Main photo credit: TierneyMJ / Shutterstock.com
‘Tis the season for going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house. But what to do when you have a little one in tow and Grandmother’s house is 2,000 miles away? Your full-featured, miniature La-Z-Boy-style car seat may be exactly the right tool for the job in day-to-day travels, however you’ll quickly find it’s impractical for planes, trains, and (rental) automobiles.
For long-distance travel you need a car seat that can safely transport your infant, toddler, or school age kiddo while being eminently luggable along with your rollaboards and diaper bag accoutrement. It needs to be easy to set up and break down while Uber drivers tap their fingers and fellow airplane passengers pile up behind you. Extra-soft cushions, sturdy cupholders, and cute patterns? These things are all gravy.
Here’s a selection of travel car seats to fit your budget and specific age-range needs. We’ve pulled a few with some nice-to-have bells and whistles as well as some innovative options that will have you thinking outside the standard car seat box.
For more information on the best travel car seats, refer to our table of contents.
Table of contents
- 1. Editor’s Pick: Combi Coccoro Convertible Car Seat
- 2. Budget Pick: Cosco Apt 50 Convertible Car Seat
- 3. Luxury Pick: Doona Infant Car Seat and Stroller
- 4. Toddler and Older Pick: WAYB Pico Travel Car Seat
- 5. Graco Admiral 65 Convertible Car Seat
- 6. Safety 1st Guide 65 Convertible Car Seat
- 7. Evenflo Tribute 5 Convertible Car Seat
- 8. Evenflo Maestro Sport Booster Car Seat
- 9. Evenflo Sonus Convertible Car Seat
- 10. BubbleBum Inflatable Backless Booster Car Seat
- What is a Travel Car Seat?
- What to Expect When You’re Choosing a Travel Car Seat
- How to Install a Travel Car Seat
1. Editor’s Pick: Combi Coccoro Convertible Car Seat
Our favorite travel car seat is a well-rounded pick with what we think is just the right mix of necessary features, quality construction, and simplicity. The Combi Coccoro is a travel car seat that is convertible, meaning that it can be mounted in either forward-facing or rear-facing modes depending on the age range and size of your child.
When positioned to be rear facing, the Coccoro accommodates kids from 3 to 33 pounds. In forward mode, the seat is rated for 20 to 40 pounds, and overall whether facing to the front or back, it’s made for a minimum height of 19 inches and maxes out at 40 inches.
The seat itself is especially lightweight at only 11 pounds, meaning transporting the Coccoro in and out of shuttles and through the airport is a breeze, even if you have to hand hold it. At a mere 15.5-inches wide, this seat has a notably slim footprint meaning not only is it less unwieldy to haul around, but also that it will mount in those ever-shrinking Economy Class seats with no problem. It’s compact enough that some parents report they can drop it into their stroller seat, kid and all, for even easier conveyance through the concourse. One more benefit of its skinny build is that you can easily fit three of these seats across the average automotive bench seat, a boon for parents with a passel of children who want to employ the Coccoro year-round.
Other features include a removable infant insert and machine-washable cover. It also has one-touch height adjustment of the five-point harness. As all good seats should have, this offering from Combi has side-impact protection and a thick layer of energy-absorbing foam. It’s FAA approved, and it has a buckle with a visual cue so you know when it is securely in place.
Buyers of the Coccoro report that it’s easy to mount in an airplane seat due to its small stature and curved bottom, allowing you to fine-tune its angle in tight quarters. These same qualities make it ideal for small rental cars outside of North America. As with most of our picks, this seat mounts securely using the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system or via seatbelt in older or non-American cars.
Of course, a simplified and compact car seat is not without its downsides. You won’t find any cupholders here, and its small size limits the kinds of kids that will fit comfortably within its confines. Average-sized kids are likely to max this car seat out at around four and a half years old while faster growers are going to find themselves in a squeeze.
A few customers have also struggled with rear-facing installations in certain vehicle models, and one reviewer took issue with the tricky crotch buckle. There also appear to be isolated incidents of the shock-absorbing Styrofoam cracking under the strains of normal use within a year.
2. Budget Pick: Cosco Apt 50 Convertible Car Seat
For budget conscious shoppers, the Cosco Apt 50 provides a stripped down convertible car seat that gets the job done. Even lighter weight than our top pick, this model clocks in at a svelte 8 pounds, yet is rated for a wider range of occupants.
In rear-facing mode, the Apt 50 accommodates kids from 5 to 40 pounds and a maximum of 50 pounds while in the forward position. The seat’s five-point harness can be adjusted to six heights and three front buckle locations as children grow, and its seat pad is machine washable and tumble dry safe.
The gains in capability at a lower price point are achieved in part through the features it doesn’t have. Infant inserts and other niceties like strap pads must be purchased as separate accessories. Meanwhile, strap height adjustment is a manual affair unlike the one-touch operation of our top pick. Each time the height has to be adjusted, it requires rethreading the straps through one set of six pre-determined slots.
Still, this cost-effective model sports a pair of cupholders, has side impact protection and is certified for use on aircraft. James L. says the Cosco Apt 50 is “incredibly easy to install and take out, since there’s a tension release button on the latch strap, which not all car seats have.”
It’s additionally worth noting that while owners report that it mounts fine to airplane seats in either forward or rear positions, the seatbelt can be felt beneath the padding and is uncomfortable to lay against without extra cushioning. Some reviewers also have encountered difficulty achieving a safe mount of any sort in a car, even when utilizing professional help.
3. Luxury Pick: Doona Infant Car Seat and Stroller
If money is no object, and ultimate convenience is what you’re after, look no further than the Doona Infant Car Seat. When it’s in a vehicle, it’s a rear-facing car seat, but once outside, in one smooth motion, it’s a stroller. True, this option has a much more limited lifespan, being limited to infants 4 to 35 pounds and maxing out at 32 inches in height, but during that time it would be hard to find a carrier offering a more seamless experience.
The Doona features a five-point harness, adjustable handlebar, washable fabric cover, and side-impact protection. It includes an infant insert, head support, vehicle seat protector, and a base. The carrier is FAA approved and weighs a not insignificant 16.5 pounds.
Buyers say that while it is heavy, you’re rarely carrying it around as the burden of the weight is borne by the wheels. According to reviews, converting it can take a bit of practice, but if you try it a few times at home, you’ll quickly be ready to use it out in the real world. The Doona fits perfectly in an airplane seat or in the back of a two-door vehicle, and while it’s more secure on the base, which weighs an additional 10 pounds, it’s unnecessary while traveling. Getting it through airport security is simple too; just flip it upside down in car seat mode and it fits right through the scanner.
As for downsides, some taller customers mention needing to hunch down to push the carrier in stroller mode. On the flip side, more petite owners explain that getting the heavy car seat out of a tall SUV or crossover can be a bit of a struggle. Also, considering its steep price tag, reviewers wish it came with accessories such as a storage bag or shade extender.
Most buyers agree that it’s expensive, but worth the convenience it provides. NelWa lays it out this way, “We call this the marriage saver! We had a long distance trip with 6 flights and 10+ cabs and Uber’s [sic] and this saved us a ton of hassle and we got a lot of compliments on it!”
4. Toddler and Older Pick: WAYB Pico Travel Car Seat
For toddler-age kids and up, WAYB has a unique solution that keeps children safely harnessed and also packs up easily when not in use. The Pico is a travel car seat recommended for kids two years and older in the 22- to 50-pound range who are between 30 and 45 inches tall. Unlike standard one-piece, shell-style seats, this product cleverly folds up into a compact eight-pound package that’s easy to lug around or stow away when not needed.
The WAYB Pico’s frame is sheathed in a responsibly sourced wool-polyester mesh fabric, which helps keep kids cool and is devoid of flame retardant chemicals and foams. The Pico is a forward-facing only design and is FAA approved. It can mount via the LATCH standard or via car or airplane belt. Children are secured by a five-point harness, and the design is slim enough to fit three Pico seats across most car bench seats.
The manufacturer recommends the fabric be spot cleaned and air dried, though it can be removed for more extensive cleaning. One buyer warns that the mesh can tear easily and is not easy to clean as any sort of liquid food becomes embedded in the covering. While the WAYB meets all NHTSA safety standards, some owners express concern over its impact protection compared to conventional seats.
Overall, reviewers agree that while not ideal as an everyday seat—armrests would be a welcome addition, for instance—the WAYB Pico serves well as a solution while traveling. It’s very convenient to install in a rush, and quite comfortable despite its skeletal appearance.
5. Graco Admiral 65 Convertible Car Seat
Accommodating the widest range of ages yet in this list of travel car seats is a convertible offering from Graco, the Admiral 65, whose name comes bearing a strong hint at its maximum weight rating.
In rear-facing configuration, the Admiral 65 seats kids from 5 to 40 pounds. When facing forward, the range is 22 to 65 pounds. The seat includes removable body supports for infants and has been tested to meet or exceed impact standards for front, side, rear, and rollover collisions. Additionally, it has been tested for structural integrity under extreme hot and cold temperatures.
This FAA-approved car seat mounts using the LATCH system and has a five-point harness and headrest that move in concert without the need to rethread the straps as kids grow or as differently sized siblings swap seats. The design also includes an integrated cupholder.
Owners praise its cozy padding, though they admit the seat is on the heavier side to travel with. A few find it challenging to loosen the straps and some wish it came with shoulder pads to protect the occupant’s neck. Several reviewers also complain of the difficult-to-release latch, which can be almost impossible to access when the seat is in rear-facing mode.
6. Safety 1st Guide 65 Convertible Car Seat
Another travel car seat that’s intent on giving the game away in its name is the Safety 1st Guide 65. As you might have guessed, it’s rated to carry children 5 to 40 pounds in rear-facing mode and 22 to 65 pounds in forward-facing configuration. Safety 1st specifies a minimum height of 19 inches and between 34 and 52 inches for each mode, respectively.
The Guide 65 utilizes a five-point harness, which must be threaded manually through one of five preset heights and one of three lower buckle positions. The head support is also adjustable, and the body pillows are removable, as is the cupholder, which can be placed on either the right or left side. The seat pad can be removed for handwashing.
Making it great for travel, this car seat has a diminutive profile and is FAA approved. It fits well in small cars, though reviewers warn that it can be a tight squeeze in airplane seats. Speaking of tight squeeze, bulkier or fast-growing kids may be better suited to a different seat as this one can be a bit of a pinch. It’s not a great fit for newborns either since the lowest shoulder strap setting is not quite low enough to be safe.
Also of note, some parents have found it a challenge to safely install, saying it requires multiple pool noodles or towels to shim it up. A couple of buyers have also spotted a manufacturing defect wherein screws were missing in a critical location.
7. Evenflo Tribute 5 Convertible Car Seat
Keeping costs in check, the Evenflo Tribute 5 convertible car seat offers up a no-frills solution that gets the job done. Weight ranges are 5 to 40 pounds when pointed rearward and 22 to 40 pounds when forward facing. The acceptable height range is 19 to 37 inches.
The Tribute 5 is engineered with side-impact protection which meets or exceeds all federal safety standards and is FAA certified. It features a removable head pillow and integrated body cushions. The seat pad can be removed and is machine washable on the cold cycle and safe to tumble dry on low heat. The five-point harness can be adjusted to multiple positions, and the seat itself is installed via the LATCH standard, though recline will need to be fine-tuned by using towels or pool noodles.
The seat includes a detachable cupholder, and overall, only weighs 9.3 pounds. Be advised however, that the cupholder does not match the one in the photo and has garnered poor reviews. Similarly, the placement of the airplane belt buckle can be felt through the modest seat padding and can be uncomfortable for little ones. Also, make sure you know the location of the hard-to-find FAA statement on this seat before the flight attendant puts you on the spot.
On the plus side, reviewers praise its lightweight, travel-friendly design saying it even squeezes into tiny budget airline seats *cough* Spirit *cough*. The cover holds up well to the rigors of cleaning up after car sick toddlers, and though it lacks many creature comforts, it delivers where it matters. Jim A. gets down to the brass tacks of what a car seat is for: “My daughter and my 2 year old were in horrible crash… the car flipped over, (sliding) across the highway landing upside down! The car seat saved her life! Just some red marks from the straps!”
8. Evenflo Maestro Sport Booster Car Seat
For kids that have transitioned beyond the infant stage, the Evenflo Maestro Sport is a travel car seat that offers two front facing modes. One configuration is for smaller kids, 22 to 50 pounds and up to 50 inches in height, and it utilizes a standard five-point harness. When the kids have graduated beyond that stage, this seat converts to a belt-positioning booster that uses the car’s own safety restraints. Its top capacity is 110 pounds and 57 inches in height.
It features dual cupholders, a machine washable pad, and removable head pillow. It weighs less than 10 pounds and is FAA approved when used with the five-point harness. It’s manufactured with side-impact and rollover protection and can be mounted using the LATCH system or seatbelts. Perhaps most interesting, each purchase includes live video installation support.
Owners of the Maestro Sport report that it’s great for airplane use but can be a bit unwieldy to haul around. For that reason, a strap that can attach the seat to your roller bag is highly recommended. As with many travel car seats, parents tend to dislike this model for day-to-day use. It’s not as padded as more expensive models, tightening the top tether in trucks can be very difficult, and the upright seating position means kids’ heads tend to nod forward, unsupported, when they doze off. The cupholders also detach with frustrating ease, leaving one mom to worry that they will one day become toddler-powered projectiles while driving.
9. Evenflo Sonus Convertible Car Seat
One last entry from the folks at Evenflo is the Sonus convertible car seat. Rated for children five to 40 pounds while rear facing and 22 to 50 pounds when aimed at the front, this travel car seat accommodates kids up to 50 inches tall.
In addition to rollover and side-impact protection, FAA approval, and a five-point harness adjustable to five height positions, the Sonus also touts ventilation built into the frame for better temperature regulation. And, to prevent unintentional “ouchies,” this seat has buckle storage pockets to keep hot metal clasps away from little fingers. The head pillow is removable, as are the seat pads for machine washing and tumble drying. There are two cupholders that fit both standard sippy cups as well as non-round objects like juice boxes due to the addition of elastic bands.
Parents report that this seat works well on airplanes and isn’t too heavy at just 11 pounds. Reviews indicate that this is a particularly good pick for taller toddlers and the kickstand allows the seat to recline both in forward- and rear-facing modes.
As to the bad, the crotch buckle is unpadded and is a potential pinch hazard, and despite efforts to the contrary, the black neoprene material gets very hot during the summer months. The seat is also quite tall making it problematic in rear-facing configurations since it needs a very deep back seat for proper installation. Finally, multiple buyers complain of the elastic breaking on the cupholders.
10. BubbleBum Inflatable Backless Booster Car Seat
And finally for a completely different approach. With a cheeky, memorable name, the BubbleBum is a backless booster seat for toddlers and school age kids that may not need a full car seat but still need a boost for proper belt positioning.
Geared toward kids between four and 11 years old and weighing between 40 and 100 pounds, the BubbleBum is foldable for travel, easily squeezing into a purse or backpack. This booster gets its name from the fact that it has to be inflated by mouth using a nozzle in the rear, and when it’s time to pack it away, the air is squeezed out for a compact footprint. It takes about 10 seconds to inflate according to its manufacturer, but even when deflated, it meets federal safety regulations due to an adequate amount of memory foam that comprises its construction.
The BubbleBum includes seatbelt guides for proper routing of the vehicle’s safety restraints and a travel bag for storage. The booster can be cleaned by spraying and wiping the exterior and weighs a mere 1.2 pounds. The company advises that the seat should not be exposed to extreme temperatures while inflated because the internal bladder can expand and split, compromising its function. This includes leaving the booster in a hot car. Similarly, the BubbleBum is susceptible to great changes in altitude and may deflate when going from low to high. For this reason, it should never be inflated while at high altitude and then taken to a lower altitude. When flying, the booster should always be deflated.
While the manufacturer touts this product as an everyday solution, most reviewers agree it works better as a stopgap for situations where proper boosters with backs are unavailable. While it’s reportedly softer and more comfortable than standard boosters, it’s not as effective for a wiggly or sleepy kid who might slide off the seat. Finally, there’s a bit of an “ick” factor which is perhaps more pronounced in the COVID era. The only way to inflate the BubbleBum is to put the nozzle between your lips. The same nozzle that might have just been touching the seat of a well-used taxicab. Just sayin’.
What is a Travel Car Seat?
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All the shiny bells and whistles are great when your kid’s car seat is practically a permanent fixture of your vehicle, but when it’s time to traverse the country—or the world—a lighter, more travel-friendly alternative is practically a must. Standard car seats fall in the 25- to 30-pound range while the kind of car seat you’ll want to haul through the airport is more like eight to 15 pounds.
The perfect travel car seat has all of the essentials and none of the overkill. That seat is going to go with you from home to shuttle to security to plane to shuttle number two to rental car and then the same sequence in reverse (and that’s assuming a direct flight!). Lightweight and easy-to-carry is the name of the game. Oh, and one more thing: approval from the FAA. Any car seat that you plan to install on an airplane must have explicit documentation stating that it’s safe to fly.
Travel car seats come in the same flavors as normal car seats: infant, convertible, booster, etc. In fact there aren’t really travel car seats so much as there are car seats that are better for travel. That is, there’s no reason you can’t use a travel car seat as your everyday car seat, just that a car seat ideal for travel is probably not the one you want to take the kids to school in day to day, if you can help it. They tend to be a bit flimsier, have a few less cupholders, and a little less room to spread out.
What to Expect When You’re Choosing a Travel Car Seat
When choosing a travel car seat, consider how you want to use it and the child who will be using it. Ask yourself, how do I want to transport this through the airport? Will you have a cart at the ready, or do you plan to carry it?
While smaller is generally better, you’re ultimately limited by the size of your ever-growing passenger. Get a seat that’s made for an infant, and by the next time you go on vacation you may find you’re shopping for travel car seat number two. In fact, if you already have an infant carrier, a seat specifically for travel is probably unnecessary as your everyday car carrier can just be removed from its base and installed in the plane or in the car directly via seatbelt routing.
So, make sure you choose the right size for your needs according to how long you reasonably expect to use the same seat. You’ll get a lot more life out of a convertible car seat that can start out being mounted in rear-facing mode for infants and transition to forward-facing mode for toddlers and older kids. Just remember that do-it-all seats have their drawbacks, notably cramped installation in rear-facing mode.
And that’s one of the other major considerations. The seat you choose to travel with should be able to install in a shuttle, taxi, Uber, rental car, and airplane with minimal rigamarole. Some seats require shims like rolled up towels or pool noodles to achieve a safe and secure install. Do you really want to travel across the country with pool noodles in your diaper bag?
Other considerations include comfort. The amount of padding should be directly related to how long you expect your little one to stay in their seat. In poorly padded seats, the airplane buckle can often be felt through the cushion, poking into the child’s back. Verify also that the seat you choose is FAA approved. Know where the sticker stating its certification is located. It is always printed in red, and you may be asked by a flight attendant to show it.
Is your kid four or older? A traditional car seat may not even be necessary. Other solutions exist such as travel boosters, backless or not, or a travel vest. Just remember, a booster seat is only for a car. On the airplane they need to be stowed away.
How to Install a Travel Car Seat
Proper installation of a car seat is an important safety concern. Always refer to your specific seat’s instruction manual and other accompanying documentation such as video demonstrations. It is often helpful to look for other customers’ how-to videos as well, but remember that your car seat manufacturer is the ultimate resource.
In general, every American car seat can be installed one of two ways: either using the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system or by using the automobile’s seat belt. Most cars manufactured after September 2002 are required to have the LATCH system, and it’s generally considered the safest way to install a child seat.
Before traveling, learn and practice installing your travel car seat using both methods. Once you’re in another city, state, or country, you will be in an unfamiliar vehicle with all of the pressures of family travel in tow. While almost any car you encounter will be child seat-ready, there’s still the chance you’ll find yourself in an outdated or foreign vehicle that doesn’t adhere to the American standard. Note the fact that while some child seats are equipped with top tethers, not all vehicles come equipped with top tether hooks, and not all top tether hooks are located in the same place. Some are closer to the floor than they are to the top of the seat.
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