When you're on the go with your little one, having one of the best travel car seats is essential to keep them safe. After all, they are our most precious cargo! But with so many travel car seat options on the market, how do you choose the right one for your child?
We spoke to Tammy Franks, Senior Program Manager, Mobility Safety at the National Safety Council, who told TTR that “the best car seat is that one that fits the child, fits the vehicle, and that the caregiver can use correctly every time…consideration should [also] be given to the ability of the caregiver to carry or lift the car seat.”
Parents planning to utilize their car seat on a flight should also ensure that the seat they purchase is certified for use on an aircraft. Franks encourages parents to check the instruction manual for guidance from the manufacturer and adds that "some car seat manuals include helpful hints for installation on an aircraft."
Seats should also be no wider than 16 inches to ensure they will fit on most airline seats. However, according to FAA guidelines, if the car seat doesn't fit in a certain seat on the plane, the airline is responsible for accommodating the car seat in another location in the same service class. Parents should feel comfortable asking for assistance if needed while on board the aircraft.
Travel car seats come with a plethora of features, so the first step in this process should be to decide which ones are most necessary to you. While some of the bells and whistles may be optional, all parents should carefully consider the seat's portability, weight, and size to make sure it is the right choice for your specific situation and how you plan to use the car seat. After all, you don't want to be weighed down by the wrong seat while trekking through airports or train stations.
So whether you're gearing up for your next family road trip or need a car seat for overseas travel, our guide will help you find the perfect fit.
The best travel car seats
1. Bugaboo Turtle Air by Nuna: The best car seat overall
The new Bugaboo Turtle Air is a luxurious lightweight car seat that – true to its name – weighs in at just under 7 pounds. While this is the lightest carrier on the list, it doesn't sacrifice on quality to deliver this ultralight, portable design.
This seat was designed in conjunction with top-rated car seat manufacturer Nuna, bringing together the benefits of Nuna's signature plush, comfortable style in a seat that syncs seamlessly with Bugaboo strollers.
The Turtle Air clips into the car using Nuna's ISOFIX base system, but the brand has also integrated European Belt pathways so the seat can be used without the base for travel, which is great for trips when there's no room to pack the base, or if you don't want to lug it around.
Though it is on the more expensive side of our list, ringing in at a cool $479, thoughtful touches like an automatically rethreading harness, Oeko-Tex premium fabrics, merino wool inserts, and an XXL sun canopy with magnets make it worth the splurge. Bugaboo also utilizes unique Aeroflex foam to safely pad the seat with shock-absorbent, flexible material without adding a lot of extra weight to the device.
Seamless integration with Bugaboo strollers is a feature that cannot be overlooked. The ease of use in connecting this seat to the stroller is a great selling point – parents can easily click into the stroller in seconds, allowing you to get going quickly without waking your baby.
2. Cybex Solution Z i-Fix: The best travel car seat for toddlers
The Cybex Solution Z i-Fix is a luxe booster seat, having received a Red Dot Award in 2019 for its ergonomic design and thoughtful safety features. It's a nice option for families with toddlers who have outgrown their baby car seats but still need support.
Small yet impactful touches are incorporated throughout the seat, such as a guide on the side of the chair that helps position the seatbelt so it doesn't chafe against the child's neck. The seat is constructed with high-quality, breathable fabric with extra ventilation to keep children cool, even on hot days.
The also features a light system to assist with installation – the seat has an indicator light that flashes green when it's latched in place correctly.
Cybex's Z i-Fix is designed to grow with your child and features 12 different height and width positions that can be easily adjusted to fit your child as they get older, as well as an adjustable headrest and shoulder protector pads to fit the seat to your child's unique needs.
As this is a larger seat, it is not approved for use during airline travel. However, it's a good option for families with older children, especially those who take frequent road trips. The Z i-Fix will keep toddlers safe, secure, and comfortable on the road.
3. Doona Infant Car Seat: A car seat that doubles up as a stroller
The Doona Infant Car Seat has made waves since its release for its innovative convertible design, allowing you to transition from a car seat to a stroller in seconds.
The sleek design is available in six bright colors so you can travel in style. The inside of the seat is padded with energy-absorbing foam to ensure your baby is as comfortable as possible in transit.
Safety is a top priority in this seat's design. The seat features 3-layer protection for side impacts, an ergonomic insert, and anti-rebound bar crash technology to keep your little one safe and protected.
Parents do report that the car seat is heavier than other options available. Still, the convertible system allows you to transition to a stroller to alleviate some strain when necessary. Unfortunately, due to the collapsible design, there is no storage available on the car seat.
However, it should be noted that the Doona is not intended to fully replace a stroller, and it can be dangerous to keep your baby in a car seat for longer than 2 hours at a time due to the position they have to stay in.
All in all, the Doona is a great heavy-duty option for families that travel frequently and need the convenience and flexibility to quickly convert between a seat and a stroller. This product is also durable enough to withstand the challenges of frequent movement.
4. Maxi-Cosi Mico 30: The best ergonomic car seat
The Mico 30 by Maxi-Cosi is a mid-range car seat, ideal for those seeking an ultra-lightweight option. Weighing in at just 8.11 pounds, the Mico 30 is one of the lightest carriers on the market, but it doesn't skimp on comfort.
The seat is padded with layers of the brand's PureCosi fabric and padding, made without wool or fire-retardant chemicals. The material is self-wicking and can easily be removed to machine wash and dry.
Extended side-impact protection is also built into the seat to keep your little one safe and protected at any angle, and a Cozi-Dozi pillow provides ample head support. There is a 5-point harness to keep babies snug in the seat, though the harness will need to be manually rethreaded as your baby grows.
Parents will love the contoured, ergonomic handle, designed to provide comfort and make carrying easier. An easy-latch system also allows the seat to be installed with a single click.
Although the carrier is lightweight, it is slightly larger than some of its competitors. It would be a tight fit in a compact car, though it is TSA-approved and certified for aircraft use.
5. Safety 1st Onboard 35 LT Infant Car Seat: The best budget lightweight car seat
Do you recall seeing those infamous yellow "Baby on Board!" signs on the back of cars across the country? Safety 1st was the original creator of those now-iconic signs, and the company was founded with a mission to protect the safety of children from the car to the home and "everywhere in between."
Weighing in at just 7.9 pounds, the Safety 1st Onboard 35 LT is also one of the lightest car seats on the market. True to the brand's focus on safety, the seat doesn't compromise on it, coming packed with features to protect your little one during every part of your journey.
The seat features deep, padded sides to protect babies from possible side-impact collisions. An adjustable four-position harness allows you to buckle your baby in snugly as they continue to grow.
A nice feature of this seat is that it does not require a base to be installed in a car, so it can be great for use on the road, and for hopping in and out of taxis.
The 35 LT is also one of the more affordable options on this list, providing peace of mind to parents on any budget.
6. Diono Radian 3RXT: The best premium car seat
The Diono Radian 3XRT is a powerhouse car seat option, offering a 3-in-1 convertible solution for parents to safely transport their child from infant to toddler in comfort and style. The 3XRT offers a cushy memory foam seat and has soft, high-quality fabric in 13 vibrant colors.
Tipping the scales at just over 26 pounds, this is one of the heavier seat options on our list, but the Diono also comes packed with features that parents will love.
The seat is FAA-approved while in forward- or rear-facing mode using the 5-point harness, though it’s not airline approved when in booster mode. However, due to the heavier weight, it works better as a seat that’s kept installed in a car, rather than a system to take for longer trips or international travel.
Families with multiple children close in age find that the narrow width of the Diono works well to reasonably fit up to three seats across in a mid-size or larger car, which is great for longer trips with young children.
While this is a luxurious seat, there are some limitations to how well the 3-in-1 system works. For example, newborns, particularly on the smaller end, might find the seat too roomy, and taller toddlers may find that they grow out of the seat earlier.
7. Evenflo Tribute LX Convertible Car Seat: The best budget convertible travel car seat
The Evenflo Tribute LX convertible car seat is a great value option if you're looking for a seat that can travel with you for several years as your child grows.
The seat can safely carry an infant from 5 to 40 pounds in a rear-facing configuration and can then be converted to a forward-facing seat for toddlers ranging from 22 to 40 pounds as they age.
Even though it comes in at a lower price point than many of the other options on this list, there is a high priority placed on safety, and the company claims that the seat has 2x better safety standards than that required by federal regulations. It also has standard safety features, including side impact protection and a removable and machine-washable seat pad.
Since it's relatively lightweight at just 12 pounds, it’s not difficult to carry and can easily be transferred between cars if needed. A cup holder accessory is also included with the seat – a nice touch to make snack time on the go a cinch.
The seat does have FAA approval, but some parents warn that the sticker is difficult to locate on the seat itself, so you might run into trouble with airline employees questioning whether it's permitted on board. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the sticker location before leaving for your trip to avoid confusion or slowdowns in the security line!
8. Graco Snugride SnugLock 35
The Graco Snugride SnugLock 35 is a budget-friendly option that prioritizes safety and security. This highly-rated seat utilizes Graco’s SnugLock technology to lock the car seat into place in one hassle-free step, ensuring your baby is securely fastened for the journey ahead without having to struggle to get the seat into place.
The design features soft fabric and side-impact padding, with multiple parents reporting that the car seat effectively protected their children during serious accidents. Four seat positions are available to recline your child, and a recline indicator quickly shows which position the seat is in.
However, some parents report that the canopy's bulkier design can get in the way of the handle, making it a challenge to carry the seat with the canopy up. The SnugLock seat itself is FAA-approved for use on a plane, though it should be noted that the base is not.
Overall, this is a solid option for parents seeking a durable, safe, and dependable car seat for their child at an affordable price point.
Choosing the best travel car seat: What the experts say
Now that you have an understanding of the vast array of features available on the market, we suggest creating a thorough list of must-have capabilities for your travel style and family needs to help narrow down the options.
A more streamlined, lightweight option might be best for families who plan to travel by air or prefer longer or international travel. If road trips are more your style, a sturdier seat built for comfort could be the way to go.
Sarah Huff, Senior Manager, Customer and Community at BabyQuip, says of car seats intended for air travel that “you’ll be lugging them in and out of planes, trains, and automobiles. They don’t need all the bells and whistles that a parent might want for a car seat at home.”
Huff also suggested that for parents seeking “a multi-purpose and long-lasting travel car seat, a convertible car seat that allows for rear-facing and forward-facing positions is best” as it will allow you to continue to adapt the seat over time.
Once you've decided and purchased a seat, you can do a couple of important things to prepare to travel successfully with your little ones.
When you receive your car seat, check to ensure that there is an FAA sticker on the device if the carrier is aircraft-approved. It will be helpful to know where this information is located in case questions arise while traveling.
If you are planning to rent a car at your destination, Tammy Franks of the National Safety Council suggests packing the car seat manual in a place such as your carry-on bag where it’s easily accessible, in case you need to refer to the manual “to help with the installation of the car seat in a rental vehicle.”
Parents should also have a backup plan and know where the closest retailer is located in case the cat seat is damaged in transit and you need to purchase or rent a replacement.
Remember, safety is always a top priority when it comes to our little ones. With so many options on the market, there’s no need to compromise on safety or comfort no matter the budget, and our guide can help you find the best travel car seat for your child.