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Hi! You’ve probably come here because you’re planning your family’s upcoming vacation and recently suffered that moment of dread when you realized that you have no love for the idea of slogging a 25 (or 30!) pound car seat all of creation.
The good news is that you have options for flying with a car seat. There are plenty of hacks for moving your big car seat around if that’s what you want to do. But if you want to take your travels to the next level, consider upgrading to a lightweight car seat for travel or even a swanky folding car seat. Check out our top picks for the best car seat to travel with at each stage, and keep reading to find out what to look for when you’re shopping for a car seat for traveling.
Best travel car seat for a 1 year old
Top pick: Combi Coccoro
More options: Best travel car seats for 1 year olds
Best travel car seat for a 2 year old
Top pick: Evenflo Sonus 65
-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
More options: Best travel car seats for 2 year olds
Best travel car seat for a 3 year old
Top pick: Evenflo Maestro Sport
-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
More options: Best travel car seats for 3 year olds
Best travel car seat for a 4 year old/
Best travel car seat for a 5 year old
Top pick: Ride Safer Travel Vest
-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
More options: Best travel car seats for 4 year olds
More options: Best travel car seats for 5 year olds
Best high back booster seat for travel
More options: Best travel booster seat
Best backless booster seat for travel
More options: Best portable car booster seat
What to look for in a portable car seat for travel
So what makes these car seats the most travel-worth? We look at a few key criteria.
Right stage for the age
The first, most basic requirement is that a car seat should be age-appropriate. I’m never going to recommend a booster car seat for a 2 year old just because it’s easier to travel with.
At a minimum, we’d suggest following the NHTSA guidelines. Kids should be in a rear-facing infant or convertible car seat until at least age 3, but ideally closer to 4 years old if possible. Beyond that, they should ride in a Ride Safer Travel Vest or a forward-facing harnessed car seat (or even the new Wayb Pico) until they’re big enough and mature enough to sit properly in a booster seat for travel.
Lightweight car seat
The best travel car seat options (and car seat alternatives) range from 2 to 12 pounds. The high end may sound like a lot, but it’s still a lot more manageable than the 25lb convertible car seat most families use at home!
By the same token, on an extended trip or when where you might need lot of impromptu taxi rides you might be best served by a folding travel car seat – not just lightweight, but compact too.
Easy to use
You may think that ease of use isn’t that important for a car seat that won’t see a ton of use, but we disagree. We’ve used plenty of different car seats both at home and on the go, and the ones that are hard to install or use are a disaster.
Remember, you’ll (probably) be in an unfamiliar place and installing that car seat in an unfamiliar car or taxi. It could even be after a 12 hour flight crossing more time zones than you or your cranky children can count. And you’ll have kids (those same cranky ones), spouses and taxi drivers waiting on you while you figure it out. Sounds lovely, eh?
Lasts for a few years
The final feature I look for in a travel car seat is a bit on the subjective side. Ideally, I don’t want my house to look like a car seat graveyard (this was a big problem when we lived in an apartment with two kids). So when shopping for a travel car seat, I’m hoping for one that we can use for a few years.
However, in our case, I can be a little flexible. Our kids are almost three years apart so when the older kid outgrows a car seat, usually it’s the right time for his sister to start using it. Even seats that generally don’t last one kid very long have given us five or six years of service.
If storage space isn’t a concern for you, then some of the inexpensive compact travel car seats that just last two or three years could work well. After all, some of those seats cost less than a family dinner out! Even if you just use them a handful of time, you’ve saved yourself money over renting them on vacation.
Which car seats are approved for air travel?
Basically every car seat made for the US market today is an FAA-approved approved car seat provided you use the harness. That means that booster seats are not FAA-approved and that “harnessed boosters” (also called “combination car seats”) can only be used with the harness installed.