Travel with children can be not only do-able, but also a whole lot of fun with the right attitude…and the right stuff! I have spent years seeking out the best travel toys, activities, games and crafts to keep kids entertained during road trips, flights or train travel. To make your travels easier and more enjoyable, I launched the Travel Mamas Store stuffed with travel toys and gear. Below I highlight some of my favorite distractions for family journeys by age from babies and toddlers to preschoolers, grade school children, tweens and teens. (Scroll down to see a list of the best travel toys by age group.)
Travel with Kids Entertainment Tips
I advise parents to keep a separate stash of toys, books, and games specifically for travel. This way, you don’t have to run all over the house pulling these items together for every trip. Plus, as we all know, children tire of their toys quickly. Hiding these toys makes them seem new again.
For lengthy trips you will want to splurge on a few new toys to be unveiled on the go. You can wrap these gifts to buy a little time and add to their magic. If you don’t have time to get fancy, use tin foil instead of wrapping paper.
Be sure to spend some time during your journey focusing your attention on your offspring. If road-tripping with more than one adult, things will go smoothest if one grown-up gets in the backseat to help make crafts and play games for a bit. For airplane travel, plan to forego thumbing through your favorite magazine in favor of reading books to your young child or working on a puzzle with an older kid.
Most parents (including me!) at some point give in to the lure of happiness and silence that can be induced by electronic doo-dads. If you allow video games and television at home, I suggest “starving” the kids of these treats for a week or so before departure. This ensures your children will be sufficiently enthralled by electronic entertainment when you need it most.
Watching movies on a travel DVD player can make the miles zoom by, no matter the mode of transportation. Often, I’ll climb into the backseat to watch a movie with the kiddos on long road trips while my husband listens along from the driver’s seat.
Movies, games and books can also be downloaded to your smart phone or tablet, like this kid-proof Kindle Fire.
Best Travel Toys for Babies and Toddlers
I have yet to meet a baby who isn’t mesmerized by the Manhattan Toy’s Skwish toy, a modern and innovative take on a standard rattle.
All kids want to play with their parents’ cell phones. Keep your smart phone safe from drops and drool and give your baby or toddler this VTech play phone instead!
Toddlers like to imitate Mom and Dad, which, for many families means typing away at a laptop computer. This version by V-tech has lots of buttons, songs and lights—everything young children love.
You’ll want a stroller toy or two for your travels. This sweet Pup Squeak toy was beloved by both my daughter and son when they were babies.
Don’t forget to bring a few bath toys, too. My kids get excited to be reunited with their travel bath toys on each trip.
Best Travel Toys for Preschoolers
Most preschoolers love to keep their little fingers busy creating arts and crafts projects. For starters, get a coloring book starring a favorite character as well as some triangular, no roll Crayola crayons.
Sticker scenes, like this one by Peaceable Kingdom, are also a big hit with the preschooler set. Choose from this airport scene, princesses, farm scenes, trucks and cars, and more.
Parents like that Crayola’s Color Wonder kits don’t make hands messy; children are amazed by the “magic” ink. Options include neon books filled with favorite cartoon characters, glittery princess kits, and metallic paper.
Lacing boards provide a compact activity to take on the road. They help preschoolers work on their fine motor skills while having fun.
A V-Reader provides a fun way to learn to read. You can purchase additional books on cartridges or download them to the device. Children can also play a few learning-based games with this electronic book.
Best Travel Toys for Grade School Children
Games of all sorts are all sorts of fun for grade school kids. Favorites like Old Maid, Go Fish, and Crazy Eights can be played with a regular ol’ set of cards or with a colorful deck like these by ThinkFun.
Many board games come in travel versions, like Connect Four, Trouble, Backgammon and more.
Girls and boys alike will enjoy stringing beads to make jewelry for themselves or for Mama with a Melissa & Doug wooden bead kit.
Lego sets were a big hit with my nephews when they were in grade school and now both my son and daughter can spend hours building with these colorful toy bricks. A set like this one will buy you lots of whine-free time on your next flight.
Girly-girls like love Polly Pocket travel sets (in themes like Hawaii, Tokyo, and Paris) with tiny clothing and accessories galore.
Of course, you’ll want to bring along some books for travelers of any age. Get kids excited about the trip by purchasing a travel-themed book, like those in the “This Is” series, which highlight such destinations as London, Texas, New York, Ireland and beyond. “This Is the World” includes abridged versions of the most popular books in the travel series.
I used to think I didn’t have room to pack bulky sand toys. Instead I wound up purchasing and then ditching them at the destination on every trip. This method was not good for my pocketbook or the environment. Then it occurred to me that kids really only need one bucket and scoop for hours of sand play. Now I pack a small pail and shovel set, like these by Small World Toys, for each of my children on beach trips. They double as a bath toys too!
Best Travel Toys for Tweens and Teens
Scramble up the colors of an old school Rubik’s Cube before giving it to your tween or teen. If they solve the puzzle, they can earn a privilege, like time to text their friends or a pit stop at Starbucks for a Frappuccino.
Kids who like puzzles will love 3D Magna’s magnetic puzzles that come with their own case and solving surface.
A Kindle Fire is wonderful for travel because it is compact and you can load it up with all sorts of books and games to entertain kids on long trips.
A Frisbee or flying disc is great for entertainment at rest-stops, the beach or during a camping trip. Plus, it’s lightweight and takes up practically no packing space. This light-up version by Nite-Ize would be fun even at night.
What do you think are the best travel toys, activities or games for kids? Let us know in the comments!
(This story originally posted in 2009. Updated 2014.)