How do you install kids car seats in a foreign country? What is the best system to use – local or the one you normally use at home – and how can you ensure your little ones are safely strapped in when traveling with kids? Gloria Del Castillo, National Program Manager for Buckle Up for Life and Child Passenger Safety Expert at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center talks to suitcases&strollers about which car seat systems are the safest and how to know if you have installed your kids' car seats correctly. 

What is the safest system to use to install your car seat? ISOFIX, top tether strap or just the seat belt clipped into the car seat?

Assuming you closely follow the instructions found in the car seat owner’s manual, no installation method is safer than any other. Systems like ISOFIX are designed to make car seat installation easier, not safer. Caregivers should use the system they feel most comfortable with. Depending on the specific car seat and vehicle, one system may be easier to use than another, but that doesn’t mean it’s safer.

While different countries do have somewhat different systems for installing car seats, none of them should be drastically different from each other. The best source of information for unfamiliar installation systems is the car seat owner’s manual. We also encourage parents to contact the car seat manufacturer. Lastly, always follow the restraint laws of the country that you are visiting.

[Some countries do not have very strict car safety rules for car seat for kids. For more travel tips from another safety expert on why you should still always install car seats when traveling with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

Is it ever safe to just rely on the seat belt to keep a car seat in place or should you always opt for ISOFIX or top tether strap (or some other option)?

As long as the manufacturer permits both kinds of installations, then caregivers can feel free to use the method they’re most comfortable with. Some may find it more convenient to use the ISOFIX system while others will prefer to install the carrier using a seat belt. Both options are safe as long as you follow proper installation guidelines. Make sure the car seat is secured tightly—it shouldn’t move than one inch from side-to-side—and that the seat is reclined at the level recommended by the manufacturer.

Some kids car seat belts have a built in safety measure (if you pull them out all the way they "lock" and then cannot be extended again). Is it still safe to put your child into a car that doesn't have these kinds of seat belts?

While it is often helpful to have a seat belt that locks in the way you’re describing, not all car seats require such a seat belt. Some car seats even have internal lock-offs that replace the pre-crash locking mechanism of the seat belt. Refer to the car seat owner’s manual to learn how to best install your car seat in your car.

What is the best way to install a kids car seat? Put the seat belt through first and then worry about the ISOFIX/top tether strap or the other way around?

In the United States, it’s never acceptable to use the LATCH anchors (our version of ISOFIX) and a seat belt at the same time. It’s either one or the other. Top tethers, however, can and should be used no matter which system you use to install a forward-facing car seat. Refer to your owner’s manual to find out which installation systems are approved for your seat.

Should you adjust the kids car seat harness straps (that act as the “seat belt” for the child) before you install the kids car seat or afterwards?

This depends on your car seat. With some seats it’s impossible to adjust the level of the harness straps while the seat is installed in the vehicle—you need to access the back of the car seat. Other seats provide mechanisms for adjusting the level of the harness straps even after the seat has been installed.

For rear-facing seats, the harness straps should enter the back of the car seat at or below the level of the child’s shoulders. For forward-facing car seats, the harness straps should enter the back of the car seat at or above the level of the child’s shoulders.

If you have installed your car seat but it still seems wobbly, how do you know you have done it properly? How wobbly is too wobbly? 

Your car seat should not move more than one inch from side-to-side or front-to-back along the belt path (this is where the seat belt or anchor straps enter the car seat). Shake the seat with the same force that you would use to give someone a firm handshake. If the seat wobbles more than one inch, it needs to be strapped tighter.

Can you tell us how to install a kids car seat into a plane seat? And is it worth the trouble?

When it comes to airline travel, children riding in car seats are much safer than children sitting in an adult’s lap. Car seats offer the best protection throughout the flight in the event of turbulence. That said, only certain car seats are approved for use on planes. To find out whether your car seat can be used safely on a plane, refer to the owner’s manual.

[For more family travel tips on flying with car seats on the plane, see the suitcases&strollers interview with a Child Passenger Safety Technician.]

The Federal Aviation Administration here in the US has also approved a special harness restraint specifically for children weighing between 22 to 44 pounds (9 to 19 kilograms) to use in airplanes called AmSafe CARES. A more comprehensive overview of car seat information from the FAA can be found here

Installing and using a car seat on an airplane is much like installing and using one in a car. Make sure the car seat is securely attached to the airplane seat using the seat belt (the car seat shouldn’t move more than one inch from side-to-side or front-to-back) and that the child is properly restrained by the harnesses of the car seat.