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Making Family Travel Easier with Car Seats & Strollers

by on July 4, 2014 · 19 comments

in Avis, Barclays, Capital One, Enterprise, Family Travel, Hertz, National, TPG Contributors

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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.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Christopher

    good stuff! We will be traveling with our 3 month old next month and were pondering some of those topics. Gate check and buying a car seat at the destination are our current debates!

  • CVG_Traveler

    Regarding the travel booster seat, you need to check the laws of your destination. Many places, especially outside the US, do not allow backless booster seats. We actually just encountered this problem and bought a different seat from Harmony which worked great! We were able to fit 2 of these inside a very large duffel bag with some Tetris-like effort. You can find it at Wal-Mart for under $50. See http://www.harmonyjuvenile.com/details?pid=172&cid=46

  • Marnie

    If you have a 3 month old, travel with a snap and go. It’s super easy, you don’t need to check it and I’ve never (knock on wood) waited for it to be brought from cargo: it was always ready when we exited the plane. An Ergo or some kind of carrier will be a godsend to help maneuver quickly. If your wife is breastfeeding, I recommend feeding on take off and landing. It won’t hurt the baby’s ears and will likely sleep most of the flight.

  • http://tripswithtykes.com tripswithtykes

    Excellent post, Jason. Your philosophy and mine about kid travel is always quite similar. I hate carrying car seats through airports. We have an extra seat at grandparents’ house in another state for using when traveling there. And we always use the Hertz AAA free seat when we need to rent a car elsewhere. One other tip – when your kiddo is old enough for booster seats, we SWEAR by the Bubble Bum inflatable booster for compact packing.

  • Rocky Rockwell

    Our daughter is 19 months and has completed seven segments between Hawaii and the West Coast. Fortunately we are able to leave a pack-n-play and stroller in Hawaii which saves tons of struggle at the airport.
    I really like the idea of the CARES harness and will be purchasing one before our next trip. Being able to check the seat at bag drop will save much time especially when my wife travels without me.

  • asthejoeflies

    What are people’s sentiments about whether car seats or strollers will get damaged if checked? Do you put them in bags, etc.?

  • http://www.jasonsteele.com/ Jason Steele

    never really had a problem myself, except that our stroller was once missing the front tray on arrival. Airline compensated us so no worries.

  • Lingegneri

    US Airways has a policy that they will let you check a car seat OR stroller for free. The only way around is if your car seat goes into your stroller. Kind of a pain when checking in. Some might not care or ask but the woman checking us in did ask.

  • Lingegneri

    We have a large bag for our car seat. We’ve checked it on two round trip flights, and he bag is already ripped. We pack ours well with lots of padding in the bag like the article suggests. Free space!

  • Jeff

    I have used the ridesafer in the past. It is a great product and easy for the airport. A real benefit getting into cabs. http://saferide4kids.com/store/
    Hope this helps others with a different option.

  • http://www.jasonsteele.com/ Jason Steele

    In that case, you would probably have to gate check the stroller.

  • Guest43

    Go on Amazon.com or eBay a week before your trip and buy the cheapest child stuff you can find. Have it shipped to the hotel and then donate it when you leave.

  • http://www.jasonsteele.com/ Jason Steele

    I agree, but you can’t really do that with car seats that you need when you leave the airport and return.

  • http://www.jasonsteele.com/ Jason Steele

    Love the baby trend snap and go, which is is similar in size and construction to the passport stroller.

  • passportsandpushchairs

    We never fly with a car seat, such a pain to use on a plane! But beware, I have actually had airline employees call me out for stuffing our car seat bag with other stuff!

  • Jim

    Nice article, and comments as well. We had 3 that still required car seats when we went to the beach in 2004. We left the boosters behind, thinking we wouldn’t need them. We didn’t think about the fact that we would be traveling through 2 states after landing that had different laws. So the added cost of boosters to the rental car was pretty high!

  • Lindsay

    Check the airline rules as well–although I don’t know of any airlines that would NOT gate check a stroller, American’s rules specify a small, umbrella type stroller, not the giant jogging SUV strollers. This rule is not universally enforced, but that’s not much help if you need the stroller in the airport and you’ve had to check it.

  • LIngegneri

    Definitely! In our case we had a larger jogging type stroller so they wouldn’t let us gate check it. Silly rule if you ask me.

  • Guest

    Be aware that if you are flying to or through London Heathrow, your gate-checked stroller will not come out on the jetway. It will come out at the baggage claim. If you are transferring, this means you have to clear customs, go get your stroller, then go through customs again before boarding your connecting flight. This has happened to us twice – on British Air, then on Virgin Atlantic. If you don’t have a long layover you’ll never get your stroller in time.

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