You have made the decision to travel with a toddler. Your question now is “how do I entertain my toddler while traveling?” Travel toys for toddlers are not just an option, they are an absolute necessity for keeping children entertained and happy during a long trip.
We have been traveling with our child since he was 2 months old beginning with an hour-long road trip to Baltimore, Maryland. These short road trips with a baby eventually transitioned into traveling with a toddler. These longer journeys include 6-hour train rides through Europe and 9-hour flights to Rome. Most recently, we took our son on a 17-hour road trip to Chicago, Illinois.
Because we started traveling with our son at such a young age, it gave us time to refine our selection of travel toys based on what is convenient and most effective. Our son has also weighed into the conversation showing a clear preference for which toys he finds more entertaining.
Knowing what to pack when traveling with kids, especially the best travel toys for toddlers, has positively impacted the travel experience for everyone on the journey. Not all toys are created equally. We are here to share what makes an ideal travel toy and give some tried and true recommendations.
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What to look for in a travel toy?
Not every toy is ideal for travel. Whether traveling by plane, train, or car, you can expect to be in a very confined space. It is important, therefore, to keep a few main criteria in mind. Travel toys should be:
Lightweight and Compact
Traveling with kids is not easy. Being weighed down with excess baggage, strollers, and carry-ons only adds to the stress of travel. This can be mitigated by packing as light as possible, not only for yourself but also for your kids. Consider leaving the heavier books and toys at home, and opting instead for items that are lightweight and easy to pack. Luckily there are many fun toys for kids that fit these criteria.
It’s likely that you might lose or damage a toy in transit. It is also possible that you run out of room on your journey home, and intentionally choose to leave it behind. Purchasing cheap toys for kids is a good rule of thumb when traveling.
If you are traveling by plane or train, it is likely that you will be seated near others who may not want to be bothered by distracting noises. Avoid toys that are squeaky or draw too much attention with music and other sounds. An ideal travel toy will be quiet. Similarly, if you are traveling in your own private vehicle, there is not much space for sound to travel. It is ok to have some sounds depending on your own tolerance for noise, but certainly, avoid toys that make loud or jarring sounds.
Avoid things that spill (paints), stick (play dough and slime), or have many small pieces (puzzles and legos). This is mostly for your own sanity, avoiding the need to clean and pick up small pieces that inevitably fall between crevices. Those sitting next to your child on a plane or train will probably appreciate the mess-free factor too.
Some toys are meant to provide quick and immediate stimulation. The best travel toddler toys will entertain kids for as long as possible. We also like to select toys that are ideal not only for the plane or car, but that will continue to provide entertainment at the final destination whether that is a hotel or someone’s home. Keeping this factor in mind will help to reduce overpacking while also keeping your toddler entertained.
Best toddler toys for airplane travel
Below are some fun travel toys for kids that are ideal for providing entertainment during a plane ride.
Traditional painting and coloring can sometimes be a mess with paint spilling, drawing on walls, and of course, toddlers trying to drink the paint water (ew). Melissa and Doug make some of the best toys for little kids, as you will see from this list. Their Water Wow! Reveal pad is a genius invention because it eliminates all of these challenges.
This paint-with-water coloring book is perfect for keeping toddlers entertained on flights. A chunky-sized pen is filled with water and then used to paint the images and activities on the pages. As water is brushed across each page, vibrant colors magically appear. Let the pages dry to erase, and then use them again. No mess and infinite play.
Reusable stickers can be placed on fold-out pages to create scenes and imaginative stories. Don’t be surprised if the stickers wind up on airplane windows. Not to worry though as they come right off.
The play set is lightweight, packs flat, and has a convenient carrying handle making them great plane toys. It is available in different themes including “On the Farm”, “Mermaid”, “Oceans”, “Cool Careers”, and more.
This plush shape sorter was a big hit with our 18-month-old on the plane from Washington DC to Italy. There are 9 plastic shapes to sort, promoting cognitive and physical development. The back of the carrying case also has 9 flaps with engaging images.
The Melissa and Doug shape sorter is one of the best travel toys for toddlers because it comes in a convenient plush carrying case. We actually packed several smaller toys inside of the zippered case and made this his all-in-one toy luggage. It was convenient, lightweight, packable, and our son loved it.
You can’t go wrong with classic figurine toys. Whether your little one is into dinosaurs, farm animals, or superheroes, toddlers find great entertainment in playing with the moveable arms and legs.
These figurines are small toys so they can store easily inside a carry-on or even inside the above-mentioned shape sorter. They are also affordable, so you don’t have to be too upset if a dino accidentally gets left behind under an airplane seat.
This travel toy is ideal for preschoolers, ages 3-5. The magnetic puzzle pieces cling to the inside surfaces helping to prevent pieces from dropping to the floor and between airplane seats. The Magnetic puzzles set includes two 20-piece puzzles.
These magnetic playboards contain 38 colorful magnets and 1 fold-out playboard, encouraging imaginative play and storytelling. Durable vinyl magnets are made with non-toxic ink and laminated making them safe toys for little hands. The playboard is available in a variety of themes including the solar system, the farm, and the zoo.
These busy boards are great sensory toys for toddlers. The foldable board opens up to reveal an assortment of buckles, laces, snaps, and zippers. It can lie flat on an airplane tray, making it an easy-to-use travel toy for airplanes.
These reusable window stickers come in handy if you have booked a window seat. The simple sheet of stickers fits easily into a carry-on so there is no need to worry about sacrificing space with this travel toy.
Should I buy a tablet for my child? This is a question that we debated for a very long time before finally deciding to give in. (See our frequently asked questions section below to learn more about our thoughts on toddler screen time.)
We purchased the Amazon Fire HD 8 Kids as it is one of the best tablets on the market made specifically for kids. It features an 8″ display, 2GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB, and up to 1 TB of storage. The long battery life allows your child to enjoy 13 hours of books, shows, games, and music.
Each Amazon Fire tablet is made with strengthened aluminosilicate glass and comes with a sturdy case, making it kid-proof. Should the tablet break for whatever reason, it also comes with a 2-year guarantee. Don’t forget the wireless headphones!
Best toys for toddlers in cars
Many of the travel toys listed below can be used for both car trips and airplane rides.
I cannot recommend this toddler book enough! Our son started playing with his Poke-a-Dot book when he was 13 months old. Although it took a few days for him to figure out how to “pop” the dots when he figured it out he would sit on the floor entertained for hours.
This book is a bit on the heavier side so I would recommend using it in the car seat for toddlers who are a bit older. It makes for a great road trip activity, but it would be cumbersome to take on an airplane.
Plastic cars are classic toys that never fail to entertain. There is something exciting about sitting in a car seat, inside of a car, while playing with a toy car. They will continue to provide entertainment long after the road trip has ended.
Books are also some of the best toddler travel toys. Toddlers love to learn words and associate them with pictures! Our son has the Roger Priddy First 100 Words book, and it was amazing to see his progression from knowing 2 words to being able to call out almost every image in the book.
The following are all small, durable board books that will keep your toddler entertained while traveling: First 100 Animals, Disney 100 First Words Lift-the-Flap, First 100 Numbers, ABCs of Trucks, Boats, Trains and Planes
Quiet books are ideal for babies as young as 6 months up to toddlers around 18 months. Interactive elements like buttons, zippers, snaps, and laces engage toddlers for hours while helping to teach colors, shapes, numbers, and letters. These soft books are easy to transport and difficult to damage, both important features to consider when looking for a travel toy.
This drawing tablet is a perfect travel toy for toddlers because it is lightweight and compact enough to take along on a family road trip. The magnetic doodle board easily erases allowing toddlers to enjoy endless drawings and sketches. This doodle board is a personal favorite because of the string that attaches the pen to the board. No more pens dropping to the car floor and getting lost in between seats!
WARNING: There are some detachable magnetic stamps that can pose a choking hazard for young toddlers. If your toddler is under 3, it is recommended to remove the magnetic stamps.
The goal of this learning toy is to guide the magnetic colored balls around the maze to reach their matching color garage. All pieces are fully intact so there is no need to worry about
Favorite Stuffed Animal
Last but certainly not least is a favorite stuffed animal. Whether riding on a plane or in a car, having a familiar friend along for the journey is an important piece of keeping a toddler entertained during travel.
These fluffy friends provide children with comfort and companionship. They also encourage toddlers to develop fundamental social skills including pretend play, empathy, and language.
Frequently Asked Questions about Traveling with a Toddler
How many travel toys should I take?
This depends on a few factors. Does your toddler have a long attention span? How many children are you traveling with? How long is the flight or road trip? Will you be spending extended periods of time in hotels or at restaurants where your toddler may need to be entertained?
Generally, I would recommend packing 2-3 books along with 2-3 toys. Never give your child everything at once. Wait until he gets restless, and then surprise him with a new toy or snack.
There is certainly such a thing as bringing too many toys. When you consider all of the other toddler travel essentials like diapers, bottles, and snacks, you need to be prudent with carry-on space. As a general rule of thumb, the lighter that you pack the easier it will be to stay mobile and organized.
How do I store toys while traveling?
Because we book a seat for our toddler, he gets to bring a free carry-on. We usually stash all of his toys, snacks, and books in this bag in addition to all of the diapers and wipes that he will need during the flight. We optimize our space by putting some smaller travel toys inside of his Melissa and Doug Take a-long shape sorter.
Many travel families also recommend using the JetKids ride-on suitcase for kids aged 2 – 7. The carry-on approved kids’ suitcase has ample room to store entertaining toys. It folds out into a bed in 5 easy steps. Lastly, children can ride on the suitcase as they travel through the airport.
If you are taking a road trip, you have a few more options when it comes to storing travel toys for kids. A multi-compartment storage box works well if you have the space on the floorboard or on the seat next to your child. Another option is a back-of-the-seat hanging organizer. This toy organizer maximizes the space in the backseat of your car, by attaching perfectly behind the front seats.
What are some ideas for cheap toddler toys?
As mentioned earlier, the best travel toys for toddlers are inexpensive. The best way to find a cheap travel toy is to make one yourself using items that you likely already have at home.
Fill each compartment of an egg carton with different ribbons, and let your child pull each one out of premade slits.
Attach small pieces of velcro to popsicle sticks and let them have fun connecting the sticks.
Bandaids, post-it notes, and stickers work well too. These ideas are great for entertaining a baby on a road trip, but they can certainly work for older toddlers too.
What about screen time?
We try our best to limit screen time for our kids. We only have one television at home which serves more as a radio than a device for watching movies and television programs. We strive to think creatively when it comes to entertaining our kids during trips, however, we have no objection to using a tablet when necessary. Trust me, sometimes it is necessary!
If you are resistant to the idea of toddler screen time, consider that there are other options beyond passively watching a program. Games provide an interactive component while electronic books provide the same level of intellectual stimulation as traditional books. Our tablet has saved us from a meltdown on more than one occasion. We highly recommend bringing one, at least as a backup.
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