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International Travel with Car Seats: What Do You Really Do?

If you want to travel, start a conversation about car seats. I’ve learned from posting a guide to car seats and air travel a few years ago that car seats can bring out the worst in millennial and Gen X parents. The judgement is real. Don’t keep your child rear facing until their teen years? Judgement. Have that chest clip a half-inch too low when you snapped a photo of the kiddo in a car seat? Judgement.

So lesson learned? No way! Here I am stepping in it all over again with an important discussion that I think needs to be had about car seats for those of us who travel abroad…. what do you really do about car seats when you are in international destinations where they aren’t the norm? It’s confession time.

I was having this conversation earlier this week with a friend and fellow family travel blogger As the Joe Flies, so I blame him for making me wade into these waters again. When it comes to child safety, both Joe and I are pretty conservative. We both use car seats religiously back home with our kids. We know how to install and use them safely. I kept my son rear facing until he was almost 3. Joe still uses a convertible car seat with his 4 year old with no plans to graduate her to a booster. We do more than what the American Association of Pediatrics and the laws of our state require. We have schlepped car seats all over this great country on dozens of planes and in numerous rental cars to keep our kids safe.

But where have we let things slide? International trips. Joe has Hong Kong roots and confessed to me that his family there thinks he’s crazy when he uses a car seat with his kids when they visit. He’s gone without with his daughter on occasion when the logistics necessitated it. Sorry Joe, I’ve outed you.

Since I’ve tattled on a fellow travelling parent, here comes the time where I should tattle on myself. We went without a car seat or booster for my daughter in Hong Kong when she was 5. More recently, I let my son ride in an Uber in Panama when he was 2 without a car seat. (That was the infamous Uber ride where my son threw up all over me, but that’s another story.) We used a car seat to and from the airport in Panama but there was just no way to use one when touring the city. Public transit wasn’t really an option there with the time we had and where we wanted to go. It was a Uber or taxi or nothing. There was just no way to take a car seat with us when we planned to stroll around the city and see various tourist sites, as we had no where to store it and no easy way to carry it.

That’s the challenge – logistics. The realities of international travel mean that bringing a car seat with you everywhere in a vehicle just isn’t possible. If you find yourself in a country where car seat use is not the norm, forget finding a car service that even has car seats unless you are independently wealthy. There’s no Uber Car Seat service in Hong Kong. Or Panama.

Of course, there are some international destinations where car seats are exceptionally easy. We had no trouble in Montreal renting a car seat for our son with our rental car when we visited when he was 9 months old. When we weren’t using the car, the city’s public transit system was more than adequate to get us everywhere we needed to go so no car seat was needed for safe travel. I imagine the same would be the case in many major European cities with extensive subways and transit systems. I didn’t even have issues in Cancun, Mexico, as the tour company we hired to take us to Chichen Itza made a car seat available in our touring van (no doubt being used to dealing with American tourists who demanded it).

So, it’s confession time. I want to hear about your personal experiences with car seat use at international destinations. Have you gone without one with your kids? At what ages? Does being able to use a car seat (or not) shape the destinations you travel to with your kids when they are at peak car seat age? Do you have any clever workarounds to share? This is a judgement-free zone.

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