Opinion Saturday: Travel with toddlers

John and I have decided that it would be least stressful for everyone while we’re gone to Ethiopia if we take both the 2 and 5 year olds with us. I’m going to hash out the whole decision over on my Ethiopia blog on Sunday, if you’re interested. But for now, suffice it to say I need airplane ideas!

What cheap tiny things can I bring to occupy a 2 and 5 year old on a plane for 30 hours? We will be bringing my laptop with an extra battery and double headphones, so I should be able to get 2 or 3 movies out of it before it dies. But I need more!

You have until Monday evening to share some awesome ideas. I’ll award two winners on Tuesday morning, and I’m giving out my last two Netflix memberships (6 months, 3 movies out at a time, people!) So come on– hit me with your best traveling-with-preschoolers ideas!

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  1. Mary, I don’t have any ideas for you … however, Boomama just flew across country and back with a 4 year old, and used the gift thing. Email me, and I can give you her email address. Maybe she will have some great ideas beyond the DVD’s.

  2. The best way to travel with toddlers? Bring Grandma along, too.

    Not practical? Oh. Umm…

    Bring a small backpack with “airplane presents” in it– one small wrapped gift for each girl for every three hours of travel (more or less, depending on their attention span).

    Each gift can be small, cheap, and most importantly, wrapped! So exciting! The unwrapping is a big event! Nothing fancy, maybe things you would have brought anyway, like crayons and colored paper, a small magna doodle, a little doll with clothes that can be changed or hair that can be brushed, a new book, pipecleaners, a pocket flashlight (things with simple on/off switches are a big hit with my kids, and flashlights are nice because they aren’t noisy! And you can put stencils over them and make shapes on the seat in front of you!), things like that.

    (They could all be things that you plan to leave in Ethiopia for other kids to play with, so you don’t have to bring it all back.)

    Also, lots of prayer. And patience. And lots and lots of snacks. (I find that a good handful of M&Ms extends my patience a bit!)

    Mary, I have not commented much here lately, but want you to know that I’m very happy and excited for your family, an wish you all the best!

  3. Someone gave me this one recently for a car trip…how about a cookie tin filled with magnet letters? Small, self-contained, letters stick on the carrying case…perfect! LOL

  4. I had another idea (if I’m allowed more than one! LOL

    How ’bout an airplane/airport version of something like this: http://www.momsminivan.com/print-scavenger-preschool.html ?

    Or an airplane/airport version of this: http://www.momsminivan.com/bingo/bingo-roadside1.html ?

  5. It’s so exciting to see you all abuzz about the trip!

    For the 5 y.o., as long as you think she has the fine motor skills to work it, how about one of those multi-color ball-point pens? You know, the kind with buttons at the top that you click down for each of the 6 or 8 colors? Very entertaining, those pens. I’d get a name brand one as opposed to a dollar store variety, which can be iffy, and test it before you go. Of course this would need to be accompanied by a super-cool sparkly little notepad and maybe even a few stickers to decorate it further.
    Also, does she like maps at all? If so,she could follow your journey on a kid-friendly or homemade, customized one.

    Two year olds can be such fickle individualists, so perhaps you could get lucky with a little observation and thievery. My 2yo has standard toys that she likes, but there always seems to be at least one little toy or object that she’s into and keeps close at hand for a time. It can be a manipulative, a pretend toy, or even just something she holds, but, for whatever reason, it’s inexplicably fascinating for a week or so, until she moves on. This week it’s a pair of toy binoculars, last was a fancy plastic bracelet to take on and off, before that it was a little Chick Fil A cow. So if you see her getting into any little toy or item around the house, maybe you could slip it away and into a zip-lock for the trip, to try your luck with it again on the plane before the magic gets worn off of it.

    I’m told that aluminum foil, which packs flat and can be discarded after use, can sometimes be very entertaining for making sculptures.

    Other than that and my beloved magna-doodles or a pinwheel, all I can suggest is very loooooong-lasting, sugar-free lollipops!

  6. Simple cheap and my kids played and played for hours with a bag of pipe cleaners! They made them into things, people, animals, made them into jewelry, took them apart and made more things.

    Something else we have done is sticker books, they get their sticker books on the flight, then new stickers every hour or so. This can all be bought at the Dollar Tree and they love playing with their stickers. The books at the dollar tree are easy to move the stickers around as well. My kids looked forward to adding more and more stickers to their trip.

    Something else is I took the packaged peanut butter and crackers with a box of raisins when they wanted a snack they got to spread on their peanut butter and place the raisins on it so they could put it in fun designs before they ate their snack.

    Mini magna doodles, color wonder paper, play dough, color form storybooks

  7. “where’s waldo?” esp. for the five year old. my neice and nephew used to spend hours looking for him, then looking for the other stuff listed in the back of the books.

  8. I personally am a big fan of any Crayola Color Wonder product. They have disappering ink, finger paints, and regular old makers. The best part is they are all mess free and washable. You know they are the markers that don’t write on anything excpe tthe special paper.

    Sticker are another good choice. You can just let the girls decorate their pictures or you can draw the scenes to a story and then put character, my girl loves elmo, into the story. Then of course write the story or do it before hand.

    But if they haven’f flown before I am sure they will jsut be fascinated with the drink service. I know my 4 year old was. What kid doesn’t love free soda? GOOD LUCK!

  9. Leesha Lou says:

    Polly pockets are great too, books on tape from the library to go with the small walkman, cd’s with their fav songs on them, fruit snacks, yogurt raisins,my kids used childproof scissors to cut things for hours. YOu can buy those foam stickers and all kinds of crafts. Also, I just go to the dollar store and load up on the little toys. There are those little mini magna doodles too. Of course their favorite blanket and toy is a must. Lots and lots of wipes ……… Congrats!!!! Alecia

  10. On our recent trip to Hawaii, I brought along a kit for my daughter to make girly stuff like a princess crown, wand, and scrapbook. The kit contained all the supplies needed, like sparkly jewels, ribbons, foam stickers, etc. The creating part was fun and time-consuming, and the finished product was fun to play with, too. I think I bought the kit at Target, and it was under $10.

  11. Window clings! Kids love them on the plane! They can stick them over and over to the window or the tray table. Colorforms are really cool too!

  12. when i was a toddler/preschooler i flew a lot as my dad was a pilot.. i remember the things i enjoyed most were playing games with my 2 year older sister(like tick tack toe, or other games u can make up with simple stuff like paper and pens), coloring in coloring books, and sleeping 🙂

  13. Wikisticks! They’re small, don’t make a mess, easy enough that a 2 year can play, but interesting enough for older children….and when they finally wear out (which takes a while) you throw them away guilt-free, so no clutter. It keeps all 6 of mine busy on long car rides for hours.

  14. One simple thing is all you need – lots of Benadryl!

  15. Hi Mary,
    Before our last few trips, I made stops at a big thrift store that puts together ziploc bags of little toys. Lots of times they’re all one type of McDonald toy or small bags of legos. On our last trip the big hit was a bag of fairy “action figures”. The best part is that these bags are cheap–.99 or sometimes a bit more for the really nice plastic junk 🙂 The trick is to pack them without the kids seeing them before the trip then dole them out as you go along. Fairies may get left behind or tiny teddy bear shoes may fall between seats, but who cares? By then, they’ve served their purpose–quick fun, no stress. Basically disposable toys. Oh. and sticky notes. Those provided more fun than I ever would have imagined.

  16. Darn Kelli, I was going to say pipecleaners!!! 😉 The other thing I’ll recommend is Littlest Pet Shops. My kids play with those for hours! You can find them at the usual places (Wal-Mart, Target) but I’ve recently found them at Big Lots & Dollar General.

    Warning for Benadryl, that backfired on me. Before we knew that our oldest was allergic to food dye, we gave her Benadryl when she broke out in hives (for another weird food allergy). Instead of getting sleepy, she became hyper! So, my recommendation is to only use if you know it doesn’t make your children hyper. You could also try a homeopathic otc, like Hyland’s Calm Forte.

    I’ll be looking forward to hearing your tips on traveling to Ethiopia with little ones. I desire to take our girls for our pick up trip next year. They are 9 & 5. I just don’t know if DH is on board with that or not. We are also adopting 2, but they will be under the age of 2. So, we’ll see.

  17. Well, for sure lots of snacks will help, but what about small crafty things? Those Colorwonder coloring books or the Crayola window markers. I know they wash right off the winder…it may get some looks from the attendants as your children are drawing on the airplane window, but you can wipe it right off.

  18. the new lego mosaics are great- they come with 2 clear bases (if you buy the bigger set for 19.99) and have a picture that you put underneath the base- it gives your children a map to build a butterfly, car, dolphin, etc……my then 3 year old LOVES them as does my 6 year old…….I prefer “imaginative” play- but this cuts out frustration when you are already in a stressful situation- we break these out for long trips!
    good luck

  19. Another Benadryl warning… it makes 2 of my kids VERY hyper. That wouldn’t be good on a plane!

    And along with the pipe cleaners, bring a bag of fruitloops to use as beads! Doubles as a snack 😉

  20. A quick list:

    A cheap box of band aids to put on their doll baby (the little plastic kinds)

    Travel magna doodles or aqua doodles

    Tiny travel sized play-dough tubs with a couple of small cookie cutters

    Books with flaps/textures/pop-out features

    Colorful pipe cleaners

    Small photo albums

    String with animal shapes/large beads

    Travel sized etch-a-sketch


    Take photos or pictures cut from magazines and then laminate them. Then take velcro and put little squares on the back to the pictures and to a small rectangular piece of cardboard. The kids can stick and re-stick the pictures again and again.

    Paper dolls (takes a lot of time just punching them out)

    Sticker books

    Small notebooks and a couple of small stamps with inkpad

    Old mail to sort and open with some stickers for “stamps”

    String with fruit loops type cereal (craft and snack all in one!) It helps to use some scotch tape to tape down one end of the string to the tray table so that the child can string on new pieces without dumping out the other end of the string.

    Small brush and bag of barrettes to do baby-dolls hair (or their own)

    Books on tape with matching books (you could even make your own to save money)

  21. My almost-four-year old loves the idea of Polly Pockets, but she can’t get the clothes on and off by herself and gets frustrated. Fisher Price Snap ‘n Style dolls work way better for her and there are tons of extra clothes sets to buy. Walm*rt has the dolls for 9.99 and the clothes for 4.99.
    Travel Candy Land! At least for the five year old, and maybe the two year old could try to play too.
    I Spy books too.

  22. I just got home late last night from a 7 hour flight with my 5, 3, and almost 2 year old. One fabulous toy that we loved was a set of little pots and pans and whisks from Ikea. Even the baby cooked and tasted and stirred all their creations. Also, Ikea has a pegboard gear-turning toy that was cheap and gave us lots of hours of entertainment.

  23. Umm Skandar says:

    mini-sized magna doodles!
    Get each girl a small backpack and have them carry their own small toys and books. And then you can pull out some surprises too. Tell stories, and for sleep, re-telling picture books (without the books) you have to memorize the story works great on airplanes.

    good luck!


  24. You can download some cheap or even free games for kids for you laptop. My 3 year old and her sisters play for hours with their Littlest Pet Shop animals, so maybe any little doll type animals and a small cardboard box which can double as a place to carry the toys and a house or a cave or whatever.

  25. Being raised by the Midwester Martha Stewart, I always think of crafts to do. How about the girls working on welcoming gifts for their sisters?

    Craft stores everywhere have large beads to string for necklaces and bracelets. They could choose their own colors or the national colors of the USA and Ethiopia.

    Before they leave, they could take their own pictures of life around them. . .siblings,the house, pets, town you live in, etcetera. Purchase a glue stick and embellishements and they could make a scrapbook on the plane for the girls (with your help , of course). Make sure to cut out pieces of paper before you leave home and limit markercolor choices for ease of transport.

    For them, individual etch a sketches or mini doodle pro pads, coloring books and crayons, etcetera. To decrease crayons or wonder marker roll off (from the tray tables), take a child’s platic cup with you and place double stick tape to the bottom to stick on the tray table or adhere the male end of velcro on the cups to stick to the chair backs.

    Other than that, I second a lot of the pther suggestions form posters. Most of all, enjoy the trip and treasure the memories.

  26. Mostly a lurker, but I love reading here! You’ve gotten wonderful suggestions, but I have a couple more. First, if you’re not planning to already, I’d definitely suggest bringing your 2yo’s car seat on the plane, and one for the 5yo too if you have an FAA-approved harnessed seat that fits her. They’ll not only be safer, but they’ll be more comfortable too, especially for sleeping. Then you could get a soft travel tray for them to use for all their activities and snacks (something like this):
    Edges to keep stuff from falling off, soft on their legs, hooks around the car seat quickly (and unhooks quickly for bathroom trips), has mesh pockets for storing stuff, and is all soft so it’s not a safety concern.
    Happy travels!

  27. Kristen says:

    I have made many trips without my husband with small children, including one five hour coast-to-coast trip with a one year old, five year old, seven year old and nine year old. In fact, we are currently organizing things to occupy our four sons for our long trip from Arizona to Canada with our travel trailer. My best advice is this–purchase two small rolling backpacks and write their initials on them with fabric paint (the puffy kind in the tubes works well). My boys always loved rolling their own backpacks through the airport and it helped me a great deal. Aside: I never personalize anything with my kids’ names on it because a stranger might identify them by name and make the kids feel comfortable coming with them. Try to find a backpack with a pocket for carrying a water bottle. Then fill the backpack with small surprises that don’t come out of the backpack until the plane trip. One of our favorites is the good old fashioned viewmaster and discs. We found them at our local thrift store and ordered discs online from amazon. That way you can buy ones the girls will enjoy. You can also buy cases for the discs that help keep them organized. Your girls are also the perfect age for lacing activities. Lauri makes sets with different brightly colored shapes and characters for lacing with shoe laces. The nice thing about these sets is that they come in neatly package carrying totes with a lifetime replacement warranty for lost pieces. The are also reasonably priced. These also provide a perfect pre-writing activity–I had to add that as a Montessori teacher : ). We have had great success with geoboards, small square plastic boards with pegs. The kids use rubberbands to make all sorts of geometric designs on the board. The rubberbands can be stored in a ziploc-type baggie. One last tip: save some small surprises in your suitcase for the return trip to replenish their backpacks. Good luck and happy travels!
    P.S. Don’t forget a pack of sugarless gum for each girl for ascending and descending in the airplane : )
    P.S.S. I always dressed my boys in the same bright color for trips because it is easier to keep an eye on all of them. Inexpensive t-shirts work just fine!

  28. When we last flew with our then almost 3 year old we did the gift thing too (airplane bag O’ gifts)LOL. We had scarves ( found cheap at yard sales and easy to pack) which we played peek a boo, made puppets out of, used for “dress up”, and made houses for the finger puppets , small finger puppets, wikki stix (wax covered string but not messy and pretty addictive even for adults), a soft ball, wrapped special snacks (we eat healthy so junk food is a big treat and considered a novelty :-)), a mini magnadoodle, pony beads and lanyard (pre cut), paper and crayons, and sticker albums and stickers (the albums allow you to make scenes and then peel and reposition the stickers).
    Bringing our then 11 month old son home from Ethiopia only the soft ball was much use…that and ice cream mercifully given to us by a flight attendant with 4 kids of her own when we were landing on one leg and he was SCREAMING (because of his ears poor boy but he refused a bottle or pacifier). There was an audible sigh of relief from the rest of the plane when he became quiet :-).


    Seriously! Buy each of them their very own box of cute bandaids (in their favorite character if you can find them) and tell them they are all for them.

    We used to drive 8 hours to visit family when our kids were toddlers and I was guaranteed at least 30 minutes of quiet when they had their box of bandaids. Sometimes even an hour.

  30. Will be praying for your family as you make this wonderful adventure.

    Here’s a couple more ideas to try…

    guess which hand the quarter is in…

    take three small cups and a ball to play which cup is the ball under…

    a play phone for “calling” siblings at home to tell them about the trip…

    play-doh and a placemat…

    puzzles stored in ziplocks to avoid bulk and weight…

    an old camera, doesn’t have to work, I’ve never met a kid that doesn’t love to snap pictures…

    homemade snack mix, make a game out of eating the mix (choose something green (froot loop), or round (peanut), or purple (fruit snack), etc…

    and lastly nail polish (the peelable kid-proof kind), lip gloss, glitter lotion, and a tiara (bought or crafted by the girls) & let them have a little girl spa party.

  31. I posted at my own place, ’cause I just had SO much to say. 😀 As I glance over this, I see some of my ideas have already been mentioned (sorry) . . . and I’m noticing that my bag of tricks really needs some bandaids and scarves! I can’t wait to see everything else that gets posted – fun stuff!


  32. My son broke his femur three weeks ago and so we are familiar with trying to keep a toddler occupied for hours on end. We have found Playdough to be a big life-saver. Markers, crayons and stickers have also been fun and easy to use in his lap. Save the laptop as long as possible.

    Good luck on your long plane ride and blessings to your newer larger family.

  33. those magic eraser books that that are clear and then things appear are great, when the book is full you can throw it and there is no mess. our kids don’t really use their leadpads, but on trips a new game holds their attention for a long time, but the batteries do wear out. our biggest is the surprise bag filled with silly cheap toys and treats.
    how exciting! our prayers are with you!

  34. Laminated paper.

    Here’s what you do:

    • Take a some coloring pages, tic-tac-toe grids, connect-the-dots, square dots (for the game where you connect dots to finish the squares), and whatever other drawing games you can think of.

    • Laminate them–you can even be frugal and laminate two sheets together so both sides have some kind of activity.

    • Bring wet-erase transparency markers in several colors.

    • Let the girls play, then erase their games and play again.

    You can purchase eraser fluid or just use the spit-on-a-tissue method.

  35. Lots of great ideas! I’m set for my next trip.

  36. I haven’t taken the time to read any of the responses, but am going to list my ideas.

    a couple of the mini magna doodles
    crayola magic coloring books and markers (they’re great for the plane because they’ll only write on the paper — no mess!)
    peel and stick magnet boards

  37. i love wiki stix too, but add or both of these books for extra fun:


  38. Pipe Cleaners! We drive 10 hours to Grandma’s house and the 5 year old twins are *well* occupied with pipe cleaners.

    The Crayola Magic books are expensive but worth it for your flight. They occupy for a loong time.

    My kids also enjoy toying with a wooden abacus, paper dolls (they’re actually velcro dolls), dressing and undressing Barbies, Etch a Sketch and a magnetic tic tac toe board.

  39. Having done the flight (in one direction at least) with a 3 and 5 year old, I think the Leap Pad was what got used the most (we didn’t bring it out in Ethiopia, so it was new to them). The nice thing is that you can bring 5 different books and then it’s a different toy every time you change books.

    That and keeping them up as long as possible so that they sleep for a good portion of the flight.

  40. Playdoh
    Magna Doodle
    Coloring books
    view finders
    stuffed animal and blanky
    cd player or cheap mp3 player (wal-mart 19.88)
    some flights have movies
    hair pretties to do hair
    My Little Pony
    Books to read

    The best thing for us on the way back – Dimetapp. It knocked them out. If that doesn’t work – Benadryl. It knocked out my 7 yr old so much he fell out of his seat. And I had the baby and my hubby was at the back of the plane, I was in the front and the beverage cart was in the way. Thankfully my tears caught the attention of the stewardess and she hoisted him back up. 🙂

  41. heather says:

    Ooh, I love this question! I just returned from camping with my 2, 3 and 4 year olds and so I have not had a chance to read all the comments as of yet. Our most recent air trip with the 3 and 4 year olds was to VN to pick up their 2 year old brother…..so sister, I have been there! My best advice, if at all possible do your traveling at night. I am not sure about Ethiopia, but when traveling to Asia, it is possible to book your flights so that the first part of the longest leg is done at night….that way the kiddos sleep for the the first half or so of the trip. The trip to and from Asia is about 30 hours (including layovers) for us…the longest flight being about 14 hours…..so 7 or so hours of sleeping still leaves you a long ole time of occupying the little ones in their seats.

    We aren’t really a Happy Meal kind of family, but I have friends and family who were willing to collect happy meal toys for us. Though they are not the most exciting toys ever made, they are great for pulling out on the plane or at important adoption court meetings. Since they were new to the kids, they were exciting enough. I also take travel magnadoodle boards, magnetic “story board” books, and if you can find them, felt backed paperdolls. Crayons, stickers (many hundreds of stickers) and little pads for sticking the stickers in also are fun and small. We took story books, and their favorite blankets and stuffed animals (one small blanket and one small animal per kiddo). These were the things we took ON board the plane with us.

    In addition we took a small carry-on full of other toys (we were gone from home for 30 days). The best thing we took was playdoh and some small cookie cutters; that and a gallon sized ziploc full of duplo legos were the favs this time around. We also took blow-up beach balls for the hotel rooms.

    If I think of other things, I will post again. Can’t wait to hear about your travels. I will enjoy these tips as we prepare in the coming months to travel to Asia (once again) to pick up toddler #4!

  42. A little plastic container full of little miniature type toys. Have the fun for a toddler is dumping them out and putting them back in. You can tie them all together with a long piece of string so they are easy to pick up. This got me through most of a train ride when the boy was 2.

  43. This may be a little late, but something I just can’t do without on a long trip is a magnetic tangram set I found at a Parent/Teacher store. It is all in a tin. Inside are papers with designs to follow, and the tangram pieces are magnetic. If you put one paper on the inside cover of the tin, the shaped pieces will stick to the paper!! 🙂 The other inside cover can hold all of the little tangram shape pieces not being used. I LOVE THIS KIT!!! This keeps all of our kids occupied between 30 – 60 min. (7, 4, 2 yrs.) Good luck on your trip!

  44. I’m a little late with this, but my kids loved the miniture magnadoodles in the car this weekend! They were able to draw and erase to their hearts content! Also, on the more expensive side, Leapsters were a hit too! And, they are educational! I also have for my 2 year old the Cheerio book that he can put Cherrios into to make pictures! It can be a not so messy snack too!
    Good luck!! I’m so excited for you!

  45. Benadryl….


  46. I just flew with our 2 yr old son 20 plus hours not including layovers. He’s also flown from africa and back a couple of times. I’ve missed the deadline but that doesn’t matter, I know some stuff about this. Our son was a dreamboat, completely God’s grace.

    Singapore air gave us a sm. connect 4- I rolled my eyes but the kid completely thought dropping the chips through was awesome. Who knew.

    I brought with us on the flight:
    – sm puff balls of the variety you buy at the sewing shop
    – pipe cleaners
    – crayons- the airlines have them but a little snack size baggie of them for each is always good
    – raisins- in the little boxes, you don’t want them eating a bunch of cookies. the little boxes are portion control too.
    – little frogs and snakes- he’s a boy, i’m guessing little animals of any size.
    – 2 favorite board books that we can spare to loose
    – extra favorite blankets (the comfort ones) that we can afford to loose.

    We played leap frog between the puff balls, we made bridges with pipe cleaners. Your kids will come up with wonderous ideas.

    -I woud bring now:
    – Watercolor pencils (sounds crazy) and watercolor paper (spiral bound) and the brush that typically comes with them.
    – the stewards are going to give you water and watercolor pencils takes like a drop of water to make a great fun pic.
    – paperclips, chains and fences and what all else

    A great travel with young kids site: http://www.redshift.com/~bonajo/michelle_preschool.htm

    The plane is also going to have pretty good kids shows if you don’t mind a little nickelodeon. And they are going to be happy to watch those 500 times if they stay awake and can see the screens.

    About benadryl, you can’t take it on the plane anymore in the syrup form, at least not a big enough bottle to service the kids if they have real allergies too. Get the strips of benadryl, they aren’t messy or yucky. By the by, I tell you this not because I want people drugging their kids but your kids are probably going to have a hard time settling to sleep on a plane. Way too much stimulation, new things to see are everywhere and you don’t want them getting there without rest. They will not be happy. They will most likely need the benadryl to take the edge off so they can sleep. And try to give them a half dose for their ages like 1/2 a strip.

    Sorry I rattle on but I don’t want more unhappy parents on a plane.

  47. not to start a little war but I wouldn’t recommend flying with carseats. They rarely fit down the aisles of airplanes much less the seats. Airline attendants actually aren’t terribly fond of FAA approved carseats as most of them have seen that the person making the carseat has never been on a plane. If you do decide to take carseats you may think about the smaller booster seat type rather than the larger full back type that your 2 yr. old probably still sits in. We’ve flown with them, and actually had to gate check them a few times- the car seat, not the child 🙂

  48. Hello,
    All-I can say is trunki— 🙂 I have gotten my almost four year old a pink one(they have blue and green as well) It is a ride on suitcase for 3-6 year olds ,however it works just find for two year olds,they pack what they want and can either be pulled by a tug along rope or pull there own stuff in a lightweight suitcase shapped like an animal great,and a great ride on toy for airports.