Summer Travel Unplugged

By , June 24, 2008 11:22 pm

Now is the time of year when most families embark on an overly-ambitious trip or two. Our main goal as traveling parents is to preserve our sanity and that of our fellow captive travelers by avoiding at all costs the inevitable “are we there yets,” whining, squabbling, seat kicking…well, you get the idea.

Of course you could plug the kids into a DVD player or video game. Personally I believe that when traveling: if it works, then go for it! Forget your principles and opt for The Easy Way Out (Dramamine anyone? Just kidding!).

If you are of a more solid constitution however, and wish to travel in an unplugged (and unmedicated) fashion – or if the battery runs out, what should you do?

Well as the proud Mama of two great unplugged travelers and one terrible one, I wrote this post (Traveling Unplugged) last summer after surviving a four hour plane trip.

I am not trying to “cheat” by republishing a portion of it, but just like in my kids’ rooms, stuff gets buried in the blog after a while, you know what I mean? Hopefully it might give you some good ideas:


Originally written June 18th, 2007:

“My two oldest are now 5 and 6. They each pull their own little rolling suitcase packed with their activities, as well as a favorite stuffed animal or two. Note: I supervise the packing of the suitcase, or better yet, pack it for them when they are not there. This avoids us finding a suitcase full of rocks, scraps of paper, bits of string, and other “toys” that simply could not be left behind. I always try to include a few new “surprises.”

Here are some ideas that have worked for us:


An obvious choice. Try to pack lightweight, paperback books.


– A French knitter (easy for ages 5-6+ to do on their own – makes yarn “snakes” that can be coiled and sewn into various projects)

– Modeling clay (I squish one stick into a plastic Easter Egg which makes a great travel container)

– Wikki Stix (strings coated with wax, like candle wicks, can be bent into many different shapes)

Art Toys:

– Travel-sized erasable drawing board (Magna Doodle for example)

– Pocket Etch-A-Sketch

– Don’t forget the plain old pad of paper and crayons.

Travel Games:

Are We There Yet

– Haba Story Telling Tin (children make up stories based on the picture cards they choose-very creative!)

– Also look for travel-sized editions of other favorite board games, there are many out there, you just have to search for them. Beware of games with too many small pieces to lose if you have young (or unreliable) children.

Magnetic Playsets:

– Melissa & Doug Magnetic Farm Hide & Seek

– Smethport Magnetic Playboards (some examples are below, but search for “Smethport” at Amazon toys to see all the possibilities).


Choose toys that are small, light, and don’t have a lot of pieces to get lost.

– Lacing block

– Zip-lock bag full of hot wheels cars

– Peace Ring

– Piece of string or yarn (for Cat’s Cradle)

Creative Coloring Books:

I like to find coloring books that are not your typical stay within the lines type of activity.

– The Anti-Coloring Book series is wonderful with suggestions for all kinds of imaginative possibilities.

– The Taro Gomi books are also very original but have a lot of pages so may be too big to pack easily.

– Here are also a few other suggestions for coloring books featuring abstract patterns that can be colored in many, many different ways.

Wipe Clean Board Books:

Tip: Stash away an airline cocktail napkin or two for wiping these off.

Find-It Books:

– Our favorite is the Look-Alikes series of books by Joan Steiner. These feature amazing, realistic photos in which the objects are almost always something else (sidewalks made of crackers or wheels made of buttons, etc.). Kids (and grown-ups too) enjoy looking through these books over and over as there is always something new to notice. It is also a fun activity to say to kids “I see a penny” and have them find it. You will tire of that game before they do! Of course there are also the well-known Where’s Waldo and I Spy books, but here are also some additional ones we like that are not so common:

Scholarly Pursuits:

Not fun for all kids, but my oldest loves this stuff!

– Workbooks

– Flash cards

– Brain Quest

Learn Some Games Yourself!:

If you are really desperate, buy a book such as Car Games: 100 Games to Avoid “Are We There Yet?”. This book offers suggestions for over 100 fun games to play in the car, airplane, or even while camping or waiting in line for example (not all games rely on spotting license plates or signs). A fun book. Parents could learn a few of these games in order to provide timely distractions at critical moments!

As for traveling by air with 18 month-olds: my best piece of advice is grit your teeth and remember that you will never see any of those people again!”


Plus here are a few additional ideas from the comments to this post:

  • a zip pencil case filled with canning ring lids for little ones, a disposable camera for use during the flight, a preflight gift of colored pencils and a little travel diary in a zippered pouch (from Wishy the Writer)
  • a small wrapped present to be given hourly and a small snack surprise on the off half hour (Andamom)
  • A bag of magnet shapes from the dollar store and a metal tin lid as a magnet board (“girlcarew”-sorry I can’t find your link!)
  • A new toy for a new trip – pick one that is easy to transport but whose discovery will occupy for a while (Whymommy)


BONUS!!: an extra special Pilot Trick (since I am a pilot) –

When you have a screechy kind of child that you must take on a commercial airplane full of other people, sit as close to the engine as possible since that is the noisiest part of the plane. Screechy child=bad, lots of ambient noise to help drown it out=good.


What works for you? Good luck and happy travels!

9 Responses to “Summer Travel Unplugged”

  1. Christy says:

    On a recent trip, the best activities we brought along were Go Fish and Old Maid. The packs of cards are light weight and fit nicely into a purse or pocket. We played on the plane, in the hotel room and in restaurants.

    Christys last blog post..A Camel Camel

  2. I’m a big advocate of unplugged trips. We often drive 7 hours or more for vacations and my kids love it. I created personalized tote bags for each of them. When they were little, I stocked them. Lately, they’ve been preparing themselves and I have a stash of small surprises I dole out hourly. I blogged about this a while back.

    threeundertwos last blog post..How I Met My Husband (at the Insane Asylum)

  3. Candy Cook says:

    Thanks for the tips. My boys (including husband and dog) and I, will soon be leaving for expedition into the wilderness of the Appalachain Mountains. We’ll be there for a while.. primitive, backcounty camping. It is the best in unplugging.. no buzzing electrical sounds and complete darkness at night. I can’t get enough of it. But, your traveling post inspires me to make a post about just how we have gone about primitive camping with our kids since they were barely able to walk.

    Candy Cooks last blog post..Going Green Means you’re Jealous..

  4. TopazTook says:

    The Toddler Look and Find books are great “find-it” books for littler ones, and sturdy lift-the-flap books (such as the Fisher-Price series: those flaps *last*) are also good. Our toddler travel kit also includes hand puppets, and some sing-along CDs (although that last one is kind of “plugged”).

    TopazTooks last blog post..To-Do’s and Belated (Again) Menu

  5. Christina says:

    My (then) 15-mo-old and I (that’s right, No Daddy!) flew 3 hrs on two separate flights a few weeks ago. We did Lift-the-Flap books (which I brought along a roll of tape to tape back on ripped flaps!), finger puppets, and chewy snacks like granola bars and fruit leather to help with takeoffs and landings. The BEST thing we did though? Pay the extra $$ to take on the carseat- kid zonked out like a good-long car nap for 1 hr each way! I can’t wait til he’s older to enjoy all these unplugged activities!

  6. warillever says:

    We are flying cross-country on Friday, and I have a backpack full of surprises packed for each of the kids. Books, magnadoodle, crayons, and a kaleidoscope. I hope it works :)

    warillevers last blog post..Future Blogger

  7. We travel frequently with our two little kids (ages 20 months and 3 years old) and we’ve never brought a DVD player along (though we do use the iPod to play soothing music at naptime).

    We love playmobil and I’m a huge fan of reusable sticker books (there’s nothing like a toy that doesn’t break the bank if it’s left behind)

    On one particularly notable flight I flew by myself with my (then) 16 month old from Paris to Seattle a few days after the bomb threat in Heathrow. We were allowed only a small carryon bag, most of which was filled with snacks and baby food, so I brought just a few toys and had to get really creative on the plane.

    Here’s my favorite tips for entertaining a young child without a bunch of toys


  8. Kayris says:

    I love the site for tons of ideas for kids of all ages.

    When we traveled 12 hours to Michigan ;ast year with our then 5-month-old and 2 1/2 year old, I took tons of stickers. They ended up all over the van, but my son loved them.

    Kayriss last blog post..Rearranging…And I Need Your Help!

  9. whymommy says:

    What fun ideas! I always love to see what you come up with — you’re so creative!

    whymommys last blog post..Unbelievably dense

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