Spring break and summer travel season are just around the corner, and many more families will likely be hitting the road or returning to the friendly skies in 2022. As encouraging as that news is after the last few years, it also means lots of time in transit with potentially very bored kids. I’m assuming you don’t want to be the parent hearing “are we there yet” for hours on end. The key to getting through those more mundane moments in travel is to pack plenty of in-flight or road trip entertainment for the kids.
Like most traveling parents, an iPad is my go-to device. Although my mantra is that normal screen-time limits do not apply when we are in-flight (or on the road), I don’t love seeing my kids stare at a screen like zombies for hours on end during our travels. It is important to mix it up with some good old fashioned tech-free entertainment too.
I was intrigued by a study that British Airways did a few years ago that showed that the best in-flight entertainment for young kids was not the iPad. However, like many fellow family travelers, I wasn’t pleased with some of British Airways’ recommendations, which were decidedly not mess-free. Legos? Loom bands? Play-Doh? All I could think about is how many times I’d be crawling under the airplane seat in front of me to pick up tiny pieces or how the time-starved post-flight cleaning crew would hate me for what my family would leave behind after a flight.
So, with less-mess as my guiding principle, I did a lot of research and testing to find 20+ tech-free products to entertain your kids on your travels. There are items on the list for every age from the youngest of toddlers to teens and every age in between. Best of all, the majority of these products are under $15!
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Tech-Free Travel Entertainment for Kids
1. Melissa & Doug License Plate Game: A reusable board to play the classic road trip game of spotting license plates from every state. Durable for travel (it’s wooden) and flat to slide into a backpack for easy transport. Great for teaching geography and helping your kids learn the 50 state capitals too.
2. Road Trip Bingo Cards: A fun and engaging game for your children to play together to pass the time on the road. Each set comes with four cards and sets are available for interstate highway trips, license plates, traffic signs, and more. I love that the Bingo cards include pictures to make the game doable even for pre-readers.
3. Travel-themed Mad Libs: You can’t go wrong with the wacky word game you played yourself as a kid on road trips in the days before iPhones and iPads. Slim enough to fit into a kid-sized backpack or a purse, this is a space-saving essential that siblings can enjoy playing together. I love that there are travel-specific varieties like the “On the Road,” “Vacation Fun,” and “Travel Far and Mad” versions that we can pack for trips.
4. National Geographic Kids Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas: An inexpensive and informative atlas that includes a page for each state as well as activities and games. This is best for older kids who can read independently, but even the younger ones will get something out of it as well.
5. WikkiStix: WikkiStix are a smart invention for parents who want their kids to be creative but not get messy. These waxy sticks can be bent and molded into a variety of shapes and designs. Our family likes to buy a set of party favor size bags so we can take several on each trip and sometimes even share with friends we meet on the plane.
7. Melissa & Doug Flip to Win Hangman: A reusable dry erase board (with durable wooden backing) to play the classic hangman game.
8. Travel Scavenger Hunt for Kids Card Game: Another twist on the games that have your kids gazing out the window on road trips to spot things passing by. Players try to spot the object on their cards and get new cards as objects are found.
9. Pass the Pigs: Roll the pigs to see what positions they land in to score points. This game is small enough to play on an airplane tray table and with only two dice (well, pigs), there isn’t much to lose.
10. Travel-sized Grab & Go Trouble Board Game: This miniature version of the game involving everyone’s favorite “Popomatic bubble” is perfect for airplane tray tables. The mini moveable game pieces can be moved (and thus lost), so I’d recommend this game for slightly older kids.
11. Travel Sized Grab & Go Guess Who: Another miniature version of a classic game sure to keep your kids entertained for extended periods of time. The game requires small cards, so this is one that I’d again recommend for older kids.
12. Imagine Ink Magic Ink Pictures: These little booklets come with a single clear marker that magically colors the included coloring pages. Mess-free and the booklets come in a wide variety of Disney and other cartoon character versions, including Disney princesses, Mickey Mouse, My Little Pony, Thomas & Friends, Frozen, and many others.
13. Crayola Color Wonder Stow & Go Studio: For all those with creative little ones of nearly any age, Crayola Color Wonder products are ideal for road trips or flights because the markers only work on the special Color Wonder paper. This travel tote includes four markers and a replaceable activity book.
14. Dry Erase Activity Workbook: Educational publishers make several cute and highly educational dry erase wipe-off activity books perfect for preschoolers learning the alphabet and numbers. The dry erase marker means less mess in the car or in the air and reusability on subsequent trips or with siblings.
15. Toddler Ring ABC Flashcards: While there are plenty of products to keep older kids entertained, babies and toddlers need distractions too! These flashcards are connected by a ring so you won’t lose them and help teach letters to younger travelers on the go. Also available for numbers and first words.
16. Crayola Triangular Crayons: So simple but so ingenious for travel. If you’ve ever been with a young kid trying to color on an airplane tray table, you quickly learn how annoying round crayons are – they roll right off! We are never without a set or two of roll-free triangular crayons during our family’s travels.
17. Melissa & Doug Reusable Sticker Pads: Keep little fingers busy with stickers on your next trip. These sets can be used over and over again and come in a variety of themes. Best of all, the stickers are vinyl cling material so they will not stick well to other materials. No more peeling stickers off airplane tray tables and windows at the end of a flight!
18. Melissa & Doug Tape Activity Book: Noticing a trend here? Melissa & Doug has a ton of tech-free creative entertainment products and this is another one that works well for travel. Tape is easy to tear to use in decorating creations.
19. The Ultimate Travel Journal for Kids: Want to encourage elementary age kids to document their travels? This combination travel journal and activity book strikes just the right balance. Plus, it was written by a friend who is the family travel blogger behind the site 2 Travel Dads, so I can vouch for his first-hand experience in keeping kiddos entertained on the road!
20. 2 x 2 Rubik’s Cube: A neat little twist on the classic cube puzzle that is a bit easier for younger kids just getting started. Extra small size makes it easy to throw in a backpack or purse.
21. Curious Columbus Busy Book: One of the more expensive items on the list, but this busy book is high quality and guaranteed to keep little hands busy for hours – my son really enjoyed it when he was a preschooler. You’ve probably seen hand-sewn products like this on Pinterest or Etsy but much easier to buy one rather than make it!
22. Petit Collage Magnetic Play Sets: Kids can enjoy playsets with the less mess help of magnets to keep the pieces together. Available with funny faces, robots, and animals. We found got the most use out of magnetic playset toys when our son was about three and four years old.
What tech-free products have you used successfully in cars and on planes with your kids? Share some of your favorites I may have missed in the comments.