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Car Seats on Airplanes: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (Part 3: At Your Destination)

We’re at the end of the three part Trips With Tykes series covering car seat use on airplanes. Thanks for following along on this air travel odyssey! The final topic covers everything related to car seats after your plane arrives at your destination, from rental cars to car seat alternatives to missing or damaged checked seats.

Be sure to check out all the parts of the full guide here for every step in your air travel journey:

Airplane interior

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Part 3: Car Seats At Your Destination

17. Do you recommend renting a car seat from your rental car company?

It depends. The answer (just as with the lap baby question) depends on your personal risk tolerance. I’ve personally been given car seats that look brand new and in great shape but have also occasionally gotten a dirty one or one with visible damage.

Rental Car Counters in Hawaii

There is no way to know for sure if a car seat a rental car company gives you has been in an accident or handled improperly. Often the car seats aren’t available with manuals, so you have to figure out how to install an unfamiliar seat on the fly. There is also a risk that a car rental company runs out of seats at busy times. For what it’s worth, the car seat safety experts usually don’t recommend renting seats, but it is your decision to make.

That said, I have rented car seats many times and have predominantly positive experiences. The alternative for us to renting from a car rental company is sometimes checking a car seat and not knowing whether the airline will damage it, so there is a risk either way. My personal strategy is to rent car seats in situations where the driving I will do with the car seat is minimal. If I’m flying to a place and then embarking on a longer road trip where we’ll be in the car a lot, I bring my own. But you have to make that call for yourself.

Related: Tips for Renting Cars When Traveling with Kids

Also, it stands to reason that if you rent from the most low-budget of car rental companies, your chances are greater that you will be rented a low-budget and perhaps old or damaged seat. We normally rent from pricier Hertz and have found the car seats (at least visually) appear in much better shape than with some of the companies known to be a bit cheaper.

18. Which car seat type do I select from the rental car company?

Most car rental companies offer three selections for child safety seats on their websites when you make a reservation: (1) an infant seat, (2) a toddler seat, and (3) a booster seat. How do you know which one to pre-select when you don’t know the car seat models and the ages/weights for which they are approved? You can’t know with 100% certainty, but you can come close.

What rental car companies classify as infant seats are usually the bucket style seats with a carry handle. Most kids outgrow these by their first birthday but height and weight recommendations do vary model by model.

The toddler seats are intended for kids up to 40 pounds. Many are convertible and can be used rear and forward facing, but there are no guarantees of rear-facing compatibility. This creates a bit of a conundrum if you have a 1-2 year old who you still want to rear-face in accordance with current American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations. I’ve rented from a number of companies over the years and the most common seat I’ve seen offered by rental car companies is the convertible Cosco Scenera NEXT (yes, the same lightweight one I recommend for use on board planes) which can be used both forward and rear facing.

Cosco Scenera Next
The inexpensive and safe Cosco Scenera NEXT is a favorite model of car rental companies.

If you have a child who is over forty pounds, be aware that many of the convertible car seats that rental car companies offer are not intended for use for larger kids over 40 pounds (like the Cosco Scenera NEXT). So if it is important to you to use a car seat for your larger 4, 5, or 6 year old instead of a booster, you likely need to bring your own.

Finally, booter seats are intended for kids who are both 4 years old and 40+ pounds. Products you may encounter when renting from a car rental company could be a high backed booster or simply a backless one.

19. Rental car companies charge an arm and a leg for car seat rental (usually $8-12 per day). Are there cheaper options for renting a car seat?

Yes! One of my favorite budget travel hacks for car seats is using my AAA membership to rent from Hertz. Why? Hertz gives a free car seat rental to AAA members. This doesn’t totally solve the price problem for families who need more than one car seat, but it certainly helps.

20. If I don’t bring my car seat along and am not renting a car, what are my options for safe travel with my kids?

This situation is when you really need to think through the logistics of the destination you are visiting and everything you plan to do.

If you are headed to a destination where friends and family live, consider purchasing an extra inexpensive seat for use there. My family has always had an extra seat at my parents’ home so it is ready to use when they pick us up at the airport when we come to visit.

At all other destinations, your best option to do without a car seat is usually to take public transit. Just make sure you can actually get your kids and luggage on and off the transit options. Some cities are more family-friendly than others.

If you prefer ridesharing, there is a service called Uber Car Seat (formerly UberFamily) available in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Orlando that offers a single car seat for a minor upcharge. But obviously that offering is quite geographically limited and cars can sometimes be hard to find at peak periods. Some taxi companies in a few places will also have car seats available, but the request usually leads to a much longer wait for a cab. A few baby gear rental companies will also meet you at the airport when you arrive at your destination with a car seat or other rental baby gear.

Child in Mickey ears in Uber Car Seat Orlando
Riding to meet Mickey in an Uber Car Seat in Orlando.

Your best bet in more places are private car services that will guarantee car seats. These private car services are almost always pricier, but many can offer families more than one car seat. Many of them also provide more personal service (like meeting you at baggage claim and helping with luggage or making a grocery stop en route to your hotel) which can be of help more generally when traveling with young kids

Finally, if you don’t want to lug a big convertible car seat, you can rely on a few more compact products for slightly older kids. As I mentioned in earlier parts of this guide, the BubbleBum inflatable booster seat is super-compact for kids 4 years and up who are at least 40 pounds. And kids even younger and smaller (3 years old and 30+ pounds) can use the pricey but convenient Ride Safer Travel Vest in lieu of a car seat.

Related: Best Boosters and Car Seats for Air Travel

Bubblebum

I also highly recommend a brand new product that came out in mid-2019 that I’ve now tested — the Pico Car Seat from WAYB. It’s a super compact, foldable 5 point harness car seat intended for kids ages 2-5. It is small enough for an airplane overhead bin meaning no more risk of gate check damage or loss for travel with toddlers and preschoolers (and can be used like a regular 5 point harness seat on the plane too).

WAYB Pico Car Seat Review - Folded by Car
WAYB Pico size when folded.

21. What happens if the airline loses my car seat?

Car Seats International Travel - Baby in Infant Car Seat

Airlines lose bags from time to time and this can include your much-needed car seat. And, yes, it has happened to me! The TSA has gone through several periods of time where they have screened car seats more carefully. As a result, car seats can occasionally be held back for additional screening and fail to make your flight.

If you find yourself in this situation, go immediately to the lost baggage desk of your airline. Many airlines in larger airports will have loaner seats available for just this situation. Just like rental car seats, you have no way of knowing the history of these car seats so there is some safety risk. But it’s probably better than nothing if the alternative is a car or Uber ride without a child restraint at all. Airlines will allow you to use this loaner seat and will exchange it with you when they deliver your lost one.

If the airline you are flying doesn’t have loaners, ask if they will check with other airlines or even the rental car companies that might have a spare. Worst case scenario? Send one parent in your rental car or a taxi to the closet Target or Walmart and buy one. Try to make the airline agree to reimburse you there and then (some airlines have language that they are not responsible for lost car seats in their contracts of carriage, but it never hurts to ask).

22. What happens if the airline damages my car seat?

Airlines are technically not responsible for damage to checked car seats (or strollers either) under their contracts of carriage. This is why it is so important not to fly with expensive baby gear!

As with many things in air travel, however, employees do have some flexibility to address grievances. So you might have luck in obtaining some compensation if you ask nicely. Just don’t count on it. As with lost car seats (see #21), check with the baggage desk to see if you can obtain a loaner to use in the short term while you work to replace your damaged seat.

Are there car seat questions I’ve left unanswered? Leave your thoughts in the comments and I’ll add to this guide so that no traveling parent ever has to curse the airplane car seat experience ever again! 😉

Great resources & further reading:


Don’t forget to read the full three part car seats on airplanes guide here:

Car Seats on Planes: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (Part 3: At your destination)

Share this!:

mittal

Tuesday 13th of September 2022

Thanks for a detailed explanation. Any issues you have faced going through security with a travel system?

Lauren Cohen

Saturday 25th of June 2022

Hi! Thanks for all your tips about flying with car seats. We are preparing to do so next week. We have a family member picking us up at the airport. Where exactly would you recommend we install the seat in their car: can we do it at curbside pickup, or should we try to meet in short term parking lot? Thank you!

Olivia

Thursday 10th of March 2022

I have a question! Just found your blog and have been pouring over it!

How do I know if the car seat will work in my rental car or if I need anything extra for installation? I'm going to Ireland with my 3 year old and I will be buying the Cosco Scenera Next.

Thank you!

Anita

Saturday 26th of February 2022

This is very helpful thanks! I would really recommend not renting car seat - as you mentioned- you can buy a cheap/light car seat for less than the rental company will charge to rent. The one time I rented the car seat was disgusting - very old and dirty (and I am generally not picky- so this was really bad). Just buy a light one and bring it with you!

Heather Reid

Monday 30th of December 2019

Thank you so much for this three part post. It was SO helpful and really answered all of my questions!