The CARES Airplane Restraint—an elaborate strap that wraps around an airline seat—does just that without the bulk of a car seat, even as it adds an upper-body harness so your child's head won't fly forward in cases of unexpected turbulence. It's easy to pack and installs in seconds, but my daughter hated it. She felt as if she'd been tied up and couldn't sleep in the restraint, as there was nothing to lean her head against. Besides, I object to spending more than $70 for what is, essentially, a belt.
Trunki, $39.99 Although it doesn't address the car seat issue, Trunki, a carry-on for kids, is still a transportation aid, and for sheer fun, it's hard to beat. Made of tough neon-green plastic, it has bright-blue horns, a hot-pink "nose" (really one of the bag's latches), and four wheels for hooves. Because the bag sits horizontally (instead of vertically, like most carry-ons), it can be ridden like a bull. Should you need to carry it, the Trunki comes with a shoulder strap, which can also be used as a rein for your child to hold on to. With its low center of gravity, it maneuvers well around corners and is surprisingly roomy—holding nearly as much as a traditional carry-on because there's no telescoping handle taking up interior space. My daughter, who is tall for her age, just outgrew her Trunki (it's intended for children ages 2 to 4). But she used to love scooting herself along on it. And when she got tired, I'd pull her through the terminal. Once on the plane, I worried that it would be hard to use, as it has no exterior pockets, but because it's smaller than most carry-ons, it's easy to pull out and open. Its only drawback is that it doesn't really serve any pressing purpose. Because airports and airlines let you use strollers up to the airplane door, there's little need for a rideable bag. But it's cute, relatively inexpensive, and exceedingly light. Plus it will make other travelers smile—no small accomplishment in this time of rising air rage.
The Pac Back, $39.95 You won't win any beauty contests with this backpack-style strap that allows you to carry a car seat on your back. Also be careful when making sudden turns; it's easy to broadside innocent bystanders. That said, the strap is elegantly simple. It readily attaches and detaches in seconds and fits, even when holding a car seat, through the X-ray machine and down an airplane aisle—both major pluses over the TravelMate. It folds flat and so is easy to store when not in use. You can even drape it, with the car seat still attached, on the handles of a stroller to avoid the pack-mule look. It's also fairly inexpensive. Until my daughter became too old for a car seat on the plane, this is what I used the most.
RideSafer Travel Vest, $99.99 Airlines won't allow boosters (thick cushions with large handles) in the cabin because to work they need a shoulder strap, which airplane seats don't have. But many states require them in cars for children up to age 8. So what's a parent to do? The traditional solution involves lugging a booster to the airport, checking it or stuffing it in the overhead compartment, and then retrieving it for the car ride to the hotel or back home. This can be a hassle if you aren't otherwise checking luggage. Also, boosters are heavy and cumbersome to haul around.
Enter the RideSafer Travel Vest, a less bulky alternative to the traditional booster. Like the CARES restraint, it repositions a belt across a child's body—but it's cozier and simpler to use while still thin enough to fit in a carry-on's side pocket or even a large purse. A car's seat belts slide readily through the vest's tough metal guides, and you can leave it fastened in the back seat, so your child need only slip in and out without a lot of detaching and reattaching. My daughter, who thinks it looks like something an astronaut might wear, loves it. It's such a snap that some families might actually dispense with their booster altogether in favor of the RideSafer Travel Vest, even if they're not frequent flyers. Surely that's the mark of great travel gear: It's suitable for everyday life back home.