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If you’re looking for the best travel car seat for a 3 year old, you’ve come to the right place! These days most kids ride around at home in huge convertible car seats at that age (we’ve owned three of them!), and they’re great for safety and comfort.
But for travel? Many families don’t want to lug a 25 pound car seat through the airport, hoist it over an entire row to get it installed in a tiny airplane window seat, navigate back through another airport and then lift it into a taxi or rental car. A better choice if you can swing it is to pick up one of the many travel car seats for 3 year olds on the market today.
What do we look for in the best portable car seat for a 3 year old? We have a few priorities:
-It has to be light, ideally not more than ~10lbs
-It has to be easy to use
-Ideally it should last at least 3-4 years
Of course every family has unique needs. If your child is extremely tall for her age, you might want to choose taller car seat even at the expense of a few extra pounds. If your travels involve a long flight and a long drive, look for comfort features like padding and cup holders to keep your youngest passengers happy.
|Travel car seat||Size|
|rear-facing or forward-facing; |
|rear-facing or forward-facing;|
|Evenflo Maestro Sport||forward-facing or high-back booster;|
|Graco Tranzitions||forward-facing, high-back booster|
or backless booster;
|Cosco Finale DX||forward-facing or high-back booster,|
|Ride Safer Travel Vest||booster seat alternative,|
Best travel car seats for 3 year olds
The NHTSA recommends that children remain rear-facing until around 3, and many safety advocates urge parents to keep their kids rear-facing until closer to 4. In the reviews below, we offer recommendations for both travel convertible car seats (that can be used either rear-facing or forward-facing with a harness) and travel combination car seats. These are also called harnessed boosters and which can be used forward-facing with a harness until your child is big enough and mature enough to use the seat as a high-back booster.
(Soapbox moment: At ages 3 and 4, most kids still can’t be trusted to stay in the right position 100% of the time in a booster seat. If a beloved toy or water bottle falls, they’re going for it! It’s also hard for kids that age to stay upright if they fall asleep, which they’re more prone to do with they’re on the road. We’ve all seen those “cute” pictures on Facebook of our friends’ kids slumped sideways asleep in their booster seats. What happens if a kid is in that position in a car accident? Nothing good. So let’s not be too eager to stick little kids in boosters please.)
What to look for in your travel car seat
In the summaries below you’ll see that I’ve listed “shell height” and “max harness height”. What do these mean and why are they important?
Shell height is the distance from the bottom of the seat to the top above the child’s head and it’s important for rear-facing. Most car seats require that kids have at least 1″ of shell height above the top of their heads to rear face. Harness height isn’t as much of an issue for rear-facing because the straps should always come from below your kid’s shoulders.
Max harness height comes into play for forward-facing. It’s the distance from the bottom of the seat to the highest setting for the harness. Since your child’s shoulders should always be below the harness when forward-facing, the max harness height is often the limiting factor for outgrowing a seat forward-facing. Shell height also matters in that usually the tops of the ears should be contained within the shell (it’s ok if the top of the head pokes out a bit), but that isn’t usually the limiting factor.
The other weight, height and age limits are pretty self-explanatory. Manufacturers (rightly?) assume that your kid is wearing clothes and even shoes in their car seat, so you can factor those in for weight.
Evenflo Sonus 65 review
-Shell height 25”
-Max harness height 18”
-Rear-facing size limits 5-40lbs, 19-40”
-Forward-facing size limits 22-65lbs, 28-50”
✔ Generous size limits
✔ More comfort features than other travel car seats
✔ Nice enough to use as an everyday car seat
✔ Somewhat narrow convertible car seat
✘ Heavier than Cosco Scenera Next and Cosco Apt 50
✘ More expensive than Cosco car seats
✘ 6 year expiration
Of all the car seats on this list, the new Evenflo Sonus 65 is the one I’m most excited about. Yes, I know it’s probably unhealthy to be excited about a car seat.
I’ve had a few opportunities to play around with it in stores and I’m impressed. It’s light enough to lug around, padded enough for comfort, tall enough to keep almost every kid harnessed to a safe age, and affordable enough to be within reach for most families.
Best of all, it’s packed with great features that’ll have you using the seat at home too. If you’re a two-car family, this is a great choice to use for travel and your second car – maybe even your first.
The Evenflo Sonus 65 is an FAA-approved car seat (just like pretty much every American car seat out there) and can be installed either rear-facing or forward-facing on a plane. It even has a two-position recline wedge to help you get the correct angle in both planes and cars.
Those beefy, extra-protective headwings make the top of the seat somewhat wide, so it may be tough to position the Sonus 3-across next to another car seat facing the same direction.
If you want to keep your 3 year old rear-facing when you travel, this is my top pick.
Evenflo Sureride DLX review
-Shell height 26.5”
-Max harness height 19”
-Rear-facing size limits 5-40lbs, 19-40”
-Forward-facing size limits 22-65lbs
✔ Fits from newborn to elementary school
✔ Seats stack together for easy transportation if you travel with two kids
✔ ‘BEST’ crash test performance rating from Consumer Reports
✘ Tall shell won’t fit well rear-facing in compact cars and economy airplane seats
✘ 6 year expiration
Parents of extra-tall kids, take heart: Evenflo is looking out for you too. If your child is off the charts or you want her to stay harnessed for trips well into elementary school, the Evenflo Sureride DLX is a great choice for you! The maximum harness height of 19″ puts it on par with much more expensive rear-facing car seats and the 26.5″ shell is extremely tall. But it’ll also offer a great fit for a typical 3 year old (and younger kids too!).
The Sureride’s features are on the more basic side, but it’ll still get the job done. It even earned a BEST rating on the strenuous crash testing by Consumer Reports, which reminds us of an important lesson: just like you can’t judge a book by its cover, don’t judge a car seat by its price tag.
One neat trick is that Surerides stack with each other like Pringles chips, meaning that if you’re traveling with two car seats you can load them both onto the same stroller or car seat travel cart (maybe with a bungee cord around them just to be safe).
Just about the only downside of the Evenflo Sureride is exactly it’s big advantage: the tall shell. While it’s great for keeping tall kids rear-facing longer (and older kids harnessed forward-facing longer), it also makes the seat more difficult to fit in tight spaces. If you’re flying a discount airline with extremely small seat pitch or planning to rent the smallest possible car, you may find it challenging to rear-face.
Evenflo Maestro Sport review
-Max harness height 18.5”
-Forward-facing size limits 22-50lbs, 28-50”
-Highback booster size limits 40-110lbs, 44-57”
✔ Lasts from age 3 (as a harness) to ~age 8 (as a booster)
✔ Affordable price
✔ ‘BEST’ crash test performance rating from Consumer Reports
✔ Easy to install
✘ Narrow set harness straps with no covers
✘ 6 year expiration
I’m sure by now this list feels like an infomercial for Evenflo. I promise, I have no relationship with the company (other than as a long-term customer). But when it comes to designing lightweight car seats for travel, they do a lot of things right!
Despite the low price and light weight, Evenflo travel car seats come equipped with comfort and convenience features that make them suitable for use both on the road and at home. How do I know? Because the Evenflo Maestro Sport (technically its retired sibling the SecureKid) is a seat we’ve used in one of our own cars for the last four years.
If you’re shopping for a travel car seat for the 3 year old in your life and don’t intend to rear-face, it’s hard to beat the all-around package of the Maestro Sport. It’s got enough padding to keep riders happy (unlike the previous version) and is light enough that we regularly carry it through the airport by the straps since we no longer bring a stroller.
We’ve installed this on airplanes many times and it’s quick and easy. Our kids haven’t had issue with legroom, but we do remove their shoes and remind them not to (accidentally) kick their neighbor in front.
The price is very affordable, especially considering that it’ll last you well into elementary school! We’re also heartened to see that the Evenflo Maestro fared extremely well in Consumer Reports’ recent independent testing of combination car seats (outperforming some seats that cost $200 more).
The biggest downside for some families is that the shoulder straps are set fairly close to each other. If Evenflo could make them even 1″ further apart, they’d have some very happy kids out there. The narrow setting is compounded by the lack of harness pads – which you are not allowed to add. Sometimes our kids have complained but usually they haven’t; when it bothers them, we try to just pull their shirt collars up to protect the sides of their necks.
-Max harness height 18”
-Forward-facing size limits 22-65lbs, 27-49″
-Highback booster size limit 30-100lbs, 38-57″
-Backless booster size limit 40-100lbs, 40-57″
✔ Lasts from age 3 (as a harness) to ~age 12 (as a backless booster)
✔ Reasonable price for longevity
✔ Extremely narrow
✔ 7 year expiration
✘ Can be tough to install in some cars
✘ Heavier than other options
✘ Back and base may separate when carrying
If we were on the market for a travel car seat for a 3 year old, the Graco Tranzitions would get some serious consideration. The price tag is extremely reasonable (and may be cheaper at Walmart) for what you get and it would be a great seat to use both at home at on the go. The best part? You’ll never have to buy another car seat again (unless you want to, that is).
Unlike the Evenflo Maestro, the Tranzitions has harness pads and a slightly wider distance between straps to keep your kid comfortable. It has an option pillow for extra padding and even two cupholders, which can be rotated inward to save space and make this a great car seat for traveling with three kids.
So what are the tradeoffs? Nothing is perfect. You’ll have to carry around a few extra pounds for all those features, though you won’t notice a difference if you use a cart like this one or strap it to your suitcase. Some parents have had trouble installing the Tranzitions (or the Graco Wayz) in certain cars, but most parents report that it’s easy to use. Lastly, the base and the back can click apart from each other too easily when you’re carrying it around – this problem afflicts just about every booster seat than can become backless (including the one we use at home) and it’s such a nuisance!
Cosco Finale DX review
-Max harness height 17”
-Forward-facing size limits 30-65lbs, 32-49”
-Highback booster size limits 40-100lbs, 43-52”
✔ Lasts from age 3 (as a harness) to ~age 7 (as a booster)
✔ Extremely low price
✔ very narrow
✔ 10 year expiration
✘ ‘BASIC’ crash test performance rating from Consumer Reports
✘ potential seatbelt retraction issues in booster mode (can be avoided by not using guide, which is not required)
✘ LATCH not allowed in booster mode
✘ sparse padding on the seat
I’ll be candid: the Cosco Finale DX isn’t my top pick for a harnessed booster for travel. After reading some expert reviews and playing with them in stores and at car seat events, I just can’t get on board with the Finale for my family. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it! It’s an extremely popular choice among the travel car seats for 3 year olds.
I’ll start with the pros, because there are two really big reasons why traveling families love (and I really mean love) their Cosco Finales. First, you absolutely can’t beat the weight. At 8 pounds, it’s the lightest car seat in its class! You can push it in a stroller, carry it in your hands or even strap it to your suitcase without breaking a sweat.
Second, it’s really hard to beat that price tag. There’s actually an even cheaper version at Walmart but the padding is basically non-existent. Not only is it the lightest combination car seat, but it’s the cheapest one too!
So what are the cons? For starters, it’s not a seat that’s going to last particularly long. The 17″ maximum harness height is the shortest on this list – even shorter than the convertible car seats at the top! There are plenty of kids who will outgrow the harness mode at age 5-6, even if they aren’t mature enough yet for the booster mode.
The booster mode itself can be problematic too. Though the seat belt guide isn’t required, it can cause problems with the seatbelt retracting in some cars. I also don’t like that you can’t use LATCH to keep the seat in place in booster mode.
And while some kids love the seat and find it comfortable enough, my kids are extremely picky about their padding… and not shy about it either. We’ve had to replace more than one seat because they just don’t find them plush enough for long drives.
All that said, the Cosco Finale DX might be the right choice for your family if you’re on a tight budget or you need an extremely narrow car seat to fit 3-across in a tiny European rental car.
Wayb Pico review
-Forward-facing size limits: 22-50lbs, 30-45″, recommended 2+ years old
✔ Easy to install
✔ Keeps kids harnessed
✔ FAA-approved to use on flights
✘ High price
✘ Low height limit
✘ Crotch strap too short for some kids
✘ Top tether strap too short for some cars (can request an extension)
✘ Currently recalled due to faulty headrest
Note: Some versions of the Waby Pico have been recalled due to faulty headrests. Right now the seat is backordered/out of stock while updated parts are manufactured. With any luck, it will be available in late 2019.
One of the coolest kid travel products we’ve seen in a loooong time is the new Wayb Pico. It was hard to miss as they plastered their Indiegogo campaign all over Facebook in 2018! The promise? An ultra-light, ultra-compact folding car seat with 5-point harness. Families would be able to travel with world without compromising safety.
Apart from the recall noted at the top, in some ways their promise has panned out. For certain families the Pico is the perfect solution to a really tough question, while for others it isn’t the right fit. Read our in-depth expert Wayb Pico review here.
I’ll start with the advantages: the Wayb Pico is small and easy to use. The weight is about the same as the Cosco Scenera Next, but the genius is in how small it folds up (and even packs into its own backpack!) so that you can lug it around and have it when you need it for spur-of-the-moment taxi rides.
The concept of a folding forward-facing harnessed car seat isn’t new. They’ve actually been made for years, including the current car seat used by Uber Family. The downside of prior seats is that they required use of a top tether. Without it, the seats don’t stay upright! If you’re traveling within the US, Canada or Western Europe that’s no problem.
But if you plan to venture outside those areas you may have an extremely hard time using those car seats. We’ve encountered so many cars in South America, Morocco, Thailand and more that don’t have top tethers – rendering seats like the IMMI Go completely useless. While you’d ideally use the top tether all the time with the Wayb Pico, at least you have the option to use it without the top tether if absolutely necessary.
The major disadvantage of the Wayb Pico is that the 45″ upper height limit isn’t that high for some families. Many kids will outgrow it around 5-5.5 years old. If you’re a family that prioritizes extended rear-facing and then you want an extended forward-facing harness, this isn’t the car seat for you! But if you’ll be doing a ton of traveling with a 2 or 3 year old (like our family gap year) then the Wayb Pico is the best option to keep your kid safe without lugging a full-size car seat. On the small end, the Pico is approved for kids at least 1 year old – but that’s not recommended, and in some places (like California and New York) it’s not even legal.
Finally, the price tag of the Pico may be tough for some families to swallow.
Is the Wayb Pico right for everyone? No. But if your family is going on an extended trip or relying on lots of taxis in your daily life and a folding travel car seat is on your must-have list, give the Wayb Pico a serious look once it’s available again.
Ride Safer Travel Vest review
-Size small: minimum age 3, fits best for 30+ lbs and 35-47″
-Size large: minimum age 4, fits best for 50+ lbs and 45-57″
✔ Rolls up to the size of a 2L soda bottle
✔ Perfect for taxi rides
✔ Lowers seat belt to provide an appropriate fit for young children
✔ Keeps kids properly seated better than a traditional booster seat – even when sleeping
✔ Easy to fit 3-across since it’s only as wide as the child
✔ 10 year expiration
✘ No side impact protection like a highback booster seat
✘ Takes practice to get belt fit right
✘ NOT permitted for use on planes
Several years ago the kind folks at Safe Ride 4 Kids sent us a Ride Safer Delight travel vest to review, and it hasn’t left our travel kit since. The Ride Safer travel vest (“Delight” has been dropped with the latest Ride Safer travel vest Gen 5 release) is completely different than the travel car seats above.
You could say that the Ride Safer travel vest is sort of in between a booster seat and a traditional forward-facing car seat. It relies on the car’s seat belt to handle most of the restraint, but also has an optional-but-pease-use-it-always top tether that minimizes head movement in an accident and keeps your child in the correct position even if they fall asleep (or drop a toy). While we won’t put our youngest child in a booster seat yet since she’s a car sleeper – especially when jet-lagged – we’re comfortable with her riding in the Ride Safer vest.
So comfortable, in fact, that we brought our Ride Safer vest on our year-long trip around the world! It’s seen action on six continents and served us well the whole time. Once we practiced a few times, we got very fast at putting her in the vest and getting her secured in the car. The biggest change from the Ride Safer Delight to the Gen 5 is an easier buckle in the front, so that should help many parents.
Would I recommend the Ride Safer Gen 5 for a typical 3 year old? It depends. Our experience is that it runs a little big right at 3 years old. If your child is closer to 3.5 years old (or on the tall end at 3) then it should work well. The size small should last most kids until 6 or even 7. Because there’s no side impact protection, it’s a good idea to put your Ride Safer in the middle seat if it has a top tether available.
For families going on extended journeys like ours who just can’t take a traditional car seat or those heading somewhere like NYC or Paris, where they’ll mostly rely on public transportation but need an occasional taxi ride, the Ride Safer travel vest is a fantastic option. For a more typical trip that involves flying and then renting a car for a week or two, we generally opt to bring our other travel car seat.
Speaking of flying… the other downside of the Ride Safer travel vest is that it can’t be used on the plane. The manufacturer has been working on it for a few years, so let’s cross our collective fingers. In the meantime, if your kid is under 40lbs we recommend using this on the plane to keep him properly restrained if there’s bad turbulence or a runway incident.
What’s your favorite travel car seat for a 3 year old? Tell us in the comments below!