Traveling with Littles: Renting Car Seats

(Last Updated On: March 11, 2020)

Renting a car seat along with your rental car sounds so convenient.  Just hop off the plane, grab your rental car, grab a rental car seat, and go! Some rental car companies show a picture of a high-end car seat with a lot of nice ease of use and comfort features. Surely, that’s the seat you’d receive at the rental counter. Why not rent one?

Rental Car Seat -- missing the harness, instructions, dirty, and imported from Canada!

Rental Car Seat — missing the harness, instructions, dirty, and imported from Canada!

Because the reality of renting a car seat along with a rental car is a more than a little different than the vendor’s website might make things seem.

First and foremost, the Federal Aircraft Administration, National Transportation Safety Board, and American Association of Pediatricians all advocate for children riding in installed car seats on the airplane.  We do too.  We’ve touched on this in both of our travel articles, which cover the whys of airplane safety with Littles and the logistics of airports with Littles.  After a particularly long flight sitting behind a child who “sat” in a car seat that wasn’t actually secured onto the airplane seat I now mention “installed car seat” instead of just “bring your child’s car seat on the plane.”

Getting Your Rental Car and Rental Car Seat

Suggested age/weight ranges for rental car seats

Suggested age/weight ranges for rental car seats

Once you get off the plane and visit the rental car counter, the seats available for rent are often shorter lived models than the ones pictured on the rental car company’s website.

We’re definitely fans of many low budget car seats but some of the lower cost models can be quite short lived, especially when a child on the larger side of the growth curve is the primary rider.   The Cosco Scenera NEXT and Evenflo SureRide would be longer lasting options than the Cosco Apt and Evenflo Titans we saw the most often in our travels.

Our random data sample of 3 airports (San Jose, CA, Orlando, FL, and Las Vegas, NV) showed that the only the lowest-priced, least-featured rear facing only and convertible seats were available for rent.

Translation: the only type of rental car seat available in each of these cities for children roughly 3 years old and older is a booster seat.  

We would never advocate for children that young to ride in a booster seat so none of the available seats would be a safe option for a child between 3-5 years old.

All of the rental car counters in the Orlando airport featured these handy signs explaining the age and weight ranges for each seat.  While the age recommendation listed on these boosters is lower than we advocate for, it’s nice to see some educational signage available at the decision making point.

This rental car seat is missing instructions

This rental car seat is missing instructions

However, the seats available for rent may or may not be expired, they may or may not include a manual.  Though the seat’s date of manufacture sticker can tell part of the story (when the seat will expire), there’s no way to know if the seat has been in a crash.

In our random sample of airport rental car counters, we noticed a few additional things about the seats offered:

Rental Graco TurboBooster missing screws

Rental Graco TurboBooster missing screws

Many rental car companies offered Graco TurboBoosters available for rent.  Great!  We’re big fans of the TurboBooster!  However, only one of those TurboBoosters had the required screws in the armrests.





Lack of Forward Facing or Long Lasting Convertible Car Seats

We also noticed that there were NO combination seats available.  There were rear facing only (infant) seats, convertible seats with low height/weight limits, high back boosters, and backless boosters.  So a 3-5 year old child who should ride in a harnessed car seat would be without a safe option.

“Cleaned” Car Seats

Car seats available for rent

Car seats available for rent

Though rental car companies don’t typically have a washer on site, we’ve noticed a trend toward placing the car seats into plastic bags.  Representatives at many rental car companies in both the Orlando, Florida, and San Jose, California airport claimed that the seats are somehow cleaned between uses.  However, those representatives didn’t know how the seats were cleaned, nor did they know if the straps were cleaned as part of this process.

Since using solvents or harsh cleaners on car seat straps can reduce the straps’ ability to properly secure the child in the event of a crash, these bags full of “clean” car seats make us more than a little nervous.
In addition to all of these concerns, there’s no way to determine if the rental car seat has been involved in a crash and should have been replaced.

Actual Seats for Rent

Over the years, I’ve seen some real gems in the car seat pile at the side of the rental car office.  This list should offer a sense of which seats are available:

One of these things is not like the other

One of these things is not like the other

  • 20 year old car seats (car seats expire so this is a big concern)
  • Car seats with covers so worn, they were disintegrating
  • Seats with visible cracks in the shell
  • Every seat we sampled was missing the manual
  • The pièce de résistance: a highchair booster seat that’s typically used for feeding children.  This type of seat is definitely not approved for use in a vehicle!
Rental Car Seat

Rental Car Seat

  • A Canadian seat without straps.  This seat, the Cosco Scenera, does not convert to a booster seat so it should always have the harness attached. We’re not sure what the rental car company expected caregivers renting this seat to do with this one.

Canadian residents visiting the United States could use their Transport Canada approved seats during their trip, but this seat (that belongs to the American rental car company) available for rent doesn’t fall into that category and is not legal for use here.

Missing Labels and Manuals

In every city, at every rental car counter, almost every seat that we were able to take a close look at was missing the manual.  Many seats were also missing the labels that might have helped fill in some of the blanks caused by the missing manuals.  So not only do these seats have questionable/unknown histories, they’re missing most of the critical tools for a solid installation.

Additional Drawbacks to Renting a Car Seat

Renting a car seat can cost $10-$13 per day.  Buying the same car seats pictured above is around $50.  A multi-day rental could quickly cost more than buying a seat brand new.

As we’ve seen, it’s quite likely that the seat doesn’t include instructions and it’s quite possible that the seat’s labels have worn off.  So if you’re not familiar with installing that particular random seat, you may not be able to achieve a solid installation for your child. Travelling with a seat you know removes that risk.

In Summary

Renting a car seat along with a rental car may seem like the most convenient option. We won’t deny the appeal of traversing the airports and airplanes without a car seat in tow. But.

The wide variety of rental car seats we’ve seen that are expired, illegal, incorrectly assembled, or missing manuals gives us zero confidence that any of the seats available are safe options. We know navigating the travel process with a car seat in tow isn’t easy but with your Littles’ safety first and foremost in our minds, we can only suggest that travelling with your child’s own car seat is always the safest and most budget-friendly option.