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Should I bring my own car seat or rent it at my destination?

At this point we’ve traveled enough with our three year old (and even our seven month old son) to have a general idea of what to consider when making those all important trip planning decisions. So when Points for Later was curious as to whether to rent a car seat or bring his own, I thought I’d put down some thoughts as to what I generally consider when making the decision.

Obviously, no two families are the same, but hopefully this post can give you a framework to start with.

If your child is still an infant whose car seat doubles as his or her stroller seat (with a caddy), I generally recommend you bring your own and just gate check it. I think that’s what is going to be most convenient for the majority of people unless you find it a major hassle to have your stroller in the terminal. And boosters are easy enough to check for the older kids.

But for toddlers with those large-ish car seats, the decision for me boils down to three things: safety, cost, and convenience. Here are six questions to ask yourself as you decide whether to bring your own car seat or rent it at your destination.

1) Do I feel safer renting a car seat whose history I do not know, or do I feel safer trusting airline cargo handlers to handle my car seat with care?

I used to think the answer to this question was easy: I’d trust the baggage handlers to not bash my car seat around much more than some random car seat that isn’t my own. But having checked my car seat in many times, I can’t help but notice the incredible wear and tear that my car seat bag has endured. There are places where the bag looks like it is literally going to rip at the bottom.

Baggage handlers aren’t going to lay the car seat down gently, they are just going to toss it onto the belt/into the baggage truck willy nilly. That is not the force that a car collision generates, but it is a decent amount of force. So are you comfortable with that? Or are you comfortable with a “stranger’s” car seat?

M's first trip to Italy at 6 months. Car seats are much easier at this age

M’s first trip to Italy at 6 months. Car seats are much easier at this age

Full disclosure: I have never rented a car seat at my destination. However, I’ve seen car seats at many rental agencies – they look pristine. Either they are hardly used, they are replaced often (like they do with the cars), or they do an incredible job of cleaning them. My guess is those car seats just get strapped into cars and taken out of them – aka they aren’t tossed around. So maybe they have less wear and tear than your own car seat?

I don’t have the answers – it’s all about risk mitigation and what you and your family is more comfortable with.

2) Do I trust the car rental company is using car seats that haven’t expired?

Again with risk mitigation – just because I’ve seen five or six rental agencies with pristine car seats doesn’t mean that every agency does it that way. When I first was making this decision years ago, this Consumer Reports article adequately scared me away from renting a car seat. My stance has changed considerably since then, but it is a fair point.

There is not going to be a ton of oversight going into those car seats, so I’d recommend calling the rental agency and asking some questions about how they treat their car seats if you are going to rent. Not the 1-800 number, I mean go out and find the number of the actual location you are renting from.

Remember, car seats expire – heck, yours might have expired and you don’t even know it. The foam breaks down, general wear and tear, models get outdated, etc. Just something for you to weigh in your decision making.

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3) Are you traveling enough to make the cost of buying a car seat bag/carrier worth it?

If you are going to travel once with your toddler before they hit booster size, obviously one car seat rental isn’t going to set you back moneywise. If you are traveling regularly, it’s going to make a big difference. This question kind of boils down to what is your travel philosophy for your family? If you plan to be flying a lot, it’s going to change the budgetary considerations.

Car seat carriers range in cost but are usually going to end up being cheaper than a car seat rental. Car seat rentals are usually $10-$15 a day up to a max of $70 or so, though if you are a member of AAA you can get one free from Hertz.

I personally purchased this car seat bag. $15 is a great price, but it’s also wearing down quitea  bit – I’d give it a 50/50 chance it’ll survive the year. I bought this car seat roller for $60 but my wife convinced me our daughter wouldn’t sit in that thing so we returned it. The roll and go has the benefit of doubling as a stroller for the terminal.

Obviously, if you are traveling more than once, it’s going to be cheaper to bring your own car seat – just remember cost is only one of the factors worth weighing in the decision.

I have a love/hate relationship with this thing

I have a love/hate relationship with this thing

4) Can your car seat carrier double as a “free checked bag”?

I have yet to find an airline that will not let you check a car seat in for free. The majority of airlines (even Ryanair!) let you check a car seat in for free and a stroller at the gate (or even both at the counter). If you have a bag like ours, there is a lot of empty space. We generally stuff that space with a small bag with an extra set of clothes for everyone in the family plus diapers and other miscellany. If you don’t get free checked bags, the amount of money you can save can really add up. Of course, if you are flying internationally you probably get free checked bags anyway so bear that in mind.

5) Is the hassle of dealing with a car seat at the airport worth it?

There is no getting around it – car seats are unwieldy. When I took M to D.C. alone, I had to walk about twenty minutes from my gate to the car rental agency. That was a major pain while trying to wrangle her stroller, our check-in sized rollerboard, and the big car seat bag. When I got to the rental agency and saw those pristine car seats in plastic bags, I had one question for myself: “Is this really worth it!?”

On second thought, maybe it's time to buy a new bag already...

On second thought, maybe it’s time to buy a new bag already…

There is also the scenario where you aren’t even renting a car but want to bring your car seat. We did this when we went to New Orleans this time last year and we also did it when we went to Turks and Caicos – we literally brought our car seat for about three cab rides. It is the law – it is also a major inconvenience. As you add kids, years, and notches on your belt – renting a car seat starts looking less and less expensive.

5a) No, seriously, is it?

I cannot stress this enough – when you are hot, sweaty, stressed, trying to find your bearings, got a whiny kid, crying infant, bickering with your spouse, just trying to get to the hotel – do you want to be dragging around a giant, unwieldy bag?

This would make it easier...I guess

This would make it easier…I guess

6) Are there other options that are more convenient for you?

A lot of people ship car seats to their destination – that can be great if you are staying for a long time. Others borrow from friends or Google “car seat rental” and their destination name to find cheap places to rent from. While it can be inconvenient getting these car seats to the airport, sometimes you aren’t renting from the airport, or you can be flexible, etc. etc.

There are plenty of options out there that might make things more convenient at a cost premium (or discount). Make sure you explore all those avenues before putting together your final decision.

Final Thoughts

Our personal policy: we use our aforementioned car seat bag. We travel plenty and it would definitely be cost prohibitive to rent every single trip. I will say this though – I think at this point I am convinced (without empirical evidence, so take this with a grain of salt), that it is probably safer to rent from the car rental agency, though I’d probably put in a phone call first. Both in the “the car seat is less used” sense and the “if our car seat gets lost we are screwed” sense. On balance, though, bringing our car seat is what’s best for us, though I think we’ll have to revisit that if M isn’t in a booster by the time H outgrows his Chicco Keyfit. If anyone has insights on their own decision making process, I’d love to hear it in the comments!




Leave a Comment

  • MickiSue February 18, 2016, 5:15 pm

    Daughter has a car seat that doubles as a seat for the plane, because it’s narrow enough to fit in a standard coach seat. Important, as you know, when the toddler wants to play, and you really want your lap to yourself. She also uses a similar set up to the one shown in the photo, although just your normal folding luggage cart and bungie cords.

    Last summer, she practiced with it enough at home that she could, even when exhausted, and with an equally exhausted 20 month old, put it together for the walk to our car to get home. I’m not sure where she got it in Italy, but she said that WM sells them, here.

    Obviously, if you have a lap child seat reserved, you can’t use it. But once they’re big enough for a seat of their own, it’s really a good idea.

    Reply
    • Joe February 18, 2016, 8:59 pm

      If you have a link to it I’d love to see it! Thanks for the info

      Reply
  • Andy February 18, 2016, 10:20 pm

    Seriously? Disney, now that? What the heck is going on with this site?
    Sure, nothing exciting to write about, but this??? Come on…

    Reply
    • Joe February 18, 2016, 10:46 pm

      Haha, sorry. This is my life now!

      Reply
  • Janet February 19, 2016, 1:45 am

    My brother and sister-in-law refuse to take/check car seats with them because they don’t want to deal with lugging through an airport. On one trip, we found the cheapest option was to order a carseat using Amazon Prime and have it shipped for free to the destination. Then just leave it there. If you’re going to rent a car seat for a week at $10 per day, that’s competitive with the $59.99 one that pops up when you search ‘cheap car seat’ on Amazon, and it was cheaper than the baby equipment rental places we found in the city.

    Also, I wonder if that’s how some car rental companies do it – single use. Most people renting cars with carseats are going to have a minimum 3-day rental, and more likely a 5+ day rental. I see carseats for $45 on walmart.com, so I assume the bulk/wholesale price would be lower. Considering the cost to clean it, and considering the liability if the carseat was damaged by a previous renter, etc, I bet you could make a business case where single use makes a lot of sense.

    Reply
    • Joe February 19, 2016, 9:01 am

      Oh yeah, I forgot about just outright buying a new one. That’s really clever. Also, thanks for the business idea! Though I guess that kind of business isn’t great for the environment…

      Reply
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