If you want to start the mommy wars all over again, start a conversation about car seats. I’ve learned from posting a guide to car seats and air travel that car seats can bring out the worst in millennial and Gen X parents. The judgment is real. Don’t keep your child rear facing until their teen years? Judgment. Have that chest clip a half-inch too low when you snapped a photo of the kiddo in a car seat? Judgment.
So lesson learned? No way! Here I am stepping in it all over again with an important discussion that I think needs to be had about car seats for those of us who travel abroad…. what do you really do about car seats when you are in international destinations where they aren’t the norm? It’s confession time.
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The Challenge of Car Seats and International Travel
The impetus for this post was a conversation I had with a friend and fellow family travel blogger As the Joe Flies. So I blame him for making me wade into these waters again. When it comes to child safety, both Joe and I are pretty conservative. We both use car seats religiously back home with our kids. We know how to install and use them safely. I kept my son rear facing until he was 3 and only just now switched him at age 6 from a convertible car seat to a booster at home. Joe and I both do more than what the American Academy of Pediatrics and the laws of our state require. We have schlepped car seats all over this great country on dozens of planes and in numerous rental cars to keep our kids safe.
But where have we let things slide? International trips. Joe has Hong Kong roots and confessed to me that his family there thinks he’s crazy when he uses a car seat with his kids when they visit. He’s gone without with his daughter on occasion when the logistics necessitated it. Sorry Joe, your secret is out.
Since I’ve tattled on a fellow traveling parent, here comes the time where I should tattle on myself. We also went without a car seat or booster for my daughter in Hong Kong when she was 5. More recently, I let my son ride in an Uber in Panama when he was 2 without a car seat. (That was the infamous Uber ride where my son threw up all over me, but that’s another story.) We used a car seat to and from the airport in Panama but there was just no way to carry one when taking shorter trips while touring the city. Public transit wasn’t really an option there with the time we had and the places we wanted to go. It was a Uber or taxi or nothing.
That’s the challenge – logistics. The realities of international travel mean that bringing a car seat with you everywhere in a vehicle just isn’t possible. If you find yourself in a country where car seat use is not the norm, forget finding a car service that even has car seats. There’s no Uber Car Seat service in Hong Kong. Or Panama.
Of course, there are some international destinations where car seats are exceptionally easy. We had no trouble in Montreal renting a car seat for our son with our rental car when we visited when he was 9 months old. When we weren’t using the car, the city’s public transit system was more than adequate to get us everywhere we needed to go. The same is the case in many major European cities with extensive subways and transit systems. I didn’t even have issues in Cancun, Mexico! The tour company we hired to take us to Chichen Itza made a car seat available in our touring van. No doubt they are used to dealing with American tourists who demanded it.
In a lot of other corners of the world, however, the car seat question is much harder. Public transit isn’t always available, safe, or practical. If you do rent a car or use a taxi, the cars may not be made to even install a US car seat. A lot of cars don’t have LATCH elsewhere in the world and some even don’t have seat belts that lock off, making car seat installation problematic. Heck, plenty of places don’t even have cars with seat belts at all!
So, it’s confession time. I want to hear about your personal experiences with car seat use at international destinations. Have you gone without one with your kids? At what ages? Does being able to use a car seat (or not) shape the destinations you travel to with your kids when they are at peak car seat age? Do you have any clever workarounds to share? This is a judgment-free zone.
Tips for Safer International Travel with Kids – With & Without Car Seats
Even though a lot of us will admit to cutting car seat corners on some occasions, there are likely still ways you can make transportation with your kids safer in your international travels. So while we all make our confessions, let me share a few tips that I’ve picked up to help improve your odds:
1. Consider car seats when picking a travel destination.
Many leisure travels are optional, so consider car seats in choosing where you take your kids at various ages and stages. There are hundreds of places on my bucket list, so it has made sense to me to choose destinations with safer transport options the past few years when I had babies and toddlers in tow. Now that my youngest is 6, we can be a little more adventurous in where we go. To be sure, there are many times you won’t have a choice in where you travel. But when you do, consider picking destinations with safer options in the crucial car seat years.
2. Take public transit.
The easiest way to make your international travels safer with young kids of car seat age is not to get into the car with them at all. So many international destinations have amazing mass transit – much better than in many places in the United States. Look for opportunities to take subways, busses, and ferries instead of hopping in a taxi, rental car, or Uber. Just make sure that public transit doesn’t present other safety challenges, because it’s easy to be a target with young kids.
3. Bring and use travel-friendly car seats and boosters.
Although large convertible car seats are rarely a viable travel-friendly option, there are increasingly so many car seat and booster products on the market that are compact enough to take with you. The technological innovation in the past decade since my daughter was born is jaw-dropping. I’ll have a complete guide to the best car seats and boosters for travels coming out very soon (stay tuned!) but in the meantime, here are a few of our favorites:
- For infants: Doona Infant Car Seat & Stroller combo
- For 2-5 year olds: WayB Pico folding car seat
- For 3+ year olds: Ride Safer Travel Vest
- For 4+ year olds: BubbleBum (see my complete BubbleBum review)
4. Take surface streets.
If you have to hop in a car without a car seat for a short trip, consider taking surface streets to your destination, even if it takes a little longer. Your kids will be relatively safer in slower moving non-highway traffic if you are, heaven forbid, in an accident without a car seat.
5. Think & plan ahead.
On some of the occasions I’ve have had to put my kids in a car without a car seat, there was an alternative that would have been safer. But because I had failed to think through the logistics in advance, I didn’t have the time or the supplies to take the safer way out. Before your trip, think through your overall itinerary so you can make sure to have the booster you need or enough time to take transit instead of an Uber.