Even for adults, being trapped in a tube 30,000 feet above the ground for hours on end isn’t exactly fun. What with all the security hassles, the long lines, extra fees for things that used to be free and the free-for-all that is boarding with carry-on bags. But traveling with kids, whether it’s by plane or car, is generally no one’s idea of a good time.
Ensuring you have entertainment for the kids locked down is part of it, but dealing with all of their stuff is another. Because young kids in particular just seem to require so.much.stuff. Whether it’s a travel car seat on rollers or a do-it-all diaper bag, there’s plenty of gear that will make it physically easier for you to get from place-to-place while ensuring everyone is safe.
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Here are our top 5 must-haves for traveling with kids and not feeling like a pack mule.
Lightweight Car Seat
Once your baby leaves the infant stage and no longer needs their infant car seat, you get to move up to a convertible car seat that is bigger, heavier and basically impossible to travel with. Instead of trying to lug it with you, leave it behind in your car and invest in a lightweight car seat specifically for travel. These are generally not as cushy as whatever seat your child uses regularly, but will do fine for a vacation. The fewer frills, the less the seat will weigh. If you plan to fly with the seat, make sure you get one that’s FAA-approved (some airlines will want to double-check before allowing you to bring the seat on board) and that you double-check the width to ensure it will fit comfortably within the bounds of an airplane seat. And always try the seat out at home so you know how to secure it in a car and in a plane.
Our pick for toddlers: Cosco Scenera Next
A no-frills, super lightweight seat with an easy-to-clean removable cover that can be secured rear- or forward-facing. It’s not the easiest seat to secure, but the price point and weight make it a great choice.
Our pick for preschoolers: Graco TurboBooster TakeAlong Highback Booster
We love things that can do double duty at a solid price point. This seat works for kids up to 57″ tall (and over 40 pounds). Starting at 40″ you can lose the high back (at least for travel), meaning all you’re carrying is the booster itself. And if you’d rather take the full seat, no problem — it folds to 50% of its size and fits in an included carry bag.
Now that you have a lighter car seat, you still need to figure out how to carry it and them, too. Enter car seat wheels, which is frankly, a genius invention. The wheels are basically a set of rubber wheels with a telescoping handle like your luggage. You can attach your carseat to a small metal platform at the base and then roll your kids around the airport almost as if they’re in a stroller. You can even use these wheels to get you all the way to your seat on the plane. Then simply unlatch and store in the overhead.
Our pick: GO-GO BABYZ Mini TRAVELMATE CAR SEAT Stroller. We like that the Go-Go is brand agnostic — you can use any carseat with it — and it’s lightweight but durable.
Shoulder bags are great — until you find yourself needing to carry a child, plus the diaper bag plus their stuff and realize you really need something totally hands-free. That’s where a backpack comes in. Most of the travel backpacks geared towards parents come with diaper storage and changing pads (if you’re still in that phase), will giving you plenty of room to store snacks, toys and other essentials.
Our pick: RUVALINO Multifunction Travel Back Pack. This is do-it-all backpack that doesn’t look like a “diaper bag”, while still providing all of the functionality you want for travel with little ones. It comes in several gender neutral colors and has tons of exterior pockets for stashing things like the napkins you grab from the coffee shop while ensuring easy access to things you need, like hand sanitizer.
Plane and Car Harness
Depending on your plans after you arrive at your destination, it may make sense not to bring a carseat at all. If that’s the case, you may want to consider a plane and/or car harness. The benefit with a harness is that it folds up compactly and easily fits in a bag or backpack, making it ideal for trips where you’ll be using taxis or Ubers. Likewise, if you’d prefer not to schlep your carseat on the plane (or again, don’t plan to bring one), a plane harness is a great way to keep your child safely ensconced in their seat.
Our pick for plane travel: AmSafe CARES Kids Fly Safe Airplane Seat Harness. This FAA-approved harness fits kids between 20-44 lbs (or about 1-5 years old) fits in its own bag and weighs less than a pound. It’s approved for all phases of flight, including takeoff and landing.
Our pick for car travel: Ride Safer Delight Travel Vest. The vest comes in multiple sizes and fits kids up through age 14. It works with lap belts and shoulder belts, so kids can sit anywhere in the back seat and be safe. According to the manufacturer, the vest has passed the same safety standards as regular car seats.
You’ve likely invested some amount of change into your strollers and car seats, so don’t make the mistake of arriving to the airport without a way to protect them from rough baggage handlers and airplane turbulence. You don’t necessarily have to buy a fancy one, though some stroller manufacturers — like UPPAbaby — offer a replacement for gear damaged while using their specific travel bag (and assuming you’ve registered it with them). But for most, a generic and inexpensive solution will be fine.
Our pick for car seats: J.L. Childress DELUXE Gate Check Bag for Car Seats. This simple canvas bag fits most car seats and rolls up into a small pouch when not in use. It’s not padded, so it’s possible for your gear to still show some signs of wear and tear, but for the price, it does the job, protecting your car seat from moisture, and heavy handling.
Our pick for strollers: Zohzo Stroller Travel Bag for Standard or Double / Dual Strollers. This inexpensive bag has many of the same features as pricier storage bags — shoulder strap plus some padding and fits an impressive array of both single and double strollers. This is a great option if you plan to check your stroller as luggage, as it will provide a bit more protection than a simple canvas bag. It’s pretty bulky to try to carry through an airport, so we would recommend something more like this if you’d prefer to gate check.
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