This post was originally published in April 2017 and later updated in July 2018.
Flying with a toddler is no fun, no matter which way you slice it.
But look on the bright side: as opposed to a little one who can’t quite grasp the world yet, toddlers have a slightly longer attention span. They start to understand concepts like coloring, drawing and imaginative play. And it opens the door for lots of new sensory activities that can be so easily (and cheaply) thrown together.
As we were preparing for our trip to Italy, I started putting together a little “busy bag” for Evelyn. Since we were packing light, I commited to filling only 1 bag with as many simple, favorite toys as I could gather. As I started putting everything together, keeping my bag limited to just a few options, I realized there were so many more ways to occupy a toddler on an airplane than I’d thought! Not just with toys, but with games, snacks and electronics too!
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All pieces to the travel-with-kids puzzle, these are a few tried and true options to consider for your next airplane ride with a toddler:
I only pack items that are small and can be sorted, stacked, or otherwise moved from place to place. Flash cards, finger puppets, and gel window clings (best if you can find bigger ones that can’t get lost or ripped apart in tiny hands) are all common items for us.
Evelyn has also finally taken to coloring, so Grab and Go Play Packs (we got ours from the dollar section at Target) are perfect for a small coloring book with disposal pack of crayons. I also recently invested in some triangle crayons (easier for Evelyn to hold onto and don’t roll off the tray table!) We also got to try out Water Wow! for the first time on this trip, and let me tell you, it has been a hit! It never leaves a mess, is easy to transport, and Evelyn’s tiny hands can grasp the water pen quite well. Magic Color coloring books and markers are another great option for no-mess coloring. These gel crayons also look fun for coloring and wiping off glass surfaces like windows or mirrors!
Though we haven’t yet, I hope to soon add a mini magna doodle to our collection, as well as these magnetic travel tins. And I imagine after the success of the Water Wow!, this Travel AquaDoodle will be next on the list for us as well.
These Melissa & Doug sticker pads are also fun, but their size has prevented me from bringing them to the airport. We’ve used this more regular sized reusable sticker book instead, though with Evelyn still under 2, it’s still hit or miss on how long it holds her attention. Older toddler can spend loads of time with a Write and Wipe activity book.
For books, these mini Sesame Street board books are still my favorite. They are the tiniest things you’ve ever seen, yet just as entertaining as the full size version. They’re hard to snag, so my apologies if they’re out of stock again!
I like to add a few random things like sticky tabs or Post It notes, which are great for sticking all over the airplane tray table. A few other simple things I’ve seen recommended by traveling parents are pipe cleaners, pom balls, etc. Basically anything that can be turned into a sensory activity by creating different sorting containers.
Despite the price tag on this buckle toy, it was totally worth it for us. Our young toddler loved to buckle, and unbuckle, and buckle, and unbuckle…
If your toddler is into blocks, these Tegu magnetic blocks have been a hit and pack up super compact.
I don’t really pack a lot of electronic toys anymore, since the iPad has taken over on that front. But a few we have had success with are the Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Tablet, LeapFrog Leaptop and LeapFrog Learning Remote.
Evelyn has gotten a lot better with counting and flash cards, so we always pack one set (we buy them cheap at the dollar store so we don’t feel sad about losing half the cards by the end of the trip). They’re great for quizzing her on words and sounds, and making piles to stack and counting the cards as we put them back in the box (that’s a game, right?)
I know bringing a squishy ball seems odd for an airplane, but Evelyn loves it. I guess it’s moreso for cheap airport layover entertainment than for the plane ride. We can pass a good 30 minutes playing
fetch catch. 😉
We find anything bite-sized is perfect for little fingers…plus, it stretches out the snacking time twice as long. If you only take one piece of advice from this whole post, it is this: YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MANY SNACKS. I probably pack twice as many snacks as toys, because snacks double as entertainment. When it doubt, get out the snacks.
Bring a variety (you never know what your toddler will and won’t like that day). BelVita Bites, Cheerios, Craisins or Raisins, cheddar crackers, fruit snacks – just a few of our bite-sized favorites. We still carry our trusty snack catcher along with our dropper stopper to prevent drops. Granola bars and bananas are also musts in our bag as well.
And lots and lots of squeeze pouches. Oh my, those things can stop any tantrum in a matter of seconds and might be the only good source of nutrition Evelyn gets on some travel days.
And yes, I used to pack lots of dum dums. It’s amazing what kids will do for a lollipop! After too many sugary bribes, we made the switch to Zollipops which are a lot better for little teeth!
For drinks, we’ve found these sippy cups to work really good for us. They hardly leak at all (even when turned upside down) and are super easy to clean (just lid and cup, no extra pieces)! Older toddlers will love a good water bottle. This Ello water bottle is Evelyn’s favorite, a MUST for long flights, and contrary to all the reviews on Amazon, we’ve never had a problem with leaks!
If you have a long-haul trip ahead, plan to restock your snacks if you have a layover. Pretzels, fruit snacks, and granola bars are sure to be found at just about any airport store, and yogurt or fresh fruit cups can usually be found at the terminal coffee shop. Packing a travel spork can help with eating on the go too.
Let’s face it. As much as I try to avoid giving our toddler the iPad, it’s going to happen on travel days. We expect a lot out of Evelyn and we definitely push our limits of what a little body can handle, so I find that bending the rules and treating her to the iPad and her favorite snacks is the least we can do to help ease the stress for everyone involved.
If you have Amazon Prime or Netflix, you can download your toddler’s favorite shows to watch for a short viewing period offline. Little Einsteins, Bubble Guppies, Word Party, and Sesame Street are a few of our favorites.
And these headphones are a great set for little ears. Comfortable to wear and they fold in so they’re easy to pack!
We’re just getting to the age where Evelyn is figuring out toddler apps, so we’ve started testing out a few. Some of her favorite free games (because let’s face it, we’re cheap) are Smart Shapes, Peek-a-Zoo, Tiny Hands Toddler Games, and Endless Alphabet. Baby Bubbles & KidsDoodle are good for a momentary cheap-thrill/tantrum-preventer as well.
There are SO many junk toddler apps out there, it’s really hard to find specific recommendations. So I suggest downloading and trying out a few for yourself first before handing them over to your toddler.
What are some of your favorite ways to occupy a traveling toddler?
Read Next: How to Travel Light with Kids
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