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Is there any phrase that strikes fear into a parent’s heart more than “traveling with an infant“? (Well, maybe “traveling with a toddler.”) It’s not just the unpredictable schedules, inability to guarantee any kind of nap, fear of the reactions of other people on the plane (thus leading some parents – including George and Amal Clooney! – to make apology goodie bags for fellow passengers) and the possibility of losing that one suitcase full of all the diapers. It’s also the idea of all the gear you have to lug: travel strollers that are hard to close with one hand, heavy car seats you have to buckle in to tight airplane seats and fold-up cribs that are awkward to wedge into an already-packed car trunk.
We can’t take the stress out of a cross-country flight with an 18-month-old, but we can help recommend the gear that will ease the journey, from the lightweight car seat loved by experts and everyday parents to the travel crib you almost won’t hate lugging along. In the spirit of our Travel Awards, we narrowed down the field to recommend some of our favorite travel products, with assistance from enthusiastic Amazon reviewers, The Points Guy’s Summer Hull (who runs the travel site’s Mommy Points column and family content) and pediatricians Andrew Bernstein (an Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School) and Benjamin Hoffman (a Professor of Pediatrics at Oregon Health & Science University and Medical Director at the Tom Sargent Safety Center). We’ve got finds at every budget, so strap in, get the snacks ready and prepare for smooth skies ahead.
How Do You Find the Best Travel Gear for Kids?
Though our top-rated picks are frequently listed as favorites for a reason, it’s most important to find the solution that makes the most sense for your family. “Parents should look for an item that’s within their budget that seems easy and straightforward to install and use,” Dr. Bernstein recommends.
All our experts agreed it can be tough to know if something works for you without a trial run. “If you can try them in person, definitely do that,” Hull says. “If you can’t, read several reviews by people who aren’t getting paid to review it. And if possible, watch videos of people unboxing it, and using it for the first time. That’s where you’ll see the real stuff.”
Before you spend the money, make sure everything is approved for travel by your airline. “In order to use a car seat on a plane it has to be FAA-approved, and not all models sold in the United States are,” Dr. Hoffman says. “There will be a sticker on the side that specifically says that.”
Hull adds that it’s good to know your airline’s policy on checking baby gear; most airlines allow strollers and car seats to be checked for free, but travel cribs are counted as luggage. Both Hull and Hoffman stress that you should be educated on the airline and FAA’s policies regarding stroller checking (some airlines will allow certain strollers in the overhead compartment) and car seat installation (whether it can be installed rear-facing, for instance), as not all flight attendants will be aware of the rules.
What’s the Best Travel Car Seat?
Best Travel Car Seat at Every Budget: The Cosco Scenera Next (Buy It! $37 to 52, walmart.com)
Weighing under 11 lbs. and accommodating children up to 40 lbs., the Cosco Scenera Next has racked up thousands of 4-and 5-star reviews on Walmart.com for a reason: It lives up to the hype. “It gets good safety ratings, and it’s comfortable,” Hull says. “It’s not the most comfortable car seat out there, but my kids have never complained, so it must be good enough. It’s cheap, so you’re less worried about it getting lost or broken.”
With other car seats costing in the hundreds of dollars, it might seem like this $50 find is too good to be true – but Dr. Hoffman says it also gets high marks from his fellow pediatricians. “The Scenera is a great seat, and has been shown to meet the same minimum standard as the most expensive seat you can find out there,” he says. “If it fits the kid, if it fits the car, and if it fits the parent’s needs, it’s a great seat. Just because it’s inexpensive shouldn’t scare people away.”
Hate bringing a car seat on a plane flight? Though our pros are sympathetic to the expense and the inconvenience of booking an extra seat, they recommend using a car seat on a plane whenever feasible: “The car safety seat is going to do a much better job of protecting a kid in the event of turbulence than just a lap belt alone,” Dr. Hoffman says.
Other Travel Car Seat Accessories to Consider:
- Some parents will jury-rig car seats to their strollers with bungee cords, but Hull recommends going all-in (and hands free) with a car seat backpack. “We looked stupid, but it keeps it on your back … and you already have your padding for when you gate check it.”
- Buy It! JL Childress car seat backpack, $39.99; amazon.com
- For kids who have outgrown the Cosco Scenera Next, you can try the FAA-approved CARES harness (Dr. Hoffman likes it, but cautions that “it goes around the child’s airline seat so it impacts the tray table for the person behind them,” which may not make you popular) or a booster seat like the Mifold Grab ‘N Go, which fits into a backpack.
Best Travel Strollers
There are about a zillion options to choose from in this category, from inexpensive umbrella strollers to feats of engineering costing hundreds of dollars, and Dr. Hoffman is clear on one thing: “I think with most products for kids, what you’re paying for with extra money are bells and whistles, sometimes ease of use, and frequently just the name. As parents, we got as much mileage out of the super cheap umbrella strollers as we did from the fancy-schmancy expensive ones.”
The key things are: What do you want to spend? How comfortable and appropriate is it for your child? And how easy is it for you to use? That said, there were some names that came up again and again in our research.
Best Inexpensive Travel Stroller
Even without the under-$100 price tag, parents find it hard to believe how lightweight (13 lbs.) and easy to use the Summer Infant 3D Lite stroller is. More than 2,000 Amazon reviewers give it 5 stars, citing its excellent storage, convenient carry strap, sturdy construction and full recline.
- Buy It! Summer Infant 3D Lite convenience stroller, $80.99; amazon.com
Best Mid-Price Travel Stroller
A favorite of many frequent fliers (it folds up so compactly it fits in the overhead compartment and weighs just 9.5 lbs), the GB Pockit garners raves for its surprisingly strong construction despite its small size, plus thoughtful features like a reclining seat. Many parents (Hull included) note that it’s tricky to get the hang of the folding feature, but for a parent who wants to travel light, this is a well-loved option.
- Buy It! GB Pockit stroller, $149.95; amazon.com
Best Splurge Travel Stroller
If you’re looking to spend $300+ on a travel stroller, there are no shortage of excellent and beloved options. But Hull (and many professional reviewers) rave about this fairly new-to-market model for having all the bells and whistles of a full-size stroller with an incredibly easy collapse function and a light, easy-to-maneuver design. It comes with the added bonus of Uppababy’s unmatched customer service (ideal for any travel mishaps that occur).
- Buy It! Uppababy Minu stroller, $399.99; neimanmarcus.com
Best Travel Crib
Though the travel crib may seem like the biggest inconvenience of all, Dr. Hoffman recommends bringing it to any place where you’re not sure what the sleeping options for your infant might be. “There’s a huge risk in bed sharing, especially for younger infants,” he says. “Parents should bring a safe sleep space with them, that has a firm mattress with a tight fitting sheet. I cannot overstate the importance of that.”
If you plan to rent a crib or portable play yard from your hotel, Dr. Bernstein advises parents to “make sure they’re getting a relatively new item in perfectly-working order. Any difficulty in use or broken part could turn into a dangerous situation.”
Best Inexpensive Travel Crib
Graco’s portable Pack ‘n Play Playards are a registry staple for a reason: They get the job done, for a reasonable price. The company offers a variety of models with varying extras, priced accordingly, but this mid-range option with a removable changing table/newborn bassinet is a favorite among many parents for its ease of use, unbeatable price point and apparent comfort.
- Buy It! Graco Pack ‘n Play Simple Solutions Playard, $69.99; walmart.com
Best Splurge Travel Crib
Reviewers are rapturous about this (admittedly spendy) travel crib, with adjectives like “lightweight,” “compact” and “easy to use” appearing again and again. It’s also washable, durable and works for children up to about age 3. Hull says readers of The Points Guy unilaterally love it for how easy it is to travel with, and dozens of Buy Buy Baby reviewers say it’s the best thing they registered for.
- Buy It! BabyBjorn Travel Crib Light, $299.99; buybuybaby.com