Making Family Travel Easier with Car Seats & Strollers

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For those of you whose adventures come with infants and toddlers in tow, today TPG Contributor Jason Steele advises on how to minimize the hassle of traveling with a car seat or stroller.

My wife and I find that the rewards of family travel exceed the challenges, but there really is little upside to towing child car seats and strollers though airports and around the world. This gear is a necessary evil of traveling with young children, but there are ways that savvy parents can minimize both the hassle and expense of transporting it. Here are some basic facts about traveling with a car seat/stroller, and few of our favorite strategies.

Give them the travel bug early (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Traveling with a child car seat

1. Car seats travel free. All airlines will accept child safety seats and strollers as checked baggage for no additional charge. When it comes to checking a car seat, I strongly recommend placing it inside a large duffel bag to keep it from being soiled and prevent any parts from being lost or catching on luggage handling equipment. Furthermore, airline staff are not going to inspect all of the contents of your duffel bag once you show them that there’s a child safety seat inside, so this is also a convenient place to pack extra diapers, beach towels, or anything else that is lightweight, bulky, and not fragile.

2. Using a car seat on-board an aircraft. This can be done, but I’m not a fan. First, car seats must be labeled as FAA certified, otherwise flight attendants will not let you use them. In fact, there are numerous reports of parents conflicting with flight attendants who prevent them from using even their FAA approved child safety seat, so there’s always that risk. Next, you’ll have to carry the car seat through security and to the gate, which can be difficult. Finally, you’ll have to install and remove the seat on the plane. If you do go this route, try using a product such as the Go-Go Babyz Mini Travelmate, which makes transporting much easier.

If you do decide to carry on a car seat, you will need a transport system like this.

From a safety standpoint, consider that flying in a commercial aircraft might be the safest thing you ever do. For example, there were only three fatalities in U.S. commercial aviation in all of the last four years, yet motor vehicles kill 30,000 to 40,000 each year. While there is no form of transportation that is safer than commercial air travel, a good compromise for toddlers between using a car seat and going without is the CARES child restraint system, which is lightweight, compact and inexpensive.

The CARES child restraint system is much easier to use on an airplane than a car's safety seat.
The CARES child restraint system is much easier to use on an airplane than a car’s safety seat.

3. Smaller is better. Peruse the aisles of any store that sells child safety seats and you’ll notice some compact designs alongside some very large “thrones”. Since all these models are certified to the same safety standards, try to find one that’s compact for travel. For example, we use the Harmony Cruz Car seat, which is approved for children over 30 pounds and sells for about $20. It’s even small enough to carry on-board, which saves us time checking and retrieving bags.

We travel with this Harmony Cruz booster seat because it is lightweight and compact.

4. Travel light and live off of the land? American pioneers crossed the continent by foraging locally rather than carrying it all with them. Likewise, parents can rent or purchase car seats at their destination. Unfortunately, rental car companies make this option pretty costly (especially for longer trips), charging from $8.95 (Enterprise) to $11.99 per day (Advantage, Payless, and Hertz), though there are some ways to save.

Some companies such as National and Thrifty offer slightly lower weekly pricing, while others such as Avis have a lower rate for toddler seats. Notably, Hertz offers a free seat to AAA members and SilverCar even offers free child seats to any customer upon request. If you do end up renting a car seat, the extra charge will be part of the rental car bill, so it can be covered as a travel expense by miles from a Barclaycard Arrival Plus or Capital One Venture Rewards card.

SilverCar is the only rental car agency I found that offers everyone free child safety seats upon request.
SilverCar is the only rental car agency I found that offers everyone free child safety seats upon request.

Another strategy would be to simply purchase a car seat at your destination, and then donate it to charity upon departure. The problem here is that an adult would have to drive off the airport to buy the car seat, and then return for the child, sucking up valuable vacation time. You’ll also face a similar challenge upon your departure. A better solution might be to purchase an additional car seat to leave at frequently visited destinations, such as with your child’s grandparents or other family members.

Traveling with a stroller
1. Check through or gate check? Every time we have to travel with a stroller, we carefully weigh the option of checking it though or carrying it to the gate. Like car seats, strollers can be checked for free, but it might not always make sense. The advantage of gate checking is that you can use it at your departure and arrival airports. The downside is that it can sometimes take 10-15 minutes before it’s delivered to the jetway, which can be an uncomfortable wait in very hot or cold weather. Waiting for a gate checked stroller can also ensure that you’re last in line at customs and immigration.
When checking it through, you don’t need to worry about it until you arrive at the baggage claim of your final destination, but you may have to carry your child through a large airport. Therefore, carefully consider your choice before each journey.

2. Use the cargo space. One upside to carrying a stroller is that it can double as a cart for your diaper bag or another “personal item.” All you need to do is to buy one with a little bit of cargo space, which you find on anything bigger than an umbrella stroller.

3. Go small. Again, there are compact strollers and SUV size strollers, and I strongly recommend traveling with the smallest one you can, even if only so you can fit it in a less expensive rental car. Our favorite is the Passport Stroller from Baby Trend, which has cargo space, folds flat, and sells for as little as $35.

Our trusted Baby Trend Passport stroller has been around the world.

4. Buy or ship local. It can be easy to buy a new stroller at your destination, but here’s an even better option: if you’re going to treat yourself to a new travel stroller, order a new one shipped directly to your hotel.

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