After a dozen years of traveling with kids, I’ve rented a lot of cars in my family’s travels. My husband and I have tried nearly every major car rental company from Alamo to Hertz to Enterprise. We’ve experimented with bringing our own car seats and boosters as well as with renting them from the car rental companies directly. We’ve struggled with kids and luggage and strollers on car rental shuttles and airport trains.
To be sure, the logistics of car rentals with kids – especially with babies and toddlers – can be daunting. Each airport has different procedures and layouts. Each location does things just a bit differently.
How can you set yourself up for rental car success when traveling with kids? Here are all the things you need to think about as you book a car rental as well as what to do while traveling to have the fewest car rental hassles on your family vacation.
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Do You Need a Rental Car at All?
First things first – are you sure you need a rental car on the trip you are about to take? A lot of families just automatically assume they’ll rent a car at their destination airport. But be sure you really need to each time. It’s essential to do the research and crunch the numbers first!
If you plan to vacation in a resort property and rarely leave, you might not need a rental car. If you are headed to an urban destination with adequate public transit, you might not need one either. If you are going to a big city with expensive parking charges, you might not need one enough to justify paying to park it every day.
Instead, all that you might need in these kinds of destinations is good ground transportation to and from the airport. Investigate and compare the costs of shuttles or car services instead.
The advent of Uber and Lyft means that it’s easier than ever to get around (see my guide to taking Uber and Lyft with kids). And the explosion of grocery delivery services like Instacart means you might not even need that rental car anymore to head to the supermarket to stock your vacation rental or hotel room fridge with food. (Related: Grocery shopping list for vacation rentals.)
Need a car for only part of your trip? Instead of renting at the airport and having the hassle and cost of it the whole time, consider whether you can rent a car for just a single day near your hotel to get where you need to go. We’ve done this at Disney’s Aulani before to explore O’ahu’s North Shore on a day trip (there is an Alamo on-site rental desk at Aulani). A lot of big cities like San Francisco also have rental car locations galore in the major tourist centers near many hotels.
What Kind of Rental Car Do Families Need?
So assuming you’ve thought through the threshold question and actually do need a rental car on your trip, how do you decide what to rent?
Family travel – especially with little ones – often comes with a lot more luggage. That compact car you used to rent to save money before having kids may not work anymore to fit suitcases and a stroller in the trunk. But you also don’t want to pay for more than you need.
The car rental companies classify their cars a little differently, but the basic car classifications of interest to families, from smallest to largest are:
- Standard (often not meaningfully bigger than intermediate)
- Compact/Mid-size SUV
- Standard SUV
- Full-size SUV
Since adding our second child to the family, our family of 4 rents at least an intermediate or standard car no matter what. This is the absolute smallest size that gives enough legroom for kids in booster and car seats and usually can fit at least two larger suitcases with room for a basic umbrella stroller.
For trips where we will be driving for a longer period of time, we usually opt for a full-size vehicle to have a more comfortable ride. If you’re planning to bring more luggage or a large jog-style stroller or if you have more than two kids, you’ll likely need more than that. I’d recommend at least a standard or full size SUV or minivan rental.
Navigating Between the Airport & Car Rental Center with Kids
When my kids were younger, one of the bigger logistical things I had to think through was simply getting out of the airport and into a rental car. If you have never flown with a baby or toddler before, you might not think about all of these steps. Getting a little one and a stroller and all your luggage onto a train or rental car shuttle to a distant car rental center is HARD!
What strategy makes sense for you depends on what the layout is of the airport you are arriving into. So absolutely do your research! Some airports – especially smaller regional ones – have rental car counters near baggage claim, and you can walk out to your car. Those are fantastic. Sometimes, if I have a choice of several airports to get to a destination, I’ll seek out the smaller ones for just these kinds of improved logistics.
Most larger airports, however, will require you to take a train or a shuttle to get to your rental car. Some have a central rental car centers where all the major companies are located together. These airports use joint shared transportation to get you there. Other airports will have a multitude of shuttles for each car rental company to separate company locations.
The strategy we used the most with younger kids (and often still use even today) was what we call divide and conquer. In airports with more distant rental cars, my husband would run ahead and hop on a rental car shuttle or train. He would pick up the car while I stayed with the kids in the airport. Often, we would have checked bags anyway, so I’d pick those up until he returned with the car to pick us up curbside at baggage claim.
When you have to do this process all in reverse, splitting up works as well. I often will have my husband drop the kids, the luggage, and me curbside at the airport. We’ll get the bags checked in at the ticket counter. He’ll return the car and take the shuttle to the terminal to meet us. We then head to the security checkpoint together to have two sets of adult hands to help the kids.
Of course, this process doesn’t work for solo parent travelers! Whenever I was traveling solo with both kids, I really thought carefully about the logistics that much more. I packed extra efficiently to have less luggage to handle, I brought a baby carrier so I could be hands free with my youngest, or I made sure one of the bags was something smaller my older child could help me to handle on an off of a rental car shuttle.
The Dilemma of Rental Cars & Car Seats
The most confusing part of car rentals for most family travelers with young kids is car seats. I’ve spilled a lot of ink about car seats and air travel on this blog over the years, so I won’t dive in too deeply here. To read all the nitty gritty, be sure to check out my three part guide to car seats on airplanes.
The big dilemma is whether to bring your own car seat from home or to rent one from the car rental company. My family has done both on numerous occasions.
There are risks and struggles with each approach – if you bring your own car seat from home, do you check it or use it on the plane? If you use it on the plane, will it fit and can you really carry it through airports and juggle young kids too? If you check it, will the airline lose or damage it? If you rent from a rental car company, will it be clean or the right size for your child? How can you know it it’s been in a car accident? Whew. It’s enough to almost make you want to stay home.
My best advice is to assess your own risk tolerances and then look at the actual logistics of your specific trip – the airports you are departing from, connecting in, and arriving into. I usually brought my own car seat at the infant stage and used it on the plane (we mostly bought a extra seat for longer trips). We rented car seats more often once we had toddlers ages 2+ who could forward face. Only once were we given a car seat we found unacceptable by an airport car rental company, and we were able to exchange it on the spot for a brand new one.
If you choose to bring a car seat, my top most portable picks for various ages and stages that we have used extensively with our kids are as follows:
- Ages 0-4: Cosco Scenera Next – lightweight & inexpensive convertible car seat with a 5 point harness that can rear or forward face (see the full Cosco Scenera Next review)
- Ages 2-5: WAYB Pico – crazy compact forward-facing folding car seat with a 5 point harness, small enough for airplane overhead bin! (see the full WAYB Pico review)
- Ages 5+: BubbleBum – inflatable booster seat that can fit in a large purse or backpack (see the full BubbleBum review)
Check out even more product recommendations in my guide to the best car seats and boosters for air travel.
One quick tip for those of you who do choose to rent – car seat rentals can be expensive and add up quickly for anything other than a weekend getaway. If you are a AAA member, Hertz gives you a single free car seat with each rental. That’s saved us a bundle over the years.
How to Save Money on Car Rentals
Speaking of saving money, car rentals can really add up in cost. How can you save money as a family needing larger cars in your travels? Here are the strategies I employ:
- Book as early as possible: As soon as I book a flight for a trip (and sometimes even before), I book a rental car. This is essentially a placeholder reservation so I have at least one option at a price I can live with if no other deals pan out. Booking early usually helps you lock in a decently low price. Most car rentals do not require a credit card number or take a deposit, so you can always cancel this easily when you find something better – even last minute.
- Book with Costco Travel: Costco members can save a bundle booking a rental car through the Costco Travel site. An extra driver is included, so two adults in your traveling party can share driving duties without paying extra.
- Book with AAA/Hertz: Hertz is often one of the pricier car rental companies. But as a AAA member, there are regular discount codes that can result in Hertz being a better deal, especially when you combine those with the free car seat rental benefit.
- Use Aloha Rents (for Hawaii): We travel to Hawaii a lot, where rental cars can be very expensive and in short supply. Aloha Rents is able to access corporate rates (legitimately) and pass the savings on. Several of their car rental partners also waive the extra driver fee.
- Use Autoslash: Autoslash is a game-changing site for car rentals because it does a lot of the price comparison legwork for you. It takes your travel dates and asks for your memberships (like AAA, Costco, and several others) and then looks for the best rates that match what you can access. You can also put in a booking you already have and it will send you an email when it finds a lower rate for something similar.
How to Save Time on Car Rentals
Sometimes the money isn’t really the issue when it comes to car rentals – it’s the time. If you’ve ever seen a car rental line stretching across an airport arrivals area with dozens of people in it, you know how much time renting a car can sometimes take. I know I’ve personally waited an hour or more at a car rental desk, and have heard horror stories of people standing in line for 2, 3, or 4 hours as they start their vacation. When you are traveling with kids, waiting that long for a car rental is just a non-starter.
So how do you save time on car rentals? The key is to look for ways to skip the line and go straight to your car. Always, always sign up for rental car frequent renter programs like Hertz Gold or Alamo Insiders. When you log in to your account and book the rental there, you will be able to skip the line at most larger (and even many smaller) airports. Be sure to check that your drivers license and credit card number are up-to-date in your online account before your trip (and make sure you are using the right credit card with primary car rental coverage). Otherwise, you’ll have to go to a counter.
Some car rental companies have a board displayed with a stall number where you go straight to your car. Others allow you do to online check-in and/or give you access to a preferred line or kiosk to skip the battle with the masses.
Even if you rent through a third party discounter like Costco Travel, you can almost always add your membership number or link your booking to access the same benefits.
Here are links to the programs of most of the majors, along with their usual offerings at major airports at least:
- Alamo Insiders: Online check-in (“Skip the Counter”), earn rental rewards
- Avis Preferred: Skip line and car assigned on board, earn rental rewards
- Budget FastBreak: Go direct to lot & choose own car
- Dollar Express: Car assigned on board where available, priority line in some locations, earn rental rewards
- Enterprise Plus: Online check-in, priority line in some locations
- Hertz Gold Plus Rewards: Skip line and car assigned on board (sometimes choose own car), earn rental rewards
- National Emerald Club: Skip line and choose own car, earn rental rewards
- Thrifty BlueChip: Car assigned on board where available, priority line in some locations, earn rental rewards
If your arrival airport doesn’t have skip the line services for the car rental company you are using, there are still sometimes a few other ways to dodge the worst. First, if you have travel flexibility, come in at non-peak times if you can. Saturday arrivals at popular beach airports in summer, for example, are the worst! At smaller airports where the car rental counter is at baggage claim, we sometimes send one adult “runner” ahead to beat the crowds deplaning our flight to the car rental lines. Sometimes if there is a long line for the car rental company you have booked no line for others nearby, ask the ones with no lines if they will match your rate and rent with them on the spot.
Unique Rental Car Challenges in 2021
If you’ve read the travel news lately, you might know that 2021 brings an extra curveball to the rental car process. Due to financial struggles when travel ground to a halt last year, most rental car companies had to sell large portions of their fleet.
Now, there is a massive shortage of rental cars all over the country to meet the demand. There are horror stories of people only being charged $500 or $1000 a day for a compact car that used to rent for $20. And there are even more stories of people with car rental reservations who show up at the airport only to find an empty lot and no car for their trip.
Avoid being one of those horror stories with these tips:
- Check rental car prices before you book flights: Your rental car may well cost more this year than flights for your family of 4 or 5. Check prices before you commit to a destination or book flights to make sure it doesn’t blow your budget.
- Call ahead: The day before or morning of your flight, call ahead to the car rental company’s local number and confirm they will have a car for you. If there is a late breaking car shortage at their location, they may be able to see it coming at that point.
- Book more than 1 reservation: Car reservations don’t require credit card deposits, so if you are concerned the airport you will arrive into will run out of cars, it never hurts to hedge your bets by booking with more than one company. You can always cancel the extra reservation once you get a car.
- Pay attention to news/social media: Follow the travel news and the travels of friends or travel bloggers headed to your destination to know if a rental car shortage is an issue in a specific locale.
- Know your backup options: If the worst happens and you find yourselves without a rental car, know what your backup options are. You might be able to take a shuttle, train, or Uber/Lyft instead. Sometimes you can find car rental companies in non-airport locations and take and Uber there to rent a car.
Once you know the potential tripping points, car rentals with kids don’t have to be that stressful, confusing, or expensive. Just think through and prepare for the logistics in advance and you’ll be on to the fun parts of your vacation in no time.