Whether vacation involves driving across the country or flying to a new location, there's one item parents of infants and toddlers shouldn't forget to pack: their child's car seat.
"Although it can be exciting, planning for a family vacation can also be a bit stressful," says Marisa Abbe, Ph.D., CPSTI, Manager of Injury Prevention at Children's Health℠. "You have to think about a million and one things. Unfortunately, many parents don't think about their child's car seat until they're ready to walk out the door."
To alleviate last-minute stress, Dr. Abbe says parents should make a car seat plan early. Car crashes are the number one cause of death for children, and the use of a car seat lowers a child's risk of traumatic injury during a car crash by up to 71%.
See seven tips for how to travel with a car seat on vacation.
1. Treat a car seat as a carry-on
If your family is flying to a location where you will use a car, bring the car seat with you on the plane. While you can check your car seat with baggage, Dr. Abbe recommends keeping it with you instead. Well in advance of your travel date, look into whether the airline you are using counts a car seat or stroller as one of your allowable carry-on items so that you can plan your carry-on baggage accordingly.
"While it's okay to check your car seat, if you have ever seen how luggage is thrown on and off the plane, you might think twice," says Dr. Abbe.
It can be hard to tell what damage a car seat has suffered because it can develop microcracks in the plastic that you can't see. You might not notice missing parts that come off. Even these small amounts of damage can affect the safety of a car seat.
2. Buckle up kids on an airplane
Many parents wonder if children need a car seat on airplanes, and the answer is yes. If your child has their own seat on a plane, buckle them into the car seat for the flight. Plane seats are not made for small bodies; a car seat can keep your child safe and more comfortable.
"Putting them in the car seat keeps them in the seat instead of wandering around the airplane," says Dr. Abbe. "If there is turbulence, it also protects them from being thrown."
You can use rear-facing or harness car seats on a plane. If your car seat is okay for plane travel, it should have a sticker on the side of the seat or a note in the manual that it is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. However, booster seats are not safe on a plane because there is no shoulder belt for your child to use.
3. Find a lighter car seat
Many parents dread the idea of carrying a heavy car seat through the airport and security. If you can afford it, you can purchase a cheaper, lighter seat to use on vacation. These seats are easier to tote around an airport and take on and off the plane. You may also want to consider purchasing a wheeled attachment specifically designed to hold the car seat, making it much easier to pull through the airport to the plane.
4. Rent car seats with caution
Some car rental companies provide a car seat for a small daily fee. This may be a good option if you are familiar with the model of the car and car seat you are renting.
However, Dr. Abbe warns that 75% of children's car seats are installed incorrectly. If you come across an unfamiliar car seat, you may have trouble installing it in the rental car.
"We've had parents call us in a panic because they don't know how to use their rented car seat," says Dr. Abbe. "It's hard to walk them through car seat installation over the phone."
Another downside of renting a car seat is that you don't know the quality of the seat or if it has been in a car crash. If possible, ask about the car seat model before renting one. While renting a car seat is better than no car seat, the best possible choice is to bring your own car seat with you during travel.
5. Know the laws where you are traveling
Every state in the U.S. has different laws about car seat usage. Some states require rear-facing car seats until 1 or 2 years of age. Others require car seats or booster seats until age 8. Before you leave, review the requirements of the state you are traveling to so you can be ready.
6. Install your own car seat in ride-sharing cars
If you take a ride-share around town instead of renting a car, you still need to install the car seat. Not only is this important to follow the laws, but it is vital for your child's safety. Though it can feel like a hassle to install and re-install a car seat every time you call for a ride-share or taxi, it's a requirement for safe travel.
7. Don't drive drowsy
If you aren't flying, you need to prepare for a safe road trip. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six deadly car crashes is due to drowsy driving.
"Parents often like to drive at night because the kids are asleep and they get to the destination faster," says Dr. Abbe. "However, driving drowsy is dangerous. Parents need to be rested before getting on the road." Consider splitting up long road trips with an overnight in a hotel to ensure everyone is well-rested and kids have a chance to play and stretch their legs.
You should also avoid distractions while driving. This includes the use of a smartphone or looking up directions as you are driving. Designate someone else as your navigator or have your route planned so you aren't distracted in an unfamiliar area.
Before your next trip, take the time to do a safety check on your car seat and reacquaint yourself with car seat installation. The Children's Health Injury Prevention program offers weekly car seat fitting sessions and a car seat hotline so you can make an appointment to get your car seat checked. Call 214-456-2059 or schedule online.
You are now subscribed to the Children's Health Family Newsletter.