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Traveling with kids is often fraught with both excitement and anxiety. You can’t wait to go somewhere (finally!), but you also know that the potential for meltdowns lurks around pretty much any corner. After all, so many things are out of your control as a parent, the least of which are traffic, bad weather and flight delays. It’s enough to make you consider staying home…for a second, maybe.
But before you start packing up your entire playroom to entertain your children en route to your destination, take heart: There are some seriously amazing kids’ travel games and toys that’ll keep little ones occupied, whether you’ll be road tripping or flying the friendly skies. “When in transit, the best games and toys are lightweight, compact, easily packable, mess-free, washable or wipeable and easy to recover if you drop them,” says Jen Campbell Boles, Founder of Explore More Family Travel. “And of course most importantly, they should be engaging.”
With that in mind, we put together a group of captivating travel toys, games, gadgets and books to take the stress out of family trips. They’ll keep kids’ hands and minds busy—and they’ll keep your trip drama-free.
A Toy for Busy Builders
These suction cup pieces are great for creative kids who like to build. “[They] stick to each other and the window, so kids can build elaborate designs and structures while parents drive,” says Catherine Ryan Gregory, author of Road Trip Games and Activities for Kids and founder of the family travel site To & Fro Fam. They’re washable, good for motor development and won’t get lost between seat cushions nearly as easily as teeny Lego pieces. Note: Because they’re smaller than the original Squigz, these aren’t recommended for kids under five.
A Book to Keep Baby Engaged
Sensory books that babies can interact with are a huge hit, says Ryan Gregory. “These have crinkly parts and different textures babies can safely explore.” Parents will love that they’re washable and made from BPA-free material.
A Story And Music Player
For a captivating, screen-free option, kids love this cube speaker, which they can operate independently. How it works: You place a magnetic toy character, a “Tonie,” on top, and it plays kid-appropriate music and stories. This particular set comes with a Toniebox, playtime puppy figure and charging station—and it plays popular traditional children’s songs. You can buy a wide variety of additional characters that play stories and music (think favorites like Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol, Disney, and many more) for $15 each. Parent tip: Bring headphones for the car or plane to minimize disruption to others.
A Captivating Card Game
Most of us played the alphabet game or “I Spy” on road trips as a kid, and this game is similar but even more fun. “It engages kids through friendly competition and encourages them to be observant,” says Boles. The cards have look, listen and smell prompts for things such as “yellow house,” “red car,” “bad smell” or “sound of siren.” Ideal for ages seven and up.
Building Without Blocks
Kickstart creativity with these bright, bendy, moldable sticks, which come with a 12-page activity book for inspiration. Children can build everything from animals to jewelry with these versatile, pipe cleaner-esque wax pieces, which are reusable and come contained in a handy travel case.
A Play-It-Anywhere Toy
This versatile fold-up mat provides endless ways to foster creativity. “The best travel toys are open-ended, so you get a lot of mileage out of one toy,” says Ryan Gregory. “Littles can use their imagination to craft games of their own with this folding play mat. I recommend parents bring a few of their kids’ favorite small toys, like Matchbox cars or Disney figurines to incorporate into it.”
Draw On The Go
There are a lot of magnetic drawing boards out there, but many take up just too much real estate in a travel bag. Boles likes that this LCD board is compact and has an attached stylus, and parents will also appreciate that it’s mess-free and reusable. Plus, it comes in five colors.
A Magnetic Game Set
The perfect travel game is something with longevity that won’t be cast aside after 30 seconds. Enter this set: It has magnetic pieces aren’t easily jostled or dropped and a zipper closure and carrying strap that are practical for travel. Boles says it’s especially great for older kids who may need a break from staring at a screen.
Beloved by both kids and parents, these activity pads check all the boxes: They’re compact, reusable, and won’t create a mess, making them ideal for car and plane trips. Kids can draw with a refillable water pen to reveal colorful images, letters and numbers. This set comes with animals, alphabet and numbers pads, but there are many different options depending on your child’s interests. The sweet spot for these is between three and five years of age.
A Cool Kids Travel Log
With clever cues like “Today I spotted…” and “If I could give this place a nickname, it would be…,” this allows kids to journal about their trip and even rate their experiences, from food to what makes a great adventure. “It prompts kids to be present on their vacation,” says Boles. And after your trip, it can serve as a souvenir to remember your experiences.
Family Travel Fun
Spending countless hours in close quarters as a family can get tedious, but this game will break up the boredom and serve as fun bonding time, according to Boles. The best part? It works for slightly older kids and adults (think: questions like “Whose voice can you best imitate?” and “If you had to live on one candy for the rest of your life, what would you choose?”). It’ll get kids talking and families laughing on road trips, and you never know, it may even stave off the dreaded “Are we there yet?” question. Another good option is the book: Would You Rather: Road Trip Edition.
A Magnetic Art Tablet
This lightweight plastic tablet has a stylus that pulls up magnetic beads and clicks them into place so kids can create unique designs and patterns or practice letters and numbers. Parents can even devise drawing challenges to keep kids engaged. The best part? No batteries or charging required.
A Sensory Case
Similar to a sensory quiet book, this is basically a sensory briefcase for toddlers. They’ll love buckling, zipping, buttoning, lacing and clipping the pieces. It’s perfect for stashing in a carry-on or the back seat pocket in the car.
A Creativity Catch-All
“Elementary-aged kids have a lot of interests, so I like a travel toy that does a lot, like a travel tray with built-in activities,” says Ryan Gregory. This one has a built-in white board and pockets to hold water, supplies and even a tablet. “To make a trip extra-special, I recommend parents put together a brand-new ‘travel kit’ geared toward their kids’ passions, with goodies like stickers, markers, paper and window clings. They can tuck them into a side pocket of a travel tray so their toys are always handy.”
A Vacation Scouting Book
One key to a successful trip with kids? Talking and reading about the destination beforehand. “Kids are more likely to behave during a journey if they understand why they are traveling to a destination they’re excited about,” says Boles. Invest in a book like this one, which is part atlas, part exciting fact-filled reader. If you have a certain city you’ll be visiting, Boles also recommends looking for a location-specific, interactive book with more detail.
Shape Sorting For Babies
Toddlers are fascinated by sorting shapes, and this top-rated toy travel bag will provide hours of fun for little ones. The padded case has two activity sides, a convenient carrying handle, and nine shapes in different colors. It also helps with sensory fine motor development.
A Pop-It Board Game
Fidgets are still going strong, so why not bring along a fidget game that two can play? Players pop the dots according to the numbers on the dice thrown, and the first to finish their section wins. Children can also create their own popping competitions.
A Modern Day Mr. Potato Head
Magnetic toys are a must for every child’s travel kit. This set comes with three magnetic boards and 31 magnetic facial pieces so kids can build faces that mimic certain feelings, or just create countless silly looks.
A Calming Kids Travel Book
This sweet book explains the travel process to kids in an accessible way, including everything from the importance of holding hands in the airport to waiting in line at security. Kids will love following the characters on their journey through the vibrant illustrations.