We’ve written before here and here about flying with harnessed seats, but what to do if your kids are in booster seats?

Jen recently flew with her 6.5yo and 9yo, the first time without any harnessed seats, and here are some words of wisdom from a seasoned traveler.

Decide if a booster seat is a good choice for your child(ren) at your destination. Some factors to consider:

  • Is your child a practiced booster rider? A vacation is probably not the best time to start teaching your mature (usually 5.5-6+) 40+lb child how to sit properly at all times. Not when your not-so-wee one is tired, perhaps in a different time zone, or excited about the trip and unable to sit still. If a booster is on your radar for future travels start teaching your child well in advance so you have plenty of time to assess.
  • Will your destination involve long drives? Is your child likely to fall asleep in the car? If so then a booster might not be a good choice, especially if your child is still new to boosters.
  • How confident and practiced are you at assessing seat belt fit, and/or installing car seats? Is your vehicle at your destination a known entity, or is it a rental car? How flexible will you (and any traveling companions) be if the first rental car you are offered isn’t a good fit with your seats, and you need to unload everyone and start over?

I flew in December and chose to take a harnessed seat on the plane for my 6yo, and a booster for my 9yo. Although the 6yo is in a booster most of the time at home I knew that we’d have some long days of driving at our destination, and combined with the lack of sleep that goes with holiday traveling, she would not do well in a booster. My prediction was proven correct after a wicked meltdown and then a car nap on the first day, both very unlike her. Had she been in a booster seat we wouldn’t have been able to keep driving safely. Everything is hard when you’re tired.

This more recent trip didn’t involve nearly as much driving at our destination, and the flight was shorter and only through one time zone. I decided a high back booster would be suitable, and my partner is very used to me being rather picky with rental cars, so I knew my decision would be supported if I needed to switch to a different car at the airport.

For this trip I chose to bring a Harmony Youth Booster for the 9yo, and a Harmony Dreamtime Elite for the 6yo. These seats are both excellent choices for travel and everyday use because they provide consistently excellent seat belt fit, are lightweight, fit well in most cars, and are easy for my kids to use. Extra bonus, they are inexpensive. The regular price of the backless is about $20, and the high back is $55.

Unlike harnessed seats that can be installed on an aircraft seat, booster seats aren’t used on the aircraft. So bringing them takes a bit of planning.

There are two stages to my planning here:

  1. How will I get the seats to my destination undamaged?
  2. How will I make sure that my seats will wind up at the same place I’m going to?

The back of the Dreamtime Elite detaches from the base and fits easily into a large suitcase. I packed my clothes under, around, and on top of it. I’ll spare you the sight of my knickers and delicates, but you get the idea. It adds very little weight to the suitcase, and I was confident that any damage at our destination would be visible. It is always possible that my suitcase could go missing though, which is why part 2 is important.

Booster seats can’t be used in flight, but that doesn’t mean they can’t come into the cabin with us. I popped the boosters into cloth bags with handles that my kids could carry themselves…or let’s be honest, that I could carry after they got tired. Even laden down with other things I could still slide the bag’s handle onto my arm.

Once through security and on board the aircraft they fit easily into the overhead bins. Single seats also fit easily under the seat in front of me. I didn’t put them in the sizer but they aren’t big. Here are two stacked together with room to spare. My kids are big enough to fit comfortably into the airplane seats, and the seat belt can be properly tightened on them, which is also a factor when deciding on harness vs booster.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t want my 6yo in a backless booster. Since it’s impractical to carry the booster back onto the airplane (if it would even be permitted, which I doubt), I was comfortable packing it well into my suitcase and hoping it showed up. I had the booster bottom with me, so if needed, could have used that until the suitcase showed up.

And that’s it! We had a successful trip, and hope your future travels are smooth…bon voyage!


Some folks like to buy seats that are well-suited for travel. If you are considering a travel-specific/back-up seat purchase there are a few great options in all categories. This is not an exhaustive list and chances are good that the seat you own will work with some planning. The ones here are listed because they are narrow, lightweight, and inexpensive.

Rear-facing only (infant) seats – most install fairly easily without the base, and fit well on many airplane seats. Check your manual for instructions about aircraft installation.

Convertible seats – go to options include the Evenflo Titan 65/SureRide or Evenflo Sonus (for use rear facing and forward facing), and the Cosco Scenera NEXT rear facing. Both are lightweight, and compatible with the vast majority of vehicles. The Sonus sits low enough that the tray table can come down and be used by a forward-facing child.

Combination seats – Harmony Defender, Evenflo Maestro, and Graco Tranzitions are great options to start with.

Dedicated booster seats – remember that these can’t be used on the plane! But great options that are easy to swap between vehicles, and are lightweight and easy to transport include the Graco Turbobooster, Graco TakeAlong, Graco RightGuide, Graco Affix, Harmony Dreamtime, Harmony Youth Booster, Evenflo Amp, and Diono backless boosters.


Jen is a mom of two, about to move across the country (again), and a Child Passenger Safety Technician – Instructor Trainer who recently attended a course in Charlotte, NC all about Safe Travel for All Children: Transporting Children with Special Healthcare Needs.

 

Updated December 2019.

A quick and dirty run through of how to make sure your boostered kids are as safe as can be! Want to read in more detail? Start here. Do you drive other kids? Send yours with others for a carpool? This might be handy.

Don’t Rush In. Don’t rush to get your child out of a 5-point harness and into a booster seat. It is not a milestone that you want to celebrate early. Prematurely moving to a booster is a very high-risk time for injuries. Boosters do much more than just enable a child to see out the window. They reduce fatalities by ensuring proper belt fit, and also reduce injuries for the same reason. Life-altering, debilitating injuries.

Maturity Matters. How’s your child’s impulse control? Do siblings squabble in the back seat? Is your child fidgety or wiggly (who can say no to that)? Once in a booster seat the child becomes responsible for their own safety. They must sit with their bum scooted back. They must not wiggle. They must not lean. They must not mess with the belt. They must remember to do this the entire ride and not get distracted and forget. Even when asleep. And that is really really hard to do until kids are at least 5 or 6, sometimes older. “Forgetting” at a crucial moment could have disastrous consequences.

AnielainboosterThink “B” – Boosters are for Bones and not Bellies. Feel for your hip bones (for real, right now); that is where the lap belt should make contact when properly seated in a well-fitting booster seat, and preferably low and under them. If the belt is riding up on the belly when you crash, you risk something nasty called seat belt syndrome. The seat belt has nothing hard (hip bones) to contact and instead causes major damage in the abdomen and through to the spinal cord. Not good. Shoulder belt fit matters too – BONES again. Collarbone to be precise. Not on the neck or face, and not off the shoulder. Centered nicely on the strong parts of the body and touching the chest.

Lap/Shoulder Belts ONLY. Never, ever, ever just a lap belt. If you need to rearrange who sits where to ensure the boostered child gets the lap/shoulder belt please do. Lap belts are handy to install car seats with but they’re nowhere near as safe as a lap/shoulder belt for anyone else to use. Avoid them.

Weight. No Canadian booster seat can be used with a child under 40 lbs (18 kg for you metric users). Some have a higher minimum weight limit and a max as high as 120 lbs! Kids must also be consistently 40 lbs to safely use a booster. Not 40 lbs dressed in heavy boots and all their clothes before using the bathroom and after a big meal. Nope, not enough of a buffer. Ensure that a child is holding that weight before moving to a booster.

Go Shopping Together. With your child and with your car. Try booster seats out to check for good belt fit. Does the booster sit properly in the vehicle? Is the belt able to be buckled properly? If your child leans a bit (not ideal, but we all do it) does the shoulder belt retract back without hanging up and causing slack? Have your child try. Most kids who are ready to ride in a booster are also ready to learn to buckle themselves. How’s the lap belt fit? How’s the shoulder belt fit? If at first you don’t find the perfect combination try and try again. Here are a few we often recommend.

manualsMisc Bits and Features. Your booster seat will come with a manual. Read it. Find out what those miscellaneous bits and pieces are that came with it. Find out how to use any special features on your seat like lower anchors or a belt guide. Find out how to wash the cover. And then store that manual somewhere handy (like the glove box) so you can easily double check if you forget something.

Head Support. This can come in the form of a high-back booster (that has the added benefit of often providing superior shoulder belt fit and a place to rest a sleeping head), or a vehicle head restraint (head rest). All boostered kids require head support up to at least the tops of their ears (adults too by the way). Some high-back booster seats require a vehicle head restraint in behind them too. How will you know? Read the manual of course!

belt routing diagramBelt Routing. Every booster seat comes with this nifty little picture on the side called a belt-routing diagram. Study it. Show it to your child. Teach your child proper belt routing, and practice, so that if they ever ride with someone else they will know how and not have to rely on an adult who doesn’t. Not all booster seats have arm rests, and not all seats route the belt the same way. If your child is riding in an unfamiliar booster they should look for this diagram and follow it. Tips for carpool drivers/riders here.

Don’t Rush Out. Don’t be in a hurry to move your child out of the booster seat and into the adult seat belt alone. Again a high risk of injury if done prematurely. Teach your child the Five Step Test. Teach them to advocate for their own safety and be able to evaluate if the adult seat belt fits them. Teach them why they might still need one through age 10-11+…that nasty seat belt syndrome again. Most provinces and territories have booster laws that end well before most kids will actually fit the adult seat belt but remember that bare minimum laws are just that. Provincial and territorial laws also require the adult seat belt to fit properly and that part is often glossed over or misunderstood. We advocate for way more than the minimums!

Update December 2019.

We developed this decision making tool (scroll down – the link is at the bottom!) with the help of a wonderful CPST and parent, after she experienced frustration and anxiety while wondering if her child would be safely seated in someone else’s vehicle for a school field trip.  We did some research and discovered there’s a wide range of policies regarding school transportation in BC and beyond, leaving kids potentially unsafe and parent drivers and school boards in a risky position from a liability perspective.

Sometimes the answer is a school bus, which eliminates much of the worry for older kids, but for those with tiny kindergarten kids even bus-riding can pose some challenges. Please be in touch if you have bus questions.

This tool is a yes/no decision-making tree and can be used for field trips where there are parent drivers, carpool situations, or any transportation scenario.  It’s quick and to the point, and easy to follow.  It focuses primarily on school-aged kids but doesn’t break down how to determine if a child ought to be rear- or forward-facing in a harness — that’s just too much to cover with this one simple tool.  Page 2 of the Tree shows examples of good and poor belt fit — thank you to M. Robertson for the artwork.

Please share and reproduce it. Please ask questions if you have a particular transportation scenario that is challenging — maybe we can find a seating solution you haven’t considered.  It’s very difficult to cover every possibility in a chart like this but DOES address booster or belt very well, from a best practice perspective.

Other helpful resources you can look at here are our list of favourite booster seats, a breakdown of the 5-step test for seat belt readiness, a descriptive article to guide you when deciding on a harness or a booster, and a visual of what a good booster fit looks like versus a poor one.

properuseboosterbeltfitgoodbad

Click on the below link to open the Decision Making Tool as a pdf:

Decision Making Tool

 

Updated December 2019.

Want a quicker ‘Top Ten’ read? Click here.

When my oldest was meeting the so-called milestone of age four, and reaching the magical weight of 40 lbs, I started getting surprised looks and inquiring remarks about when she would be out of her ‘baby seat’ and into a booster. Yikes – I only just turned her forward facing a few months earlier! She wouldn’t be boostered for a while for our family — a year to a year and a half I thought — but with boostering on the horizon, I started to pay more attention to what boosters are out there and what the fit is like…and why fit matters so much.

The transition from a forward-facing harnessed seat to use of the adult seat belt is a period of surprisingly high misuse.  Many 40 lb kids are in poorly fitting backless boosters without adequate head support — putting them at tremendous risk for spinal injuries, head injuries, and internal injuries. I consider age five a minimum for boostering, with many kids not ready until age six or seven.  Four year olds — and certainly not three or two year olds — are simply not mature enough for a booster, and their little bodies aren’t ready for the added strain of only three contact points of a seat belt versus the five in a five-point harness.

I prefer to see kids start in a high-back booster and then move to a backless after a few years once the novelty of boostering has worn off. Read more about harnessed seats that convert to good boosters, and the different types of dedicated boosters.

What is the legal minimum?

In British Columbia (as in many other provinces and territories) a child may not ride in a booster until they are 40 lbs, the belt fits them properly while doing so, AND they wear it properly at all times.  A boostered child must use a lap/shoulder belt and never a lap belt only.  BC, just like every other region in Canada, is a ‘proper use’ province, meaning that not only does a child need to meet the minimum height and weight limits, they must USE the restraint properly at all times.  That means no leaning over, no belt behind the back or under the arm, no unbuckling, no slumping.  Ever.  We like to call it developmentally ready – some kids have it at five, many by six, most by seven.  If they’re not mature enough to remain in position at all times, even when sleeping, they should remain harnessed in a seat suitable for their height and weight.

It’s fairly easy to get a child’s proportions and know that they will fit in a harnessed seat, and for how long, both rear- and forward-facing.  How well a car seat might fit in the car is another matter entirely though, and it surprises many to learn that booster fit is even less predictable. It varies greatly from child to child, vehicle to vehicle, and even in different seating positions in the same vehicle.

How do booster seats work with the adult seat belt?

First – note the emphasis on adult here. Seat belts are designed to fit adult bodies, and children are not just mini adults. Boosters work by positioning the child so the adult seat belt fits properly over the strongest parts of the body.  The lap belt must be low across the pelvis/hips and the shoulder belt must lie across the collarbone, making contact with the chest.

The seat depth of a booster is shorter than a vehicle seat so the child’s knees will bend comfortably rather than slouching, which contributes to proper belt fit.  Slouching causes the shoulder belt to rub against the neck or lie over the face, and causes the lap belt to ride up onto the soft abdomen.

Some boosters do a poor job of positioning one or both of the lap and shoulder belts, and knowing what to look for when booster shopping is a very important part of injury prevention.  If you don’t want to have to re-buckle the booster seat back in when it’s not occupied (so it’s not a projectile for you), pick a booster that can be UAS-ed (latched) into the vehicle.

Are you a visual learner? This short movie shows the difference between a child in a booster versus just the seat belt (it’s informative, but not gory).

 

What matters for booster fit?

Booster fit is further complicated by quirks of vehicles – awkward buckle stalks, belt geometry that doesn’t work with a particular booster, head restraints that don’t adjust or angle forward, or no head restraint at all.

Booster riders MUST have head support up to at least the tops of their ears.  This is complicated by the fact that some BOOSTERS require in-vehicle head support up that far too, so if you have an older vehicle with a bench seat and no head restraints, or head restraints that interfere with the top of the booster, you’ll need to shop carefully for a booster that doesn’t need a head restraint behind it, AND fits your child well.

The reverse of having an underage 40 lb child in a booster is having an underweight seven year old in a booster. Legally that seven year old must still be harnessed, and despite the potential issues with peers, that child is not safe or legal at 38 or 39 lbs in a booster. There is an increased risk of submarining (sliding under the lap belt) and ejection; both result in poor outcomes.

Won’t a booster fit more easily in my car?

Parents with three kids in the back seat are often anxious to move one child to a booster to make the three-across situation more pleasant.  The reverse is usually true, as it’s extremely hard to buckle a booster seat in a tight situation.  In that scenario, keeping a child harnessed as long as possible usually results in far fewer scraped knuckles and frustrated kids.

How do I choose a booster seat?

When booster shopping, think carefully.  Is your child ready for the responsibility of a booster?  Then take them shopping with you and try them in your vehicle, in each position.  Make sure there’s a lap/shoulder belt where the child will be, and that there is a vehicle head restraint if the booster requires it.  If your child is on the younger side of booster readiness (five-six) aim for a high back.  If your vehicle doesn’t have a head restraint, get a high back that doesn’t need support.  If your child is older, and there’s a head restraint in the vehicle, a backless is probably fine but make sure the belt fits well either way.

When is a booster seat outgrown?

When a child reaches the stated height limit or weight limit, when the belt guide is no longer at or slightly above the shoulder in a high back booster, or when the tips of the ears reach the top of the shell in a combination seat or 3-in-1 seat converted to booster mode.  Read your manual carefully to know what steps need to be taken to convert a harnessed seat to booster mode, as all seats are different.

Don’t rush a child out of a booster either – in BC (other provinces vary) a child must remain in a booster until they are at least age nine or 4’9″ tall, but more importantly, make sure the adult seat belt fits them once they reach that stage.  Continuing to booster past that is preferred if the belt fits them better with the booster than without, so long as the child remains within the weight and height restrictions of their particular booster.  If the belt doesn’t fit properly, the child is not protected.

Too many choices. Where do I start?

And now, the shopping part.  To make that a bit easier, we’ve narrowed down the options, but it’s only a starting point. Conversely, a booster not on this list might work just fine for your child in your car, and if the belt fits well then go for it! We can’t guarantee that these boosters will fit your child and your car well, but they’re a great place to start. Read about our favourite dedicated booster seats here.