Are you wondering if and when you should take your own carseat for travel, or about the logistics of transporting a travel carseat? Or are you having trouble deciding which seat is best for which age? Here is our family’s experience with different types of travel carseats through nearly 40 countries with our 4 kids. Part 1/3 on Travel Carseats.
Some of the questions we get the most frequently revolve around carseats for travel. Should we take carseats when we travel? Should we fly with carseats? Or should we just take them for our destination? What if we’re not driving at our destination? Which carseats should we take, and should we check them in with our luggage or gate check them? I’m wondering how to travel with a carseat!
There are many, MANY opinions about traveling with a carseat. While this is certainly not the only (or even best) way to handle it, this is what has worked for our family as we’ve traveled with 4 kids over the past 9 years. I hope that in sharing our experience for when we’ve used carseats, when we’ve taken our own, and which seats we’ve taken, it will help you make a more informed decision, too.
This first part in our series on Travel Carseats will cover if and when you should take your own carseat for travel, what travel carseat to take, and if you should take your travel carseat on an airplane.
This post on whether to take your own travel carseat contains affiliate links, but all opinions are 100% my own. That means I earn a small commission if you purchase through my link, but doesn’t increase your price. Thank you for supporting this blog!
Should I Take My Own Carseat for Travel?
If we’ll be doing any driving or riding in a car at a travel destination, our family chooses to take our own carseats. There are some instances in which we do not need a carseat at our destination (if we’re exclusively taking public transportation). In those cases, we typically choose to not bring a travel carseat just for the flight. (More info on flying with carseats below.)
But if we know we’ll be in a car, we always bring our own. Here are some of the pros and cons of bringing your own seats versus renting a carseat from a car rental agency or another service, and how we made our decision:
Pros of Bringing Your Own Carseat for Travel
The biggest pro of bringing your own seat is that you can be certain of the size and condition of your travel car seat. Once, we had flown to New Zealand our luggage was delayed – including our checked infant car seat. The airline had a couple of loaner car seats, but none was the correct size for our child. We called the rental car company, and they, too, did not have the correct car seat for our young toddler.
Since we didn’t have another choice, we made do for a day until fortunately the airline returned our luggage to us. We were so grateful to have our car seat back before starting on our week-long South Island road trip!
While many rental car agencies will rent car seats, I’ve heard of many families who have had similar issues. Even with a confirmed reservation for a car seat, many people have showed up to seats that are the wrong size or nonexistent.
On top of that, rental car seats are often dirty, worn, or even expired. They also may have been in an accident or compromised in some other way of which you’re not aware. They also are not cheap – rental car agencies often charge $7-15/day for a seat. That adds up quickly – it could easily be over $100 for a week-long rental.
Cons of Bringing Your Own Carseat for Travel
While there are obvious benefits, there are also clear drawbacks to bringing your own travel car seat. The most obvious downside is the hassle – car seats are a pain to carry! They’re often bulky, heavy, and uncomfortable to transport, especially when also managing little ones.
Additionally, bringing your own car seat risks damaging your seat. Even if the outside looks intact upon arrival, internal damage is a possibility, making the seat less safe. You can avoid this risk by bringing your travel carseat on board, but then you take on the added challenge of transporting your seat on and off the plane.
Why We Choose To Bring Our Own Carseat for Travel
For us, it’s not worth the risk of a dirty/incorrectly-sized seat so we choose to bring our own. It saves us money and gives us peace of mind knowing we have the correct restraints for our children.
It is a hassle, but we’ve found a few tricks to minimize the inconvenience of traveling with car seats (keep reading below!). Additionally, we’ve purchased a separate set of inexpensive travel carseats that we check at ticketing as luggage. This saves us from having to carry seats through the airport, while also ensuring our nice, everyday car seats remain perfectly safe and intact.
Of course, we still assume the minor risk of our seats being lost. But as we’ve taken over 100 flights with kids and have only had issues a couple of times, it’s a risk we’re willing to take. We always inspect them for external damage, as well, and hope there’s no internal damage (and only use the seats for travel thereafter).
It’s not a perfect system, but it’s one that has worked for us and with which we feel comfortable. That’s absolutely NOT to tell you that you should do the same with travel carseats. However, I hope sharing our experience helps you in making a decision when balancing safety and convenience.
Should I Buy a Separate Carseat for Travel?
Once people decide to take their own car seat for travel, they often wonder if their everyday car seat is suitable for travel. While I know many people who take their regular car seats along when they travel, here are the reasons we purchased and travel with different car seats for travel:
Safety of Having a Carseat for Travel
The primary reason we have separate car seats for travel is for safety. As I mentioned previously, if you choose to check your car seat into the luggage hold, you risk damage to your car seat. Even if the exterior looks fine, internal damage is still a possibility (although not SUPER likely). Because of this, we prefer to have seats set aside specifically for travel.
Of course, this means that we’re using these same travel car seats each time we take a trip since we’re not interested in purchasing new seats every time we travel. Still, we figure we’d rather assume that lesser risk than risk using those seats all the time.
Convenience of Having a Carseat for Travel
Our normal seats are nice and relatively cushy and have a few (but not tons) bells and whistles. When we travel, however, our biggest concerns are whether the seat is safe and whether it’s as convenient as possible. Let’s be honest, it’s never totally convenient having a carseat for travel, but I’d prefer to have an option that minimizes the inconveniences.
The biggest factor in this is weight. We prefer a lightweight travel carseat for travel to make it as easy as possible to get around. Our normal seats, with the extra cushion/features are a bit heavier than a bare bones lightweight travel carseat. While these seats are often still very safe, they just may not be quite as comfortable as our everyday car seats. We’d rather have a separate lightweight carseat for travel, and then come home to our cushier seats. Check out this post for more recommendations on lightweight car seats for travel!
Cleanliness of Having a Carseat for Travel
We’ve arrived back home after midnight a few times with a VERY dirty carseat for travel. Anyone who has ever washed a car seat cover knows what a gigantic pain it is, and we definitely have no interest in doing it right at that moment. It’s nice to have a little extra time to get everything clean without needing your carseat for travel right away.
Which Carseats to Take for Travel
Our first flight with our now-almost-9-year-old was when he was 2 months old, when we flew from Washington DC to Utah for the holidays. Then two months later, we flew to Johannesburg, South Africa. Since then, we’ve gone through a number of different travel car seats and child restraints with 4 different children.
When choosing a carseat for travel, my three primary considerations are SAFETY, CONVENIENCE, and COST. I want a seat that’s going to be as light and convenient to carry as possible (but still safe). Lugging car seats is inherently annoying, so I want to minimize that annoyance as much as possible.
Since we also purchase separate carseats for travel (see above), I want a seat that’s going to be relatively inexpensive. These two factors mean that our travel carseats aren’t always the cushiest and they don’t have tons of bells and whistles. For us, that’s worth the tradeoff – and my kids haven’t seemed to mind.
While we certainly haven’t tried every travel carseat out there, these are our personal favorites from our experience:
Infant Car Seats for Travel (Age 0-24 months)
As long as our babies fit in an infant car seat for travel, we stick with that. Since we have small babies, this range for us is typically from 0-24 months. It may be shorter or longer for you depending on your baby’s size and your seat specifications.
Since they have a handle, they’re so much easier to carry or hook onto a stroller than a convertible car seat. They also tend to be lighter and fit better on top of a stroller or luggage. We never travel with the base of our infant car seat. Rather, we secure them using the seat belt.
THIS is the infant carseat we personally take along.
It’s fairly lightweight and fits in the snap n go if we choose to take it along in the early months. It’s also cheaper than our everyday car seat due to a lower weight/height limit, but is still perfectly safe and functional. (That works well for us since we have tiny kids. If you have bigger babies, you may want to consider a seat like our everyday infant carseat that has a higher weight and height limit.)
Here is another infant carseat that’s lightweight and inexpensive – perfect for travel.
Convertible Car Seats for Travel (Age 12 months – 4 years)
Once our babies outgrow the infant carseat for travel, we transition to a convertible carseat. We typically use the convertible car seat for travel for about 2 years, until 3.5 years old. While our next transition is technically safety tested down to 3 years, our kids do not typically hit the 30 pound weight limit until at least 3.5-4 years old. Thus, we wait until they’ve reached that minimum before we transition.
I’d heard about the Cosco Scenera Next long before we purchased it. For the longest time, I thought it was a carseat exclusive to Costco! Ha. Turns out Cosco (no “t”) is a car seat brand.
While I LOVE our everyday convertible car seat, it’s quite a bit heavier than the Scenera. Since we knew we wanted a separate carseat for travel, anyway (see reasons above), we wanted to get the lightest one possible. The Scenera fit the bill. At just over 7 pounds, it’s less than half the weight of our everyday car seat (a whopping 19.5 pounds!).
The Scenera isn’t perfect. It isn’t cushy, and can be tricky to install. But it works and is perfectly safe, and is narrow enough to fit in even tiny European cars. And I’ll gladly give up some cushion to save nearly over 10 pounds of weight for a travel carseat.
If you have a heavier/taller child, or if you want a travel carseat that’s slightly less bare bones, this one is also a great option, and is still fairly lightweight.
Booster Restraint Vest (Age 3 years – 6 years)
Sometimes we have a child who is isn’t quite old/big enough for a booster seat, but for whom we don’t want to take a full convertible travel car seat. Or sometimes the child is technically old enough for a travel booster seat but is still a bit small.
In those cases, we really like using this booster vest. Most travel booster seats (and regular booster seats) are safety tested down to 4 years and 40 pounds. This restraint, however, is tested down to 3 years and 30 pounds.
As I mentioned above, we personally still wait until our kids are about 3.5-4, when they’re comfortably within the weight requirements. The below boosters are safety tested down to 4 years. But again, since our kids tend to be on the lighter end, we wait until they are at least 5 years old to begin using one.
This vest has been a great option, especially for our flyweight kiddos. It takes up slightly more room than the below two options, but it’s still quite compact and lightweight and is a fantastic in-between lightweight travel booster seat option. (Excellent review of it here.)
Booster Seats for Travel (Age 4 years – 10 years)
You’re probably starting to see a theme that we prefer to pack as light as possible (see your FAMILY PACKING LIST HERE!). We like to take whatever is most lightweight and convenient, while still being safe. Booster seats for travel are no different for us.
We typically transition away from the travel vest and to a more traditional booster seat when our kids are between 5-6 years old. When we transition depends on how big the child is, and how capable he/she is of sitting correctly in a booster seat. A booster requires the child to remain upright and to not wiggle too much, so we like to make sure they’re ready before we transition.
Our very favorite lightweight travel booster seat only weighs a pound and is super compact. While some people have complained about it being difficult to install or that it causes the belt to hit in a weird position, we haven’t had any of these issues. Both my 8 year old and 6 year old can install and buckle it completely on their own and have had no issues with the fit and function. I love that it’s so narrow, compact, and lightweight!
THIS is another super popular and also very lightweight travel booster seat option. While it does require a bit more preparation (it needs to be inflated), it has a slightly simpler setup. Here’s a great review of it!
Our oldest is currently almost 9 years old at the time of this writing, and we still use this booster. I imagine we will continue to use it for at least another year or so until we feel confident in his size before moving away from a booster entirely.
Other Travel Restraint Options
Remember that a travel booster seat will only be useful at your destination – booster seats are not allowed on aircraft. If you would like some sort of restraint for your child on an airplane (that isn’t a car seat), consider this harness. While we have not personally used it, I have several friends who have and love it. It turns any airplane seat belt into a 5-point harness, but is much more compact than a travel carseat. It’s definitely worth considering once a child has reached the 22-pound weight minimum.
When Do We take a Carseat for Travel? Do We Ever Leave the Carseat Behind?
In general, if we we will be in moving vehicles, we do our best to bring our travel carseats along for all of the reasons stated above. This includes renting a car or hiring a driver. Of course, when road tripping in our own car, we take along our everyday child restraints. When traveling further afield, we use the options listed above.
However, sometimes it just doesn’t work. For instance, when we traveled to India with kids, our extended family had rented a large van with a driver that did not have seat belts. Since we knew this in advance, we opted to not bring child restraints as we wouldn’t be able to use them.
Similarly, when traveling around Asia, we never attempted to use carseats in tuk tuks or the like. It just wouldn’t have worked and didn’t make sense to try. Of course, it’s not a perfect system. But for us, we wanted to immerse ourselves as much as possible in the ways of life in those countries. Because we generally were moving fairly slowly and because it was such a ubiquitous mode of transportation, we personally opted to participate. Every parent needs to decide his or her own level of risk tolerance, and this fell within ours. You’ll need to decide your own.
Finally, we do not use carseats for travel on buses, trains, or other large vehicles. These tend to have a great deal more protection, and child restraints aren’t required on them. We will occasionally still bring an infant carseat for travel if we have a baby that can’t sit up or needs to sleep, as this gives us somewhere to set the baby down.
Conclusion: Carseat for Travel
Are you overwhelmed yet? Ha. There’s so much info and so much to consider when it comes to travel carseats! I hope this has helped you come to an informed and confident decision on how to handle carseats for travel as you explore the world with your little ones. And I’d love to hear what has worked and not worked for you!
More Posts: Kid Travel Tips
IF YOU LIKED THIS POST ABOUT CHOOSING A CARSEAT FOR TRAVEL, YOU MIGHT LIKE THESE POSTS, TOO:
- Travel Carseats Part 2: Traveling with a Carseat
- Travel Carseats Part 3: How to Check a Car Seat
- Ultimate Family Packing List
- 15 Best Travel Accessories for Kids
- 6 Tips for Preparing to Travel with a Baby