When we flew down to southern California for the July 4th holiday, we realized that just because a child can fly on a parent's lap for free until she's two years old, doesn't mean she should. And on the flight home two days later, which wasn't as crowded, we discovered that our car seat doesn't fit in airline seats--at least not the ones on Southwest. So when we bought our tickets for our flight down for Halloween, I bought a seat for Adriana, and told myself I'd buy a new car seat beforehand. But spent a lot of years in school perfecting my procrastination skills, so even though I had emailed a couple of groups of parents for recommendations on airplane-compatible car seats, suddenly it was the afternoon before our flight and I had nothing. Well, nothing except an indulgent father-in-law and a recommendation for a CARES Harness. I found a local store that carried the harness, and then emailed Brian's dad and explained the situation to him, asking him if he would buy a car seat that night.
The harness was incredibly easy to use: you just lower the tray behind the child's seat, loop the harness over it, and tighten it up (and then lock the tray back into place); the child's arms fit through the straps, just like in a car seat, and the airplane's seatbelt goes through the loops at the bottom. I read the instructions when I was initially on the website, and that was plenty of information to install it when we boarded the plane on Wednesday. I slipped it over Adriana's seat, tightened it up, and buckled her in. She was a bit low to see much out the window, but she was happy to have her own seat anyhow. On each flight she did get a bit antsy--paging through the Sky Mall catalog looking for pictures of dogs and scribbling on her MagnaDoodle only lasted so long. But after she nursed or had her diaper changed or whatever her request was, she was fine with being buckled back in. I think on a longer flight she would get in and out a lot more, but it's really no hassle to take her in and out and when she needed to stay in, it was fairly easy to keep her occupied. And the harness fit neatly into one of our carry-on bags. I am obsessed with being able to travel with only carry-on luggage in spite of having a child* (which I even accomplished when we went to DC for a week), so not having to drag the car seat through the airport felt wonderful.
I think the CARES Harness was worth the $75 I spent. I don't think we do an excessive amount of flying, but this year we are going to have flown down to visit Brian's folks five times, and come January 11, we aren't going to have the option of bringing Adriana as a lap child, even if we wanted to. It's nice not to have an active, 34-inch, 26-pound toddler crammed into a crowded airplane row with three adults, and it's a relief to be free of dragging a car seat through the airport. We'll have to figure something out when we fly some place else. Will we check the car seat at the ticket counter? We did that for Adriana's first flight, back when she was three months old, and then ended up stuck at LAX for a couple of hours after our flight landed, because it had ended up on the flight out of Dulles after the one we were on. If we are renting a car we could rent a car seat. Except for Adriana's second trip, when she was four months old, we tried that, and the car rental agency's car seat's weren't great: first they tried giving us a toddler seat for a child who couldn't sit up by herself for more than a few seconds. There were no instructions for installing the infant seat they finally found for us, and we were never totally happy with how secure it felt. Which leaves us back to gate checking our car seat, which isn't great, but isn't the end of the world, either. Not having to deal with it for our weekends in southern California is certainly nice, and the car seat we have there for Adriana now will last her for years.