The reality of child seats and rental cars

It's best to bring your own seat when traveling with kids

Last updated: June 27, 2015 07:00 AM

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When renting a car, it is often possible to also secure a child seat from the rental agency for your little one, but is it a good idea?

Consumer Reports’ child passenger safety technicians checked out the child seats available for rent at a couple of large rental car agencies and found the quality of inventory was drastically different between agencies. (Learn how to save on car rentals.)

At one agency, the child seats were neatly stored in clear plastic bags and each seat had its owner’s manual zip-tied to the cover. This was encouraging to see, as the instructions are critical to ensure the seat is properly installed.

In contrast to the neatly stored child seats at the first agency, the child seats at a second rental company were kept outside in the parking lot, in a shed. They were not in plastic bags, and most of them were missing their owner’s manuals. Many of the seats were not suitable for use due to broken parts, missing labels, infant seat carriers separated from their bases, or they were expired (see when to retire a car seat). When we inquired as to whether these were really the seats for rent, we were told there were new seats available, though we did not investigate those.

Prices for renting a seat averaged about $10 a day. If you’re planning to be at your destination for longer than a couple of days, that can quickly add up, approaching the price of a new seat.

In any case, knowing which seat is appropriate for your child to use and being comfortable with how a seat is installed and familiarizing yourself with the details of its instructions can be confusing. The employees of the rental agency, though well-intentioned, are not likely to have been trained in child passenger safety and may not be able to offer much guidance. When you combine that with the price and the potential for unpredictable quality of seats at a rental agencies, it leads us to recommend bringing your child’s car seat when travel plans include a rental car. It may also be helpful to purchase an extra set of car seats just for travel, so you do not risk your everyday seat being damaged during transportation or baggage handling. Such travel seats could be selected for ease of carrying and price, in addition to safety. (As always, check our car seat buying guide and Ratings. There are good-performing seats at a wide range of prices.)

Fortunately, most airlines allow car seats to be gate checked free, and they can often be picked up right on the jet way after landing, potentially limiting damage from luggage handling.

Another option that you may not have considered, but that some seasoned travelers swear by, is to order a seat before your trip and have it shipped to a friend or relative who can either bring it to the airport for you to use in a rental car, or have it installed in their own vehicle to pick you and your child up from the airport. This alternative requires some advanced planning to allow for choosing, shipping and familiarizing yourself with the new seat; fortunately most child restraint manufacturers have on-line owner's manuals and even installation videos that can be reviewed ahead of time.  This option has the added benefit of eliminating the risk that your everyday car seat will be damaged during transportation or baggage handling.

Whichever strategy works best for your needs, we think it is best to use your own seat rather than putting yourself (and your child's safety) at the mercy of the car rental agency.

For more on driving with kids, see our special section.

Michelle Tsai Podlaha

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