, or, you can even have your child wear it as a backpack.
Although it takes a few minutes to line the car seat belts into the appropriate buckles, we used this car seat on numerous trips where we didn’t plan to travel extensively in a vehicle, but wanted a safe option for car travel on the occasion we were in a vehicle. As an extra bonus, this car seat ended up being an easy solution for carpool and fitting three children across the backseat of my car, on the occasion when I needed to take a classmate of my older son somewhere, but my toddler’s convertible car seat prohibited me from squeezing in an extra backless booster.
Note that this car seat comes in two different sizes and because it did end up being so useful for carpool, we purchased the bigger size to accommodate our son and his friends for carpool purposes in first and second grade – before they were old enough that I felt safe – both personally and legally – to allow them to ride without a car seat.
Backless Boosters, the mifold, and the Bumble Bum:
Although car seat safety guidelines vary by state, in our state, children who are 4 AND 40 pounds can legally ride in a backless booster. There was much rejoicing on our first trip with a backless booster because it not only meant we didn’t have to carry around a giant car seat, but also because it meant our son likely could carry his own booster! We have a basic Graco booster seat that we reserve for travel and carpool purchases. It is cheap, relatively small, and does what it’s intended to do – lift up my kid so that the seat belt is properly positioned on his body.
In addition to the regular booster, we also have a mifold, which does the opposite of the regular booster seat – it brings the seat belt down to the child so that it is properly positioned on their body. Although we have not traveled – yet – with the mifold, I have loved the flexibility it has provided us in terms of fitting a third child between two existing LATCH car seats. And, it’s an easy thing to have tucked away in the trunk in case the need arises.
Another option to consider in the category of backless boosters is the Bubble Bum:
Although my family has not used the bubblebum, I know Catherine’s did on a recent trip to Iceland and aside from having to reinflate it a few times a day, it worked perfectly and was a good, lightweight option for her older two children.
The IMMI GO:
A car seat that I have yet to try is the IMMI GO.
I heard about the IMMI GO a few years ago when UBER FAMILY came out, but never had occasion to try it. A friend of mine, however, mentioned that it was actually available for purchase and so we purchased one just prior to our last vacation. Unfortunately, because it arrived just the day before our scheduled departure, I didn’t feel comfortable using it without getting a chance to try it out. My son was just barely within the weight range for it and so, I decided to save it for our next trip. Although I haven’t had a chance to test it out yet, I can safely say, I find its small size to be impressive and look forward to using it on our next trip!
Per the website, the IMMI GO is:
Designed and tested for children:
Height: 31” – 52”
Weight: 22 – 55lbs.
Airline Seat Restraints:
Children don’t legally need a special seat restraint when flying, but as a parent, I know I agonized about whether it was safe for my young children to fly without a restraint. For that reason, prior to age two, we frequently carried on our son’s convertible car seat and strapped it into his airline seat. However, that quickly became undesirable because it took up a lot of space width wise and also because when upset, my son would kick the back of the seat in front of him and there was nothing we could do about it given the extra “lift” the seat gave him. As a result, we ended up purchasing a CARES harness for flights.
The CARES harness is designed for airline travel. It slides over the top of the child’s seat and provides an extra restraint across your child’s chest. The airplane seat belt is slipped into loops on the harness, which goes across your child’s lap. Although not essential, I did find this extra restraint to be comforting to have on turbulent flights.