If you’re looking for an electric cooler for car trips like vacations and camping, you can choose between a thermoelectric cooler or a compressor-based true refrigerator. Comparably speaking true refrigerators are much more expensive and heavier than thermoelectric models. You probably want an electric cooler for car adventures that is compact and lightweight.
Whether you choose a real refrigerator or a thermoelectric car fridge, both are iceless. That means that you don’t have to buy ice to cool them down, you don’t have to continually replace the ice as the existing ice melts, and you don’t have to deal with the cold water that results from the ice melting.
Ice can also make a mess of your food and beverage containers if they aren’t designed to soak in water. You don’t have to worry about that with an electric cooler.
Ice takes up room in a cooler, so if you buy a specific size ice cooler, you can count on having to use a good deal of space in the cooler with ice at the expense of food and beverages.
You’re obviously looking for an electric cooler that will keep food and beverages cold, but many thermoelectric coolers have the ability to warm as well. You can’t do both at the same time, but you can choose to use your cooler as a food warmer to keep food and beverages warm on the way to camping, a picnic, or other outdoor adventure.
In this article, we are focused on the cooling capability of these thermoelectric coolers.
There are some important differences between real refrigerators and thermoelectric coolers that you should consider when choosing an electric cooler for car trips.
A true, compressor-based refrigerator works like your refrigerator at home and can be set to very cold refrigerator temperatures. If you want your food and beverages to be cold instead of just cool, then the true refrigerator is a better choice.
Like to learn more about compressor-based portable refrigerators? Be sure and see our other articles about some of the best!
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The number one complaint of customers related to thermoelectric coolers is that they don’t get cold enough. That’s not necessarily the fault of the coolers which do not have a compressor and are dependent on ambient temperature to determine how cold they can get. Most have the capability to reduce the temperature of the cooler up to 40 degrees below the ambient temperature.
Ambient temperature means the temperature of the air in the immediate surroundings of the cooler and can be dramatically different from the outside air temperature. For instance, the outside air temperature could be 70 degrees F while inside a hot parked car where the plug in cooler is could be over 100 degrees F. On the other hand, if the vehicle is running and the air conditioner is running, the ambient temperature might be significantly lower than the outside air temperature.
If it’s hot in your car the car refrigerator is not going to get very cold possibly struggling to get to 45 or 50 degrees F. This may be cool enough for some food and beverages, but if you’re looking for ice cold beer, it’s not going to cut it. Many manufacturers even recommend that you pre-chill food, beverages, and the portable refrigerator prior to using it.
Size and Weight
Larger coolers take up space and will displace other items you may want to carry on a trip. If you are taking a big crew, you may have to get a larger cooler to meet their food and beverage needs. Otherwise, you may be able to get away with a smaller model.
Keep in mind also that larger coolers take longer to get cool and need to run longer to maintain a cool interior. If you’re not going to fill the cooler, it will not cool as fast and will not maintain your food at cold temperatures as easily.
Vibration and Orientation
The thermoelectric module is actually a small solid state heat pump that is not affected by tilting, jarring, or vibration. This may not be the case with some compressor-based models which may need to be kept in a specific orientation and which may not be designed to withstand the vibration and jarring of car travel.
A compressor-based refrigerator uses more power than a portable electric cooler that uses thermoelectric technology. In some ways, that makes a thermoelectric cooler a better traveler in the car than a compressor-based refrigerator. If you need to leave it on while the engine is off, the thermoelectric cooler will not drain the battery as fast as the real refrigerator.
Both types plug into an available 12-volt vehicle power port or if you buy an optional 120-volt adapter can be powered from household current.
Be careful when using 12-volt power ports like your vehicle’s cigarette lighter. Some power ports stay on when you turn off the vehicle and others shut down. If you need the cooler to stay on when you leave the vehicle, be sure and choose a port that stays on.
On the other hand, if you’re not expecting the cooler to stay on and you plug it into an always-on power port, you could run down your battery quickly without realizing it
If you want your food and beverages to be cold no matter what the ambient temperature is, you need a compressor-based real refrigerator. You will pay a premium for the additional capability as portable refrigerators can cost three or more times as much as some of the best and largest thermoelectric coolers.
If you carry medicine with you that needs to stay cold, you may need to choose a real fridge model just to guarantee that your medicine stays cool.
Here are some desirable features you will want to look for in any cooler you choose.
A thermoelectric cooler can run down your battery in as little as just a couple of hours. To prevent this, some models come with a low-voltage cutoff that will turn the cooler off automatically when it senses low voltage conditions.
When loaded, coolers are heavy and if you keep it in your vehicle while traveling could cause a lot of damage and serious injury if not properly secured. The best way to secure any cooler is with a seatbelt if possible, but in any case make sure it’s secured while traveling.
Look for handles and/or wheels on the cooler that make it easier to transport. Filled with food and drinks, coolers can be very heavy and having built-in handles, a swing-up handle, or wheels can make the difference when you’re trying to load it into the car, taking it to the campsite, or carrying it into the hotel room.
Unlike ice coolers, thermoelectric coolers have motors and fans. They make noise and depending on where you place the cooler in your vehicle, it might be annoying or distracting. If you have passengers who have to sit next to it on the back seat, the cooler may create a noisy, uncomfortable environment.
They pretty much all claim to be quiet during operation, but you really need to check reviews to find out how annoying each really is.
We also looked at several coolers that are designed specifically for use inside a vehicle complete with cup holders, but only one from Black & Decker got high enough ratings to be added to our list. Part of the problem is their size which is smaller than any of the other units in our list and also because they are designed specifically for vehicle use and don’t have as many features that would make them a good choice away from the vehicle.
We searched forums, consumer sites, customer review sites, retail sites, and manufacturer sites for the best rated thermoelectric coolers for cars and we think we found ten that you should consider.
Take a look at our list and see if one of these thermoelectric coolers is the best cooler for your travel and vacation adventures!
One of three and the largest capacity Koolatron thermoelectric cooler in our list, the 33-quart Koolatron P65 Kargo 12V Portable Cooler has the unique feature of a split lid design making it easier to access your snacks and drinks while on the road. Its large size makes it the right choice for long trips, camping, boating excursions, big families, tailgate parties and other adventure where you need to keep a lot of food and beverage cold. It plugs easily into any available 12-volt power port or with an optional adapter can be powered by a 120-volt home outlet. Like most units it’s capable of cooling your contents down to approximately 40 degrees F lower than ambient temperature. It is also switchable between a cooler and a warmer capable of warming food and drinks up to 130 degrees F. Here’s what you need to know.
Electric Cooler for Car Features
- Large 33-quart capacity thermoelectric cooler cools your contents to approximately 40 degrees F below ambient temperature and is capable of handling up to 42 12-oz. cans
- Unique split-lid design makes it easier to access your food and drinks while traveling
- Can be used in a horizontal chest configuration with compartmentalized interior or as a vertical fridge with multiple stacking shelves and a top and bottom door
- Plugs into any 12V vehicle power port or can be powered by household current with an optional 120-volt adapter
- Switchable between either a cooler or a warmer which can warm foods up to 130 degrees F for your potluck dinner, picnic, or for warming baby food and bottles while traveling
- Insulated to hold it cooling capacity for several hours without power
- With only the 12V fan as a moving part, this thermoelectric cooler is durable and reliable
- Dimensions are 20L x 14W x 16H inches and weighs in at 14 lbs.
- 1-Year manufacturer’s limited warranty
Somewhat smaller at 26 quarts than the Koolatron P65, the Koolatron P25 26-Quart FunKool Cooler features a locking flip-up handle and power cord storage making it easier to transport and more compact to store. It’s capable of handling up to 31 12-oz. cans plugs into any available vehicle 12-volt power port. With an optional power adapter, it can be powered from a 120-volt household outlet. Its handy divider and removable lid help with organization. Here’s what you need to know.
- 26-quart thermoelectric cooler keeps food and drinks cold down to approximately 32 degrees below ambient temperature without ice and can handle up to 31 12-oz. cans
- Plugs into any available vehicle 12-volt power port or with an optional power adapter can be powered by a 120-volt household outlet
- Flip-up handle and power cord storage make this unit easier to transport and more compact to store
- Handy divider shelf improves organization and removable lid makes cleaning and stocking easier
- Dimensions are 17.25H x 16W x 11.5D inches and it weighs in at 11 lbs.
- 90-Day limited manufacturer’s warranty
The one cooler in our list that is designed for the interior of your vehicle, the Black & Decker TC212B Travel Cooler & Warmer features built-in cup holders and a zippered side storage and accessory pouch. It will easily rest on your vehicle’s seat, tailgate, hatch, or floor for easy access during travel. Like the other 12-volt thermoelectric coolers in our list, it plugs into any available 12V vehicle power port or can be powered from a household outlet using an optional 120-volt power adapter. It has the capability to keep food cold or warm and has a safety automatic low-voltage cut-off to prevent the cooler from draining your battery. It is capable of cooling your cooler contents down to approximately 40 degrees F below ambient temperature or can heat it up to approximately 120 degrees F. Here’s what you need to know.
- 12-can, 9-quart thermoelectric cooler and warmer is designed to rest on your vehicle’s seat, on a tailgate, hatch, or floor for easy access during travel
- Capable of cooling contents down to approximately 40 degrees F below ambient temperature or heating it up to approximately 120 degrees F
- Plugs into any available 12V vehicle power port or can be powered from a home outlet using an optional 120-volt power adapter
- Safety low-voltage cutoff automatically shuts off power to the cooler to prevent draining your vehicle’s battery
- Rests on vehicle seat, tailgate, hatch or floor for easy access during travel
- Handy zippered side storage and accessory pouch
- Dual can/cup holder
- Dimensions are 17.5 x 11.1 x 13.8 inches and it weighs in at 10.3 lbs.
Keep your food and drinks cool on-the-go with the Igloo Iceless 28-Quart Thermoelectric Cooler. It may be the perfect size at 28 quarts to take with you in your car, truck, SUV, RV, or big rig. It cools contents down to approximately 36 degrees F below ambient temperature and plus directly into any available 12-volt vehicle power port. A built-in fan with brushless motor provides convection cooling so that everything stays cool. It comes with comfortable molded-in handles and a comfortable curved back that hugs your body for easier two-handed carrying and lifting. It also includes a sturdy swing-up bail handle for easy, stable carrying with one hand. Here’s what you need to know.
- 28-quart (26-liter) thermoelectric cooler cools food and beverages down to approximately 36 degrees F below ambient temperature and can accommodate 40 12-oz. cans
- Perfect for traveling, it will keep food and beverages cool-on-the go in your car, truck, SUV, RV, or big rig or make a great companion at the campground, picnic, BBQ, or other get-together
- Plugs directly into any available vehicle 12V power port or can be powered from a household outlet using an optional 120-volt power adapter
- Its brushless fan motor reliably provides convection cooling to the entire cooler so that everything stays cold
- Comfortable molded-in handles and an ergonomically-engineered curved back that hugs your body make two-handed carrying and lifting easier
- A sturdy swing-up bail handle also makes one-handed carrying easier and more stable
- Long 8-foot power cord lets you place the cooler where you need it
- Dimensions are 18.25L x 12.88W x 16.63D inches and it weighs in at 10 lbs.
- 1-Year limited warranty
The Koolatron P-27 29-Quart Voyager Cooler is mid-sized so it is compact yet still has plenty of room for lots of food and drinks to make your next adventure much easier and more fun. It can hold up to 48 12-oz. cans or plenty of food and simply plugs-in directly to any available 12V vehicle power port. Its durable hard-body design and easy-seal lid allow it to be placed either horizontally as a chest or vertically as needed. Capable of cooling its contents down up to 40 degrees F below ambient temperature, it uses no ice and very little power. Switchable to be used as a warmer that can warm food up to 130 degrees F perfect for a potluck dinner, picnic, warming baby bottle, and more. Here’s what you need to know.
- Mid-sized, 29-quart, durable hard-body thermoelectric cooler that accommodates up to 48 12-oz. cans and is perfect for road trips, camping, boating, tailgate parties, BBQs, dorm use, and lots of other adventures
- Keeps content up to 40 degrees F cooler than ambient temperature without ice
- Can be oriented horizontally as a chest or vertically like a fridge as required
- Plugs directly into any available 12V vehicle power port or can be powered by a 120-volt outlet using an optional power adapter
- Handy space-saving cord storage compartment
- Capable of warming contents up to 130 degrees F
- Reliable with only one moving part
- Long 9-foot power cord means you can place the cooler where you need it
- Dimensions are 17.5W x 16D x 15.4H inches
A smaller cooler from Koolatron, the Koolatron P-20 Thermoelectric 12V 18-Quart Cooler Warmer is designed to fit into tight spaces in vehicles like between the seats, behind the seats, and on the seats. Its thermoelectric design means you plug it directly into any available 12V vehicle power port to provide cooling of the contents down as low as 40 degrees F below the ambient temperature. Despite its compact size it can still accommodate up to 23 12-oz. cans. A convenient swinging fold-away handle makes it easy to carry and lift and equally helpful away from your vehicle as in your vehicle. Here’s what you need to know.
- Compact and lightweight 18-Quart thermoelectric cooler capable of accommodating up to 23 12-oz. cans and cooling food and beverages
- Designed specifically for the tight spaces in vehicles, place it between the seats, behind the seats, or anywhere else this compact cooler fits
- Plug it directly into any available 12V vehicle power port or power it from a 120-volt outlet using an optional power adapter
- Convection cooling is provided by a built-in fan to make sure all of the contents get cold down to 40 degrees F below ambient temperature without ice
- Can also be used as a warmer to keep contents hot up to 130 degrees F
- Cooler has a handy swinging, fold-away handle for easy one-handed carrying and lifting and a latchless lid for one-handed operation making it perfect for picnics, BBQs, tailgating and lots of other get-togethers away from your vehicle
- A convenient cord wrap and 12V plug storage make it as easy to store as it is to use
- Dimensions are 16.25 x 17.5 x 8.5 inches and it weighs in at only 9 lbs.
Capable of accommodating 27 12-oz. cans or four 2-liter bottles, the Wagan EL6224 25-Quart 12V Cooler/Warmer keeps your food and beverages cold down to 36 degrees F below ambient temperature without ice so that you can better enjoy your road trip with the family. It can also be used as a warmer to make food transportation to picnics and BBQs easier. A heavy-duty handle makes carrying and lifting the cooler easier for picnics, BBQs, or camping away from the vehicle. Here’s what you need to know.
- 25-quart 12V thermoelectric switchable cooler and warmer capable of accommodating up to 27 12-oz. cans or four 2-liter water bottles and cooling contents down to 36 degrees F below ambient temperature without ice or warming them up to 140 degrees F
- Plugs directly into any available 12V vehicle power port or can be powered from a 120-volt outlet using an optional power adapter
- Heavy-duty, ergonomic handle makes carrying and lifting for transport easier to picnics, BBQs, or other get-togethers away from the vehicle
- Switch has hot/cold/off indicator lights that indicate the current mode
- A long 7.5-foot power cord allows you to place the cooler where you need it in or near the vehicle
- Designed to be placed either on the floor of the vehicle or on a seat and secured by a seat belt
- Dimensions are 16.7 x 16.7 x 10.5 inches
Part of Dometic’s high-tech TropiCool cooler line, the Dometic TC-35US 37-Quart Portable Thermoelectric Cooler/Warmer features 7-stage temperature regulation for heating and cooling to achieve cooling temperatures down to 45 degrees F below ambient temperature without ice. TropiCool coolers have built-in intelligent special electronics with a power-save circuit and memory function incorporated into a dust-proof and moisture-proof soft-touch keypad with an LED temperature display. Solid polyurethane foam insulation keeps contents cool longer without power. Here’s what you need to know.
- Unique 7-stage thermoelectric temperature regulation for heating and cooling provides cooling temperatures down to 45 degrees F below ambient temperature without ice
- Built-in intelligent special electronics with a power-save circuit that switches off power when the desired temperature is reached
- Memory function is incorporated into a dust-proof and moisture-proof soft-touch keypad with electronic LED temperature display
- Plugs directly in to any available 12V vehicle power port or can be powered by a 120-volt outlet using an optional power adapter
- Sturdy handle folds away when not in use and makes the cooler easier to transport away from the vehicle for picnics, BBQs, camping and other adventures
Detachable lid with magnetic lock makes loading and cleaning easier
- Internal fan switches off automatically when the unit is opened
- Detachable lid with magnetic lock
- Sturdy, fold-away handle
- 1-Year limited warranty
- Dimensions are 35H x 18.12W x 14.81D inches
Chill or warm your food and beverages on the road with the Coleman PowerChill 40-Quart Thermoelectric Portable Cooler that can chill its contents down to 40 degrees F below ambient temperature without ice or warm it up to 140 degrees F. Just plug it into any available 12V/24V vehicle power port or it can be powered by a 120-volt outlet using an optional power adapter. A really nice feature is its patented adjustable door that can be used in two orientations either as a chest cooler or a vertical fridge-style cooler with a door that is reversible. Large enough to hold up to 44 12-oz. cans it has a quiet, long-lasting fan motor that provides convection cooling so the entire contents get cold. Here’s what you need to know about this Coleman electric cooler.
- 40-quart convertible cooler has a patented adjustable door that can be used in two orientations either as a chest cooler or a vertical fridge-style cooler with a door that is reversible
- Quiet, long-lasting fan motor provides convection cooling so the entire contents get cold down to 40 degrees F below ambient temperature without ice
- Warming box mode heats contents up to 140 degrees F above the surrounding temperature
- Unit plugs directly into any available 12V vehicle power port or power it from a 120-volt outlet using an optional power adapter
- A handy adjustable shelf divider keeps the contents organized whether in horizontal or vertical configuration
- Molded-in handles make it easy to lift and carry for better transportability away from the vehicle for picnics, BBQs, or camping
- Removable lid makes loading and cleaning easier
- Dimensions are 21.75 x 15 x 17.125 inches
- 1-year limited warranty
In case you’re considering a true refrigerator/freezer instead of a thermoelectric cooler, the Dometic CoolFreeze CDF-11 Portable Freezer/Refrigerator is the smallest compressor-based refrigerator freezer you can buy and is perfect for fitting into tighter areas of your vehicle. It does not depend on ambient temperature for its cooling capability and is capable of real refrigeration and deep-freezing down to zero degrees F. Here’s what you need to know.
- 11-quart capacity true zero-degree F refrigerator-freezer with reliable, high-performance compressor
- Attractive, high-impact polyethylene exterior is durable and weather-resistant
- Adjustable shoulder strap makes it comfortable to carry and lift
- Attractive, high-impact polyethylene exterior is durable and weather resistant.
- Electronic thermostat with soft-touch LED controls and digital temperature display
- 3-stage battery monitor
- LED interior light
- 2 handy integrated drink holders
- Easy and secure fastening inside the vehicle with a safety belt
- CFC-free polyurethane foam insulation keeps contents cold long after the power is off
- Dimensions are 21.26D x 14.1H x 9.2 6W and it weighs in at 19.4 lbs.
- 2-Year Protection Plus Warranty
Electric Cooler for Car Comparison
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