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CARES Harness vs. Car Seat – Which is Better for Flying?

My toddler recently crossed the threshold of what I’d consider a possible lap infant. He’s big for his age, squirrelly, and generally better off in his own seat.

At 21 months old, he’s been on over 100 flights from an hour in length to over 18 hours in one go. I’ve come across just about every travel scenario at this point and that means deciding between a CARES harness and car seat frequently.

So which is better? I think they’re both worth using, it just depends on the situation. Here’s everything to know when deciding between a cares harness and a car seat:

CARES Harness Pros:

cares harness review

If you’re not yet familiar, a CARES harness is an FAA-approved flight restraint device suitable for children who can sit up on their own (read my full CARES review for more). The CARES Harness is so much easier to tote around than a bulky car seat. It is super lightweight and rolls up nice and small for an easy addition to the travel diaper bag. In cases where you’re already loaded up with carry ons and can’t add a car seat to your back, it’s an easy alternative.

It’s also better if you’re otherwise traveling without a car seat. If you don’t need one where you’re going, like for our Japan trip where we used trains to get around, for example, it’s best not to cart it around just for the flight.

However, my son slouches in his. He also won’t nap in it and refuses to wear it for the whole flight, often screaming when I strap him into it, so it’s not all sunshine and roses.

Car Seat Pros:

cosco scenera car seat

My son prefers to be in his FAA-approved travel car seat vs. the CARES harness. For some reason, he understands being strapped into a car seat. It’s familiar. But a harness? Completely unacceptable, even though it seems pretty similar in practice, if you ask me.

He’s also more easily contained in a car seat (we use the Cosco Scenera – make sure your car seat is FAA-approved before flying). He won’t happily wear the harness the whole flight, so he’ll want to be moving around and possibly standing on the seat and using me as a personal climbing gym. In the car seat, he’s seated and contained.

Naps are also easier. He is happy to fall asleep in the seat, but never would in the harness. He’d need to be in my lap, which is ok on a smooth flight but not during take off, landing, turbulence, or the dreaded stuck on the tarmac situation, which happens all the time.

It might seem like the car seat is the obvious winner, but it’s not always.

So how do you choose? It depends on the situation.

Flight Time and Distance

should a baby have their own seat on an airplane
He had his own seat for take off and landing, but slept on me for the flight.

The biggest decider for me is usually how long the flight is. It’s usually shorter flights that I opt for the car seat.

My son is happy to be in the seat for about as long as he’d tolerate it in the car – a few hours, but not 18 (like our Singapore airlines flight was when we went to Bali and later Thailand with our baby). I suppose I could unbuckle him from the car seat and let him move around, but we couldn’t use a flight bed in that case or have him lay across our laps and use that middle seat for our own legs.

The CARES came in very handy on our combined 24 hours of flying on Qatar airlines back from southern Africa to the west coast of the US. Having him sleep on my lap and being able to use the middle seat for our legs actually helped us sleep, too. A car seat would foil that since it typically won’t fit in the overhead bin when we don’t need or want it.

How Much Other Stuff We Are Traveling With

Flying Alone with Two Toddlers

It’s a literal pain to carry a huge bulky car seat on your back through the airport. Once your baby outgrows their infant seat that clicks into their stroller, though, that’s what you’ll have to do if you choose the car seat instead of the CARES harness.

I’ve seen some parents take fold up dollies and wheel large car seats through the airport, which is an option if your kid will sit in the seat while you pull, but if you already have a wheeled carry on and a stroller, you’ll run out of hands.

This becomes more of an issue if traveling alone with your kiddo. If they’re a bit older and you don’t need the stroller, you could consider a ride along suitcase like the Miamily instead while wearing the car seat on your back in a car seat carrying bag. Last time, I put the diaper bag into the car seat travel bag so I could wear both on my back simultaneously while pushing a stroller.

That said, I also love using the car seat as a way to get extra checked baggage since we can fit so much extra, like diapers and any excess weight, into our car seat carrying bag.

Type of Seat

cares harness vs car seat

The thing about the CARES harness is, you need to loop it around the seat back and under the tray table of your neighbor behind you to use it. I’ve never had anyone behind me take issue with this, but it could happen.

In coach, this should be fine, but if you’re flying business or first on an international flight, the harness probably can’t wrap around the seat – it’ll be too big.

Once my son turns two and can’t be on our laps anymore in business, we’ll have this conundrum. I’m looking at something foldable like the WayB Pico for when this happens.


should a baby have their own seat on an airplane
The slouch

Overall, with the slouching and my son’s reluctance to wear the harness throughout the flight, I’m sure that an FAA-approved car seat is safer, especially for a shorter flight where he can be strapped in for the whole time. I suspect my son isn’t the only kid who is OK with the car seat but less accepting of the harness.

For me, it comes down to what seems like it’ll be simpler at the time. Long flight where we need sleep and sanity? CARES harness and put up with some crying during take off and landing. Shorter flight when I’d like for him to be contained? Car seat.

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