Dear God, Are We There Yet? How to Keep Your Kids Happy(ish) on the Road


Mother w25 and son m2 sitting in an airplane, him stowing away the tray table

For many of us moms-of-little-ones, summer means not just extended afternoons at the park or pool, family barbeques, and tackling our kids to apply sunscreen, but also travel. And with the joy of watching your children revel in a change of scenery, spend time with far-flung relatives, and see different parts of the world comes the inevitable downside: the car, plane or train ride to get wherever it is you’re going.

My kiddo travel experience has been relatively limited since we left the “sleepy infant” phase and moved into the “nonstop toddler/preschooler” phase, but we have a cross-country flight looming. So I decided to poll some Bay Area supermoms I know and get their pro tips for traveling with humans who don’t yet understand that the plane is not their personal jungle gym, and that the car ride doesn’t end just because they’re bored after five minutes of “Paw Patrol.”

Here are some creative suggestions from those moms and me for keeping a young child happy in transit without resorting to the iPad. (Though let’s be real, the iPad is a pretty wonderful backup tool—no shame whatsoever in having some shows, movies or electronic games on hand to preserve your sanity.)

For older infants, young toddlers:

_Stale Bread: Especially great for kids who are still teething. One friend reports that her 1-year-old happily gnawed on a stale baguette for over an hour on an international flight.

_Small Plastic Containers with Lids: Stacking and fastening/removing the tops can occupy a young child for longer than you might imagine. Add raisins or other small items inside and you’ve got an instant shaker!

_Velcro: Few small children are immune to the thrill of that unique noise, as well as pulling the strips apart and putting them back together again.

_Duct Tape: Not to play with, but as a mom-tool for creating a blanket cocoon over a car seat to help turn bright daylight into naptime. You can also use it to babyproof just about anything in a hotel room, according to a friend.

_Noise Apps: There are numerous options out there that provide white noise or soothing nature sounds that will help drown out distracting, unfamiliar sounds on a plane. Unfortunately, there is no app yet to drown out your child’s tantrums. Ha.

For toddlers, preschoolers:

_Little Golden Books: This inexpensive, well-illustrated series is a huge hit with our 3-year-old at bedtime right now (specifically the classic Disney stories), and each book is super-thin and portable.

_Lollipops: Not only do they take a while to eat, but they also come in handy during takeoff and landing for relieving ear pressure. Just remember not to hand them out right before you want to get your kid to nap.  

_Backpack Surprise: This idea from a friend is pretty genius—Get a small backpack and fill it with smaller bags containing little “surprises” (doesn’t really matter what). Every hour or half-hour, let your child open another bag in the backpack.

_Post-It Notes: Your child will love finding places to stick them, drawing on them, making her own flip book, etc.

_Bellz: This easily portable magnetic game is a big hit with a friend’s 4-year-old. It comes with 40 custom bells in various colors and sizes, and the objective is to use the accompanying magnetic wand to pick up only bells of a single color. Official rules aside, trying to pick up magnetic bells with a “wand” is going to keep just about any little kid entertained.  

_Water Wow Coloring Books: Thank you once again, Melissa & Doug! The toymaker’s paint-with-water series comes in a variety of themes (animals, numbers, vehicles) and the biggest mess your child could possibly make is unscrewing the pen and spilling about an ounce of water. Far better than what can happen with real markers or paint.

_Airport Newsstand: Yes, the prices are all significantly marked up, but why not let your child select his or her own new book, small toy or snack before boarding a long flight? It’s a solid investment if it helps ward off a meltdown. (Bonus: You can throw in your own trashy magazine and catch up on the latest celebrity scandals.)

_Books About Your Destination: One mom friend tries to buy her kids fiction and non-fiction books that are based in or written about wherever the family is traveling.

_Talking Games: Think, “I Spy,” creating a story as a group (each person takes turns adding a line), and “20 Questions.” Or just ask a silly question and listen to the imaginative things your kids come up with: “What would it be like to have eyes on the back of your head?”

_Old Photos: Chances are, your child hasn’t yet realized the world doesn’t actually revolve around him. So why not delight him with photos from your phone library showing all the funny and cute things he used to do? And if you really want to blow his mind, pull up photos of Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa from back in the day. (“Mom, you didn’t ALWAYS have dark circles under your eyes?!”)

Wishing you safe, happy travels in the months ahead!

Special thanks to JGF, AC, KS and KG for their input on this post.


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