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Are you trying to pick the best travel car seat for a 4 year old? You’ve come to the right place! If you’re shopping for a child of a different age, check out the best travel car seats for all ages to get to the right list – including this helpful round up of travel car seats for 3 year olds.
If your family is anything like ours, at home the kids are riding around in harnessed boosters that might as well be kid-sized thrones. They’re amazing for safety and comfort.
But for travel? Not so much. 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 4 year olds on the market today.
What do we look for in the best portable car seat for 4 year old kids? 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 or you think she would benefit from staying harnessed for a few more years, you might want to choose taller 4 year old 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.
Quick Picks: Best Travel Car Seat For A 4 Year Old
If you want to skip the details, here are my top picks for the best travel car seat for a 4 year old:
- Graco Tranzitions SnugLock – easy seatbelt install anywhere in the world, works for kids ages ~3-12 (also available directly from Graco)
- Evenflo Maestro Sport – best lightweight harnessed booster that works well in both modes (also available at Walmart)
- Wayb Pico (full review here) – foldable harnessed car seat perfect for long-term travel
- Ride Safer Travel Vest (full review here) – booster seat alternative perfect for lightweight travel with preschoolers
Portable Car Seat For A 4 Year Old Comparison
|Travel car seat||Size|
|rear-facing or forward-facing;|
|Evenflo Maestro Sport||forward-facing or high-back booster;|
Graco Tranzitions SnugLock
|forward-facing, high-back booster|
or backless booster;
|Cosco Finale DX||forward-facing or high-back booster;|
(also available here)
|Ride Safer Travel Vest||booster seat alternative;|
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Best travel car seats for 4 year olds
The NHTSA recommends that 4 year olds remain in a forward-facing harness as long as possible, and many safety advocates urge parents to keep their kids harnessed for several years beyond age 4.
Why? At age 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 a big trip. 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.
In the reviews below, we mostly recommend 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. That means they’ll last you for years – maybe even until the end of your car seat days. A combination seat is (usually) the best car seat for a 4 year old if you’re buying a new one.
If you have a lightweight convertible car seat already, that’s a great choice and can help you postpone a new purchase, but (with one exception) I wouldn’t recommend buying a new convertible car seat for a 4 year old since they’ll outgrow it so soon. Convertible seats can’t switch to a booster mode, so once the harness is outgrown they get tossed into the car seat graveyard (or passed down, whatever works for you).
Does a 4 year old need a carseat to fly?
A 4 year old doesn’t necessarily need a car seat to fly, but it depends on their size and the details of the trip. If your 4 year old is already 40 pounds, he can sit in the airplane seat with the regular seatbelt. If he’s under 40 pounds, you might want to use at least the CARES harness (full review here) to improve seat belt fit.
You can avoid the travel car seat entirely by purchasing the Ride Safer travel vest. It’s one of our favorite travel products and is truly ideal for a 4 year old. It can’t be used on planes but is a perfect land-based complement to the CARES harness.
If you prefer a traditional car seat rather than a Ride Safer, I recommend using the car seat on board. Checking a car seat on an airplane can introduce alllllll sorts of other complications!
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 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, 29-54”
✔ Extremely tall
✔ Decent padding
✔ Nice enough to use as an everyday car seat
✔ Easy to stack two together
✘ Requires top tether, which may not be available in all countries
✘ Heavier than Cosco Scenera Next and Cosco Apt 50
✘ More expensive than Cosco car seats
✘ Hard to fit on budget airlines and in compact cars
✘ 6 year expiration
I know I said I was mostly going to recommend lightweight harnessed boosters for travel, and then I go and start off with a convertible car seat. What gives?
Well, the Evenflo Sureride DLX is one of the tallest car seats out there, convertible or otherwise. It will keep your child in a 5-point harness longer than any of the lightweight combination car seats below, often to age 6 or 7.
There’s also a somewhat limited selection of really great lightweight harnessed booster seats (though if you’re shopping for home use we love this one). If you’re shopping for a globetrotting 4 year old who would be served well with extended harnessing (due to size or maturity), the Sureride is an excellent choice.
The Sureride’s features are on the more basic side, but it’ll still get the job done. It still passes all Federal crash testing, 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). As you can see above, it also doesn’t allow kids to use the tray table, which might frustrate your 4 year old.
Beginning in mid-2021, all new Evenflo car seats will require the top tether for forward facing. If you plan on international travel to the developing world where a top tether may be unavailable, you’ll have to evaluate whether or not you feel comfortable using the car seat against manufacturer instructions. The top tether is an important safety feature because it reduces forward head movement in a crash by 4-6″, but car seats are required to pass Federal crash tests without it no matter what. If your child still fits rear facing, you can continue using it anywhere in the world!
Just remember: the Sureride does not transition to a booster seat. Once you feel that your child is big enough and mature enough for a booster, you’ll need to buy a different option. But with such generous harness limits, hopefully you’ll be able to go straight to our favorite ultralight booster seat.
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
✔ Easy to install
✘ Requires top tether, which may not be available in all countries
✘ Narrow set harness straps with no covers
✘ 6 year expiration
The Evenflo Maestro Sport harness-to-booster car seat is probably one of the best options for a travel car seat for preschoolers if you want one that will last a good few years. It offers nice height limits as a forward-facing harness and then plenty of room in high-back booster mode.
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. At only 9lbs, it’s truly a lightweight harness booster seat!
We’ve installed its cousin in an airplane seat many times while using it with the harness 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.
Note that Evenflo says kids should be at least 44″ tall to use it as a booster, which is about age 5.5 for an average boy. Our tiny kids haven’t hit that threshold until at least 6.5, so if your kids are small and you want to use a booster seat, this might not be the best choice for you.
The price is very affordable, especially considering that it’ll last you into elementary school if your child is on the slimmer side!
The biggest downside for some families is that the shoulder straps are set fairly close to each other in 5-point harness mode. 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. If your child has a broader build or is tall, he might do better with a different seat.
The 50 pound max harness weight of the Maestro Sport is also disappointing. Our older Evenflo SecureKid goes up to 65 pounds, as does the Evenflo SureRide, so I wish Evenflo had incorporated that extra reinforcement for the Maestro Sport. You can switch to booster mode at 50 pounds (the weight of an average 7 year old) and continue using the seat for several more years, but some kids who are higher on the weight curve won’t be mature enough for a booster seat when they hit 50lbs.
We used the similar SecureKid in booster mode for several years (starting after age 6, but I wouldn’t recommend switching to a booster until at least 5) and it worked well. The seatbelt fit was good and it was easy to use. Just know that if you’re using it as a booster seat for your 5 year old, you won’t be able to bring it on board a plane with you. It’s not going to be the tallest booster seat around since the headrest on the Maestro Sport doesn’t adjust, but at least you can eek out a little more time by running the seatbelt over the headrest if your child gets a better fit that way and is still within the seat’s limits (including the tops of the ears still being within the headrest).
For average or smaller/thinner kids, we think the Evenflo Maestro Sport might be the best car seat for 4 year old kids whose families are on a budget but want a travel-worthy option. Since it converts between a forward-facing harness and a highback booster seat, many families can get at least three years of use out of it – not bad for a seat with a retail price under $100.
Graco Tranzitions review
-Max harness height 18”
-Forward-facing size limits 22-65lbs, 27-49″
-Highback booster size limit 40-100lbs, 43-57″, age 4+
-Backless booster size limit 40-100lbs, 43-57″, age 4+
✔ Fits from age 3 (as a harness) to ~age 12 (as a backless booster)
✔ Reasonable price for longevity
✔ Extremely narrow
✔ Easy seatbelt install with SnugLock
✘ Original can be tough to install in some cars
✘ Heavier than other options
✘ Back and base may separate when carrying
✘ 7 year expiration
If we were on the market for a travel car seat for a 4 year old, the Graco Tranzitions 3-in-1 SnugLock harness booster car seat would get some serious consideration. The price tag is extremely reasonable for what you get and it would be a great seat to use both at home at on the go (it may be even cheaper at Walmart though that version doesn’t have the game-changing SnugLock feature) .
The best part? You might never have to buy another car seat again (unless you want to, that is) thanks to the 7 year lifespan and the ability to “tranzition” the seat to a highback booster and later a backless booster.
Unlike the Evenflo Maestro, the Tranzitions harnesses to 65lbs (rather than only 50) has harness pads and a slightly wider distance between straps to keep your kid comfortable. Of the lightweight options on this list, it’s one of the better harnessed booster seats for 4 year olds who are bigger than average.
The Graco Tranzitions also makes a good booster seat for kids who are small but mature (I recommend 5 as a minimum age for boostering). The 38″ minimum is a big help for parents of peanuts like ours! It even includes premium features like an adjustable headrest and no-rethread harness.
New for summer 2020, Graco has released the Graco Tranzitions SnugLock 3-in-1. The biggest improvement is that it now includes the SnugLock lock-off system, which is perfect for installing in countries where seatbelts don’t lock (avoiding the dreaded locking clip). The newer version also has improved padding, air vents and a safety-focused 40 pound minimum for booster mode. Get more details here.
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 original Tranzitions (or the Graco Wayz) in certain cars, but the new SnugLock version makes that a thing of the past. It also requires a top tether for installation, which you may not find in developing countries.
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 that 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
✘ Requires top tether, which may not be available in all countries
✘ 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 4 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!
New for 2020, there’s a slightly fancier version of the same seat sold as the Safety 1st Grand. It includes a more padded cover and two cup holders instead of one. The specs and shell are identical to the original Cosco Finale.
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 6, even if they aren’t mature enough yet for the booster mode.
The biggest downside for international travelers is that the Cosco Finale requires using the top tether in harness mode. Not all countries have top tethers in all cars (or any cars), so the Finale may not be the best choice for international travel.
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 (including a Cosco) 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
-Max harness height 16.5″
-Forward-facing size limits: 22-50lbs, 30-45″, recommended 2+ years old minimum
✔ Easy to install
✔ Keeps kids harnessed
✔ FAA-approved to use on flights
✔ Can install without top tether
✘ High price
✘ Low height limit
✘ Crotch strap too short for some kids
✘ Top tether strap too short for some cars (can request an extension)
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. Parents report that the LATCH system is easier than the seatbelt installation, but both will work with practice.
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 and 16.5″ harness slots aren’t high enough for some families, especially if you’re buying at 4 years old. 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 4 year old (like our family gap year) and you don’t want to use the Ride Safer travel vest, 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. Be sure to use coupon VOYAGE10 to save 10% on your entire order.
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
✘ Fits most kids better when they’re close to 3.5-4
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.
The Ride Safer Gen 5 is great for an average size 4 year old. 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 sometimes opt to bring our other travel car seat.
While we generally think of the Ride Safer as a travel car seat alternative, we also use it at home often. I keep it in my trunk at all times so that we can fit 3-across in our car for those unexpected carpools or for when Grandma comes for a visit! Since the vest is as narrow as the child in it, there’s no trouble fitting it between two big car seats in our compact SUV.
Best car seat for 4 year old FAQs
A 4 year old should be in a forward facing 5-point harness car seat, though some families may still be able to rear-face their 4 year olds thank to higher capacity car seats. They can ride in a convertible car seat (rear facing/forward facing), a combination car seat (forward facing/booster seat) or an all-in-one car seat (rear facing/forward facing/booster seat). The safest car seat for 4 year old kids is a harnessed seat that you use properly 100% of the time.
Some 4 year olds meet the height and weight requirements to ride in a booster seat. However, their developmental level is just as important. Most 4 year olds aren’t able to sit correctly in a booster seat 100% of the time, even when sleeping, and that generally makes a booster seat a less safe choice than a harnessed car seat. Even though the law says you can use a booster seat for a 4 year old in most states, that’s just not a great choice from a safety perspective.
Some 4 year olds meet the height and weight requirements to ride in a backless booster seat, but it’s not the best choice for their safety. Their bodies are lighter and less developed than that of an older child and they lack the maturity to sit properly in a backless booster seat. A 4 year old booster seat rider may not even be heavy enough to keep the booster on the vehicle seat in a serious accident.
The best car seat for your 4 year old is the one that fits their bodies, fits your car, fits your family budget and that you can use correctly 100% of the time. Many 4 year olds ride in combination (also called “harnessed booster”) car seats. In addition to the travel-friendly car seats in this list, here are some fantastic options to consider that will last your child for many years:
–Britax Grow With You ClickTight
–Chicco MyFit (save $30 when you buy direct)
–Graco Nautilus SnugLock
What’s your favorite travel car seat for a 4 year old? Tell us in the comments below!