Portable tire inflators are one of the handiest tools you can keep in your vehicle or around the garage. These little units can pump up a spare tire when you break down, or make small adjustments to your tire pressure when road conditions change. Plus, you can use them to keep all your bikes, mowers, and other smaller tires topped up as well!
However, a lot of portable tire inflators on the market today are gimmicks. They’re lightweight, low-power toys which don’t cut it when you really need them. And with models ranging from $15 to hundreds of dollars, how’s the average consumer supposed to know how much to spend, or which ones are really worth their money?
Don’t worry! We’ve gone on a search for the best portable tire inflators on the market today. We looked for the real stalwarts–the workhorses and performers.
We compared dozens of models, looking at power ratings, portability, price and reliability. In the end, we sorted through all the options and ended up with three winners.
In this guide, we’ll show you our all-time favorite portable tire inflators. We chose a few different options to suit different needs, as well as different budgets. In our comprehensive reviews, we’ll talk about all the important features and specs which make our recommendations better than the competition. We’ve also put together a handy guide to help you figure out which one is your best bet!
Let’s jump right in with a quick look at our Top Three:
Best on a Budget
- Our Rating: 4.1
- Popularity: Very High
- Our Rating: 4.5
- Popularity: Very High
- Our Rating: 4.6
- Popularity: Very High
Best Portable Air Compressors for Car Tires – 2018 Reviews
1. AAA LifeLine
This AAA kit is one of the best-selling road backup tools on the market. It’s a compact, convenient, and highly affordable solution for pumping up a tire on the side of the road, or making the occasional adjustment in your garage.
We like the AAA kit because it’s a reliable solution for people who don’t do lots of their own car maintenance, but want to be able to get out of a tight spot on the highway. If you’re looking to spend the least amount possible for a decent, effective portable tire inflator, we think this is the best option out there.
It’s light and compact. The AAA kit packs conveniently into its 6”x12” box, with space for the power cord and accessory nozzles as well. You can fit it in most glove boxes, or throw it in the trunk without having to sacrifice storage space.
Previous buyers loved how convenient this one is as opposed to larger portable inflators, which take up the size of a shoebox or more. It’s perfect for people who drive smaller cars, or simply want the tool out of sight and out of mind.
It has a surprisingly high PSI rating. The AAA is rated up to 300 PSI! That’s many times higher than comparably-priced machines!
While previous buyers said they were skeptical that the AAA was quite as powerful as advertised, they did say it put out a surprising amount of air for its size and weight. It’s rated to inflate a standard car tire from flat to at pressure (35 PSI) in about 8 minutes. Reviewers found that rating was just about accurate, though they said it ended up being about 10 minutes with the rest periods you’re recommended to take.
It’s very, very simple to operate. There’s a simple ON/OFF switch, and a quick-connect valve for connecting to your tires. The power cord plugs right into your dash console 12V outlet. It comes with an easy plug–just start the engine, and you’re in business.
This one also comes with a 10 foot power cord, which should be enough to get around most small to medium sized cars. The AAA also gives you an extra 1.5 feet of reach with its air hose.
There’s a built-in pressure gauge. Previous buyers said it was pretty spot-on most of the time, and much more accurate to use than the built-in gauges on other cheap compressors.
It comes with two accessory nozzles, to allow you to pump up inflatable balls, pool toys, or other items. Reviewers said it was a convenient way to keep bike tires pumped up on trips, or to inflate beach tools for seaside jaunts.
It’s very inexpensive. This one’s priced with the gimmicky toy compressors, but it works much better than other compressors around the $25 mark. This is an ideal choice for casual motorists who like the idea of having a “just in case” inflator, but want to spend as little as possible for that piece of mind. We think this is the least you can spend for a tire inflator that won’t break the bank, but won’t run the risk of failing when you need it in a pinch.
If you use it carefully, paying close attention to the instruction manual, it’s much more reliable than it looks or feels. While this isn’t meant for frequent use, you should be able to get a long working life out of it. You’ll simply want to take the recommended rest periods while you’re pumping your tires, and make sure you’re careful with the plastic parts.
It’s extremely loud. AAA don’t provide a decibel rating for this one, but reviewers and buyers agreed unanimously that it made an almighty racket. The entire casing is made from light plastic, do it doesn’t dampen sound at all.
Plus, it vibrates like crazy when the compressor runs, which makes the whole unit clatter along the ground. The noise level is one reason we only recommend this as an emergency inflator or as a very occasional tool. It’ll annoy neighbors in the driveway, and it’ll be pretty unpleasant to use inside.
It needs a few breaks to inflate a tire from flat. This unit has a pretty short duty cycle, so you have to let it rest every few minutes to prevent overheating. That’s one major inconvenience over more expensive options. It can’t run longer than 15 minutes at a time without a longer break, and it’ll be very hot by the time you finish using it. If you’re going to need to inflate several tires at a time, or power through an inflation from flat in a hurry, you might want something a bit heavier-duty.
It has some reliability issues. While most previous buyers had good results using it carefully and with all the recommended rest periods, some buyers’ units failed or malfunctioned. We’ve seen a few reports of units overheating, melting, or blowing a fuse. In general, that was due to people trying to run it too fast, without rest.
However, it’s certainly not as reliable as more expensive and rugged inflators. The power plug is also a weak point on the design. Several previous buyers reported that the plastic housing separated from the metal components, which made the plug useless. It’s definitely not durable enough for regular/routine use.
It’s not suitable for larger vehicles. This one simply isn’t powerful enough to blow up a truck or delivery van tire, at least not without a frustrating amount of breaks. Its power cord is also too short to run the length of many pickup or larger vehicles.
While it’s powerful for its size, it’s probably not quite as powerful as rated.
It’s pretty cheaply-made. The AAA is mostly plastic, both in its housing and fittings. It feels cheap, and previous buyers said that while it lasted a lot longer than they expected, it certainly didn’t feel or sound very high-quality. You’ll want to be careful with this one, to make sure none of the plastic parts crack. That’s why we don’t recommend it for frequent, regular use.
2. Viair 70P
This Viair inflator is currently the most popular model on Amazon. It’s a great midrange choice for people who want something that can be used on a regular basis as well as for an emergency backup. We recommend it to average drivers who like to stay on top of their maintenance.
It’s also a more reliable backup choice for people who like a bit more peace of mind, without spending a premium. We think it’s the best cigarette-lighter option out there.
It’s priced squarely in the middle of the market. The Viair costs more than the AAA, but it’s also cheaper than the top-of-the-line model. We think it’s a good choice for people who aren’t home mechanics or big travelers, but want something reliable and rugged enough for regular use. It’s a good choice for the average driver.
It’s heavier-duty than the AAA. The AAA is built from cheap, plastic parts, with a light motor that’s only designed for occasional use.
The Viair, on the other hand, has a permanent magnetic motor and a heavy metal motor assembly. This one’s much more rugged than the AAA, and you won’t have to worry about the casing forming cracks over time.
It’s also equipped with a brass chuck for attaching to your tire valves–a big improvement over the AAA’s plastic nozzle.
It’s still relatively compact. The 70P is just 6”x6”x3”, and it weighs about 5 pounds. It’s heavier-duty than the AAA, but not a hassle to carry around in your vehicle.
It’s more reliable than the AAA. This one is a great choice for people who have more sophisticated cars which need to be kept at a precise pressure. It’s also ideal for people who have a few bikes, or lawn equipment to keep pumped up.
This one has a maximum working rate of 100 PSI. That’s less than the AAA’s rated spec, but given how shaky the AAA’s reliability is, the Viair performs just about as powerfully in practice–and it can do it more regularly, with fewer intervals.
It’s much quieter than the AAA. The Viair has vibration insulators built into its body to cut down on noise. Plus, since it’s made of a sturdy metal body instead of a light plastic casing, it doesn’t jump around and rattle on the ground.
This one’s a much better choice to use around neighbors, or in a garage. Previous buyers said the low noise level was a big relief over other inflators they had used before. Most said the Viair was the quietest they’d ever used.
Unlike the cheaper options, this one has thermal overload protection built in. You won’t have to worry about it melting or burning out because you’re running it too hard. If you forget to give it a break, it’ll shut itself off to protect the motor. It’s also much safer for your fuses. While some AAA buyers found that their inflators blew the fuse in their vehicle, we didn’t find any reports of that issue with the Viair.
It works more quickly than the AAA. Previous buyers said they could inflate a tire from flat in about 5 minutes–half the time it’ll take you with the AAA. That’s where the larger motor really comes in handy.
It has a more accurate gauge. The AAA gauge works while you run the compressor, which means it’s always fluctuating slightly. The Viair gauge measures your pressure while the pump is switched off, which gives a much more accurate and stable reading. Previous buyers said it was nearly dead-on with their gauges.
It has a longer reach, thanks to the pairing of a 4-foot air hose and a 16-foot power cord. This one’s a better choice for longer vehicles like sedans or pickup trucks.
It comes with three accessory nozzles, for inflating everything from a camping mattress to bike tires. It’s the same set you get with the AAA, but we’re much more comfortable using the 70P for these smaller tasks, since it’s a less delicate, unreliable machine.
It comes with a deluxe carrying bag for you to store the inflator, cables, and nozzles. It’s a convenient storage solution which doesn’t take up much more space than a lunchbox.
It’s covered by a 1-year warranty. The AAA, on the other hand, doesn’t have any warranty coverage.
It has the same design flaw as the AAA–a cheap plastic plug. Some previous buyers said that their plugs fell apart after a few uses, and other said that their units arrived with broken plugs.
We’re still recommending this model, since most buyers didn’t report any issues. However, you’ll want to be careful with your plug, since it’s clearly a bit of a weak point on this gadget.
It’s heavier than the AAA, and takes up more space in your vehicle. We don’t think a 5-pound lunchbox bag is too much to carry in the trunk for an emergency or a biking road trip, but some people might be looking for something more compact.
It’s not quite as reliable or durable as the top-shelf options. The company also don’t have the greatest quality control with this model. Some previous buyers received their inflators with broken plugs, as we’ve said, or other issues. One other flaw was the air chuck separating from the hose. In terms of quality control and reliability, the 70P is squarely in the middle of our recommendations, but vastly better than the AAA.
Like the AAA, it’s not ideal for larger vehicles. If you have a pickup, big van, or other larger tires to inflate (like tractors), you should buy something a bit bigger.
While it’s faster to use than the AAA, it still needs a few short breaks to pump up a tire from flat. Some reviewers found that inconvenient.
3. Viair 88P
The Viair 88P is our top quality recommendation for a portable tire inflator. It’s the most powerful machine here, and the most ruggedly built as well.
We think it’s ideal for people who have long commutes for work, or fancier cars which need to have their tires precisely adjusted. It’s ultimate peace of mind as an emergency backup, and a fast, reliable choice for regular maintenance and pump-ups of all your tires and inflatables. If you’re a serious home mechanic or a regular traveller, this is our recommendation to you!
It’s the most powerful inflator here. This one pumps out 1/3 more volume than the 70P! It’s rated at 1.47 CFM as opposed to 1.06 CFM. That allows it to work 33% faster, which means you can fill up a lot of tires from flat without needing to take any rest stops.
It’s the heaviest-duty machine here. The 88P is made almost completely from metal parts. It has a sturdier chassis and housing than the 70P, and a heavy plastic handle and rear power assembly. This one has the same brass chuck and braided air hose as the 70P.
It’s also the quietest of the three inflators! The 88P has all the noise-isolating features of the 70P and even more. We particularly like the rubber feet, which dampen vibration and noise at the same time, as well as gripping well on pavement or cement.
It solves the design flaw that plagues most 12V tire inflators: the plug. This one ditches the cigarette lighter plug entirely, in favor of alligator clamps which you can attach right to your battery. It’s as easy as jump-starting a car. You don’t have to worry about cheap plugs falling apart in your car socket, and you don’t have to worry about blowing your car’s internal fuse.
That brings us to the next key advantage of the 88P–it has a fuse built into the power cord! If the AAA or 70P draw too fast, or work too hard, they can blow a fuse in your vehicle. The 88P will simply trip its own fuse, which is much cheaper to replace than a full-size vehicle
The power cord and air hose combination also get a boost–at a combined reach of 21 feet!
It has a longer duty cycle than the other models. That means you can run it the longest without a break–up to 5 minutes. That’s enough to inflate most standard tires from flat, without needing to rest the motor.
It has a lot of the same features we love on the 70P: thermal overload protection, a very accurate gauge, and noise-dampening components throughout the design.
Previous buyers were overwhelmingly pleased that they spent the extra money to get this unit over the cheaper options. They complimented the sturdy, reassuring build quality, as well as the fast, quiet operation. Overall,
Even though it’s the most expensive unit here, it’s still relatively cheap. It’s small price to pay for an inflator you can count on to work every time you get a flat, or need to inflate a tire.
As we always advise consumers, it’s cheaper over the long run to spend $75 once than to spend $40 twice! Plus, you’re not running the risk that you’ll be stranded on the side of the road until help arrives.
It’s covered by the same 1-year warranty as the 70P.
It’s the biggest and bulkiest of the three, at nearly 1 foot long and 6 inches high. However, it’s slightly lighter than the 70P, which is an unexpected plus.
It doesn’t come with a carrying bag for the compressor and accessories. That’s disappointing, since the 70P does.
Even though we think this one is a bargain for the build quality and smart design, we know that some people might not be able to spend a lot on a portable tire inflator. It might be overkill for people who only drive infrequently or over very short distances. However, you might also consider that this unit could save you a tow-truck bill that might well exceed your purchase price.
Which is the Best Portable Tire Inflator for You?
The AAA LifeLine kit is the clear choice for people who are shopping for a portable tire inflator on a tight budget, or people who only drive occasionally. It’s the cheapest inflator here, and it’s also the least obtrusive to store in your car.
However, it has significantly worse reliability than the Viair models, which means you probably won’t get a long working life out of it. The AAA kit is also quite slow, with a short duty cycle which means you have to take a lot of breaks. It’s not a good choice for people who do regular tire maintenance, or travel long distances on a regular basis. It’s best for casual motorists who want a reliable, functional emergency backup with the least investment possible.
We strongly recommend the Viair 70P to the average driver. It’s rugged enough to handle regular tire maintenance, and it’s significantly faster than the AAA. It’s also more reliable over the long term, since it has much better build quality.
The Viair has thermal overload protection and noise-dampening features which make it much safer and much more pleasant to use. And even with all that, it’s still available for less than $50, so it’s not a big investment. It’s also nearly as compact and convenient to have in the car as the LifeLine kit.
On the downside, it has the same cheap plastic plug as the AAA, which is a definite weak point on the design. And while it’s faster than the AAA, it can’t quite get through inflating a whole tire from flat without a short break. We don’t recommend it for serious motorists, frequent roadtrippers, or people who have larger vehicles.
If you’re looking for the best quality portable tire inflator on the market, look no further than the Viair 88P. It’s by far the most powerful, efficient model here, which means it’s endlessly more convenient to use. This one can inflate most vehicle tires from flat in a single go, with no cooling breaks.
It’s also the most rugged and reliable option, so it’s perfect for people with several motors to maintain, or people who have long commutes or make lots of road trips.
Plus, the alligator clamp power supply solves the key design flaw on all the cheaper portable tire inflators we’ve seen. We strongly recommend this one to people who drive a lot, people who like to do a lot of routine vehicle maintenance themselves, and people who simply like having the best peace of mind that they’re prepared in case of a breakdown.
In short, this might be overkill for casual drivers, but we think that if you can afford it, it’s well worth the money for its reliability and convenience. However, it’s the most expensive model here, and it takes up the most space in your car.
How to Choose the Best Portable Air Compressor for Cars
Decide on your budget:
Portable tire inflators range in price from about $15 to $100 or so. We recommend spending a minimum of $25, in order to steer clear of the gimmicky super-cheap models at the bottom of the range. They’re too weak to inflate tires properly, and their inaccurate gauges are risky for inner-tubes.
Plus, they’re so cheaply-built that you can’t count on them in the case of a breakdown. Spend at least $25 to get something you can rely on to work when you need it.
Casual drivers should aim to spend around the $25-$35 range. If you don’t drive a lot of miles, service your tires only when strictly necessary, and want to spend the least possible for something that will work in a pinch, these budget options will get you out of a tight spot. However, they probably won’t be built sturdily enough to handle to handle frequent use. You should also be aware that budget options can be time-consuming to use. You may need to spend 10 to 15 minutes inflating a single tire.
Average drivers would do well to spend around $40-$50 for something that can handle regular tire maintenance. Inflators in this price range are built from sturdy metal parts instead of the cheap plastic you’ll find on the budget models.
They have strong motors which can work more quickly, which makes them a convenient choice for top-ups and adjustments. These units are also even more reliable in the case of a flat tire on the road. With that said, they’ll probably still need a break to cool if you’re trying to pump up a tire from flat.
Frequent travelers, DIY mechanics, or people who like having the best peace of mind will be more than satisfied with something from $50-$75. In this price range, you’ll find the most powerful portable tire inflators.
They can pump up a tire from flat without needing a cooling break, and they’re much quicker and more efficient to operate overall. Since these units have the best reliability, durability, and efficiency, they’re our recommendation to people who have multiple cars to look after, or people who prefer having total peace of mind in the event of a flat tire on the highway.
Think about reliability and durability:
Perhaps the biggest difference between the cheapest portable tire inflators and the top-shelf models is how well they hold up and perform over time. The cheapest inflators are made from light plastic parts, and have small motors. They’re very delicate, and the casing or plugs can often crack or fall apart, simply due to extended use.
We’ve also found that these models lack proper thermal overload protection, so they can become extremely hot and in some cases melt or burn out. They’ll last long enough to get you out of one or two breakdowns if you use them carefully, but some of the cheapest models can be relatively disposable. We’ve also found that due to shoddy quality control and design flaws, some of these models can be a bit chancy to use as backups in a pinch.
On the other hand, more expensive models have sturdy metal parts which hold up much better over time. They use alligator clamps for power, instead of delicate cigarette lighter plugs.
Most importantly, the more expensive options have larger, more powerful motors which run cooler and quicker, which helps them have a longer working life. Plus, they have the added safety precaution of thermal overload protection, which shuts the motor off automatically if you’re running the machine too hard. These models are the most reliable to have in the back of the car when you break down, since they have superior quality control and much better track records for working life.
When you’re comparing your options and deciding how expensive a portable tire inflator you should purchase, keep reliability and durability in mind. You may be able to count on a cheap unit to get you back on the road after one or two breakdowns, but you don’t want to count on one of these models for routine maintenance or frequent pump-ups. We really recommend buying as nice a portable tire inflator as you can afford, since many cheap options are, to put it simply, disposable.
Another big difference between the cheap portable tire inflators and the most expensive models is convenience. The cheaper models are an easier purchase to make, but they really aren’t convenient to use more than when absolutely necessary. They’re painfully slow, and most require a lot of cooling breaks as you pump. As a result, you’ll spend up to 3X longer inflating your tires as you might with a top-shelf model.
That’s why we recommend that people who are going to be servicing their tires frequently or maintaining multiple vehicles buy something a bit nicer and more efficient to use. Even small time differences can add up quickly once you start looking at 4 tires, or 2 vehicles.
If, on the other hand, you’re buying a portable tire inflator as a “just in case” tool to get on the road after a flat, you probably won’t mind spending 15 minutes to pump up, as long as you can get on the road without waiting for a tow truck.