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One question we often get from parents planning a family trip to Europe is what to do about car seats. Should they bring a travel car seat from home? Should they rent a car seat? Should they rely on public transportation?
There’s a lot to consider and some will depend on the ages of your kids and your detailed Europe itinerary. Read on for the important details you need to know as you make your decision!
Read more: Important info for traveling with car seats
What are car seat rules in Europe?
Like many regions, Europe maintains a unique set of standards and testing for car seats to be sold and used there. But it gets a little involved, as some countries layer their own rules on top of the minimum car seat rules set by the European Commission in ECE R129 (2013) and later augmented by UN R129. There are also still older ECE R44/04 seats around, which are subject to less stringent limits. In some cases, rules can even vary based on the specifics of your drive within a country!
Here are some basic Europe car seat rules you need to know before you start considering whether to bring your travel car seat or rent a car seat:
-Babies in newer European car seats must rear-face until 15 months. In Sweden and Norway it is a common for toddlers to rear-face until at least 3-4 years old. Older European car seats only require rear facing until as little as 22 lbs, even if a child hasn’t reached her first birthday.
-Toddlers are required to ride in a forward-facing car seat, but the specifics vary by country; many European countries allow children to use a booster seat beginning as young as 3 years old.
-Older kids must ride in a forward-facing car seat or booster seat in Europe until they are at least the following heights:
*135 cm (53″): UK, France, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, Austraia, Portugal, Hungary, Sweden, Denmark
*150 cm (59″): Germany, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, Switzerland
-Car seats are not usually required in taxis, but there are exceptions in places like Germany and Spain where they may be required at least for some trips.
In addition to those car seat regulations for Europe, there are a few more details you should keep in mind:
-In all cases, you have to use your car seat within the manufacturer’s specifications (for example, if a booster seat is rated for 4+ you can’t use it even if local law only requires 3+)
Car seat requirements in Europe prohibit chest clips
Newer R129 car seat specifications no longer prohibit chest clips
-Only high-back booster seats will be permitted going forward for children under 125 cm (49″) and 22 kg (48lbs)
-European car seats recently started using top tethers, so older cars may not have them (and at least one popular travel car seat requires a top tether at all times)
-Car seats can be installed with either a seatbelt or ISOFIX (compatible with LATCH), but not all cars have locking seatbelts and most don’t have LATCH in middle seats
Should you bring your car seat to Europe?
First up: your American car seat will physically work in Europe. You’ll be able to install it without issue (though you may need a seatbelt locking clip). We’ve done it for the last seven years without issue.
The bigger question is should you bring a car seat to Europe or rent one there (or rely on public transportation if staying in the big cities). There’s a lot to consider!
Under European Commission law you can only use an EU or UN certified car seat while in the region. There are no car seats that are certified world-wide, though this booster seat is pretty darn close and is certified for US, Canada and European markets.
Clear cut, right? Except that there are plenty of risks that come with renting a car seat. In Europe one big issue if you have a toddler is that rear-facing beyond 15-18 months isn’t common practice or required by EU car seat laws, even though it’s up to four times safer than forward-facing. If you rent a car seat for a 2 year old, you might be given one that only faces forward.
If you rent a car seat for a 3 year old, you could be given a booster seat! There’s no way our kids were physically developed or mature enough at 3 years old to sit in a booster seat. They’d need to stay fully upright even through jetlag-induced naps and resist the temptation to reach for a fallen toy. Even if you’re willing to look past their underdeveloped spines and hip bones, there aren’t many 3 year olds with that level of self-control.
Renting a car seat can also get extremely expensive. Even if a rental agency caps the cost at around $60 per rental, if you fly or take the train to different parts of Europe it can add up quickly.
If you’re staying in big cities like London, Paris, Barcelona or Rome you can definitely work with public transportation. However, we’ve generally found that we prefer taking a taxi or car service from far-flung airports when we’re coming off of a long flight with sleepy kids and al of our luggage. Remember that even if taxis are exempt from car seat laws (varies by country and some specific details), it’s extremely unsafe to take your child in a taxi unsecured or using an adult seatbelt before they’re big enough. If need be, book a car service that provides age-appropriate car seats for those airport rides.
There are also plenty of places like Tuscany, Switzerland and Croatia (and many, many more) that are best explored by car. What do you do if you arrive in an unfamiliar destination where you need a car and you’re told that, sorry, they ran out of all the car seats that fit your kids? That’s not a great start to any vacation!
While it’s technically illegal to use a non-EU car seat in Europe, we’ve never ever come across a family who has gotten in trouble for doing so. I suspect that local police are just happy to see families keeping their kids safe.
There’s also some discussion in various family travel groups on Facebook about potential issues with insurance if you’re in an accident and the police make note on the report that you’re illegally using an American car seat and thus breaking car seat laws in Europe. Theoretically, that could happen. But again we’ve never encountered a single family who has experienced that in reality.
Our Europe car seat solution
Everyone’s decision on the great Europe car seat debate will be different. The only non-negotiable for us has been keeping our kids safe.
We’ve visited nine European countries with kids over the last six years, with kids ranging from 3 months old to 7 years old. And we’ve brought our own American travel car seats every single time.
Was it the correct legal choice? No.
Was it the most convenient choice? Not always.
But we felt that it was the safest option for our family. We do make sure to abide by (or exceed) local laws regarding how long to keep kids in car seats at each stage, and fortunately we’ve yet to run into a problem.
Incidentally, we’ve also used those car seat seats on our flights every time. It’s the safest option for our kids and ensures that their car seats arrive undamaged (or arrive at all).
As you plan your trip to Europe, hopefully this information will help you make the choice that’s right for your family.
Read more: How to travel with car seats – all the info you need before you fly!
While European car seat laws technically require that everyone* use car seats that meet EU or UN car seat standards, your American car seat will physically work in a European car. I’ve never heard of anyone being stopped or ticketed for properly restraining their child in an American car seat.
*Everyone excludes Americans who are in Europe on official military or government orders. They are exempt from car seat laws in Europe and may legally use their US car seats.
While US car seat law technically requires that everyone use a car seat that meets America’s FMVSS 213 standards, you’d be unlikely to face scrutiny if properly restraining your child in a European car seat. That means continuing to rear face to 1 or 2 years old (depending on the state), using a forward-facing harness until at least 4 or 5 years old, and a booster seat beyond that.
However, some car seats in Europe aren’t as universally compatible as American ones. Rigid ISOFIX connectors are not common in the US, and some lower anchors are deeply recessed or have ever-so-slightly non-standard spacing that may make ISOFIX seats incompatible in some cars.
Load legs are also very uncommon in the US, while they’re a critical part of European car seat standards. They won’t work well in some rental cars, including minivans that have “stow and go” options in the floor boards. US car seats use a top tether anchor in lieu of a load leg.
If you have a European car seat that can be installed with a seatbelt and doesn’t require a load leg, you won’t have any issues.