My law school friend Lucy sent me a Facebook message today asking about a dilemma many parents traveling with children often face — do I bring my child’s carseat along as checked luggage or do I rent one along with my rental car? (Note: If you are going on a trip to stay with family, consider whether you want to buy a carseat to have at that location, a topic covered here.)
Fees for carseat rentals can be steep. Most companies charge between $8-$12 per day, so if your trip is long or you have more than one child, the cost of the carseat can easily exceed the rental. On the other hand, bringing a carseat with you can be a hassle due to its bulk and weight. It is often logistically easier to just rent a carseat from your car rental company.
The right carseat answer is different on every trip, so here are the key questions you should ask yourself each time:
1) Does the airline I’m traveling on charge to check a carseat?: In this era of rising checked bag fees, I was surprised to discover that NONE of the domestic commercial airlines I researched (even the super-discounters) charge for checking a carseat. That is good news! However, policies can always change or gate agents can be ignorant of the rules, so I’ve assembled links to the airline website policies to assist you.
- JetBlue: JetBlue allows one free bag per passenger. A checked carseat does NOT count as your free checked bag.
- Southwest: Southwest allows you two free checked bags.
A carseat appears to count as one of your free bags.However, a stroller does not count towards the free bag allowance. (Update 5/22/14 per reader tip: Southwest no longer counts car seats against its two free bag allowance. This means you can check 2 bags, plus a stroller AND a carseat on your next Southwest flight).
- US Airways: Note that you can only check a carseat OR stroller on USAirways, not both, as most other airlines allow.
- Virgin America
2) Will I be able to carry the carseat with me to and from the airport? If you are a lone adult driving the airport, parking your car, taking a shuttle to the terminal, and then checking in — all with a child and other luggage — the carseat may be too much hassle. However, if you are two adults taking a cab to the airport where you’ll be dropped curbside, bringing a carseat is a breeze. (Note: There are some products you can buy that make carrying a carseat easier, but consider the cost of these products and how much use you will get out of them before buying.)
3) How long is my trip? And what does my car rental agency charge for carseats? Rental fees will obviously add up for longer trips or multiple children. For simple weekend trips, however, I almost always rent at my destination. Check multiple rental car agencies to make sure that the cost of the car plus the carseat rental is the best.
4) What is my personal preference regarding rental carseats? Some rental car companies have been known to offer dirty or old seats, and you cannot verify whether the seat has been in an accident. If you are personally uncomfortable with renting an unknown carseat, then this may tip the balance for you. Checking your carseat, however, is potentially questionable too, as you will not know that the baggage handlers have treated it with care. Bringing your carseat on board is the most conservative option, but also the most hassle. And, depending on the size of your children, sitting in a carseat may position them perfectly to kick the seat in front of them the entire flight — not something I recommend!
One final tip — If you rent from Hertz and are AAA member, you can rent a carseat for free. Since Hertz is usually one of the more expensive rental car agencies, your cost could still be higher, but it is always worth checking the pricing.