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On a Jet Plane: When to Buy a Seat

We're certain that there are many well-traveled parents out there who can provide Liz some friendly advice on her question.  She writes:

Hubby & I want to visit friends in San Diego in the middle of April - our son will be 1 years old by then.  Do we need to get him his own seat on the plane? When he was younger we flew with him on our lap with this harness vest for flying - it worked great we would probably have to buy the bigger size now.  Also we were thinking of making a day trip to Tijuana, Mexico (never been) is that a crazy idea to go with a 1 year old? We will have a rental car & drive from San Diego.


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My daughter will be two in August and we've never bought her her own seat. Granted, we've only flown to the Bay Area and back and bunch of times which isn't a long flight, but we do have two more plane trips planned with no extra seat - to Puerto Vallerta, Mexico and the Bay Area (again). She's a big girl for her age too which makes things interesting, but not impossible. I'm sure it will be nice when she has her own seat, but I guess as long as we don't have to pay for one (until she's two) we're not going to because it is a lot of extra money that we don't really have. As far as safety goes, we never had a harness for her so I can't speak to that. I hope you have fun on your trip!!

I've flown with my daugher to the east coast 3 times and mexico 2 and a few shorter trips to boot. Never bought her a seat and I think the extra space would be a luxury, but not really necessary. Do you keep your kiddo strapped in with the harness the whole time? I felt it was crucial to let her climb all over us since the flight was long and she can't sit still. We just held her tight and faced forward during the take off and landing and hoped for the best. Don't forget you all need passports for Mexico now.

We never bought a seat for Mila until she was two and we flew A LOT with her before she got her own seat (more than a dozen round trip flights, well over 20 individual flights).

The thing with buying a plane seat is that you need to bring a car seat for your child to sit in. At least for Mila, being on our laps for a few hours? No big deal. Being in a car seat for hours? Forget it.

As for a daytrip to TJ, you will need to make sure that you have Mexican auto insurance (it can be purchased at the border) and that driving into Mexico isn't in violation of your rental car agreement.

The border crossing at TJ is the busiest in the US - if not the world - you can spend a lot of time in line there. Make sure you avoid rush hour for your crossing.

Logistics aside, I love Mexico but I find TJ to be an extremely depressing place. It is not somewhere I would choose to visit.

We've traveled a lot with our son, who's now 21 mos: Puerto Rico, Mexico, Las Vegas, and Hawaii. The Mexico and Hawaii trips we bought a seat for him since they were 4 hour+ flights. If you have the extra money, it was extremely helpful to give him a place to sit and allow my husband and me a free minute to eat. Most airlines also give discounted seats for children under 2. You have to call the airline directly, it's not on the website, for the fare.

I agree w/ Tony. I used to work on the Tex/Mex border & I think border culture is an acquired taste anyway - note that I say that as someone w/ a lot of fond memories of times spent in Matamoros and Ciudad Juarez - but in my (admittedly limited) experience TJ is a place that attracts people w/out much hope, and then the people who exploit those folks.

It could be a "must-see" in the sense that you need to see it for yourself to understand it, but probably not worth it otherwise.

Thanks everyone for your comments...

I think we will just keep him on our laps on the flight to San Diego - good to know that is the norm...

I also think we will pass on the Tijuana day trip, but definitely the San Diego zoo...

Thanks again!

Thanks again!

I am from San Diego and have spent lots of time across the border. If you really want to go, you can park on the US side and walk across, it is much quicker getting back and I think safer than attempting to drive if you do not know where you are going. The roads are not like they are here! If you have never been to Tijuana, and can appreciate a gritty border town, I say go for it! There are great places to eat and some fun shopping. I can give you a list of great, safe places to go. That said, it is not for everyone. It is not a glamorous resort town by any means.....
I have made the PDX-SD flight many times and it is so short that I had no problem with my son sitting in my lap.

Have fun! And bring back some sunshine for us!!!

I never knew about this when my daughter was the right age (she'll be three in August), but I've had several folks tell me that if there is an empty seat on the flight when you go to check in, you can often get the folks at the counter to assign it to your infant free of charge. I alway just tried to pick a row without anyone else in it from the computerized check in and hope for the best. I would say out of the 6-8 round trip flights we did before she turned 2, we would get an empty seat about half the time. Good luck.


We went to San Diego last year and had a wonderful time visiting the zoo, Balboa Park, La Jolla, Coronado, and many other well-known highlights. Great fun but all these places were on a very well beaten path.

We plan on heading back there again some time. I would love some tips on some unique places in the San Diego area that may be more along the "locals-only" line. If you are willing to share, of course...

All the best,


TJ is a depressing place, lots of seedy establishments with lots of less fortunate folks (and their kids - super sad) doing an array things for money. If you are in the market for a fake Rolex and multiple shots of Tequilla, then TJ is your place, otherwise I would skip it.

We traveled extensively with the girls when they were under 2 (both long trips JFK-SFO and shorter trips like PDX-SFO). We maybe purchased a seat once or twice for them, and they never did want to sit in their own seats. I was always nursing them intermittently through the flight anyway, so mama's lap was the place to be.

I've found that - through the years - likelihood of having an extra seat on a flight is becoming more and more slim. Flights seem booked these days, so we rarely count on having an extra seat. Even after turning 2, the girls had a hard time adjusting to sitting in their own seats.

We have taken numerous flights with our son, who will be one in a couple of weeks. He has always sat on our laps even for the long flights to the east coat and to Belize. I've learned to try to book flights that are scheduled around nap time if possible.

The only thing I would add is that although our 16-month-old prefers to sit w/ us during daytime flights, my husband and I find it more comfortable to get her a seat of her own during a redeye - and she will sleep thru the nite in her carseat, and we in our seats. But every child is different, and you were asking about a much shorter trip... Good luck!

On the three flights we've taken with our son (now 19 months old), we have erred on the side of precaution when traveling with our son. Yes, the cost of the ticket adds to the overall price of the trip, but we figure that if something were to happen (horrendous turbulence, or God forbid worse), the price in hindsight would be negligible. Also, many airlines charge half price for a child seat -- you just ask. In fact, I'm pretty sure my friend told me that if you buy a child's seat on Southwest but check at the gate before departure, if there's an open seat they refund the money. This may not be the case anymore, but worth checking into.

As a side note, on our last trip we borrowed the contraption that converts the car seat into a stroller -- it was extremely helpful to have at the airport!

Also, don't forget the CARES restraint system that is FAA approved and can fold up and go in your carry-on when you aer done with it so you can check your car seat or rent one on the other side. A bit pricey ($75) but well worth it for me when my mom purchased an extra seat for my then-17-month-old on a coast-to-coast flight with a lay over. You can do an internet search for CARES or it may be CARES.com, sorry I don'have the link but I am about to leave work and I don't have time to check! =)

I have always bought a seat for my kids. The airlines will usually allow you to pay half-price for an infant.

I've only flown once - across country - with Sebastian and I got him his own seat. He was about 8 months old, and he slept almost the entire way.

It seemed to me to be important for safety. I would not fly with him without a seat at any age, even for a short distance, because like in a car accidents can happen at any distance from home. But I know many (most?) people don't do it, and I don't expect everyone to react the way I do. I'm pretty much a worrier, and especially about cars and planes!

As a bonus, it was really nice to know that even on the full flights I had that space for him to sleep in his carseat and I could sleep in my seat without holding him. It worked great. I brought a mei tei for transferring between flights, so I had him in the sling on my front, my carry-on with laptop on my back, carseat in one hand, coffee in the other. :-)

We have flown 3 times with my two your old son and I have to tell you that although I felt safer having him in his own FAA approved car seat(Sit n Stoll) it wasn't realistic. We wasted the money we spent on the thrid seat as he sat in our lap the entire flight. The benefit of the third seat was the extra space it gave us to spread out( and change a diaper). We just returned from California for our son's second birthday, we pushed the age limit this time and did not purchase him his own seat. Our compromise this time was to buy two first class seats in place of the three coach. It was the perfect solution for us. My other advice would be to bring a carrying pack of some sort along. The Mei Tai carrier I use was a lifesaver in the airport! Although we didn't use our Sit N Stroll on the flight this time, we check it with our luggage to use as a car seat in the rental car. The wheeling base made it much easier than carrying a traditional seat.

In case anyone is looking, the GoGo Kidz Carseat Travelmate is a converter that clicks onto the bottom of many car seats and works as a stroller, so that you can easily bring the car seat with you through the airport, onto a plane.
This online retailer is selling it at a decent price with a FREE carrying bag and free shipping, which is a pretty good deal.

The CARES harness I mentioned earlier can be found at www.kidsflyfree.com.

Oops, I mean www.kidsflysafe.com. Freudian slip as I was thinking of my finances. Definitely NOT free!

We always bought seats for our kids in that age range, generally for PDX-Chicago flights. I was thanked by the Flight Attendents more then once for getting a seat for the child. They said that if there really is an emergency and they are in the seat you give them a chance of survival in case of a crash. If they are in your arms chances are they aren't going to stay there upon impact. It is also just nice to have the extra space- the kids don't mind if you put all the stuff under the seat in front of them.

We've never bought a seat for our kid(s) under the age of two. For us, it didn't make sense since neither of my kids like the car seat very much. Sounds like everyone typically flies direct flights but the thought of lugging a car seat around when trying to catch a connection is not my idea of fun. My most recent trip with my younger son, I barely made my connection in Dallas (worst airport for connections in my opinion). Of all the things that went wrong, the one I would do differently is to not bring a stroller. I had to wait for an elevator which appeared to be broken so I had to take this horrendously long and steep esclator down while balancing my son, stroller, and backpack. I should have gone with my instinct to just use the Ergo. Alas, I just don't think I was meant to use strollers.

Hi Hau,

I did carry the carseat, but no stroller. It was easy actually, with the mei tei too, but I think I hit it at the perfect age (he was 8 months old and couldn't run around). Today that would one heck of a trip. I shudder to even think of flying across the country with an airport stop with him at age nearly-2. :-)

I had my Ergo, but it was in the backpack. Convenient, huh? I will be making a solo trip with both boys this summer. That should be interesting!

We just flew in last night...Rowan (14 months) took turns on each of our laps; Fionn (5 years) has his own seat. We travel as much as we can, and don't get separate seats for the children until we absolutely have to. We just give them lots of excercise before the flight, and lots of art supplies, snacks, and "Calm Child" on the plane - it seems to work just fine.

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