One of the most difficult decisions parents often need to make when traveling with a baby or toddler is whether or not to travel with car seats for babies and toddlers. There’s never one right answer to this.
In our experience, it’s completely dependent on where we are traveling to, how we are getting there, how long we will be there, if we are renting a car and whether there are any alternatives to bringing our own travel car seat.
After all the places we’ve traveled with a baby or toddler, we’ve had experience with nearly every scenario when it comes to traveling with car seats. We’ll go through each of the scenarios here and the alternatives to help you make the right decision for your next international trip with a baby or toddler. It can get a little complicated!
Why is this such a difficult decision? Isn’t it safest flying with a car seats on planes? Don’t you need a car seat no matter where you go?
While we can all agree that the answer to these questions is ‘Yes’, there are always other factors.
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If you’ve read any of our other posts, you’ll know that we don’t believe there’s a one size fits all when it comes to traveling with toddlers or babies. Each of us parents need to make our decisions based on our own family’s needs, budget and risk tolerance.
Below you’ll find the 5 things you need to think about before traveling with car seats followed by each of the alternatives to traveling with a car seat. We’ve included tips on how to travel with car seats and when each of the other options would work best.
The 5 things you need to think about before traveling with car seats on airplanes are:
Are you comfortable holding your baby or toddler for the flight or having them on their own seat without a safety restraint?
Would you feel more comfortable having your baby in a car seat during your flight? You’ll have to buy a seat for your baby or toddler, unless you get lucky snagging an extra seat.
How will you get from the airport to your hotel?
Are you renting a car from the airport or taking a taxi? Is there public transportation or a hotel shuttle from the airport to your hotel?
How will you get around at your destination?
Can you get everywhere you want to go by walking or taking public transportation? Will you be limited to where you can explore without a rental car?
How often will you be in a car?
Will you be in a rental car traveling to different cities or areas? Will you be using a ridesharing service like Uber?
What alternatives do you have to traveling with your own car seat?
If you decide you don’t need your car seat on the airplane, then you can look at renting or buying a car seat at your destination.
1. Traveling with car seats on planes
When would you travel with your own baby or toddler car seat? It makes the most sense to travel with your own car seat on airplanes when you will be using it frequently on your trip or if you don’t want to fly without your baby in a car seat during the flight.
The benefits of traveling with your own car seat are:
- Your baby is familiar with it.
- You’ll have it any time you plan to take a taxi or get in a car.
- If you bring it on the plane, you don’t have to hold a baby or toddler for the entire flight.
- Using a portable toddler car seat on the plane, will help keep toddlers contained.
- You might get a better sleep out of your baby or toddler during the flight.
- You don’t need to worry about returning a dirty car seat back to the rental company.
The downsides of traveling with your own toddler or baby car seat:
- You need to fly with a car seat, even if you don’t have a seat for your baby.
- If you are gate checking a car seat, you need to carry it all the way to the gate.
- You might end up with your baby or toddler in your arms the entire time, even if you purchased a seat.
- Your car seat can get damaged if you check it with your luggage.
- You might not need it for the duration of your trip and still have to carry it around.
- Your car seat may not be legal in the country you are traveling to.
Flying with car seat
Flying with a car seat really isn’t all that difficult. Getting your car seat to the gate will probably be the most difficult part, if you aren’t checking the car seat with your luggage. This gets to be a bigger hassle if you are traveling with multiple car seats.
The first decision you need to make is whether or not you’ll be buying a seat for your baby. If you’re flying with a toddler (over 2 years old) or preschooler, then you will already be buying your child a seat. Otherwise, you will need to buy a seat for your baby or toddler to ensure you can bring your car seat aboard and use it.
Yes, it is safest to have your baby or toddler in an FAA approved child seat for flying. In case of unexpected turbulence, it will be extremely difficult and unlikely that you would be able to keep your baby or toddler safely in your arms. Now, that doesn’t happen every day and people fly safely with a lap infant or lap toddler every single day, so that’s a personal choice.
So you really need to decide if you can afford a seat for your baby and whether you feel your baby would be likely to stay happy in the car seat on a flight. If you buy a seat and your baby hates her car seat, you’ll end up just holding your baby with your car seat empty on the extra seat.
For busy toddlers, you might find it’s worth the cost of the extra seat to keep your toddler contained in their travel car seat for the duration of the flight! Your baby or toddler may even sleep better in the unfamiliar surroundings if they are comfortable in their familiar car seat during the flight.
How to Fly with Car Seats in the Airplane
Save yourself some time and DON’T hand out goodie bags to fellow passengers on the plane!
If you are flying with a car seat in the airplane, you will need to come up with a solution for how to get the car seat onto the airplane. There are several options here, the easiest is using a stroller and carseat combo to wheel it all to the plane.
A car seat travel system will work really well here, especially if your baby is still in a bucket seat that attaches to your lightweight travel stroller. Alternatively, you can look at a travel car seat with wheels like the Doona infant car seat, which is a car seat and stroller in one.
For options that don’t require a stroller (or if your car seat doesn’t fit properly on your stroller), you can use a car seat travel belt to attach your lightweight car seat to your carry on luggage and roll it that way, or buy a small car seat travel bag with backpack straps or a travel cart with wheels.
Gate Check Car Seat
Though you aren’t using your baby or toddler car seat on the plane, you still need to get the car seat to the airplane. All of the options mentioned above will work to gate check your car seat and you can protect it in a car seat gate check bag.
Checking a Car Seat with Luggage
If you are checking a car seat at the airport with your luggage, which will make getting through the airport significantly easier, just be aware that there is a risk your car seat can show up at the other end damaged.
Many people choose to avoid this situation to keep their child car seats safe. Imagine getting off the plane, picking up your luggage and finding a damaged car seat. From there you’ll be dealing with the airline to get reimbursed, but you’ll also still need a car seat to continue on with your vacation. This is not going to be fun after a long flight.
How to Protect Car Seat when Flying
Wondering how to check a car seat? It’s pretty easy, first make sure to protect your car seat with a padded car seat travel bag then drop it off along with the rest of your luggage. But make sure it’s well protected.
What’s the best way to protect a car seat when flying? While you can ask the check in agent for a large plastic bag, we recommend you putting the car seat into a padded car seat travel bag. We own and quite like this J.L. Childress padded car seat travel bag because it comes with a padded back and sides. If we have anything else to add in there (jackets, blankets, diapers, etc), we pack them around the car seat for extra protection.
Flying with a Convertible Seat for Toddler or Preschooler
Is it ever a good idea to bring a large convertible seat for a toddler or preschooler? One of the more difficult times to travel with car seats is when your toddler/preschooler is in a large convertible seat. Those things are heavy!
While there are other smaller alternatives (which we cover below), it won’t be as cumbersome to travel with a convertible toddler seat if you have a direct flight and will be getting a rental car for entire trip.
We traveled with our large convertible seats on the airplane once when we flew to Nashville with kids. We checked the car seats with our luggage in a travel car seat bag (the J.L. Childress car seat travel bag was even large enough to fit our big Britax seats).
It was a direct flight, so we knew the child seats would only need to be put on the plane and taken back off (rather than transferred between planes in a rush). Maybe this wouldn’t make a difference, but it made us feel better about it.
We packed any extra diapers and blankets we had around the car seats for extra protection. They made it in good shape with no damage to the car seat travel bags or the car seats.
If you still want your toddler or preschooler to be as safe as possible during the flight, you can check car seats then use a Cares safety restraint harness on the airplane. Just keep in mind it’s only for children 1 year and older who weigh between 22 to 44 pounds and up to 40 inches tall.
2. Renting a Car Seat from Car Rental Agency
There are circumstances during a trip when you might need to rent car seats from a car rental company. This isn’t typically the most advisable way to go. Though we’ve had some positive experiences doing this, we’ve also had some nightmare ones.
The first thing that always bothers me is when trying to book online, you’ll sometimes see a line that says the car seats availability isn’t guaranteed. That’s a deal breaker for me. What parent can take the risk of the car seat not being there? Imagine having to sit there and wait while your partner ran to the nearest Wal-mart to buy a seat.
Secondly, the type and condition of the child car seat isn’t guaranteed either. I have found that they are basically clueless when it comes to choosing an acceptable car seat for babies and toddlers.
Finally, they won’t install them for you. So after a long flight, you are faced with trying to figure out how to install this seat you’ve never seen before in a car you don’t own. All the while your baby is screaming or your toddler is crawling all over you. It’s a nightmare!
This is my absolute last resort when it comes to kids car seats. We rented car seats in Prague and had to sit around while they tried to find appropriate ones. They had to go back several times before I accepted the car seats. They weren’t all that clean, but at that point we had no choice.
We had a similar experience renting in Iceland. We arrived late in the day, so we were all exhausted and had to deal with car seats. The first two they brought out were ridiculous. One was a bucket (capsule) car seat for my 4 year old and the other one was broken. I sent those back.
They came back with two more. In the end, they ended up giving us a brand new one out of the box that only worked rear facing for our 2.5 year old. I was perfectly happy to have him rear facing but it took me a while to figure out how it worked.
All while my husband tried to manage two very tired kids in the middle of a parking lot. It probably took us over an hour to figure it out.
All that being said, we had an exceptionally positive experience renting car seats in Norway with kids. We arrived at the Hertz car rental agency and they not only had two car seats perfect for our kids and sparkling clean (if not brand new) but they were already installed! I double checked them, of course, but what a treat!
So why would you ever rent car seats from a car rental company? Here are the circumstances that have caused us to rent car seats from car rental companies:
- Our trip was several weeks long and we only had a rental car for two small portions of it, which would have meant carrying our own car seats around for weeks (usually on public transportation).
- There were no baby equipment rental companies we could rent from.
- We weren’t returning to the same area to return car seats to a baby equipment rental company.
- The baby equipment rental companies couldn’t deliver to us or were cost prohibitive.
So what are the other options to renting from a car rental agency?
Look for a baby equipment rental company in the area, buy a car seat at your destination or look into alternatives that you can carry around (even if you won’t be using them the entire time).
3. Renting from a Baby Equipment Rental Company
Depending on how long and where you will be traveling with your baby or toddler, car seats can be rented from a baby equipment rental company. If you don’t plan to travel with your car seat, then this is a great option to avoid carrying extra baby gear. Car seats from a reputable baby equipment rental company will be in better shape and clean/sanitized for you.
Most will meet you at the airport and might be able to give you some tips on installing the car seat. You should also know in advance what car seat brand and type you will be getting so you can find the installation instructions in advance to help you install them easier.
The only real downsides of renting from a baby equipment rental company are:
- Cost – this tends to be a pricey option.
- Availability – there isn’t always a company in the area you are traveling to.
- Return – the car seat typically has to be returned to the same place.
- Several Destinations – you might be traveling to several locations, and it’s time consuming to be constantly picking up or dropping off car seats at each new location.
We’ve rented car seats from baby equipment rental companies in Sedona, San Diego and even Mexico. We were met at the airport car rental agency and had great experiences all three times.
Here are all our tips for using baby equipment rental companies.
4. Buying a Car Seat at Your Destination
When would you buy a car seat at your destination? When the other options for traveling with car seats aren’t viable, it’s worth it to price out the cost of buying a car seat when you arrive.
In fact, it’s worth doing a cost comparison between buying and renting (either from the car rental agency or a baby equipment rental company) especially for longer trips. Assuming you have a place to easily pick them up or have them delivered.
We recently traveled to Scotland and Ireland for 7.5 weeks with our kids. We planned to rent a car for a portion of the time in Scotland and a portion of the time in Ireland, but not for the whole time.
We looked into the Ride Safer Travel Vest, but it wasn’t currently approved in the UK. We could have brought our own car seats, though I knew they aren’t technically legal either, what are the chances that we’d be pulled over and that they would even check or care as long as our kids were safely strapped in.
But our own car seats are far too big to bring along – especially when we would only be using them for a couple of weeks. We are also well past the point of buying a lightweight car seat for travel and neither of our kids is ready for a booster seat, like the Mifold or BubbleBum inflatable booster seat.
After determining that renting from a baby equipment rental company wouldn’t work (since we weren’t able to find one at our starting destination) and we preferred to not rent from the car rental company (the cost was ridiculous), we looked at the possibility of buying one.
It turned out that it was a pretty low cost to buy two high back booster seats for our kids and we could get them at a store within walking distance to our Airbnb apartment.
We looked into the child car seat laws for the UK and determined both our kids met the requirements for that particular seat. On top of that, they were lightweight enough that we could carry them in between when we didn’t have a rental car. This was an inconvenience for sure, since we were taking public transport (bus, ferry, etc), but it was worth it for the peace of mind to have the seats with us.
5. Options for Portable Car Seats
What other portable and lightweight options do you have for traveling with car seats?
Buy a portable car seat for travel. You can buy something like the often recommended Cosco Scenera Next or the Evenflo Tribute (at only 9lbs!) as a lightweight travel car seat for your baby. Though check the height and weight requirements, since some kids may grow out of these quickly.
For infants, the Doona is a lightweight and portable car seat for infants plus it’s a stroller too.
Preschool and toddler convertible seats for car travel are the heaviest and the most difficult to travel with.
If your child meets the requirements for a travel booster seat, look into the Mifold or BubbleBum travel booster seats. Another option is the Ride Safer Travel Vest which can also be paired with a booster seat.
Make sure to check all age, height and weight requirements for travel booster seats or the Ride Safer Travel Vest. For example, the minimum age for the Ride Safer Travel Vest is 3 years old.
Booster seats aren’t recommended until at least 40 lbs and even 5 years old, plus your kid should be able to sit properly without slouching or leaning over. This is an excellent post about when your child is ready for a booster seat and this one for choosing the best portable booster seat.
How can you travel without car seats?
If you can find a destination where you can get around without having to rent a car, you can avoid the hassle of traveling with car seats.
Do these places exist? They certainly do! We’ve spent a lot of time researching and coming up with places we can travel without needing car seats. We love the hassle of not traveling with them!
Here are the questions you need to ask when looking for destinations where you won’t need to travel with a car seat:
- How will you get to and from the airport? If public transportation isn’t readily available from the airport, or you aren’t interested in taking it with your luggage, then you can either take a taxi or Uber. We have a post that covers ridesharing with a baby or toddler.
- How will you get around? Can you walk almost everywhere?
- How is the public transportation? Is it possible to see everything you want to see by walking, bus or train?
- How will you get between cities? If you want to visit other cities or areas, can you easily get there by train or bus?
We took our first trip to Barcelona with a baby (she was 3 months old and we were slightly nervous first parents). We had specifically chosen Barcelona because we knew we’d be able to easily get from the Barcelona El Prat airport to our hotel using public transportation and during our stay we could get around by walking.
Knowing we wouldn’t need an infant car seat was one less thing we’d have to worry about. For the first time flying with an infant, we booked seats with an airplane bassinet so we didn’t need to hold our baby for the entire long haul flight. She slept soundly in bassinet for almost the entire flight.
We made it easy on ourselves and just used a baby carrier for travel. We rented a stroller and had it delivered to our hotel (it was waiting for us when we arrived). So all we had to worry about was our baby and our luggage.
We spent some time in London and Paris with a toddler, and this time we flew with a car seat. We had no issues with using it on the plane or getting to the plane with our car seat stroller combo.
We gate checked our stroller, but we didn’t get it back until baggage in Gatwick so we had to carry the car seat the entire way. We expected to use the car seat more, but as it turned out we got around with our baby in London and Paris with public transport or walking, so it sat in our Airbnb apartment until we used it in our final taxi to get to the airport in Paris*.
*make sure to bring locking clips if using your car seat in Europe!
We traveled in Italy with toddlers for a month without needing car seats. We used public transportation when we got to Rome with our toddlers and managed to get around by trains and ferries in Italy.
(Full disclosure, we did take two taxi rides with our kids in the back seat with us not in car seats. Once was on the Island of Elba and the other was a very early morning ride to the Florence airport as we were leaving.)
In Norway with a toddler, we used public transportation in Oslo, a train to Bergen and public transport to get to the airport to get to Alesund where we rented a car. We were able to get out to Geiranger with kids without needing car seats too.
In the two weeks in Japan with toddlers, we were easily able to get around using public transportation and trains.
If you’re going to NYC with a baby or toddler, we’ve also done that and used only public transport to get around!
What about an all-inclusive vacation to Mexico with a baby? We only traveled to our resort so we didn’t bring a car seat, which we would have only used on the shuttle bus.
We also managed to get around Croatia with a toddler and preschooler without needing car seats, this included getting out to Plitvice Lakes with a toddler and preschooler and then on to islands like Hvar and Korcula. We got around by bus and ferry with our kids.
Summary of Tips for Traveling with Car Seats
It can get pretty complicated when trying to decide whether to bring car seats (either the ones you use everyday or a portable travel car seat) for a baby or toddler. Especially if you are moving around a lot during your trip.
The best place to start is by deciding if you will be purchasing a seat on the airplane for your baby or toddler. Next decide how you will get your car seat either to the plane or protect it for checked luggage.
From there you need to know if you’ll be renting a car for the duration of your trip or using public transportation.
If you aren’t renting a car, or you won’t be in the same car the entire time, you need to map out your trip. How often will you be in a car (including Uber or Taxi)? What are your options for car seats?
This is a lot of think about, we know! Because it can get so complicated (especially with longer trips or if you only rent a car for a portion of the time), we also created a “Travel With Car Seats Decision Tree” to help you with your decision. We recommend working through this for each leg of your trip!
Shop all the products we mentioned in this post in one place! We’ve included all of them in our Travel Car Seats list on Amazon.