Holiday travel with kids: Save money (and your sanity) by renting baby gear instead of schlepping

If you happen to be bringing baby over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house for Thanksgiving, you're not alone. Despite the fact The Air Transport Authority is reporting a 4% decline in air travelers, Gail Weinholzer, director of public affairs for AAA said the auto club still expects 40 million people to travel this holiday. Thirty-five million of them will be driving their own cars.

If you're traveling with kids, you not only have to pack your patience, but also a whole lot of gear. It can be tempting to stay home, lock the doors and order-in Chinese.

But tradition calls. In an attempt to actually see out the windows of our SUV, my family recently invested in one of those soft-sided, roof-top storage thingies that strap to the roof rails on top of the car. It definitely helps, but it also transforms our ride into a cross between Vacation, the not-so-funny sequel and Grapes of Wrath.

If you'd rather not go the Sherpa route or are looking to avoid outrageous fees for checking items under the plane, baby equipment rentals seek to offer the solution. Stocked with the kind of sanity saving amenities to which baby has become accustomed (high-chair, Exersaucer, baby gates, infant swing, jogger, double jogger, Boppy ring, etc.) instead of schlepping a frazzled parent might consider renting --and it's not too late to make reservations for those must-have items.

My husband and I utilized a service years ago when travel plans called for a transfer from one regular-sized plane onto an itty-bitty flying deathtrap. I'm not sure it would have gotten off the ground with us and the baby gear, but I digress ... Bottom line, renting the perfect stroller and a clean, brand new portable crib once we arrived at our destination was absolutely brilliant and it almost made me forget we had to get back on that plane to fly home...

With names like Outbound Baby Company (Palm Springs, CA), Rockabye Baby Rentals (Houston/Austin, TX), Travel Babees (nationwide), Travelin' Tots (Albuquerque, NM) and Gear While You're Here (Baltimore, MD/Washington D.C.) the businesses are often family-owned or licensed by parents turned-Mompreneurs who "get it." It ain't easy bein' breezy with kids.

Crumb Krunchers, a baby rental company based in Portsmouth, RI promises on its website, "All of our equipment is bought new at the start of every season and is sold at our store at the end of the season so you are guaranteed clean, safe, good as home equipment every time." Since the condition and safety of baby items is imperative, make sure you inspect your rented items before signing off on them. In fact, most baby equipment-rental companies offer new or like-new merchandise, but it's a good idea to verify when making the reservation. In addition, many companies carry liability insurance on all rental items.

The number of items available for rental is as mind boggling as how much stuff a tiny baby can demand. Most sites claim if you don't see what you need on their rental menu, "just ask!" Some will even do a little shopping for you on their way over. Happy Kid Traveling, based in Aurora, CO offers items like Diaper Genies, bed rails and humidifiers as well as "package deals." For instance, package number one includes: a crib, stroller and bouncy seat or swing for $17, while package number two rents a crib, stroller, Exersaucer and basket of toys for $21 a day. Prices vary between businesses and locations. The Smart Baby Super Saver Package from Smart Baby Travel serving Northwest Arkansas offers a crib, stroller, high chair, car seat, choice of one accessory and a bucket of toys for $40 per day or $140 for a week.

Most parents would agree that's a great deal, especially when compared to the hassle of schlepping all of that themselves. Especially in these days of extra baggage fees on every air carrier.

Happy Kid also touts a new "Porch to Porch" service that allows customers to pick up the equipment themselves and avoid a delivery surcharge. Very few businesses allow for this service, however, since most companies are home-based. All of the rental businesses deliver to an assigned destination, usually within a specified time frame. Late night or early morning deliveries may cost extra.

Baby's Away is the largest baby equipment rental service, with more than 70 licensed locations nationwide. Jan Hard is the company's Denver, CO-based officer manager and she told WalletPop that although business usually gets busy over the holiday season, "with this economy, who knows." Hard said cribs are generally the most popular rental item with car seats running a close second. "Although a lot of rental car companies do provide them now," Hard notes she still gets calls from customers who don't find the supplied seats desirable. Another reason, many families traveling for the holidays may not be renting cars but will need a seat upon arrival. It's one less thing to carry through security. Angela Vaitkus, a new Baby's Away franchisee in Seattle, WA said rental equipment for babies and small children is, "a whole new world, and many people don't know about it."

Like prices, cancellation policies vary and consumers should be sure to inquire upon making their reservation. "Usually, we take things on a case by case basis," said Jan Hard, "we do our best to try and please our customers."

In what can be one of the most stressful times of the year, a solution to schlepping might offer new parents another reason to be thankful. Happy trails and safe travels.

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