Rear-facing from 5 to 35 lbs. and forward-facing from 20 to 40 lbs. Front harness adjustment and buckle make it easy to fit the harness to the child. Lightweight and easy to install, making it a great choice for families who fly frequently. Removable, machine-washable seat cover. Compact design meant for smaller vehicles.
Straps easily twist. Thin padding. Lacks the luxurious looks of other models.
High back and shoulder strap placement for younger children. Removable back for when they get older. Cup holders on both sides. Simple and easy to install and remove. One-handed height adjustment. Narrow seat base fits better in small vehicles. Can be used for children who are 40 pounds and at least 40 inches tall.
When the seat back is raised to the highest position, there is little padding in the lower back.
Dual cup holders. Can be used rear-facing from 5 to 40 lbs. and forward facing from 22 to 50 lbs. Great harness adjustments with 6 different heights and 3 buckle locations. Provides good leg room when rear-facing.
The harness straps can be difficult to adjust.
Unique front tether adjustment for latch system makes it easy to get a good fit. Cup holder and hideaway storage container let your child keep a few extras in the car. Can be used for children weighing up to 60 lbs. Height adjustable headrest.
Headrest position can be problematic in vehicles of a certain make and model.
Converts from rear-facing (5 to 35 lbs.) to front-facing (22 to 50 lbs.) and finally to booster mode (40 to 100 lbs.). Includes removable infant head and neck support and padding for a better fit. Machine washable cover. Reclines to create a more comfortable seating angle.
Difficult installation and strap adjustment, which led to the need of replacement parts.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
Babies may be tiny, but they require some big (and sometimes expensive) gear, including a car seat. If you're on a budget, you can find an excellent car seat for less than $100. These baby necessities come in a wide variety of types and styles. You might be scratching your head as you look at all your options, but you've come to the right place.
Our shopping guide takes you through the basics and provides an in-depth look at the features you’ll want to consider. We've also included our top picks – models that stand out for their ease of use, durability, and safety.
Not all car seats are the same. The type of seat you need depends on your baby's age, size, and height, as well as your vehicle and general needs. Here's a breakdown of the three main types: infant-only, convertible, and booster.
Infant-only car seats
Infant-only models are rear-facing only. Generally, that means the seat has a maximum weight limit between 22 and 35 pounds. Some babies grow too tall for these car seats long before they reach the maximum weight limit, while others won’t pass those numbers for months.
Infant-only car seats typically have a base that stays strapped in the car, which allows you to remove the car seat and transport your baby from car to house while still in the seat. One of these is a great option if you'll be transporting your baby in two cars because you can buy a second base for one car seat. Infant-only seats are better suited for newborns and infants than the larger convertible car seats. However, you will have to replace it with a larger model once your baby reaches the maximum weight limit or grows too tall.
Price: Infant-only car seats are the most expensive, around $100, because they usually come with a base. These models also have canopies, auto-level indicators, and easy strap-adjustment features.
Convertible car seats
Convertible car seats can be rear- or forward-facing, and some can be used as a booster seat. Most have a minimum weight of 20 to 25 pounds, though there are a few models designed for newborns as small as 5 pounds. However, a convertible car seat won’t fit a newborn as well as an infant-only car seat that's designed for the smaller size and weight. The maximum weight limit varies by model and can be between 50 and 100 pounds. Many of these seats can take your child from infancy through toddlerhood – and even the early preschool years. These are bulkier than infant-only models, but you can use them longer.
Price: Convertible car seats start at $60 and go up to the $100 mark. They might have cupholders, auto-level indicators, and themed designs.
Booster car seats
Booster car seats are forward-facing only. These seats raise the child so the vehicle’s seat belt is in the correct position. The minimum and maximum weight limits vary by model, but the weight range is typically between 40 and 100 pounds. Children are ready for a booster seat when they reach the maximum weight or height limit of a convertible car seat. If you've noticed your child's ears are above the top of the car seat or shoulders are well above the highest harness position, it's time for a booster seat.
Price: Booster seats are the least expensive option, starting at around $40.
Car seats take up a fair amount of space in your back seat. If you've got a small vehicle and you need to use multiple car seats, the size of those car seats could be an issue. There are models that are one to two inches narrower than the average car seat, giving you enough space to fit two or even three car seats in your vehicle.
Children grow quickly, so you want a car seat that will last at least a few months. Take a close look at the weight and height limits of the car seat to make sure your child isn't already at them. Once your child has exceeded either the height or weight limit, for the sake of safety, it's time to look into getting a new car seat.
Simplicity that makes travel a breeze
Families who fly often will love this car seat. It’s lightweight, yet it can be used for children who weigh up to 40 pounds. A simple front harness adjustment system takes the work out of getting your child settled before heading out. Cleaning up messes is no big deal with the removable and machine-washable seat cover.
Car seats come with from two to six extra harness slots so you can adjust the height according to your child’s size. Once your child's shoulders reach above the slots, it's time to move up another slot. The more slots the car seat has, the longer your child can use the seat.
Once you've got your baby in the car seat, you have to tighten the harness. Some models have a one-push or one-pull adjustment system that allows you to make adjustments while your child is in the car seat. Others require you to adjust the straps from the back of the car seat, which can be hard to do when you've got a wiggly baby waiting to get in the car.
It’s no secret that babies make messes. Whether it’s spilled food or a leaky diaper, you’re going to have to clean the car seat cover at some point. Models with removable, machine-washable covers will make your life infinitely easier. You might even want to look into buying a second cover so you always have a clean one available.
Some convertible car seats and many booster seats have cup and/or snack holders. A full tummy helps a toddler endure a long car trip. Cupholders can also be used for toys and books. A model with a cupholder that can be hidden within the body of the car seat is nice if space is limited.
Don’t use any inserts and padding that didn’t come with the car seat or that aren’t recommended by the manufacturer. These items can change the way your baby fits in the car seat and compromise safety.
A latch system makes installation easier, and most car seats come prepped and ready for them. Check between the cushions of your back seat for two metal anchors to be sure your car has a latch system. Today’s car seats have straps designed to attached to these anchors rather than using the vehicle’s seat belt. A latch system and a seat belt are equally safe, but you might find one or the other makes it easier to install the car seat. Some booster seats are designed to use both the latch system and the seat belt at the same time. However, you should only do so if the manufacturer’s instructions indicate that this is the correct way to install the seat.
A canopy shields your baby from the sun. A properly positioned canopy can keep your baby snoozing for the entire length of the car trip and protect your little one if you take the car seat out while it’s raining.
Car seats can be notoriously difficult to install properly. Some models are easier than others. Infant-only car seats with a base make removal as easy as pulling a handle. Without a base, you have to either unlatch the straps from the anchors or remove the seat belt from the back of the car seat.
Auto-level indicator: Car seats have to be installed at the correct angle for your child’s safety during regular travel and in case of an accident. Models with an auto-level indicator let you know when you've got the car seat at the correct angle. This takes the guesswork out of installation and gives you peace of mind.
Winter coats and snowsuits can keep a car seat harness from fitting properly. Buckle your baby in the car seat first, and then place the coat over the top of the harness.
Preemies might need a special car bed to ride in because they can’t sit in the semi-reclined position of a car seat. Babies are tested before leaving the hospital, so you’ll know if you need one of these specialty models.
Simple boost with a few perks
If you’re past the car seat phase and in the market for a booster seat, this one’s a bargain that’s hard to pass up. It has an adjustable back that correctly positions the shoulder straps. Once your child gets a little bigger, the back can be removed, cutting down on the bulk in your car. We also like that it has cupholders on both sides and installs quickly.
While our top five picks offer some excellent options, there are few car seats that didn't make the list that could still be the right model for you. Let’s start with the Chicco KidFit 2-in-1 Belt-Positioning Booster. A front latch tether adjustment system makes this booster an easy one to get set while you’re on the go. The headrest has ten positions for the ultimate in adjustability. We especially like the removable, dishwasher-safe cupholders. The Safety 1st Guide 65 Convertible Car Seat fits well in smaller vehicles. It converts from rear- to forward-facing, and the cushion provides ample support for excellent comfort.
Q. Can I use a car seat if my car only has lap belts?
A. Lap belts can be used for rear-facing and forward-facing car seats but not booster seats. Booster seats require a shoulder strap to properly protect your child in an accident.
Q. Are there car seats with a narrow base for smaller vehicles?
A. Slim-fit or compact models have a narrower base to fit in smaller cars. If you need to fit more than one car seat in your back seat, a couple of slim-fit models could work.
Q. Are there seats that can be used from the time my baby is born until he no longer needs a car or booster seat?
A. There are models designed for this purpose. Keep in mind that they don’t fit a newborn as well as an infant-only model. Similarly, the booster seat might not be as adjustable as a booster-only model. However, these models will save you money in the long run.
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