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Frugal Ways to Occupy Kids While Traveling

Guest post from Rachael of Nothing if Not Intentional

As the snow melts and ice thaws, many families look forward to getting away for a spring break trip or a summer vacation. And whether you’re road tripping to Grandma’s or flying to the beach, these travel plans often include long hours with little ones strapped into their car seats.

How can we occupy little ones who can’t yet read and don’t like to sit still?

Since my husband is a pilot, our family has had a fair amount of practice traveling with our young girls (7 months and 2 ½ years). We keep a small bag packed that is filled with special travel toys. This bag is updated before trips, and we don’t play with it any other time. This keeps the activities special and new.

Here are a few cheap, screen-free ideas to help you pack your travel bag of tricks!


With diapers, wipes, clothes, and bibs, babies require more than their fair share of luggage. Luckily, there’s no need to fill your car or carry-on with lots of toys.

Play peek-a-boo or let them giggle at the friendly passenger in the row behind you! Make sure the toys you do bring are easy-to-clean. Baby toys will likely end up on the floor or ground.

Other ideas:

  • paper or magazine pages to rip
  • a ball to drop or roll
  • rattles that are fun to shake and chew
  • a small photo album filled with pictures of friends and family members


It’s tough to keep a mobile toddler strapped into a seat!

Make sure they get plenty of exercise before they’re expected to sit still. Cruise around your boarding gate and do laps up and down the airplane aisle.

If you’re traveling by car, play a game of follow the leader that includes jumping, running, hopping, and skipping each time you stop.

Other ideas:

  • Finger puppets
  • Color wonder markers
  • Stickers
  • Mr. Potato Head
  • Magazine cutouts of pictures toddlers recognize (e.g. animals, food, vehicles)
  • Tape to squish, roll, and tear
  • Body parts book using pictures of child — see our book
  • Small foam blocks to stack, match, or encourage color/shape identification


Preschoolers still fidget and move, but you have the advantage of being able to engage their minds.

Encourage your preschooler to fix and serve a pretend feast. Talk about your child’s favorite memories. Ask your child to tell you his favorite story. Make up a story together. Let the imagination run wild since the body can’t.

Other ideas:

  • A tiny toy car or plane to drive or fly
  • Puzzles
  • Magna doodle or etch-a-sketch (from a dollar store!)
  • Bingo markers (also from a dollar store!)
  • Coloring sheets and printables
  • Camera (perhaps a real one you’ve retired? Kids love imitating parents and helping to capture memories and moments!)
  • Eye-spy books
  • Paint with water sheets
  • Busy Bags
  • Songs—“Wheels on the Bus,” “Old Macdonald,” “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

With all of these ages, bring snacks, offer drinks, pack a few books, and don’t forget your child’s lovey.

With a little frugal preparation, you’ll be on your way to a travel adventure the whole family can enjoy!

How to you occupy kids while traveling?

Nothing if Not Intentional started as a blog to share stories from Nate and Rachael’s ten trips to Guatemala. It is now an outlet for Rachael’s writing (she’s a former English major), and a place to share stories from their travels (Nate’s a pilot) and life with two young girls.

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  • Cheryl says:

    For slightly older kids:
    Madlibs, find the letters of the alphabet in order on signs and license plates, make a sentence from the three letters of license plates, read out loud, follow the route on a map (use post-it arrows).

  • Cheryl says:

    magnetic shapes on a magnet board (we got this with our school supplies)

  • Jessica says:

    We do travel bags, with special toys only for travel, too. In addition to the ideas listed, I give the kids notebooks (the kind that are $.25 at back to school time) and stickers. Also, we borrow Look and Find books from the library. These are similar to I Spy books, but there are pictures of the items you are looking for (so the kids don’t have to be able to read to do them independently). But what my kids love the most is that I have a central bag with various activities numbered 1 to 8 or so. They don’t know which activity is which number, so it adds an element of surprise. When they start to get bored, I let them “pick a number” and do the activity.

  • thar says:

    I can definitelly relate, as my dh has been working in customer service for a major airline for 26 years. Our 4 children, ages 13, 11, 10 and 5 have been regular travelers since they were infants. A few additional suggestions…
    Do not bring out the toys right away. Use every single available tool naturally present on the aircraft, one at a time, until toddlers/preschoolers are no longer interested. Before pushback, let them watch the baggage handlers out the windows. Ask if they can spot their own family’s bags. Now, for the inflight magazine. One page at a time, use it like a story book. Is there an image of a dog? Ask them, “Can you find the puppy on this page?”
    Turn pages and ask, “What color pants is she wearing? What about her shirt? How many people are in that picture? What are they doing?” We easily passed 15-30 minutes that way. We moved on to the airmall shopping magazine and did the same thing. Air sickness bags (sounds gross, but it’s just a provided, clean bag) make great puppets. Get out the crayons and see what they can come up with. By this time, a snack might come in handy. Snack time is its own “reward.” When you finally do have to bring out the toys, bring ONE at a time and try to keep them occupied with it until they completely lose interest. Put it away and bring out just one more, and so on. Lift flap books are GREAT to keep their interest (especially brand new, unfamiliar ones.) We were always able to get them to the point of a nap by doing these things. And when all else fails and an infant or toddler cannot be easily comforted, remember that you’ve done your best and most passengers understand. The few that might be frustrated by a crying, fussy toddler are adults and, frankly, just need to endure it. There’s alot we can do to keep our kids happy when traveling, but they ARE kids, after all.

  • Kris says:

    We flew cross country with my son at 23 months old. He was in his own seat with a car seat but the trick I learned was to pick a theme he was in and have it all relate. I kept mixing it up on the earlier flight and realized for the way home how to adapt. For example, he loved fish. I had Nemo to watch on the DVD as a backup, had gold fish snack crackers (he does not get these often so it was “new”), I had small fish replica toys (new), fish stickers and coloring books. Keeping the same “theme” helped him for some reason. Just a tip.

  • WilliamB says:

    If you’re flying on a commercial flight, contact the airine to find out what onboard entertainment is available – kid’s music channel, classical music, inflight movies, etc. A good long-term value is kid’s portable computers, the sorts that help them learn the alphabet, numbers, and sounding out words.

    Also, please, please remember that kids don’t automatically know what good behavior is. Be specific:
    – don’t kick the seat in front of you
    – extra important to use indoor voice
    – don’t talk or touch the persons near you unless they talk to you first
    – even if they talk to you first, don’t talk for more than a short conversation (but it’s generally up to the parents to remind or redirect the child).

    As the parents on the trip, there are a few things you can do to make the trip more smoothly. Specifically, bring bribes and helps for the people around out: chocolates, earplugs, maybe buy a snack or beverage if the situation calls for it. And tell anyone in the vicinity that if your child is bothering them and you haven’t noticed, please let you know. Often just showing that you’re aware of what might happen diffuses incipient antagonism.

    One final tip. As a general rule dads get more slack for dealing with a difficult child than moms. It’s grossly unfair and inequitable but it’s true. Use this to your advantage: if your child is being loud, or fidgity, or sick, or … have dad deal with your child.

    • I agree-a key component of air travel is teaching our kids to be respectful and courteous travelers. We keep ear plugs in our bag to pass out to nearby passengers. If nothing else, it lightens the mood and helps our neighbors to feel considered and respected. Thanks for all of the great info you shared!

  • Brooke says:

    Thanks for the ideas! We have a 12 hour road trip coming up, so these will definitely come in handy! We also like to hand our ipods over to the kids during trips, they can listen to their own music without fighting and also play their own games!

  • We love to travel with balloons. Deflated, they take up hardly any room at all. Then we blow them up in the airport while waiting between flights, in the hotel room, or even in the stateroom on a cruise ship. We never have to worry about them damaging people or property, and we just deflate and toss them when we’re done.

    • Enjoy your trip! I agree-technology (music, games, apps, gadgets) can go a long way towards helping kids (and grown ups!) pass the time! 🙂

    • What a great use of money and space! We were just discussing balloons at our playgroup the other day. Another mom shared a horrible story she heard about a balloon that blocked the airway of a child when it popped while he was blowing it up! I know that’s a rare exception, but I think my family better wait on balloons until my kids (8 months and 2 1/2) can be trusted to not chew or swallow a balloon! 🙂 But someday we’ll take you up on that suggestion! 🙂

      • Oh my gosh, that’s awful! My children are the the exact ages of yours, but we never let them handle the deflated balloons or play with the inflated ones unsupervised. I suppose if either was a biter or a chewer at all we wouldn’t use them at all. I hope they work well for y’all when you decide to use them!

        • Again, I’m sure it’s just a rare exception! 🙂 One of the moms in our group has an ER nurse for a brother, so she shared the worst-case scenario with our group when she noticed one of the toddlers chewing on a balloon! My baby is a chewer…but thankfully the toddler is (mostly) out of that phase! 🙂

  • Anne says:

    Pipe cleaners. They saved me once or twice waiting at the grocery store line too.
    Rubics cube.
    Play clay

    For long car rides, I made 50 mile bags for each kid. Every 50 mile increment they each received another brown lunch bag filled with a couple items. Could be food or toy or both. Juice, crackers, fruit snacks, small toy that you already have around the house, or activity – ziploc of legos, crayons, stickers, etc. Be prepared to stop at 75 miles for a bathroom break 😉

    • Anne says:

      oh, I forgot. You don’t have to go out and buy all kinds of trinkets either. Send out a FB notice to your friends asking if they could lend your kids a few items. Mark the items so they eventually get returned to the original lender.

      Which reminds me…..One helpful thing we moms did for eachother when a family was homebound for a few days or week (think chicken pox). We passed along a Sharing Box. All the kids helped fill a milk crate or packing box with items to lend for the week. Books, movies, toys, homemade play clay. It was like birthdays all year round.

    • I’m definitely adding pipe cleaners to our travel bag! (Do you think they’ll go through airport security? I guess I need to try it and see.) And 50-mile bags and 75-mile pit stops are great ideas! You sound like a very organized and prepared traveler!

  • Phyl says:

    All great ideas, but one I disagree with “Babies playing peek-a-boo with friendly passenger behind them” Not all passengers are happy to have a small child distracting them from the book they are reading, the conversation they are having or a much needed nap. Just make sure the attention is welcomed.

    • “Just make sure the attention is welcomed”–good point! Thanks for adding that!

    • Susan says:

      I was going to say the same thing. If you end up sitting near people who are friendly to your child, great, but never get on an airplane expecting fellow passengers to entertain your child. And even if they are friendly, don’t let your child pester anyone for more than a few minutes.

  • We have driven from NY to WA (and back) twice in the past few years with 4 young children each time. Two of our favorite ideas are books on CD from the library and bubbles. To eliminate the risk of the bubbles being spilled in the back seat, the front passenger holds the bubble wand up in front of the center air blower and it blows a TON of bubbles throughout the vehicle, delighting the little (and older) ones.

  • Deb says:

    We took the easy way out and drove all night when they were little…….We just went on a road trip and my permit driver did a lot of driving. I sure miss those days when we drove all night and they slept in the backseat! 😉

  • Katie L says:

    We’ve done 8 multi-day cross-country road trips with littles. We like:

    books on mp3 (Charlotte’s Web is a huge favorite. Also Chronicles of Narnia, Little House books)

    crafts: stickers, crayons/colored pencils, we let ours use safety scissors and cut up paper– this makes a huge mess but we always have to vacuum out the car after a trip anyway, coloring books, blank lined notebooks

    small toys– we’ve had success with small plastic animals, my little ponies & a hairbrush or two, small action figures, all kept in a zipper bag or a bucket they can reach

    board books- a stack in a box between the seats so they can reach them. I’ve now memorized a whole assortment of Eric Carle & other favorites, so I can “read” while I drive 🙂

    magnets & magnetic board or cookie sheet that’s sized for a toddler lap

    Magna-doodle. I love those things, and best of all the magnet “marker” is attached with a string!

    Laminated maps & wet erase markers (we did this for 3yo and up– and still had some stray marker marks, so use caution). They liked seeing where we were going, though.

    We try to call out interesting sights– cows, trains, horses, state lines, rivers, etc.

    At every stop, we do a small sweep of all the little toys/crafts that have fallen down and repack everything a little bit so they can reach it again for the next leg. Depending on whether we have a nursing baby or not (I don’t nurse while the car’s moving), we stop every 2-3 hours when the kids are awake for bathrooms, leg-stretching, etc. It makes for longer trips than when husband and I were used to before kids, but it’s really fun to travel with them and experience the trip with them.

  • These are great tips! I packed many of these items for our flights from RI to TX for Christmas last year. I would add that card games like Go Fish, Old Maid, Skip-Bo, and Uno are great for school aged kids. THE MOST important thing to remember is that mom and dad don’t get to check out and relax during the flight. Your child wants your undivided attention and if you stay engaged for the duration of the flight you’ll create some great memories and have a much more pleasant trip (and so will your fellow passengers).

  • bridget says:

    We always traveled with the game of Barrell of Monkeys. They still sell it and it is cheap and quiet! Especially on a car ride hang it on the clothing hook up and above and let them watch it move. And on a train. Fantastic toy!

  • Emi says:

    I save their broken and dirty toys that are in too bad of condition to donate, such as a Happy Meal toy that is missing parts, books with pages ripped out and taped back in, the 10 last pages of a coloring book, Barbie that got a bad haircut, etc. and pack them up. If a toy gets lost, I don’t have to stress over finding it because it was never their lovee and they still have fun since they have not seen these toys in a while. And you know that you will be buying something new on your trip somewhere so this frees up luggage space since the poor condition toys will not be coming back with you.

  • Julie H says:

    If your kids don’t swallow things anymore, this is the best travel game kit ever…scroll down until you get to ” travel survival game kit”….

  • Jessica says:

    I’ve always found it easiest to make long road trips at night so that my youngs ones would mostly sleep the whole trip. We currently have a 7-8 hr road trip planned for the end of May that will include some daylight hours for my 3 and 4 year olds. I grew up travelling a lot since my dad was military and our family was scattered across the U.S. and my mom said what she did was to go to the dollar store before the trip and buy several toys for my brother and I that she hid until the trip. As we would depart on our long car trip she’d hand us each one toy. Once we got bored, she’d pull out another new one. I’m going to try something like that for my kids for this road trip.

    Also, my brother and I were pros at road-trip games: the alphabet game (which someone mentioned already), draw a few different random pictures on a blank sheet of notebook paper: maybe a smiley face, a box, and a tree and then take turns making up a story about those drawn items, playing 20 questions, I-Spy (but it must be something found inside the car), the “quiet” game, simple card games like war or go fish, word searches, simple version of pictionary (as someone is drawing an image from their imagination you are trying to guess what they’re drawing before they finish- I imagine this would be quite funny with toddlers/preschoolers), make up a story as a family where each family member takes turns adding onto the story, etc.

  • Emma K says:

    ****I stock up on Meade notebooks when they are on sale. I give each kid a notebook. They can color, draw, play with tape on the pages, put stickers on it. Best thing for us to take on trips.
    ****Dollar Store coloring books.
    ****A few small Polly Pockets, action heroes, or soldiers.
    ****Tag Jr or Tag books
    ****a few board books or books each

  • Jennifer C. says:

    We love our aqua doodle travel board. I also bought one of those soft car seat travel trays so that toys/crayons/books stay near them a little longer (doesn’t prevent them from throwing it obviously!) I’m not sure I like the idea about the paper to rip up, though…our car seems to create enough trash on its own without the kids helping!

    • An aqua doodle is on my amazon wishlist. It sounds like the perfect travel toy. I may buy one before our next trip–I think you convinced me! 🙂 Someone else mentioned that they do a quick trash sweep at every pit stop. That sounds like a great idea to me! As for the ripping, I was thinking of little babies–my eight month old couldn’t do much damage to a magazine or paper sheet yet, but she’d have fun trying! 🙂

  • Bethany M says:

    In the car, I’ll call my husband’s phone and give our 2 toddlers the phones to talk to each other. Keeps them entertained forever even when they could just turn to each other to chat, there’s something about those cell phones.

  • Jenevieve says:

    Living in the UK with all our family in the States, we have learned that being prepared for the long flight does wonders! The last trip we took I flew solo with my son for 9 hours, so we’ve had some practice 🙂 The things that have worked the best for us:

    -Non toy items…painters tape, Christmas wrapping bows (with the sticky bottoms), stackable tiny tupperware cups
    -Magnetic doodler
    -A few new books
    -SNACKS (not too sugary, but ones I wouldn’t normally give him)
    -a few crayons and a coloring book
    -Brush up on lap games and songs!

    Happy traveling 🙂

    • We took painter’s tape once, and it was confiscated when we went through airport security! Isn’t that crazy? I still have no idea why! I am going to dig out some Christmas bows and add them to our bag right away. Our baby would LOVE playing with those!

  • Susan says:

    My daughter, age 12, has travelled a lot in her life, both by car and plane, at least 4 times a year ever since she was a baby. And I travel for work, so I’ve had a lot of experience traveling with children, others as well as my own.

    Don’t take any toys on a plane that are noisy. No rattles! No cutting or other messy stuff, and nothing with lots of parts. And please, none of those little matchbox cars! Not on planes. They end up on the floor, they roll all over, and they’re hard to find and retrieve. Once I sat next to a little boy on a plane once, and his cars would go onto the floor and roll away. I was on the aisle, and his mother climbed over me at least a dozen times to retrieve a toy car. I got really tired of that and went looking for the dang toy car myself. On another trip, I stepped on one (accidentally of course), broke the car and a little boy’s heart. Sorry, but toy cars and airplanes just don’t mix.

    With all due respect, most of these ideas are really more than you need. The best comment here is from Thar, above. Kids are interested in things that are new and different. Looking through the airline catalog and coloring on an airsick bag is fun for kids. Watching bags being loaded and unloaded is fun. Unless you are in the clouds with nothing to see, looking out the windows is fun. I always try to get a window seat for my child.

    My advice is to plan on entertaining your child yourself. Don’t just give them toys and expect them to entertain themselves. Drives me crazy on flights to see parents giving their kid toys to play with and then plugging into their music or whatnot and ignoring them. In the car or a plane, talk and play games that involve just thinking and talking. There are tons of such games. Interact with them and they will behave better and enjoy it a lot more. In the car, sing. Great great sing-along CDs for kids are Veggie Tales. My 12-yo won’t admit it, but she still likes singing along to Veggie Tales. We did that just this past weekend while on a 5-hour-each-way car trip to Grandma’s. Even when you are driving, there are games you can play with kids that involve just thinking and talking.

    If possible, time your trips so that you child will sleep at least part of the way. Time flies when you are sleeping. 🙂

    When flying, trust me, you really don’t want to be hauling toys and books around. All you need is a favorite toy or comfort item and some paper and crayons or colored pencils. Always label your child’s comfort item with your name, address, and phone number so that it stands a chance of being returned should you lose it. My nephew’s favorite comfort item was a stuffed bunny that got so worn out it looked like road kill, a sure sign that it was dearly loved by a child. Twice it got lost on a trip, and both times it showed up in their mailbox thanks to the kindness of a stranger.

    Always have snacks available for kids. Always. Grownups too, for that matter, especially when flying. You never know when you may experience delays and be stuck on a plane for longer than expected.

    I’m surprised to not read more comments about electronics. Most everyone has some sort of electronics nowadays with books, games, and videos. Take your iPad, kindle, smart phone, whatever, take good quality headphones (not earbuds), and make sure you have a way to keep it charged. I’m not endorsing letting children play video games or watch videos for hours on end on a regular basis, but there is nothing wrong with it when you are travelling. If it keeps your child occupied and entertained, so be it.

    Last Christmas, one of my friends drove with her 8-yo to southern California, about 16 hours from here. We loaned them our entire collection of “Full House” DVD’s, and the child was in heaven. I was on an international flight recently, seated next to a sweet little six-year-old. She had her dad’s iPad, and it was clear that this was a special treat for her. She watched the same Barbie Princess movie about 8 times on that very long flight, taking a break here and there to eat, nap, and go potty. But she was content throughout, and therefore so was I.

    • me says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I was on a recent trip from Vancouver to Chicago and twice sat next to two families. The ipad was excellent for the 4yo and I didn’t hear a peep out of him. The 2yo on the other flight had a few books and was asleep.

      Now, the Chicago to NY flight was different. Dad didn’t do a thing to entertain the kid, she talked in an outside voice (if I can hear your kid over noise canceling head phones and volume on 15, you’re too loud, kid or not). At the end of the flight, the dad apologized to the guy in front of him for his kid kicking his seat the whole time. Kudos to that guy, b/c I would have let my feelings known for someone kicking my seat for 3 hours.

      An ipad does wonders. There’s a volume setting that will prevent the noise from blowing out little ones ear drums. Use it. No one wants to hear your kid play his video games at 6am. (When I politely asked the parents to turn it down, the father told his son this lady hasn’t had her prozac today. put on your headphones. My retort? WHy yes, I did, but I should have upped the dosage to deal with your poor manners).

  • Amanda says:

    When we drove on one vacation we made up a game where you made certain noises when you pass certain things, for example: put your arms up and say “whee” when you go under a bridge; when we passed Food Lion grocery stores, they would roar; gas stations say ding ding; hotels, make a snoring noise; restaraunts say yum, yum; etc. This kept their attention for much longer than I expected (and they were only 2 and 4 at the time) and we added more things as we found them. Now they are 5 and 7 and they still like to play this game, especially the bridges) on short trips. We also do I spy and the quiet game like others mentioned and recently, since they are older, we’ve been doing the abc game as “we are going on a picnic and bringing…..” as you repeat and go through the alphabet.

  • Sara says:

    We get glow sticks from the dollar bin to entertain our kiddos. They provide so much fun while in the hotel or a dimly lit later flight.

    For longer flights or car trips I make a treat bag for each kid with a mix of treats and healthy snack and lunch options. I allow the kids to pick and choose from that bag at their leisure. The kids think it is great fun to eat what they want and I don’t have to worry that they won’t be able to eat the on board snacks (due to food allergies) or the expensive fast food available near the gates.

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