Are Car Rental Child Seats Safe?

Most parents don’t want to lug a car seat on the plane, but are even more reluctant to rent one from a car rental agency. Should they be?

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Don’t get my mother—we call her La G—started on car seats. She rues the day we had to “constrict” our children to those “contraptions.” (Apparently I was shuttled around in a bassinet on the floorboard.) Of course, car seats save lives, a lot of lives: They’ve helped bring down motor vehicle-related deaths in children 53% since 1975. But day-to-day, I agree with La G: Why are five-point harness seatbelts so difficult to clasp, the seats themselves so heavy? A run to the grocery store needs additional time and planning, let alone a road trip through California. 

Rental cars make child seat questions even more complicated. Parents have asked me, can you rent car seats, and if you reserve one, are they guaranteed? How do you know if a car seat has been in an accident, and what happens if it’s recalled? How much do they cost, and how are they cleaned?

To answer these common questions, I reached out to six popular rental car agencies: Enterprise, Alamo, National, Thrifty, Hertz, and Dollar. Here’s what I discovered.

 

Do all car rental locations offer car seats?
Not necessarily. In the case of Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National Car Rental, and Alamo Rent A Car, for example, child seats are offered at all major airports as well as at locations where they are required throughout California and Florida.

Are car seats reserved online guaranteed upon arrival?
Yes, in the USA. And be sure to reserve them in advance.

What happens to car seats that have been in an accident or recalled?
All six companies noted that recalled car seats or seats that have been in an accident are immediately disposed of or recycled. Take note, however, that this is not U.S. law: There is no Federal requirement for car rental companies to discontinue a car seat if said car seat rental has been in a crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has a policy, but it’s only a recommendation: “Any requirement that rental car companies must offer car seats would be based on the applicable state law or more likely, car rental company policy,” notes the NHTSA.

Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty went on to say that they have a strict corporate policy in place to inspect car seats upon return, and dispose of seats in the following instances, even if they’ve been properly used and cared for:

—Discoloration of the plastic, where the latch or seatbelt contact the child seat

—Visible cracks in the plastic

—The child seat reaches the manufacturer's last date of use or expiration date

Enterprise, National, and Alamo noted that seats don’t stay in their fleet for longer than a year.

Can I pick what brand I get?
Perhaps, though you’ll have to choose the car rental agency based on the brands they offer, and then call the specific agency (not the toll-free number) to ask if your preferred seat can be reserved. Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty, for example, are currently carrying Costco models. Enterprise, National, and Alamo have Costco, Evenflo and Graco brands. This is always subject to change.

All six agencies offer seats that can recline or be front or rear facing, as well as booster seats.

Will someone help me install it?
Nope. This can come as a real surprise to first time renters: Rental car agency employees are not authorized to install child seats—it’s the parent’s responsibility—but they are supposed to have car seat installation manuals on hand. (I also recommend visiting the manufacturers’ YouTube videos for step-by-step visuals.)

If they don’t have manuals on hand, it might be a sign that they’re not keeping their car seats well organized in the back of the shop.

What is the price range of car seat rentals by day? 
It depends on the agency’s location, but Enterprise, National, and Alamo seats average at $9.99 a day. Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty seats are $13.99/day with a max of $98.00, and AAA members get one free car seat.

Anything else?
If you’re nervous about the quality and care of the car seat you might get, pick up the phone and call the car rental agency directly (again, not the toll-free number, but the exact location from which you’re renting). Ask an agent how recently the company bought their car seats, how they’re stored and cared for, and confirm they’ll have a manual on hand for you to refer to for installation. You’ll quickly get a sense as to whether the agency’s car seats are top of mind, or an afterthought. Here’s a list of 10 questions to ask your car rental location about child travel and safety.

Finally, know the Rules…
As noted, there is no Federal requirement for car rental companies to discontinue a car seat if said car seat rental has been in a crash, and general state laws on car seats vary widely. For an overview of state car seat laws, click here.

…and More Importantly, the Recommendations
Whether you’re in your own car or a rental car, stay up to date on the CDC’s recommendations for child passenger safety.

 

Did I miss one of your questions on car seat rentals? Send it my way!

 
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Road Trip Games!

Road trips can be long, but they don’t have to be boring! Bring your favorite notebook and pencil for these five fun games to play with your parents and siblings in the car. 

The License Plate Game

Can you spot license plates from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico? It’s especially exciting when you see one from Alaska or Hawaii. Keep a running list from all of your road trips! (If your little brother or sister can’t read yet, see how many license plate colors they can spot.)

20 Questions

Think of an object, animal, or famous person. Your car mates get to ask 20 yes or no questions about the person or thing before guessing what or who it is. Take turns and see if you can solve the mystery!

The Homonym Game

Do you know what a homonym is? Generally speaking, homonyms are words that sound or are spelled alike but have different meanings. Which and witch for example, or bare and bear. Keep a running list and see how many you can come up with. One of my best friend’s families kept up the game for 10 years and came up with over one thousand homonyms!

The Geography Game

This is a tough one, but let’s see how long you can play! Someone starts by naming a place—country, state/province (or similar territory), city, or things like mountain ranges and bodies of water). Then the next person has to name a place that starts with the last letter in the previous player’s word, and so on. For example, if the first person says Antarctica, the next person might say Afghanistan, and the next person might say New Orleans, and the next Santa Fe. Keep going until someone is stumped! 

I Spy

Here’s a great one if you have siblings under three. Choose an object in the distance and see if your car mates can guess what you picked before you’ve passed it. Need an easier version? Stick to spying things in the car!