Making family travel easier with car seats and strollers
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Towing child car seats and strollers through airports and around the world isn’t the most glamorous part of family travel. Thankfully, there are ways that savvy parents can minimize both the hassle and expense of transporting this gear. Here are some basic facts about traveling with a car seat/stroller, and a few of our favorite strategies.
Traveling with a child car seat
We’ve flown with our McMonster car seat that seems to be very comfortable for my daughter to sit in, but which is also huge, heavy and expensive. I’ve also flown with our travel car seat that is lighter, cheaper and totally adequate. There is a time and place for both, but make sure you think through which car seat is right for your trip, assuming you have access to more than one in the first place. If you do decide to add a lighter and cheaper travel car seat to your fleet, it could also be a good one to leave with grandma, a babysitter, etc. when you aren’t traveling.
Car seats travel for free
All airlines I have ever run across will accept child safety seats and strollers as checked baggage for no additional charge. This even applies to low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier. When it comes to checking a car seat, I strongly recommend placing it inside a large bag to keep it from being soiled and parts from being lost or catching on aircraft-loading equipment. Some parents have been known to pack extra diapers, beach towels or anything else lightweight and soft in the bag to help keep it cushioned a bit (and save room in their other luggage).
We recommend not checking any super-expensive and potentially bulky car seat from home, but rather picking one up that you use exclusively for travel, such as the affordable Cosco Scenera NEXT.
Related: Best car seats for travel
Using a car seat on board an aircraft
Parents have mixed views on using car seats on the plane. Some view bringing a car seat on board as a bit bulky and cumbersome, especially on airlines where seats are smaller than average. There are also numerous reports of parents conflicting with flight attendants who incorrectly prevent them from using even their FAA-approved child safety seat. Your child is certainly safer, to some degree, strapped into a car seat, but air travel is statistically very safe to begin with.
What can tip the scales is whether your child is most comfortable in his or her car seat. If you do plan to bring it on the aircraft, I recommend trying a product such as the Go-Go Babyz Mini Travelmate, which makes transporting the seat much easier.
A good compromise for toddlers, instead of a car seat on board, is the CARES child restraint system, which is lightweight, compact and inexpensive. I feel that a CARES child restraint system is much easier to throw in your backpack and use on an airplane than a car seat.
Smaller is better for travel
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 of these models are certified to the same safety standards, you’ll be better off using one that’s compact for travel. And happily, these models are usually less expensive as well.
When we need just a basic booster seat, we use the Harmony Youth Booster Car Seat. It’s even small enough to carry on board, which has saved us time checking and retrieving bags. (Do note that booster seats are not approved for use on the aircraft — you’ll just have it ready for the car when you land.)
Travel light and live off the land?
American pioneers crossed the continent by foraging locally rather than carrying it all with them. Likewise, parents in the 21st century 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 rental car seat to AAA members. Best of all, Silvercar offers free child seats to any customer upon request. Not only that, but their car seats are top of the line Peg Perego seats.
Outside of Silvercar, which has been pretty consistently wonderful with car seats (just be sure and request one in advance), the disadvantage of renting a seat is that you’ll never be assured of its quality and cleanliness, and it will be unfamiliar to both parents and children. Since studies show that the majority of child car seats are installed incorrectly, we prefer to travel with our own seats that we know how to install properly.
Another strategy some traveling families utilize is purchasing a car seat at your destination and then donating it to a 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 if you choose to donate it. 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
Check through or gate check?
Every time we have to travel with a stroller, we carefully weigh whether to check it through with the other luggage or use it all the way to the gate. Like car seats, strollers can be checked for free, but it might not always make sense. The advantage of gate checking at the plane 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 jet bridge once the plane arrives at its destination, which can be an uncomfortable wait in very hot or cold weather. Waiting for a gate-checked stroller also often means that you’re last in line at customs and immigration behind the couple hundred other people on your flight.
If you check it through to your final destination, you don’t need to worry about it until you arrive at the baggage claim. However, you may then have to carry (or wear) your child through a large airport. Therefore, carefully consider your choice before each journey.
If you are pregnant or have an infant at home, the best car seat to invest in for travel and getting through the airport by a wide, wide margin is the Doona.
The Doona converts from a car seat to a stroller with ease, as its wheels shoot out and retract. This makes it the perfect way to get through the airport, fly on the plane and then secure your baby in a cab or rental car without a problem.
Related: Best strollers for travel
Use the cargo space
One upside to carrying a stroller through the airport is that it can double as a small cart for your diaper bag or other “personal items.” All you need to do is to buy one with a little bit of cargo space below, which you can find on many strollers.
I’m stunned when I see parents plodding around an airport with their children in a gigantic jogging stroller, which can’t be easily transported in rental cars or on buses and trains. I strongly recommend traveling with the smallest stroller you can find that will meet your needs. Ironically, we’ve found so-called “travel systems” impractical for travel as they include an extremely bulky stroller designed to accommodate a child’s car seat on top.
When our three children were infants, we loved using an extremely compact Snap-N-Go stroller that held our child’s car seat and had storage space below. We were able to use this system at airports, and gate check both pieces right before stepping on the plane (placing the car seat in a duffel bag). It folds nearly flat and its narrow track is crowd-friendly, allowing you to squeeze through tight spaces a larger stroller could never navigate.
These days, the Babyzen YOYO+ also gets fantastic marks as a compact (but pricey) travel stroller.
Buy local or ship
Rather than traveling with your stroller, it might be easier in some cases to buy an inexpensive new stroller at your destination or order a new one shipped directly to your hotel, assuming the hotel can accept and hold deliveries for you.
In some areas (like Orlando), you can also rent a stroller for the duration of your trip and skip all these other steps.
We hope these tips give you some ideas to lighten the load on your next trip. If you’re looking for more advice, read TPG’s advice for flying with a car seat. And if you are shopping for a new stroller, be sure and reference TPG’s list of the eight best strollers for travel. Looking for a double stroller instead? We’ve got some suggestions for double strollers, too.
What are your favorite strategies for traveling with car seats and strollers?
Additional reporting by Summer Hull and Benét J. Wilson
Featured image courtesy of Yasser Chalid / Getty Images