Before the baby even arrives, expenses start piling up. One way to save money and lock in convenience is to buy a cheap travel system comprised of stroller, car seat, and base. Of course, you can buy the stroller and car seat (with or without a base) separately, but why? A travel system is a product for which the whole costs less than the sum of the parts. And with a car seat that fastens securely into the stroller, you can efficiently move a baby from one vehicle to another.
Cheap Travel Systems Buying Guide
There are many stroller/car seat/base combos on the market these days and the best cheap travel systems can be had for less than $300. Our research identified three winners. Leading the pack in a first place tie are the Graco FastAction Fold Travel System (starting at $200) and the Chicco Cortina KeyFit 22 Travel System (starting at $270), both of which score for user-friendly installation of the car seat base, maneuverability, comfort, and safety. The Graco Stylus LX Travel System (starting at $244) rolls into second place for its sturdy reliability and comfort. Lagging behind our best cheap travel systems picks is the Safety 1st Saunter Luxe Travel System (starting at $130), which gives some parents fits about car seat safety and ease of use.
There are several players in the cheap travel systems segment. Graco and Chicco offer the widest variety and garner the most positive reviews from experts and consumers. Manufacturers such as Safety 1st and Evenflo also offer some standout models, but our research revealed that Graco and Chicco perform more consistently across their entire lineup of cheap travel systems. And while there are plenty of travel systems out there costing north of $600, on the whole you'll find that cheap travel systems stack up equally next to their pricey counterparts when it comes to what matters -- safety, comfort, and ease of use.
Most cheap travel systems feature lots of bells and whistles: snack trays, drink holders, storage baskets, sunshades, reclining seats. In fact, many expensive models come with fewer options. One eye-catching attribute that distinguishes expensive from cheap travel systems, however, are the aesthetics -- the patterns and colors and overall styling. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we read dozens of online reviews gushing about the looks of the cheap travel systems on our list.
Experts are quick to assure anxious parents and caregivers that more money doesn't buy much more travel system. So forget about securing that upmarket name or the latest fashion trend and focus instead on performance. In fact, reviews of cheap travel systems pound on safety, comfort, and user-friendliness far more heavily than on features and styling. All of our best cheap travel systems picks meet federal safety standards and pass parents' subjective tests: car seats and strollers that keep passengers snug and content; car seats and bases that set up easily in the car and give off strong safety vibes; and strollers that open and close without struggle and smoothly traverse the family's usual stomping grounds.
One last point: Thrifty parents sometimes choose to save money by purchasing second-hand baby gear or using hand-me-down equipment. Experts strongly advise against this for car seats or strollers. If you opt for a previously owned car seat or stroller anyway, make sure to conduct a thorough background check: Know where it's been and how it's been used, and check for recalls at CPSC.gov. Always invest in a new model if the pre-owned car seat has been involved in a crash or is more than six years old, as safety standards and engineering have evolved.
Travel Systems Safety
The best travel systems provide a safe, secure way to transport a child from point A to point B. The car seat should earn high ratings from the government for ease of use and the stroller should meet standards devised by the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials). All the models we researched satisfy the quantifiable requirements for travel systems safety, and all the included car seats come with a 5-point harness, which provides the most "wiggle-free" fit.
For obvious reasons, concerns about travel systems safety most often relate to the car seat. The anxiety may be slightly misplaced, though, because the majority of car seat injuries and deaths are due to incorrect and inconsistent use of car seats. So be sure that the base for the car seat of choice is easy to install and fits securely in each vehicle the baby rides in. Also check that the seat itself is easy to lock into place and later to unlock and generally presents no deterrents to regular use.
Quite a few affordable infant car seats, including some sold as part of a travel systems package, receive top scores in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Child Safety Seat Ease of Use Ratings. The Chicco KeyFit 22 car seat (a component of the Chicco Cortina Travel System (starting at $270) receives five out of five stars for both evaluation of instructions and installation features and four out of five stars for overall ease of use. The Graco SnugRide 30, the infant car seat component of the Graco FastAction Fold (starting at $200) and the Graco Stylus LX (starting at $244) travel systems, earns four stars for installation features and three for overall ease of use. The Safety 1st Comfy Carry Elite, part of the Safety 1st Saunter Luxe Travel System (starting at $130) is not listed.
Installation aids, a critical element of travel systems safety, show up on some car seat models featured in the packages we researched. The car seat base on the Chicco KeyFit 22 includes a bubble level, spring-assist level foot, and center-pull adjustment; the Graco SnugRide 30 features a level indicator in the base; and the Comfy Carry Elite base includes an adjustable foot. The base on a new infant car seat will be compatible with the LATCH system (built-in tethers and anchors to help hold a car seat in place) in your vehicle.
Safety concerns also attach to the travel systems stroller. Basic travel systems safety for a buggy starts with sturdy construction, absence of sharp parts or edges, latches and hinges far removed from little hands, and nontoxic materials. Additionally, the design should evenly distribute the child's weight to minimize any chance of tipping. All the travel systems strollers we researched hit these marks.
Travel systems safety for strollers also requires a safety harness; a 5-point harness is ideal. The Chicco Cortina and Graco FastAction Fold and Stylus LX strollers include a 5-point harness; the harness on the two Graco models can be converted to a 3-point system as the child grows. By contrast, the Safety 1st stroller and the buggy component of the Evenflo Journey 200 Travel System (starting at $128) include only a 3-point harness.
Travel systems safety looms large in assessments of the models we researched. Parents praise the safety record of the Graco FastAction Fold in posts at Toys R Us, where one mother reports she repurchased the travel system after a car accident, ostensibly because the car seat protected her child so well. Parents deem the other Graco travel systems we researched to be sturdy, safe, and secure; in a review of the Graco Quattro Tour Deluxe (starting at $190), one father asserts the SnugRide car seat saved his son's life when their car was hit in the rear by a massive truck. Parents point out in comments posted at Amazon that the Chicco Cortina combo gives them peace of mind, especially because the KeyFit car seat is considered the best of the best in terms of travel system safety.
Parents have some doubts about the travel systems safety of the Safety 1st Saunter Luxe car seat, the Comfy Carry Elite. Again at Amazon parents fret that the car seat feels flimsy and doesn't fit securely, and when they do get it into the base, it's extremely hard to get out. One mother claims the process of prying the car seat out of its base almost gave the baby whiplash and a father writes of returning the system because only one side of the car seat locks into the base, which seems inadequate in the event of an accident.
Travel Systems Capacity.Aside from the all-important matter of travel systems safety, parents want to know how much baby the car seat and stroller will hold and how much gear the stroller will carry. All the travel systems we researched come with under-carriage baskets. The Graco FastAction Fold, in particular, garners many compliments for its large storage basket.
Most travel system strollers hold children up to 50 pounds, making them useful well into toddlerhood. One exception is the Evenflo Journey 200 buggy, which only holds kids weighing up to 40 pounds.
The primary capacity difference in the travel systems category seems to involve the infant car seat. The Graco SnugRide 30, part of the three Graco travel systems we researched, holds babies up to 30 pounds. Some Graco FastAction Fold travel systems are outfitted with the SnugRide 22 and cost a little less; this smaller car seat holds babies up to 22 pounds. (If you're keen on the Graco brand and want a car seat that can accommodate an infant up to 35 pounds, try the Graco Quattro Tour Deluxe, an older model in limited distribution that comes with a SnugRide 30, 32, or 35, depending on retailer.) The Chicco KeyFit 22 holds infants up to 22 pounds while the newer KeyFit 30 accommodates babies up to 30 pounds and is sold as part of a Chicco Cortina Travel System (for more money, of course). The Safety 1st Comfy Carry Elite car seat holds children up to 22 pounds and the Embrace 35, part of the Evenflo Journey 200 package, is good up to 35 pounds. All the car seats mentioned here, but for the Graco SnugRide 22, can also transport newborns weighing as little as 4 pounds.
Child safety experts recommend that children remain in rear-facing seats as long as possible and at least until they weigh 20 pounds and reach their 13th month. If your child hits the maximum weight prior to the first birthday, you'll need a convertible car seat.
Travel Systems Reviews
When travel systems reviews discuss performance, what they're really referring to is ease of use and passenger comfort. In other words, adults who wrangle with travel systems care about how easy it is to set up the car seat base; attach and then remove the seat from the base; and open, fold, and store the stroller. And while most caregivers don't expect off-road performance from the stroller, their travel systems reviews indicate that they do expect to easily negotiate suburban sidewalks, trips to the mall, and the occasional stretch of playground mulch. Moreover, they want the car ride and stroller ride to be comfortable for the passenger and the out-of-box assembly to proceed without hiccups.
For the most part, the best budget travel systems score high on all these measures. Travel systems reviews even extol the many gender-neutral patterns and colors currently available. Buried in the praise for the combo packages we researched, however, was some grousing about strollers that feel heavy and bulky and storage baskets that are too small and/or hard to access unless the seat is in its full upright position.
Our top-rated models -- the Chicco Cortina, Graco FastAction Fold, and Graco Stylus LX -- are lauded for their user-friendliness. Travel systems reviews at Baby Earth, for example, say each component in the Chicco Cortina is easy to use and the stroller a cinch to assemble. Users echo these comments on other review sites and further note that the car seat straps are simple to adjust, the stroller folds and unfolds without hassle and rolls smoothly. One travel systems review at Amazon tells of a parent pushing the stroller with one hand while holding the leash of a full-sized golden retriever with the other. Parents also seem content with the safety and comfort of the Chicco Cortina and several travel systems reviews mention the top safety rating for the KeyFit infant car seat. A few reviewers note, however, that the 22-pound weight and/or 29-inch limit of the car seat proved too confining too quickly and the material lining the car seat leaves babies hot and sweaty.
Both Graco models on our list score with reviewers for similar strengths. For starters, the FastAction Fold lives up to its marketing claims. That is, travel systems reviews at sites such as Toys R Us say the stroller closes in a flash with a light, one-handed pull and opens just as easily, a particular boon to anyone who travels on public transit with a child and all the necessary gear in tow. A couple of users report some tussles with the folding apparatus, though, and one travel systems review protests that the seat is left exposed in its folded state, thus rendering it unsanitary for young passengers. Still, users say the stroller is light and easy to maneuver, and the car seat snaps neatly and quickly into place. Reviewers also like the comfort and security of the well-cushioned car seat, with one noting the straps can be adjusted to hold even preemies snugly and safely.
Like its sibling stroller/car seat/base combo, the Graco Stylus LX stroller is easy to set up and maneuver. Although brawnier than the FastAction Fold, the Stylus LX also passes as a one-handed wonder, according to travel systems reviews at Amazon, where users praise its sturdy reliability and very small turning radius. Users also like the plush feel of the stroller and car seat fabric, as well as the gender neutral color schemes and patterns. The Graco Quattro Tour Deluxe also wins kudos for its performance although some grumble about its bulk. At Albee Baby one mother is thrilled that the SnugRide car seat still fits a 10-month old and says the stroller handles relatively well but is way too big for her comfort.
The Safety 1st Saunter Luxe system is liked well enough for its styling, light weight, passenger comfort, and easy-folding stroller but is dinged for car seat safety and other performance measures. Travel systems reviews at Toys R Us report the car seat only locks into the base on one side, an arrangement the manual says does not impair safety but nonetheless leaves parents a bit unsettled. One reviewer also says the car seat can't lock into the top of a shopping cart and others report struggling to get the seat out of its base and difficulty pushing the stroller on surfaces that are even slightly bumpy.
Stroller Travel Systems
One of the most common complaints lobbed at stroller travel systems is the weight of the buggy. Because these strollers are full-featured and must safely hold an infant seat, this is an issue that plagues both low- and high-end travel systems. Most travel system strollers in the budget range weigh between 18 and 26 pounds and take on an additional 7 to 10 pounds when combined with an infant seat. Now add the weight of the baby, and you've got a lot of stroller travel system to push around.
The Graco Stylus LX and Quattro Tour Deluxe stroller travel systems score points for their sturdy build, but their 26-pound buggies are the heaviest models we researched. Still, parent reviewers say the pros of these stroller travel systems far outweigh their heft. The strollers included in the Chicco Cortina and Graco FastAction Fold combos each weigh 22 pounds. Weight specifications for the Safety 1st Saunter Luxe stroller are not listed online, but several posts at Amazon say the stroller seems very light. We did not find weight specifications for the Evenflo Journey 200 stroller travel system components, but marketing materials state the Embrace 35 car seat is 27 percent lighter than competing models.
These multi-functional strollers are definitely bulky. Widths range between 21 and 24 inches, and some consumers comment that the 24-inch Graco Stylus LX makes it hard to steer through narrow spaces. Even when folded flat for storage in the trunk of a car or standing in a closet or hall, travel systems strollers take up space.
To combat the size and weight issues, some consumers opt to purchase lightweight car seat strollers (frame minus seat) instead of, or in addition to, a complete stroller travel system. Of these, the Baby Trend Snap N Go (single starting at $55; double starting at $70) and the Graco SnugRider Infant Car Seat Frame (starting at $60) are good options.