There’s no way around it, whether you go by plane, train, or automobile — traveling with kids is hard.
There are the extra pit stops, complete with meltdowns over their sudden thirst when they see the high fructose corn syrup character juice bottles in the gas station refrigerators. This is followed by a need to pee again five minutes later, leading to a cycle that never ends — much like the whining. I’m bored. Are we there yet? He looked at me. My butt is numb. He touched me. Are we there yet?
With all the gear required, you look like you’ve started a small moving company every time you so much as go away for the weekend. It’s epic even if you’re driving your own car, but if you’re flying and renting a car at your destination it’s exhausting to even think about adding car seats to your packing list. A lot of people will just forgo that frustration and opt to rent a car seat as one of the optional add-ons offered by the rental company.
It’s a seemingly no-brainer idea; it’s also potentially deadly. At the very least it may end up making you choose between a huge logistical nightmare and unsafe, or even illegal, choices.
If you don’t know the history of a seat, you should not use it. This is the same reason you should never buy a used car seat from someone you don’t know and trust extremely well.
You have no idea how it has been treated by the rental company. Although you would like to think the company would follow all the best practices, there is a really good chance they haven’t. Car seat straps should never be submerged in water or cleaned with harsh chemicals — are you sure they didn’t do just that when a seat came back to them after a tango with a carsick kid? You also have no way to know if it has been in an accident or if it has had any recalls.
You have no idea how it has been treated by previous users. Even if the rental company is superb in their treatment of the seat, you don’t know if others who have used it have been as gentle. It could have been in an accident while in another car, tossed around, or cleaned inappropriately.
You may have limited seats to choose from. Will their idea of an appropriate seat for your child match up with yours? They might try to give you a forward facing only seat for your rear facing one year old, or a seat that has already been outgrown. The seats may also be filthy or expired. They may or may not have the manual available — and you should always read the manual.
By the time you get to the renting-a-car stage of a vacation you probably just want to get where you’re going, not deal with finding out you don’t have a safe way to transport your children.
You have a few options.
Travel with your seat. Ideally you would use the seat on the plane, both for your child’s safety on the flight (if below around 40 pounds), and to prevent it from being damaged in baggage. But if you can’t, then check it either in its original box, or well padded and packed in a storage bag. It won’t count towards your checked baggage limit. If your seat is heavy and bulky, you can consider buying a cheap lightweight seat to take with you.
Go portable. If you have a child who is over the age of 3, weighs between 30 and 80 pounds, and is between 34” and 57”, check out the Ride Safer travel vest. If you have a big kid who normally rides in a booster, check out the BubbleBum inflatable booster. Both are approved devices, and pack small and lightweight.
Have someone meet you at your destination with a seat. There are seat choices under $50, which may end up being less than you’d pay to rent the questionable seat from the rental company.
Have someone in your party go buy a seat. They go get the rental car while you wait for your baggage, then go to the nearest big box store, buy a seat, then come pick you up at baggage claim. Some stores will even let you make the purchase online, and then just run in and pick it up. This obviously will work better with some airports than others.
Yes, most of the options are a bit of a hassle, but considering the alternatives they are worth the peace of mind.
Rhiannon Giles is an overwhelmed mother who only occasionally considers giving her children to the circus. She has a sarcasm problem and writes regularly at rhiyaya.com. To keep up with new posts and see some of her favorites, join her on Facebook and Twitter.