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Safe Seating for Young Travelers, or Sometimes You've Just Gotta Belt 'Em!

by Dave Marx, Author of PassPorter Travel Guides

You're good parents. We know you are, because so many of you ask us, "What do we do about car seats when we travel?" It's one of our most frequently asked questions. Unfortunately, the answers can be quite unsettling.

Airline Seating
U.S. air travel rules let you to lap-carry small children (infant through 24 months) at no extra charge, and we see many parents who take advantage of this airfare bargain to introduce their newborns to far-flung family members. Despite the facts that this is completely legal and parents are given an economic incentive to cut this corner, this can be a tragically unsafe practice.

In the all-too-common event of unexpected turbulence, that lap-carried infant can literally go flying- out of your arms and into the ceiling, onto the floor, or down the aisle. Your best intention to "just hang on tight" isn't enough-the forces can be too severe. In extreme cases, a small child may even become an "air bag" for its loving parent, absorbing fatal, crushing forces.

Have we scared you? Our research into this topic scared us! What can you do? Buy your infant a seat on the plane, and bring a child safety seat, just as you would in a car. Many airlines provide discounted fares for children under two, and some will give you that seat at no charge, if the flight isn't full. Check with your airline for its current policy, and refer to its web site for more advice on flying with children.

You are required to buy airline tickets for all children two years old and up. While you (and the airline) are not required to provide a safety seat, U.S. authorities and airlines strongly recommend you bring one for all children up to 40 lbs. We had great success using the Sit 'n' Stroll child safety seat on airplanes -- it is a child safety seat with "landing gear" allowing it to be rolled through airports, or even used as a stroller in a pinch.

Just as in cars, children under 20 lbs. on aircraft are safest in a rear-facing child seat, and children 20-40 lbs. are safest in a front-facing child seat. It's only at 40 pounds and up that things change. Children over 40 lbs. should be strapped-in like an adult, without a booster seat. Booster seats are prohibited during taxiing, take-off and landing -- airline seats are designed to fold forward in an impact, so the higher position of a booster seat and the lack of a shoulder restraint would expose children over 40 lbs. in boosters to greater potential harm than being strapped-in like an adult.

Children who are over 2 years old and between 22 and 40 pounds will be best served by the new CRS (child restraint system) which is FAA-approved for use on aircraft (full-flight -- taxi, take-off, cruise, and landing). For information on one of these approved CRS devices, see CARES Airline Harness (the manufacturer) and (You may also be interested in the PassPorter review of the CARES Harness.)

What else isn't safe seating for kids on airliners? Seat belt extensions, "belly bands" and add-on harnesses are prohibited -- anything that fastens a child to the lap or chest of an adult. Products are sold expressly for this purpose, such as the Baby B'air Flight Safety Vest -- but this product is not allowed during take-off, taxi, and landing in the U.S. Also prohibited are the Snugli-style infant carriers.

What should you look for in a child restraint? Check the label of your car safety seat. If it's been manufactured during your child's lifetime, chances are it has been approved for both car and air travel. Further, aim for a seat 16 inches wide, or narrower. While the arms on some airline seats do fold up to accommodate wider safety seats, some do not. Car seats are not permitted in the aisle or center seats, as they may block passenger escape -- your lucky kid gets the window seat! Be sure to take advantage of the airline's pre-boarding procedures, so the flight attendants can be sure your child's seat is properly secured before the rest of the passengers arrive.

There are several more reasons to bring along that child seat. First, comfort and familiarity. Your child will be more likely to be calm (and nap) in his/her regular safety seat. And it also helps with consistency -- the fewer exceptions there are to the, "You must always be in your safety seat" rule, the better.

While we're on the topic of children and air travel, let's cover another common question. "Can I bring my child's stroller right to the gate, or must I check it with the other luggage?" Fortunately, you can leave your child in his/her stroller until it's time to board. You can then "gate check" the stroller right at the plane's door. It won't count towards your baggage allowance, and it will be waiting for you when you exit the plane.

Buses and Trains
Except for school buses, buses and trains do not come with seat belts of any kind. These mass transit vehicles are exempt from child safety seating rules, and without seat belts, there's no way to secure a safety seat. Amtrak recommends you place infant safety seats on the floor-a safer position in a sudden stop. Fortunately, there's enough leg room on railroad trains to make this practical. Buses, with their scant leg room, don't offer that option.

While we are enthusiastic users of Walt Disney World's transportation system, it's not safety seat-friendly. No seat belts, standing room-only crowds... you're right to be concerned. Try to put your most restless child in a window seat or on your lap, where you stand a chance of keeping him/her under control. And as much as you want to get back to your resort at park closing (especially with tired, cranky kids), don't get on the bus/monorail unless you can place your child into a seat or on a lap. A child caught in a standing-room crowd on a bus is at significant risk, and another bus will be along in just a few minutes.

Limos, Town Cars, Taxis, and Shuttles
These common vehicles for ground transportation can fall into a legal gray area in some states. Are safety seats required, or not? They may be exempted as "mass transit" vehicles, or maybe not. Of course, safety is the paramount issue in this article, regardless of whether there's a legal opening. Fortunately, nearly all these vehicles do have shoulder-and-lap seat belts, so if you brought safety seats with you for your flight, you'll be covered for the trip from the airport, too. If you have an older child who doesn't need a safety seat on the plane, ask the company in advance if it can provide a suitable safety seat. Some will, and others won't.

Rental Cars
Child safety seating laws apply to rental cars as well as privately-owned vehicles, but car rental companies do not include child safety seats with the cost of rental. Many offer safety seats for rent, and some minivans now have built-in safety seats. Be sure to settle this matter with the rental company when you make your reservation, as those safety seats may be in short supply.

Safety seats are your responsibility, and your added expense. As we mentioned, rental agencies usually rent safety seats, but you're probably better off with your regular car seats. Since car renters typically fly to their destination, you'll have car seats along anyway for the kids under 40 lbs., right? As for older children, the airline will often let you check (or gate-check) a booster seat without counting it against your luggage allowance - be sure to ask about this before you arrive at the airport.

Florida has one of the looser child safety seat laws; a safety seat is only required through age three. Children four through eight can ride in the back seat, using regular adult seat belts. You may want to do better than that, and we wouldn't disagree.

And All The Ships At Sea
The subject here switches from safety seats to personal floatation devices (life jackets). On cruise ships, all passengers must participate in a safety drill. The purpose here is to familiarize guests with exit routes and emergency procedures, and to give them some practice wearing their personal floatation. Yes, these big orange things can be awkward and uncomfortable to wear as you make your way from stateroom to lifeboat station, but this exercise is a key part of oceangoing safety. There's inevitably one hysterical child at the assembly station who refuses to wear his/her life vest. Show him/her that it's the grownup thing to do, and cheerfully don your own life vest first.

Oh, and as long as we're on board.... What can you do with that bulky child safety seat while you're crammed into that little stateroom? Your stateroom host/hostess will store it for you until the cruise is over!

Home Again, Safe and Sound!
Keeping your family safe will always be a challenge, but as with other aspects of travel, it really pays to plan ahead. Fortunately, there are several very helpful web sites and organizations dedicated to travel safety. Here's a listing of just a few of them. Bon voyage!

Resources  - Indiana-based child passenger safety advocacy group with a very helpful web site  - National organization with an extensive web site that includes summaries of the child safety seat regulations in every state
  - Children's Hospital of Philadelphia has extensive information on child safety seating, including a thorough listing of links to related resources  - Consumer Reports is famous for its independent product safety testing and its advocacy of consumer safety. Safety seat test results, recommended safe practices and other valuable information  - National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the U.S. government agency with primary responsibility for child safety seat standards. The NHTSA works with the FAA on airline-related child safety seat issues. The site is information-rich on child safety and other topics  - Federal Aviation Administration recommendations and rules for child safety seats
Kids Fly Safe -- Manufacturers of the in-flight harness belt.   - Southwest Airline's recommendations for travel with children.
Another airline with good child travel information is American Airlines, at - You'll find American's recommendations by selecting Travel Information > FAQs

About the Author: Dave Marx is the co-author of many PassPorter travel guides, including the bestselling, award-winning "PassPorter Walt Disney World."

Related Articles:
  • Flying With Kids
  • CARES Harness Review

  • Preparing a Child for Walt Disney World

    This article appeared in our November 26, 2003 newsletter -- subscribe to our popular newsletter today for free!


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    Updated 08/05/08 

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