Do I need to bring my own car seat to Costa Rica?
When we were planning our last trip with kids, we kept coming up against the question: Do I need to bring my own car seat to Costa Rica?
We went on a family trip to Costa Rica in January, 2018, with six adults and three children, aged 5, 3, and 16 months. While we were there, we had a couple of airport transfers, as well as traveling in vans from two different agencies on tours.
Car seats are legally required in Costa Rica for infants and children up to a certain height and weight, and boosters are required for larger children. It appears that the rules were phased in over a period of time, causing some confusion, especially with tourists, as to what is actually required. At this point, the requirements are similar to those of Canada and the United States, so whatever type of seat your kid is in at home (rear facing seat, forward facing seat, or booster) is probably what they need under Costa Rican law, as well. I do note, however, that Costa Rica laws allow children to ride in forward facing seats much earlier than is recommended in Canada or the United States, so you may need to watch this, and specify you want a rear-facing seat if your child is over 12 months.
Specifically, babies up to 1 year, and 10 kilograms (22 pounds) in weight / 75 centimeters (around 30 inches) need to be in a rear-facing car seat. Children between one and four years old, weighing between 10 kg (22 pounds) and 18 kg (40 pounds) and between 75 and 110 cm (30 – 43 inches) need to be in a forward facing child seat with a built-in harness system. Children over four years of age, 18 kg (40 pounds) and 110 cm (43 inches) can be in a booster seat, using a regular seat belt. Children over 145 cm (57 inches) can travel with just a regular seat belt.
Our research indicated that most car rental companies do have seats available, for a fee. However, we did not plan to rent a car while we were there, and had not decided on any tours or tour agencies; there wasn’t much information about whether or not tour companies routinely offered child seats. The company who we booked for our first airport transfer had assured us that car seats were no problem, even for an infant, however, and made it fairly clear that any good tour company or rental place would have no issues with providing one.
My sister had elected to bring her own car seat for her toddler anyway, but we decided to leave ours at home, as it appeared that we would be able to make arrangements with at least the one tour company. The idea of hauling two car seats through four airports (and three hotels) over the course of six flights was just too much for us.
Our first airport transfer in Costa Rica showed up with only one car seat, even though we had specified that we needed two. However, our son is large for his age (though nowhere near the required 145 centimeters / 57 inches), and we decided we were okay with using a regular seat belt, rather than sending the driver to find another seat. The one car seat they did bring was in good condition, and had a 5 point harness similar to what we were familiar with in Canada, which we found encouraging.
We eventually did book some tours with a different company, and they were able to provide two car seats without issue. Again, they were clean, in good condition, and similar to the car seats we use in Canada, so we felt quite safe with that. However, our five year old son, who is large for his age, almost certainly should have been in a booster seat, rather than the full restraint seat, and probably exceeded the weight limit of the seat he was in. In addition, one of the car seats had an old-style three-point harness (straps that come over the shoulders and meet between the legs, with nothing around the waist), rather than a (somewhat safer) five-point harness.
All in all, our kids probably would have been safer if we had brought our own car seats from Canada. However, adequate options were available, and the main issue was more one of communication, rather than lack of options. If I were to do it again, I would pre-book a little further in advance, and make sure that any transport companies or tour operators not only knew how many child seats we needed, but also the age, height, and weight of each of the children, as that would have let them choose (and find, if necessary) an appropriately sized car seat.