Wondering if a travel car seat is worth buying? They’re lightweight, compact, and easy to take on the go — you can even find options approved for use on airplanes. But which one is right for you?
Let’s consider key points to remember while shopping, and look at our top five choices for travel-friendly car seats.
What Is a Travel Car Seat?
Wondering how a travel car seat differs from the one you use every day in your car? Travel car seats are designed specifically for traveling needs, which means they’re usually lightweight and come as a single piece.
If you plan to travel by plane, you’ll need to buy a travel car seat that’s approved for flying. These need to fit down narrow plane aisles and in plane seats, so they’re generally smaller.
Before you choose, get a clear idea of where you’ll be taking it. Knowing how you’ll be traveling will help you identify what will work best for you and your little one.
Types of Travel Car Seats
Maybe you’re not sure exactly what kind of travel car seat you need. Broadly, there are two main types, each with their own benefits and disadvantages.
Travel Car Seats
Travel car seats are traditional-style car seats suitable for children of all ages. These are generally on the bulky side and may be difficult to maneuver through airports, train stations, and other crowded spaces. They’re also likely to be heavy.
However, this style usually features side impact protection through the head and neck area, and five-point safety harnesses. If they’re certified for use in an airplane they’re also safe to use as an everyday car seat as well.
- Available for babies of any age.
- Comfortable for long trips.
- Additional safety features.
- Provides familiarity during new experiences.
- Cumbersome to travel with.
- Can be expensive.
- May need additional equipment for easy travel.
Travel booster seats are designed for older children. They provide a raised base for your child to sit in to ensure seat belts fit safely and securely. At this time, there are no booster seats approved for use in airplanes (1).
These units require that your child be older and larger and aren’t an option for young babies. Frequently just a base, these take up much less room than a traditional car seat. You can even find inflatable ones that are easy to pack and carry.
- Convenient for travel.
- Lightweight and inflatable options.
- Not appropriate for young children.
- Not for use on airplanes.
Questions to Keep in Mind
To help you identify what travel car seat is right for you, you’ll want to keep the following in mind:
- How old is your child? Your child’s age will play a huge role. Very young children need newborn inserts and additional safety features. Older children may be fine using a booster seat instead.
- How long will you need it? Do you have a limited window where you’re looking to use your travel car seat? If so, shop for what works for you now. If you plan on using the same seat for years to come, though, make sure it’ll grow with your child.
- How are you traveling? Going by boat, train, plane, or car? Make sure to consult the regulations of the vehicle you’re traveling by. If you’re traveling to different countries (or even states), you’ll want to know those car seat rules as well.
- Will it be comfortable for prolonged periods of use? Keeping your child comfortable is key to a successful trip, so always shop with comfort in mind.
How to Choose a Travel Car Seat
When shopping for your travel car seat, here are some further points to consider before purchasing.
1. Pay Attention to Weight and Size
Remember, this car seat is going with you while you travel. Don’t only think about how it will function when it’s in place. Imagine what it’s going to be like as you’re making your way through security or onto public transit.
If you think it’s a “little heavy” when you’re testing one out, reconsider. If you notice the weight or size immediately, it’s likely to be worse when you’re an hour into your adventures, or as your child grows.
2. Accessories to Make Travel Easier
Can’t imagine dragging it through a train depot or crowded airport? Need more free hands when you’re traveling to juggle children and luggage?
The good news is that there are accessories available to ease the struggle. Travel carts allow you to tow your car seat like luggage. Some luggage models may even offer tethering points for a car seat.
Traveling can be almost painless with the right gear. Look into what accessories are available to help make your travel easier — the little extras may make all the difference in what you end up choosing.
3. Choose Something Easy to Clean
You likely know how dirty car seats can get — and that’s just with normal use in the back of your car.
Now imagine your car seat being exposed to the hub of germs that is an airport or train station. The seat will bump up against other people’s luggage, go on the carousel, and be touched by others. And you’ll likely need to bring it with you, at least once, into a restroom.
Traveling can be a dirty business. Evaluate your travel car seat choice for how easy it will be to clean, since you’ll probably want to do just that after a trip.
The Best Travel Car Seats of 2020
You probably have a slightly better idea of what you need in a travel car seat. After reviewing what’s available and touching base with real parents, we’ve put together a list of our favorites. We hope our research helps you bring home the best travel car seat for your family.
1. Evenflo Tribute LX Convertible Car Seat
Need a travel car seat that can handle airport travel? This one from Evenflo is lightweight and narrow. It’s approved for use on airplanes and comes in multiple colors.
This car seat features side impact protection and an adjustable harness to keep your child safe, no matter their size, or where you are. Also featured is an integrated body cushion to provide additional comfort during use.
Suitable for children between 5 and 40 pounds, it has a compact size and can be used rear-facing or forward-facing. It’s also equipped with the LATCH system for car use.
- Narrow base.
- Offers rear-facing and front-facing use.
- Lightweight and compact.
- Only good to 40 pounds.
- Not great for daily use.
Why We Love It
This car seat offers a base that’s just 15 inches wide. When space is at a premium (like on a crowded airplane) you’ll appreciate something that’s easy to fit in your assigned seat. We also love that it’s easier to get through the narrow plane aisles.
While the base piece is only 15 inches wide, there is a slight flair above the base near the armrests. This area measures about 18.5 inches wide and still leaves you with a very manageable car seat.
Offers Rear-Facing and Front-Facing Use
This is a convertible unit that can be used in both forward- and rear-facing modes, making it a safer car seat for young babies.
Due to space constraints, it may not always be feasible to install a car seat rear-facing on a plane. If possible, though, it’s the preferred way for children who are still in the rear-facing group.
Lightweight and Compact
This car seat weighs in at less than 10 pounds. This makes it a great choice for one-handed carrying and make navigating airports a little easier. If you do decide to strap it to luggage, it’s generally not heavy enough to cause anything to tip over.
Aside from small plane seats, it’s also a great feature for compact cars, which you’re more likely to find when traveling abroad. If you’re traveling with multiple children, this can help ensure more than one car seat can fit in a rental car.
Keep In Mind
Only Good to 40 Pounds
This seat is only for use with children who weigh less than 40 pounds — i.e. younger infants and toddlers. Larger or older children will need a different option.
Not Great for Daily Use
This is a great car seat for travel. Looking for a car seat to be your daily ride and for traveling, though? You may want to consider a different option.
This does offer padding and cushioning, but it’s not as significant as in some other models, so it’s a little less comfortable than other seats on the market.
|Dimensions||18.5 inches by 22 inches by 25.5 inches|
|Child Weight Minimum||5 pounds|
|Child Weight Maximum||40 pounds|
|Extra Features||LATCH system, integrated body cushion, removable head pillow, detachable cup holder|
2. Cosco Topside Backless Booster
Are you looking for a basic, low-profile booster seat you can use with your child while traveling? This option from Cosco may fit the bill.
It’s designed for children between 40 and 100 pounds and who are 43 to 57 inches tall. It’s extremely compact and lightweight, which can make it a great traveling option. When not in use, multiple units can be stacked to conserve space.
This booster seat features extra-plush padding and soft armrests, making it comfortable and allowing for some squishing when in tight spaces. It’s available in multiple fun colors to suit your child’s preference and comes with a one-year limited warranty.
- Has a narrow base.
- Won’t leave marks.
- Hand-wash only.
- Booster is not so tall.
Why We Love It
When you’re planning to travel, you want traveling car seats that are easy to carry. We love that this booster seat weighs just about 2 pounds. It’s easy to add to your luggage or a backpack without weighing you down.
If you need to carry it by hand, you can easily do so by holding the armrest. Even better, it’s lightweight enough that your child may hold it themselves.
This booster seat features a low-profile design and doesn’t take up much room, so it’s easier to pack in your luggage or carry-on. It’s even possible to place it in an oversized shoulder bag while you’re on-the-go.
Has a Narrow Base
At 16 inches at its widest point (where the armrests are located) the actual base that sits in the seat is even narrower. This can make it a great option for smaller cars and for when there are multiple children in the back seat.
Won’t Leave Marks
This has been designed not to leave impression marks — a smart choice for when you’re borrowing or renting a car. It also makes it a nice option for daily use in your regular car.
Keep In Mind
This Unit Is Hand-Wash Only
It’s not the easiest to clean. The cover is removable, but the fabric should be hand-washed only. This may be a bigger problem if your booster’s used for non-travel related needs, like while in a restaurant.
Booster Is Not so Tall
While it’s recommended for children who weigh between 40 and 100 pounds, the actual booster is only 3 inches tall.
Its slim styling is great for traveling. However, it may not provide enough height for those smaller children included in the proper range. If your child is on the petite side, you may find this booster doesn’t give you an accurate seat belt fit.
|Dimensions||16 inches by 15 inches by 3 inches|
|Child Weight Minimum||40 pounds|
|Child Weight Maximum||100 pounds|
|Extra Features||One-year limited warranty|
3. Cosco Finale DX Combination Booster Seat
This unit from Cosco is for use only in the forward-facing position. It can be used as a traditional car seat with its five-point harness, or it can be used as a booster. When used as a booster, the car’s seat belt is used to secure your little one in place.
Children using this car seat should be 30 pounds and up. For forward-facing in the car seat mode, your child should weigh 30 to 65 pounds, and in the booster-seat function, between 40 to 100 pounds.
It’s on the lighter side and more narrow than some models, so you can fit three across in the backseat of most cars. For use on an airplane, you’ll need to make sure it’s in “car seat” mode and you’re utilizing the harness.
- Multiple modes of use.
- Compact size.
- Easy to clean.
- Not for infants.
- Can’t be used rear-facing.
Why We Love It
This car seat is a single piece and weighs in at just over 11 pounds, so it’s easy to tote through airports and can even be carried with one hand. There’s a reduced amount of padding through the seat to help cut down on bulk and weight.
Multiple Modes of Use
The adjustable, five-point harness has three different position slots to help ensure the best fit — and can be used until your child is around 65 pounds.
When it’s time to use this as a booster seat, there are integrated belt holders on both sides of the unit. This allows the seat belt to slide into its appropriate place and stay where it’s needed. It also means you can use this booster on either side of the car.
Designed to fit three across, this has a more narrow base, though it does flare out near the middle and top. This may make it a tighter fit, or make access to the belts more difficult in small spaces.
Compared to other car seats on the market, though, it offers a pretty streamlined style. This can make navigating crowded spaces (and narrow aisles) a little easier.
Easy to Clean
When you’re traveling, you want a car seat that’s easy to clean — and it doesn’t get much easier than this. The cover can be removed and placed in the washing machine, and it’s safe to go into the dryer.
When your cover is washed and dried it slips easily back on the car seat, ready for your next travel adventure.
Keep In Mind
Not for Infants
This is not a good choice for a young child. It doesn’t have the necessary safety features for a child less than 30 pounds. Without the proper incline, structure, and the ability to rear-face, this simply isn’t a car seat for an infant.
Can’t Be Used Rear-Facing
It’s designed for children who weigh more than 30 pounds, but many children who weigh 30 pounds, are still rear-facing. Unfortunately, this unit doesn’t allow for rear-facing at all.
So while it may suit your needs for a quick plane ride, you may want something different if you need an everyday seat and one to use on an airplane.
|Dimensions||18.25 inches by 19 inches by 29.75 inches|
|Child Weight Minimum||30 pounds|
|Child Weight Maximum||100 pounds|
|Extra Features||Car seat and booster, machine washable and dryable, movable cup holder|
4. Safety 1st Guide 65 Convertible Car Seat
If you plan on traveling while your child is very young, you’ll have specific car seat needs, i.e.l a rear-facing option. You’ll also want something that’s comfortable and properly supports your young baby.
This travel car seat from Safety 1st does just that, and can be used with children who are as little as 5 pounds. While in rear-facing mode, it can be used until your baby weighs 40 pounds. After that, switch to forward-facing until your child weighs 65 pounds.
The comfortable padding is particularly helpful during long trips. Side-impact protection, an adjustable harness, and a compact design can make it a good choice for everyday use as well. This unit does feature the LATCH system for use in cars.
- Can be used rear- and forward-facing.
- Overall adjustability.
- May be heavy for traveling.
- The LATCH system is difficult to work with.
Why We Love It
There’s plenty of padding and, for smaller and younger children, it even has an additional insert. This can be removed when it’s no longer needed.
Even once the insert has been removed, the integrated cushioning is robust. It’s a great place for your infant to rest their head during the journey and catch a nap, making it comfortable enough for an everyday ride.
Can Be Used Rear- and Forward-Facing
The flexibility to use this car seat both rear- and forward-facing allows you to use this car seat longer. Forward facing, it’ll last you all the way through 65 pounds. By the time your child reaches the maximum weight, they may be tall enough that they no longer need a booster seat.
This car seat is quite adjustable. There are five different harness heights and three different buckle locations to help ensure your infant is comfortable and safe. A front adjustment allows you to loosen or tighten the harness quickly.
In addition to the customizable harness, this seat also features a movable headrest, which can be extended as your child grows taller. A cup holder can be attached or removed as needed as well.
Keep In Mind
May Be Heavy for Traveling
There are some great features for traveling — the additional padding and slightly larger size add up to some serious comfort. But this also adds a few extra pounds to the car seat’s total weight.
If you choose this car seat, consider a rolling cart for traveling. As an alternative, you could look into a tether system that works with your existing rolling luggage.
The LATCH System Is Difficult to Work With
Parents reported that the LATCH tether’s location made the system difficult to fully tighten. This resulted in installation taking longer than anticipated and for some was a frustrating experience. Allow yourself extra time to install to ensure a good, safe, fit.
|Dimensions||27.25 inches by 18.5 inches by 20.25 inches|
|Child Weight Minimum||5 pounds|
|Child Weight Maximum||65 pounds|
|Extra Features||Body pillow insert, LATCH system, removable cup holder, rear-facing and forward-facing.|
5. Mifold Grab-And-Go Booster Seat
Need something that’s extremely portable? This grab-and-go booster seat can easily fit in a purse or bag. It won’t weigh you down, either.
This is a backless booster seat that meets all safety standards. It’s NHTSA-approved as a booster seat and is safe for use in cars.
Unlike most other booster seats out there, this one doesn’t raise your child to make the seat belt work for them. Instead, it’s designed to safely relocate the seat belt to where it should be for your child. There are three different locations where the belt is adjusted — on either side and with the cross-body belt.
This is designed for children who are 4 years old and up who weigh between 40 and 120 pounds.
- Fits virtually anywhere.
- Extremely lightweight.
- NHTSA-approved and meets all safety standards.
- Hard for younger children to buckle.
- Doesn’t lift your child up.
Why We Love It
Fits Virtually Anywhere
This is a great option for an on-the-go booster seat. It’s incredibly compact, so it can easily be stashed in your car as a spare or slipped into a purse.
This booster seat weighs in at less than 2 pounds and won’t put a damper on your traveling. It’s even small and light enough to slip into your child’s belongings. This will ensure the booster seat is wherever your child is, should your traveling group split up.
NHTSA-Approved and Meets All Safety Standards
Having met or exceeded the NHTSA safety standard FMVSS 213, this seat is both legal and safe to use in a driving car. It can also be a great option for when you’re traveling in other vehicles, like a taxi or airport shuttle.
Keep In Mind
Hard for Younger Children to Buckle
This one’s a little more complicated than some. It’s great when it comes to tight spaces and traveling, but you’ll want to allow more time to fasten everything until you get the hang of it.
Expect that younger children in the recommended age range will need help fastening themselves in. You’ll want to double check their work when they first start buckling themselves on their own as well.
Doesn’t Lift Your Child Up
This booster seat does a great job of keeping your child safe in a car. However, it doesn’t lift them, which will limit its usefulness. Your child may not be able to see out the window to see the sights.
Plan on using the booster seat elsewhere, like in a restaurant? This unit is exclusively designed for the car, and it won’t help your child much outside of a vehicle.
|Dimensions||1 inch by 13 inches by 7 inches|
|Child Weight Minimum||40 pounds|
|Child Weight Maximum||120 pounds|
|Extra Features||NHTSA approved|
|Product||Award||Weight||Dimensions||Min. Weight||Max. Weight||Features|
|Evenflo Tribute LX||Best For Air Travel||9.3 lbs||18.5″ x 22″ x 25.5″||5 lbs||40 lbs||LATCH system, integrated body cushion, removable head pillow, detachable cup holder|
|Cosco Topside||Best For Older Children||2.2 lbs||16″ x 15″ x 3″||40 lbs||100 lbs||One-year limited warranty|
|Cosco Finale DX||Best Budget Buy||11.5 lbs||18.25″ x 19″ x 29.75″||30 lbs||100 lbs||Car seat & booster, machine washable & dryable, movable cup holder|
|Safety 1st Guide 65||Best For Babies||15 lbs||27.25″ x 18.5″ x 20.25″||5 lbs||65 lbs||Body pillow insert, LATCH system, removable cup holder, rear-facing & forward-facing.|
|Mifold Grab & Go||Most Compact||1.7 lbs||1″ x 13″ x 7″||40 lbs||120 lbs||NHTSA approved|
Tips for Traveling with Children
Traveling with children can be fun. You’ll relish the chance to help make memories — for both you and for them. It can also be challenging.
The following tips can help ensure your trip runs as smoothly as possible.
1. Give Yourself Extra Time
Whether you’re traveling by car or by plane, take some stress out of the experience by adding plenty of cushion time. Work out the longest possible commute time needed and add 15 or 30 extra minutes. This is a lifesaver when you need to change a baby last minute, realize the coffee pot is on, or hit traffic.
2. Recognize Your Child’s Limits
Did you get up early to catch a flight and manage to miss nap time? Remind yourself that your child is a child and plan accordingly. That may mean scheduling in downtime during the day or eating in between meals.
3. Keep Needed Items Close
Yes, hopefully, you need all the items that you’ve brought with you while traveling. There are items you’ll likely need more frequently, though. Things like diapers, snacks, and entertainment should be kept somewhere that’s easy to reach.
Road tripping with multiple nights at hotels? Try to keep what you need to a single piece of luggage. This way you need only one bag when you get where you’re going, and won’t need to repack in the morning.
Traveling by air? Always keep critical items like medication in your carry on. This way you’ll have what you need even in the event your luggage is lost.
4. Check with Airlines About Baby-Related Items
Many baby-related items (like car seats, strollers, and pack ‘n plays) can be checked free-of-charge. You may also want to plan on gate-checking certain items. Check with your airline to see what options are available to you.
5. Set Aside Expectations and Enjoy the Experience
It can be hard when things don’t go as you had hoped or anticipated. This is especially true when there are a lot of moving parts. Your trip is probably something you’ve invested a lot of time and energy in.
Recognize that things are more likely to not go as planned when you’re traveling with children. Your travel can still be a great experience and memory, so try not to let unexpected changes ruin that.
1. What About the CARES Travel Harness?
Have you heard about the CARES travel harness and are wondering why it isn’t on the list? It’s a great option to consider if you’re flying but doesn’t fall into the car seat category.
It’s the first (and only) FAA-approved alternative to a car seat (2). It’s suitable for children 1 year and older who weigh 22 to 44 pounds.
2. What Is the FAA?
The FAA is the Federal Aviation Administration (3). They’re responsible for putting together the rules and regulations that make flights safe and keep airport procedures running smoothly.
3. Does the Car Seat Have to Be Expensive?
No. Travel car seats are available at a variety of price points. For them to have been approved as a car seat (or approved for flying) they have to pass rigorous testing.
Rest assured that all approved car seats have gone through the same rigorous testing and have passed. You won’t be buying a less-safe car seat just because it’s at a lower price point.
4. What About Safety Ratings?
Safety ratings (for both cars and car seats) are public information. You can search the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) (4).
Keeping Your Child Safe on the Go
Having a baby or toddler doesn’t have to keep you from traveling. On the contrary, having a child can make your travels more exciting while opening up fun traveling opportunities. A travel car seat that’s compact, lightweight, and comfortable can help make the experience better — and safer.
Do you have any travel stories with young children or memorable trips and tips? We love hearing about your experiences. Leave us a note in the comment section below!