Traveling with Kids’ … Car Seats

Our family trip to California is just two days away. The earlier post about buying our youngest a seat for the first time sparked some good questions about the relative merits of traveling with car seats. In LA, we will be renting a car and the car seats will be a necessary evil.

(Side commentary – We’re big supporters of the proper use of car seats. We spend plenty of time and money getting high quality safe seats for our boys, and we use them – always. And we don’t even mind that kids use them until they are 45 these days. I didn’t when I was little, but I’m sure my survival was a fluke :) )

But man oh man, are they a pain to travel with. Why?

Car seats are surprisingly big, bulky and heavy. And better seats generally seem biggest. And they are so awkwardly shaped! Where do you even hang on to the thing? Is it any wonder I don’t want to drag TWO of these things onto a plane? Just getting from the car to the luggage check and back again with other bags is work!

A simple tip for dragging that thing through the parking lot is to tighten up the straps, and tie together the loose ends. The tightened straps make a nice little handle – a place to hold the seat! – and the whole process gets easier.

So now you have to check luggage! We pack light and for short trips generally carry everything on. Car seats end up an exception. This is more about the time spent and the extra stop at the counter than cost. Many carriers don’t charge you for this, unlike bags. And if you or your kids have frequent flier status, they might not charge you for bags. Check with your carrier to see if there is a charge. If so, you could always lug it on the plane if you got a seat. Might as well.

If you check a seat, bring it to the airline counter. Get one of those paper luggage tags and strap it onto the back, on one of the seat straps. Put your name on it. This will probably survive many trips. Then find or ask for a giant plastic bag for car seats. They seem wasteful don’t they? (Is there a reusable equivalent?) Anyway, the nice baggage people need you to stuff the seat in a bag, so get right to it. From there, they give you the baggage claim and off it goes. No more dragging for a few hours.

You wouldn’t want to avoid the bag anyway. The bag will get banged up and torn a bit. Better it than your seat. Even with it, your car seat will probably get dirty at least.

So what about renting a seat when you get there? That would avoid much of the lugging and car seat dirtying. A perfect alternative? Hardly. I have a number of problems with renting a seat:

- Where’s it been? Are you sure it hasn’t been in an accident? Some experts caution the purchase of used car seats, and I would thing similar caution has to be applied to renting one. I’m sure the broad majority of car rental establishments are careful about safety and inspect the seats. But I just don’t know.
- And will be it clean? Our one experience renting a seat was positive in this regard, but I’ve read some less flattering reviews.
- Will they have one the proper size for you to reserve? Will it be there when you get there? There is similar risk in checking a seat, as anyone who has had a bag lost knows. But I do get paranoid that I’d go to pick up my car and they wouldn’t have a seat. That would be unpleasant.
- If you’ve used a car seat, you know there is adjustment to get it to fit your kid right. With your own seat you don’t have this extra step. And unfamiliar seats can be worse. We once had a seat delayed on a return flight from Ireland (back to my earlier point about the risks of checked luggage) and the airline gave us a loaner for the night. It was a fine seat, but we struggled to figure that thing out and get it installed properly in the car.
- Lastly, and most importantly. As a family who considers themselves relatively frugal travelers, the price can’t be justified. After just a few days of renting a seat, you could BUY one. One you know and trust. One you’ve hand selected for its safety and features.

So that’s my opinion. So let’s assume you’ve made the right choice and are bringing your own seat. One more tip – if you have a spare seat, use that. We have a spare set that we use for my parents because they watch the boys quite often. That set is very handy for trips because it’s a bit less expensive making it less to worry about and also significantly lighter than our primary set. Encountering a problem would be less of logistical problem than with our primary set when we got home. And it means we don’t have to uninstall or reinstall the seats in our home airport parking lot which makes for a quicker load time when we get home and are tired. So if you are bringing your own seats, consider your backup seats.

(Thought – Does anyone know of seats that are especially well suited for travel? Either because of their size/shape or their portability. I’ve seen some gimmicky looking stuff, and I wonder if anyone has tried something that worked well.)

I’ve saved my best tip for last. If at all possible – don’t bring a seat! This is the method we employ on almost all of our European trips, and some American ones too.

If you are using public transportation – trains, buses, subways – you won’t need a seat. Many Europeans cities, and even day trips way out of town, are easily accessible this way. Plan your trip around public transportation to save not only cost, but the hassle of car seats.

Even in New York, we’ve skipped seats. There was a cab ride and a car service from the airport involved. We called ahead to make sure a seat wouldn’t be required. It was a little scary, but it was really fine and saved us seat lugging for 10 minutes of total driving. Just like when I was a kid. Please do note that this can backfire on you. In Berlin, I did get kicked out of a cab for not having a seat for our one year old at the time. Our older boy, then 3, was fine due to the cabbie having his own booster to use. We found a train instead and all was fine.

Hopefully with these tips you can make an informed choice about traveling with the car seat. As much of a pain as it can be, it’s far from a deal breaker. You will probably feel like a pro in no time with the tips above. Happy travels, see you after California!

PS – back to the safety of a car seat on a plane. Some seats aren’t designed for lap belts only, so I bet they aren’t all that safe in that context anyway. AND you have to be sure that your seat is FAA approved (it says it on the side of the seat) and you have to show the flight attendant on your way in or they’ll make you check the seat anyway. Heather says you can’t even have boosters on planes because they only have lap belts and boosters are designed to work with shoulder belts. One more reason to enjoy the lap child while you can!

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