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CARES Harness Review: An Alternative to Car Seats on Planes

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CARES Harness Review: An Alternative to Car Seats on Planes

Chilling with his in-flight entertainment safely restrained in a CARES harness.

As traveling parents, we’ve all been there: struggling to hold a squirmy toddler in your lap on a flight or instead opting to lug a heavy car seat through the airport only to find that it positioned your little one perfectly to kick the seat in front of him. Have you ever thought there must be a better solution?

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On my last few flights, I finally tested an alternative: The CARES harness from Kids Fly Safe. CARES is an FAA-approved restraint for air travel. Unlike a car seat, it’s quite compact and is safer for small children than using a lap belt alone (and certainly safer than having a lap baby!).

The CARES harness has been around for several years, but I thought I could handle air travel without it with my first child. We definitely had a few flights where we survived less than ideal flight experiences as a result. I found I hated dragging bulky car seats through airports and onto rental car shuttles and would do just about anything to avoid that step of the travel process. When Baby # 2 joined our family, I knew it was time to make the purchase and give CARES a try. My husband and I took our CARES harness on two cross-country journeys the past few months to use for our toddler son.

CARES Harness Basics

CARES Harness Review: An Alternative to Car Seats on Planes

A kitchen table chair demonstration of how CARES fits on an airplane seat.

The harness is approved for kids over 12 months between 22 and 44 pounds. It’s made of seat belt material and a few buckles that work in a manner similar to a five point harness in a car seat. To install it, you have to lower the tray table of the seat behind you, loop it over the seat, and tighten.  The airplane seat belt loops through the harness and works as part of the system. (There’s a helpful installation video on YouTube that I recommend you watch before you take it on a flight.) Retailing for $75.99, it’s a tad pricey, but it is still cheaper than all but the most basic of car seats.

How did CARES fare in our family’s travels?

CARES Test #1: 14 Months Old

CARES Harness Review: An Alternative to Car Seats on PlanesOur first test of CARES was during our Christmas travels when my son was 14 months old.  He just cleared the weight minimum at this age.  I found installation to be quite easy (2 minutes or less), although I had to work a bit on the first attempt to get the harness totally tight around the seat.

My son didn’t love being strapped into the harness initially, but most opinionated toddlers also don’t love being strapped into car seats, so this was no different.  As soon as I got my son buckled in and handed him a toy or a snack a minute later, he relaxed and quit fighting me.

While CARES was certainly an improvement over carrying a bulky car seat, it didn’t work perfectly at this age and was a bit awkward for my son to use.  He wasn’t quite used to sitting so upright in a seat, as he is still in a rear-facing car seat that is semi-reclined.  CARES made him slouch in a way that looked somewhat uncomfortable.  I found I needed to adjust his sitting position fairly frequently.  There was no way he was going to nap in the harness sitting so upright either.

What I discovered on this first use is that the CARES harness doesn’t have a strap or belt between the child’s legs like a car seat or stroller harness does.  As a result, particularly squirmy little ones may slide down, especially if they are younger and used to reclining in a car seat.  My son definitely had that problem, but I found it could be mitigated by getting a more secure fit of the shoulder straps.

With these caveats, the CARES nevertheless worked quite well.  I strapped my son in it for takeoff and landing, knowing that these are statistically the two most dangerous parts of the flight.  My son definitely needed a break from the harness though, and we took him out at different times in-flight to sit on our laps or to take a walk.  Having my son strapped in securely (during some portions of the flight at least) allowed me to have my hands free to assist my older daughter.  It probably goes without saying that CARES is that much more valuable to any parent traveling with more than one child.

CARES Test #2: 16 Months Old

The harness definitely worked a bit better even just a few months later when my son was 16 months old (and I expect it will improve even more in the coming months).  He was able to sit more comfortably upright on our next trip, although he was still able to squirm down due to the lack of a strap between his legs.  He even sat in it without fuss for about 30 minutes after takeoff, comfortably “watching” a show on a tablet.  Kid travel success!

Should you buy the CARES harness for your family?  Here’s a quick summary of the pros and cons to help you make the decision:

Pros of the CARES Harness:

  • CARES Harness Review: An Alternative to Car Seats on PlanesSafety.
  • No need to lug heavy car seats through airports and onto planes.
  • More space for your family and more seating arrangements on planes without a bulky car seat (car seats have to go in window seats but the CARES can be used in any seat).
  • Keeping your kid restrained… for your sanity!

Cons of the CARES Harness:

  • A bit expensive (but discounts off the full retail price are often available on Amazon).
  • Squirmy toddlers can definitely wriggle down (and maybe out?) of the bottom since there is no strap between the legs.
  • Not a great spot for sleeping.

The bottom line: The CARES harness is a recommended buy for frequent travelers with toddlers and preschoolers, even with my caveats. Go into the purchase knowing the limitations of CARES but realistically assessing the true painfulness of the alternatives! Infrequent travelers can perhaps go without, but consider whether you might be able to use it for multiple kids or pass it down to a friend or family member before passing on it entirely.

CARES Harness Review: An Alternative to Car Seats on Planes

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Monday 15th of April 2019

So what does one do with a forty pound almost five year old?


Sunday 21st of April 2019

We switched to just the regular airplane seat belt at that age.


Tuesday 14th of February 2017

Hi Leslie, Got a Question..Can CARES be used in place of car seats while traveling to airport in a cab? As I have travel plans this April, I might buy one for a hassle free trip.. Thanks


Tuesday 14th of February 2017

Hi Ravish - unfortunately not. They don't work as car seats in cars at all. Only for airplane use. Depending on the age and size of your child, consider the Bubble Bum booster or mifold booster (for 4+ years/40+ pounds) or buy an inexpensive lightweight car seat like the Cosco Scenera NEXT ($44 at Walmart). The Ride Safer Travel vest works in cars but it is pricier and also is not for airplane use.

Monday 29th of February 2016

This seems like a great option, but what do you do about a car seat once you reach your destination since it is not safe to have your car seat checked?


Friday 11th of March 2016

I do sometimes check a cheaper car seat that we have only for travel, but I know people are of two different minds about the safety of that. We also sometimes rent car seats from rental car companies, which has some unknown risks too. When we travel to visit family, we have an extra car seat at grandma and grandpa's house and they pick us up at the airport with that. Bottom line is that logistics are a pain in so many scenarios and each one carries its own risks you have to weigh for yourself!


Tuesday 11th of August 2015

I see that the harness goes around the seat behind you, has anyone ever complained about this? I worry about getting a grouchy passenger behind us who will object. does it interfere with them accessing their pouch, trey or entertainment center?


Tuesday 11th of August 2015

Great question! You need to quickly lower the tray table behind you to slip the loop over the seat, but then the strap sits behind the tray table where there is dead space for the passenger behind you. The strap is so thin that it doesn't affect closing of the tray table and is too low to block the entertainment center (and too high to block the seatback pocket). No one has ever complained or had an issue - mostly I've just gotten curiosity and some parents wanting to know what it is so they can buy one for their kids! ;-)

3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Taking a Car Seat on a Plane - Traveling Mom

Sunday 5th of July 2015

[…] what about safety on the plane, you ask? Consider a CARES harnessĀ or RideSafer Travel Vest instead. It is an FAA-approved child restraint device for kids who weigh […]