The issue of car seats is one of the most frustrating aspects of family travel — and one that often has less-than-ideal solutions, because many countries don’t require car seats for children of any age, even infants. According to a 2018 World Health Organization report on road safety, only 84 countries have any federal or national law requiring child restraints.
“It’s getting better, but for a lot of my family in Hong Kong, the concept of a car seat is weird to them. It just wouldn’t cross their mind to get a car seat on their own,” says father of three Joe Cheung, a blogger and podcaster at As the Joe Flies.
“It’s tricky,” says Marianne Rogerson, a mother of two and blogger at Mum on the Move. “There are a lot of countries that don’t have car seat laws. Some don’t even have seat belt laws. We’ve had times in Cambodia and Myanmar where the travel agency or hotel car didn’t have any seat belts that worked.”
Keep safe (and sane!) with these tips:
Take your own (if possible). Renting a car seat at your destination may seem like a smart alternative to schlepping your own to and from the airport, especially when you have multiple children. But depending on a third party to provide car seats has risks.
“When we had our first child, we made a family trip to Vietnam,” recalls mother of three Elisabeth Koch, a Beijing-based milliner. “We were going from the north to the south of Vietnam with our 1-year-old. We were super specific with the travel agency: We need a car seat!
“Of course, when we got there, there wasn’t even a car seat at all. They were like, ‘What? Car seat?’ ”
Car rental agencies and ride-hailing services are usually the most convenient route for finding vehicles with car seats. But you might end up with a model that your child doesn’t fit into easily or is difficult to install. This is an oft-overlooked aspect of the car seat conundrum.
“You get it all set up. The straps will be too tight. You’ll adjust . . . but you just had a 24-hour flight,” explains Koch. “You are a total zombie, as you’ve just traveled with three kids.”
It’s not an ideal time to learn how to install an unfamiliar car seat for the first time.
Check local vehicle standards. The obvious advantage in taking your own car seat is that you already know how to use it. However, you'll still need to do some research to ensure it is compatible with vehicles at your destination.
Assume that seat belts will not automatically lock, as is standard in the United States and Canada. Check the manual to find out whether the car seat has a built-in locking device, or learn to use a locking clip. But be warned: Locking clips are not easy for novices to use, nor are they a practical solution for taxis or ride hailing. Two locking devices available abroad are the Lockie ($7) and SafeGrip Belt Clamp ($9), both much easier to use than the traditional locking clip.
The LATCH system (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children), which allows you to install a car seat without using seat belts, also is not a worldwide requirement, though newer Canadian and European cars will have them (known as LUAS and ISOFIX, respectively). Outside these regions, availability of LATCH/LUAS/ISOFIX is uncertain and at the discretion of car manufacturers.
Use a travel system for infants. To both fly and get around on the ground with a baby, you might need a travel system, which gets you from cab to curbside, then all the way to the gate. Consider investing in gear "more optimized for those needs than your everyday needs," says Alisa Baer, a pediatrician, certified child passenger safety instructor and co-founder of the website the Car Seat Lady.
Travel systems seamlessly combine an infant car seat and stroller, and you can often use your chosen car seat with a favorite stroller by purchasing an adapter. Some parenting blogs offer incredibly detailed Excel charts listing which car seats can be used with which strollers.
The Doona ($499) is a unique car seat that folds out into a stroller, though it’s pricey for something you’ll only use for about a year. A more budget-conscious alternative is the Chicco Fit2 ($279.99). It has an unusually long life for an infant car seat — it can typically be used until a child’s second birthday.
Try rear-facing convertible seats for toddlers. Toddler car seats (just like toddlers) are the most annoying to travel with. "The problem with [toddler] car seats is not how heavy they are," opines Cheung. "It's the bulk and the weird angles."
There are fewer travel-friendly options for toddlers and preschoolers. Foldable, forward-facing seats such as the Immi Go ($234) and the Pico ($320) require a top tether strap, which limits their usefulness in many destinations. The Urban Kanga ($145), a German product, can be installed solely with a three-point belt, but it is illegal to use stateside and relatively difficult to find.
A convertible car seat used in a rear-facing position might work out better. Not only is this position considered safer (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends rear facing for as long as the seat allows), but it also gives you maximum flexibility overseas when the seat has a built-in locking device. Additionally, rear facing a convertible seat allows you to strap in your child before you put the seat in the car. That means your toddler or preschooler won’t be able to run off while you are still fiddling around with installation.
Get rolling with toddlers. Elise Mawson, a certified child passenger safety technician and founder of Singapore-based Taxi Baby, suggests using the Cosco Scenera Next ($44) with a Mountain Buggy Nano ($199.99) to hack a travel system for toddlers. A locking clip will be necessary to use this combination abroad, however. Otherwise, if the thought of hauling a convertible or forwardfacing car seat through the airport makes you break into a cold sweat, try the Go-Go Babyz Travelmate ($62.58). Think of it as a trolley for your child's car seat — if your toddler is game, you can have them sit in the seat and be wheeled through the airport.
Let kids handle their kit. By the time your child is old enough to use a booster seat, they are likely to be able to carry it around themselves. The Mifold ($39.99) and the BubbleBum ($34.99) are two products that can be easily slipped into a child's backpack and come highly recommended by family travelers.
Baer recommends the Graco RightGuide, a lightweight, backless booster seat ($40). A useful Europe-only option is the Trunki Boostapak
($60), worn on your child’s back, with additional space to pack snacks and toys.
If you already feel loaded down with car seats for younger siblings, a travel vest, which brings the belt down to a safer position, is an emerging alternative to traditional boosters. “It’s an unsung hero for traveling with children,” says Mawson. “If you do as I do and convince your son that helicopter pilots wear a vest, then they want to wear them around all day and you won’t have to carry it at all!”
Don't substitute baby carriers. The popularity of baby carriers has led to some parents using them in taxis and taxi alternatives. But they are no substitute for car seats. A sobering video on the Car Seat Lady demonstrates how one popular brand of baby carrier breaks in a low-speed accident of just 21 mph. Even belting over the carrier is not recommended, as the child can get crushed between the parent and the seat belt during a crash.
Don't let perfect be the enemy of good. You might be overwhelmed by all these details, but don't let this put you off using car seats when traveling abroad. Insist on taxis or cars that have working seat belts, to keep yourself and your children safe. "The key is one person, one belt. Every person uses a belt on every ride. Not holding, not [baby] wearing, not sharing a belt and not skipping a belt for anyone, adults or children," says Baer.
Lisa Gay is a writer and editor based in Qatar. Find her on Twitter: @lisaandreagay.