Thursday, December 23, 2010

Review: CARES Child Aviation Restraint System so kids fly safe

Have Kids Will Travel special giveaway event at Hobo Mama ReviewsHAVE KIDS, WILL TRAVEL special event: I am featuring a few special travel items for review that I was able to use on my trip with my three-year-old son and eight-year-old niece this summer and another trip with my family in the fall. Enjoy these fabulous family travel products!

One of the worst parts of traveling with kids by plane is lugging the car seat through the airport. Am I right?

When I saw the CARES Child Aviation Restraint System from Kids Fly Safe, I just knew I had to give it a try. The company graciously agreed to give me a harness for review, so I was able to use it with three-year-old Mikko on our flights, both to the East Coast and Midwest, this summer and fall.

Why is CARES better than a car seat for airplane travel?

CARES is a special harness that's been tested and approved the FAA as being safety-equivalent to using a car seat in an airplane for children age 1 and older who weigh between 22 and 44 pounds and are no more than 40 inches tall. CARES has also been certified in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Switzerland, and Oman. See the FAQ for specific airlines that have authorized the use of CARES.

CARES folds up compactly into a provided drawstring bag.
CARES weighs almost nothing folded up and comes in a stuff sack, so you can push it into your carry-on or diaper bag and have it handy on the plane. The harness fits around the seat back behind the child and uses the airplane's own seat belt as well as additional harness straps to secure your child for takeoff, landing, turbulence, and just general in-flight safety.

That means you can leave the car seat at home, or check it through to your destination!

When we traveled before when Mikko was a baby, we brought our convertible car seat with us, but it was such a chore. It didn't have a handle, and we had to lug it plus our carry-ons, plus our baby, all through security and to our gates as we rushed to make our flights. It was a huge pain — often literally!

With CARES, we were able to plan ahead. I contacted our parents in advance of each trip and asked for their help in locating a suitable car seat for Mikko on arrival. In one case, my parents have a built-in car seat in their minivan, so they made sure to pick us up with that car and let us use it while we were visiting. With my in-laws, they asked around at church and found a friend with several car seats for her own car as well as the grandparents' cars who was willing to lend us one of the lesser-used ones for our stay. (Safety note: Be cautious when borrowing car seats that you know what their history is and that they come from a trusted source. Check that they're not expired and that that they fit your child, and ask for the manual so you can be sure to install it, adjust the straps, and use it correctly.) You can also rent a car seat when you rent a car for an additional fee.

Not having a car seat in the airport made our travel so much easier! We took public transportation to the airport (our general preference, anyway), and then we made it through even the enhanced security with just our two carry-ons and our three-year-old, rather than all that plus a bulky convertible car seat. In addition to all this, our current car seat for Mikko is not FAA certified for air travel (this is rare, but it's a long story why we have this model!), so we were going to have to buy a second car seat just for the plane trips — it was so nice to have CARES and our parents' assistance to avoid all that hassle and expense!

I can just imagine the added benefit CARES would have for a household with multiple small children — who wants to lug two or more car seats through the airport while keeping track of so many little ones? CARES to the rescue! It would also be so helpful for any parent traveling alone, because fewer adults means fewer arms to hold hands along with cargo.

Even the box it came in was exciting!

Why is it so important to have a restraint device inside an airplane?

"These youngsters are old enough to be in their own seats, but are too small for the seat belt alone to protect them and provide the safety they require during airplane travel. Their bodies cannot withstand the jolts that are common in routine air travel, much less emergency situations, and they flail forward or slide beneath the seat belt if they are not held securely in place." — Kids Fly Safe
When we flew with Mikko as a baby, we fell prey to the temptation not to buy him his own airline seat but keep him in arms. I still have regrets about this, and I was actually relieved when he turned two years old and we were then forced to buy him his own seat. Both times when we traveled by plane when Mikko was a baby, our parents helped us pay for the flight, so it seemed churlish to insist they add another 50% to the price of the tickets. I even looked into getting the "discounted" infant fare — and it was about three times what we had paid for the adult fare! Apparently it's a discount only off some mythical full price, which we of course never pay since we buy our tickets in advance. It was pretty ridiculous.

Why did I come to regret our decision? Because it turned out to be really dangerous. On one leg of a flight in particular, we hit turbulence so bad that I was genuinely afraid I might lose hold of my baby. He weighed a lot, and I had only my arms to hold him in place. At one point, I asked Sam to help me hold him down because I was so worried. Our drinks were spilling, and I felt like I was going to throw up, which I never do on airplanes — that's how bad the turbulence was. I was reading an article recently where an airplane pilot scoffed about how people take buckling up seriously in cars that travel 50 miles an hour or so — but then think they can blithely walk around and be unsecured in an aircraft traveling 500 miles per hour. When put like that, it's common sense to buckle everyone in!

When I saw CARES, it was like this lightbulb moment — this would help keep my preschooler safe in his own seat. I already knew what turbulence could do, and even though Mikko is actually over 40 pounds now and could, according to the FAA, sit in the airplane seat belt alone, I know that at three years old, he's still immature enough for shoulder straps to be a better option. For one thing, it's more like his car seat, so it gives more of a cue that this is the time we sit still and stay in one place.

How do you use CARES?

CARES comes with detailed instructions so you'll be well prepared for how it works.
It was easy to install CARES on the airplane. It came with an instruction card that you can keep with you in the convenient drawstring bag, and it also came with an instructional DVD — unfortunately, we never could get the DVD to play, so it must have had a defect, but it wasn't a big deal. We were able to figure out how to work the harness easily from just the pictures and text. offers an online video and step-by-step installation instructions as well.

We were able to board before other passengers, which I think was a big help. On one flight, the attendant didn't want to let us board early, until I explained that we were going to be installing a harness that might annoy the passenger behind us as we installed it; then she gave us the green light!

If you can't board early then, yes, you might temporarily annoy the passenger behind your child, but it should take only a couple minutes to install CARES, so they'll survive.

Adjust the red strap around the seat back behind your child.
You loop the big red strap around the seat back behind your child. You have to undo the tray table of the passenger behind your child so that the red strap can slide underneath it. Once you've tightened up the red strap and gotten it adjusted to the height you want, you can pop the tray table back up, and it's fully functional for the other passenger throughout the flight. (According to CARES, there are isolated planes where this isn't the case and the strap has to go over the closed tray table; this never happened in any of the four planes we flew in, and I understand it to be very uncommon.)

Pull the airplane's regular seatbelt through the loops at the bottom of the harness.
The harness hangs down from the red strap, and it has two little loops at the bottom. You thread the airplane's regular seat belt through those loops, and fasten it over your child's lap, tightening it as you normally would. Then you buckle the shoulder harness in place over the chest, just like you would typically do in a car seat. Adjust the height of the straps as needed, and then tighten everything to ensure a snug fit.

And that's that!

Your child can come out of the harness (to go to the bathroom, have a nursing break, or run around the airplane like a hooligan — you know, whatever keeps the kid happy!) by simply unbuckling the seatbelt and the chest strap, leaving everything else in place to return to.

Then buckle the chest clip and tighten everything to be snug! Don't worry about the pathetic expression on his face; he did have a good time on his airplane ride.
I found it really easy to install, even though we were novices at first. We waited to uninstall it till after the passenger behind Mikko had stood, and then you just reverse the procedure and get it stuffed back into its sack.

Just a little tip: I recommend nonstop flights with kids if you can swing them. That way, there's no rush to leave the plane to make a connection, and you have time to gather all your belongings!

Are there any downsides to using CARES?

Here are a few things to keep in mind. The biggest obstacle, as far as I'm concerned, is the price. It's $74.95 if you buy it directly from Kids Fly Safe. It's on sale at Amazon today for $64.95. You could theoretically buy a cheap and lightweight car seat for that much money and possibly rig a carrying strap of some sort. Did I appreciate having CARES? I absolutely did. But would I have paid the money for it if I had not gotten it free to review? That's a good question. It was certainly one of the options in my mind, because it was a lot cheaper than the top-of-the-line car seats I was considering as an addition to our family's fleet (because I realized our baby-to-come could use any additional seat we buy, so I wanted a good one for the long term). Using CARES meant I could hold off on buying an expensive new seat just for traveling, when we weren't yet sure if or when we were having another baby. (As it turns out, soon, but who knew!)

The time window for using CARES is somewhat small. For instance, your child must be over a year old, but smaller than 44 pounds and 40 inches. I don't know what "normal" kids weigh, but Mikko at three is already challenging the weight limit, at about 42 pounds. Still, that would have given him two-plus years of use. If we were frequent travelers, I could see CARES being worth it over the long haul.

Depending on your trip, you might still need a car seat either getting to the airport or at your destination. I want to be absolutely clear: CARES is only for use with toddlers and small children inside an airplane. It is never to be used in a car or other similar motor vehicle; you'll still need a car seat at your destination if you plan to travel by car when you arrive, so plan ahead. You might be able to finagle it, as we did, to avoid bringing your own car seat, using public transportation or having someone else drive you (with a car seat) to the airport, and using a borrowed car seat or public transportation at your destination. If, however, you plan a lot of driving upon arrival and would rather have your kids in their familiar car seats, that's something to consider. Even with quite a lot of driving on our trips, Mikko did fine in his borrowed seats.

Also, you can't stop your child from using CARES combined with a jump rope and an ice cream shooter for some sort of jury-rigged Mama bondage.
Your child might be less likely to consider CARES a restraint. I haven't been able to test this theory by comparison, but Mikko kept asking to be let loose of CARES, when I wonder if he would have been more restrained by his usual car seat, since he's conditioned not to expect to hop in and out of his car seat in the car. That said, sometimes it was convenient that he could get out of CARES so easily, so he could nurse when his ears needed to pop and fall asleep on my lap on our two red-eye flights. Your child might also be able to sleep better in a car seat, as well, although you could bring a pillow or rolled-up clothing to prop up a child's head against your shoulder or the wall of the airplane for snoozing while in the harness.

You might have some hassle over using CARES. We had no problems whatsoever, from flight attendants or fellow passengers. It's nice that there's a clear tag on the product stating that it's FAA approved for use in an aircraft, if there is any dispute. But any time you use an unfamiliar product, you face potential confusion. Plus, if we hadn't been able to board first (some airlines no longer allow families any preferential treatment), we would have had to interact with the passenger behind our child and explain that we would be doing annoying things to the tray table for a few minutes. That might or might not have caused some bother. Fortunately for us, no one complained. I only put this out there, because it's something that worried me as a possibility.

More information about CARES

Another suggestion I like about CARES is that it can be used with special needs children who might require additional upper-body support in an airplane. If you need a waiver to use the harness over the height and weight limits, Kids Fly Safe has information on how to contact the FAA for an exemption.

Here is some information straight from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on using child restraints and the CARES harness in airplanes, proving that the FAA does indeed consider CARES a safe alternative to a car seat in flight.

Here's the Kids Fly Safe FAQ to answer multiple questions about CARES' use.

And here's the cool story of how Louise Stoll, a grandmother, designed CARES to relieve her poor daughter. Her daughter stepped off the plane with a toddler, 20-pound car seat, and diaper bag — and was seven months pregnant! Louise knew there had to be a better way.

Here's information about AmSafe Aviation, the company that manufactures CARES as well as countless aircrafts' regular safety belts.


CARES logoYou can purchase CARES directly from Kids Fly Safe for $74.95.

You can also buy CARES from brick-and-mortar retailers in the United States, Canada, UK, and other countries. Check the locator for help.

It's also on sale at Amazon today for $64.95 and would qualify for free Super Saver Shipping within the U.S.

If you need multiple harnesses for multiples, you can use the CARES discount codes on for twins and triplets: 15% off for twins, and 25% off for triplets!

Be sure to connect with Kids Fly Safe for product news and announcements of discounts:

Enjoy the ease of flying safely with your children!

Disclosure: I received a CARES harness for review.
Amazon links are affiliate links.
I try to seek out only products I think you would find
relevant and useful to your life as a natural parent.
If I don't like a product, I won't be recommending it to you.
See my full disclosure policy here.



Anonymous said...

Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!