A question that I have frequently received from friends and acquaintances surrounds what we have done about having a car seat with us for our travels. I have been a bit hesitant to post about this because while I try to share “advice” based on my experiences, in truth I am just sharing what has worked for me and my family. I don’t have some end-all, be-all knowledge – I just have the things that my husband and I have decided to do and lessons from those that haven’t worked as expected, and stories of those that have worked out really well for us.
So, when it comes to car travel with baby, our approach has been very different depending on where we have been traveling – there have been some times that we have taken our car seat with us, some times that we have rented a car seat, and some times that we have traveled without a car seat at all. Here are some of the ins and outs of those decisions in practice:
Bringing Your Own Car Seat
Most airlines (even budget carriers like Spirit) will allow you to check your car seat and/or stroller for free. They will allow you to check it through with regular checked luggage, or to carry through to the gate and gate-check the items. I generally recommend gate-checking your stroller (or buying a stroller that fits in the airplane overhead, which you can read more about here), but if you are bringing your car seat with you, in most cases I feel it is more of a burden to carry through the airport and recommend checking prior to security and picking up at baggage claim.
I highly recommend ordering a travel bag for your car seat, whether you are checking from the outset or checking at the gate. Even with gate-check, your car seat is likely to get dinged and certainly likely to get germy and dirty. Amazon has tons of options available for a variety of prices, including the two below styles from JL Childress.
So, when have we chosen to bring our own car seat with us? Pretty much any time that we have planned a trip to somewhere that we expected to be doing a good amount of driving, with a rental car planned for most of or the entire trip. Our daughter’s first trip out to California at 6 weeks old and our recent trip to Disney World this past Christmas are the notable times that we have traveled that we have felt that we would need our car seat with us.
That leaves a lot of trips (to at least a dozen different countries) that we have not had a car seat with us for…so what have we done on those trips?
Renting a Car Seat
On some occasions, we have rented cars for only certain portions of our trips. In these cases, especially when planning to transit through various places, we have opted to request a car seat with our car rental, rather than bringing our own with us. We generally book with known global car rental companies (Avis, Budget, Thrifty, etc), and we have never had a rental car company not have a car seat available for us. We do generally call ahead to reconfirm the car seat before leaving for our trip, but that is just to reconfirm and be absolutely certain that it will be available to us. Now, in many foreign countries, you should be prepared for the fact that most car seats are forward-facing. This is a minor risk that we have taken on with renting the car seat along with the rental car, rather than bringing our own. Granted, it is also important to note that even if you were to bring your own car seat, it may not be able to be put into a foreign car backward facing as many foreign car models do not have all of the same car seat hooks as the ones that we have in the US.
An example of a time that we felt that the car seat rental made significantly more sense for us was on our trip to Spain in the summer of 2016. For this trip, we flew into Madrid and then took a train to the Girona area. We rented a car for a few days in Girona to allow ourselves to get to some great local towns (Besalú, Tossa de Mar, to name a few), but then after returning the rental car, traveled by train to Barcelona, and then a few days later on to Madrid, before returning home a few days after that. Given the amount of train travel planned for our trip, it really would have been an undue burden to carry our car seat with us (as you can see below, we already had quite a bit to manage to get on and off the trains with us on this trip).
Similarly, I have often traveled from Boston to Buffalo to visit my father for long weekends. Oftentimes I am traveling alone with my daughter on these trips and managing the baby/toddler, bags and stroller are already quite a bit to handle. As such, my Dad has been really great about renting a car seat for me for these visits, which he already has installed in his car when he picks us up at the airport. This also saves my husband and I the pain of getting our car seat in and out of our car too often.
Traveling Without a Car Seat
So now I come to the more tricky travel decision, which is for those trips whereby we have decided that we do not need to bring or rent our own car seat. These trips have generally been trips where we are situated in a major city and expecting to take public transportation and the occasional short cab ride. On these trips, I have worn my daughter facing me in the baby carrier in cabs. Each one of these rides has been somewhat stressful as I remain extremely alert and aware of what is going on during the ride to ensure that I can react in the very rare instance of some kind of short stop, etc. We have never had any incident in a cab on our travels, so this is just done with an abundance of caution. I also generally have one hand on the back of our daughter’s head, holding her close to me, and the other holding tight onto the seat belt shoulder strap, ensuring that it is held several inches away from her so that if we do stop short, it will not tighten on her.
This is clearly not an ideal for many people, but it is something that has worked for us, and that we will continue to do in any countries that do not consider this to be against the law.
On some of these car-seat-less travels, we have booked private tours to various local attractions. We have generally opted for private tours over group tours so that we can have the flexibility and additional items that are most important to us – one such additional item being the request for a car seat. Whenever I have booked a private tour for our family, I have reached out to the company prior to booking and have confirmed that a car seat will be available for us. We have never been turned down or disappointed. This has been our experience in places like St. Lucia, India and Egypt. In Jaipur, India, our tour guide Janu (of Janu Private Tours) actually purchased a car seat specifically for our tour (and to use for his future tours) – I promise that I will eventually get to writing a full account and review of our trip to India, complete with our glowing recommendations for the amazing guides that we had on that trip!
Lastly, one other option that we have recently tried out is a soft and easy-to-travel-with 5-point car harness. The car harness is really only something that a toddler or older child can use, and likely only legal to use in countries with more lax car seat laws than we have in the US, but it turned out to be a good option for us on our spring visit to Egypt for a car that we took from Cairo to Alexandria. My husband had business in Alexandria for the day, and my daughter and I used the opportunity to check out the seaside city. Since the travel was arranged by my husband’s company, we didn’t feel that it would be appropriate to request a car seat for our Mommy and me stow-away plans, and since the ride was several hours long, we didn’t want to have our daughter in the carrier for the long trip each way (which I will reiterate can be quite stressful for me as well). We did a little poking around and found the below harness on Amazon and found it to be a great compromise on a car seat that allowed us to travel lighter, but also have a restraint system in place for our daughter. It is likely that they got in trouble for trying to sell the product in the US as a “travel car seat” as I noticed it is now listed on Amazon as a “chair cushion in car“.
The real takeaway from all of this is that you should think about your planned trip and determine what will work best for you and your family. If you are taking your own car seat, think about how you will transport it from departure car to destination car and back again. If you are planning on renting a car seat, realize and accept that it likely won’t be as “perfect” as the car seat you are used to – and you may need to figure out how to put it in yourself, as not all car rental employees have any idea how to insert the car seats that they carry – as my husband learned quite comically watching two teenagers try to get a car seat into our rental in the Dominican Republic (read more about our trip to the DR here). And if you are planning to travel without a car seat at all, think about all of the transits that you will have and come up with a plan for what you will do to keep your child reasonably safe. No one knows your child and your family like you do, and with that knowledge, you have everything that you need to find the perfect balance of safety and feasibility for you and your family!