Do you gate check your car seats?
We know how challenging travelling with kids can be. Been there, done that; have the mental and physical scars to prove it :). Then you try to go on an overseas holiday trip and that’s just something else altogether. How do you take your car seats with you to use at your destination? What is the normal way? Do you take them on the plane? What is 'gate checking' all about? There are many things to consider when travelling with your car seat. If any of these are questions you’ve had, let us answer them all for you.
First up, should I use my car seat on the plane, or check it in?
We always recommend you use an approved and certified car seat (or alternative like the CARES harness) for your child whenever they travel in a plane. Why? Firstly, it's statistically safer, providing more protection for your child in the event of severe turbulence. Secondly, your child is familiar with their car seat and used to being buckled in there for car rides - this usually means they're more comfortable and it's easier to keep them buckled up during taxi, take off and landing. Remember to check with your airline before you fly as each airline implements their own car seat policy.
What is gate checking all about?
Gate checking is when you check your belongings in directly at the gate, as opposed to checking in at the check-in counter or taking it with you on the plane (only for airline approved car seats or items which fit within your cabin luggage allowance, such as the Mountain Buggy Nano stroller and the Urban Kanga car seat). Most airlines will only allow you to gate check baby items (eg. car seats and strollers) rather than regular luggage. The reason many parents choose to gate check their items is:
- you can use your stroller in the departing airport terminal, and/or
- the items are less exposed to the terrors of the baggage handling system (more on that later!) and so are both more likely to actually end up on your flight and less likely to be damaged.
If you gate check your car seats, we’d like to bring some of the hidden dangers to light and offer you some of our tried-and-tested tips.
Damage from mishandling
Most people put their car seats in a big plastic bag if they’re gate checking their car seat. There are also padded or vinyl bags sold online known as Car Seat Gate Check Bags which, unfortunately, just offer a false sense of security with a price tag. A bag possibly protects your car seat from dirt or little scuffs and scratches, sure - but structurally speaking, it does nothing to mitigate any critical damage resulting from mishandling. Structural damage which, even if invisible, could render your car seat incapable of protecting your child in a car accident.
Here are two examples of baggage mishandling:
Did you see that? There are two things wrong with that situation. Firstly, apart from the obvious hurling of everything that came down the conveyor belt, there is also another thought that comes to mind: What if your car seat is at the bottom of that pile, and those 20, maybe 30kg suitcases are landing on top of it? The pile could potentially bend, maybe even crush a car seat, and that’s only half the problem. Secondly, not all luggage carts are enclosed and there is the very real possibility that your car seat could fall off the luggage cart as it’s driving along the tarmac. They’d see it tumbling along the road and pick it up, only to carelessly toss it back on and keep going.
As you might’ve noticed from the video, even if you put a fragile sticker on it, you have no control over how your car seat is handled when you check it at the check-in counter. Gate checking your car seat can go part of the way to mitigating this risk at the departing airport terminal, but does nothing to prevent damage at the arriving airport terminal.
What’s the difference?
There is a difference between gate checking and 'bag-drop' at the check-in counter. If you check it in at the check-in counter, you get your tickets and check in your other suitcases. Your car seat is taken straight away along with your luggage. It then goes down the conveyor belt, where baggage handling takes care of, but aren’t responsible for, your car seat. A lot could happen during this short journey all the way to the plane.
With gate checking, on the other hand (only for strollers and car seats), you get to carry your car seat or push your stroller all the way through check-in, down the little gangplank aerobridge, right to the airplane door, and then, about 10 meters or so before the airplane door, you leave your stroller there for them to put it directly on the plane for you.
What are the benefits?
The benefit for this is twofold. You not only get to use your stroller or car seat in the terminal itself, you also reduce the amount of time your stroller or car seat spends with the baggage handlers. This also benefits the parents that might want to use their stroller inside the terminal. The only downside is that there’s rarely the reverse of gate checks, so when you’ve landed, your stroller or car seat won’t usually be brought out onto the aerobridge for you. It still goes through the usual baggage process, where you collect your belongings at the baggage carousel.
A problem remains however - even if you gate check your stroller or car seat, it’s still not a guarantee that what happened in those videos won’t occur.
Use a box!
We aren’t in control of how the baggage handlers manage our luggage. We are, however, in control of how we can (i) protect our luggage, and (ii) collect more information so we can make an informed determination of whether a child restraint has been mishandled. It’s simple, too - just use a box!
If you put your car seat in a box, the box itself could crumple upon impact if it was treated poorly, absorbing the impact of the damage and directing it away from your car sat. This is the reason why in almost all cases of car seats, they’re received without any Styrofoam between the car seat and the box.
Here’s the science behind it: If there was Styrofoam between the car seat and the box, absorption of any dents or hits would cause the box to push into the Styrofoam and the Styrofoam to push into the car seat. When there’s an air void around the car seat, however, the box has room to crumple (like crumple zones in modern vehicles) without the impact actually being projected onto the car seat.
The second good thing about having a box is that the box acts as a telltale device that you can use to make a more informed analysis about whether the car seat has suffered any damage. If something similar were to happen with your car seat as in the video, or if it rolled off the luggage cart and gets hit by a vehicle coming in the other direction (yes, that can happen!), the damage would be painfully visible on the box, but it may not be on one of those car seat check bags because those are used to stop visible damage. So you buy the bag with the intention of protecting your car seat, and in the end not only doesn't it protect from structural damage, but it makes it harder for you to identify if it's occured.
Imagine this - You used a car seat check bag (or a thick plastic bag, like the ones provided by many airlines for this specific purpose). It’s the end of the flight. You pick up your car seat, dust the bag off and go on your merry way, with no knowledge of the horror that your car seat just went through. Looks fine, but you can’t be certain. Now imagine this - You used a box. It’s the end of the flight. You pick up your car seat. You haven’t even opened the box to check inside, but you can already tell. It looks beat up. Massive dents, punctures in the box, tyre marks, footprints, you name it, it’s gone through it. This is helpful in helping you make a more informed decision on the condition and viability of your car seats. Then if you have to, you can get a new one ASAP so your child’s safety isn’t compromised. It’s all about making a decision you’re comfortable with and eliminating uncertainty as much as possible.
So in summary, this is not only safer for the car seat, it also serves as a good identifier for checking whether your car seat has been through any damage.
Where can I get one of these boxes?
Your car seat can go in any carton as long as the car seat is not bulging out of the carton. When you first buy your car seat, we recommend you keep the box - flatten it, put it somewhere accessible (like under your bed, for example) so that when you travel, you can whip it out and turn it into a box.
Taxi Baby has boxes that fit most car seats. If we happen to have second-hand boxes for car seats, you are welcome to take them for free! Otherwise, you can buy a new one from us at $5. Please don’t hesitate to let us know if you need one.
Why don’t more people do this?
We’ll bet it’s never intentional. If you’ve gone to all the effort of taking the car seat with you on holiday, you’re doing that so you can use the car seat in case you get into a car accident. It’s a huge unknown factor that the process of taking it on holidays with you could render your car seat ineffective. We don’t often get to see how our belongings are treated before we board our plane.
Without knowing what could happen to your car seat during these blind spots, there is an element of danger in that your car seat could sustain damage, rendering it incapable of protecting your child in a car accident. Though there are proposed solutions online like gate check bags, we’d like to remind you again that those protect your car seat from dust and scratches, which is meaningless from a safety perspective.
Elise, Managing Director of Taxi Baby, has a pro tip to share:
I take the paper-style masking tape because that’s easier to rip with your fingers. It’s also really convenient to throw into any bag. If I don't have the option to take the car seat onboard, then I prefer to gate check my car seat because it touches the baggage handling process less and is more likely to be on my exact plane (rather than delayed). I carry the box and my car seat through the terminal with me all the way to the plane. The box is flat packed, so when I get on the aero bridge itself, I take my paper masking tape and recreate the carton. I put my car seat inside (with the luggage sticker already stuck to the outside of the cardboard box because I did that back at the check-in counter) and then I hand it over to the people at the gate check station.
The alternative, especially if you have multiple kids and multiple car seats, is to check it in at the check-in counter in a box for each car seat.
Best case scenario, I'll take the car seat with me, where I know it’ll be safe under my watch and care. It might actually be easier for you (if your car seat is airline-approved) to take it on board and have your kids sit in the Cosco because they know it’s their car seat, so it’s easier for them to stay in place.
One other thing you might find helpful is that when you’re booking Southeast Asian flights, the fare itself can be so cheap compared to the lap-infant fee. Watch out for the expensive fees and taxes that are added on top of the fare, these apply to the infant charge for most airlines as well as an adult seat. Depending on whether there’s a sale going, it might actually be cheaper for you to book a seat for your under two-year old than it is to book them as a lap-infant. Then you can take your car seat on board, use it in-flight and you can avoid the danger altogether because it stays with you the whole time and you can be certain of its history. When you can be certain of its history, you can be certain you're being safe with your car seat.
Special thanks to WCVB Channel 5 Boston and Marcela Fernanda Solis Walker for bringing our attention to these videos.