17 Road Trip Essentials for Young Kids

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

My family loves a good road trip, and I write about them a fair bit. With our five-year-old daughter, we’ve learned some travel and packing tips over the years to help keep her busy in the car, in the hotel, and in restaurants. And just some sanity savers to keep the whole trip running smoothly.

If you’re planning to hit the road this spring or summer, or even if you’re just looking for some go-to gear for day trips, this is what I love right now. Don’t miss the coupon code for BuddyPhones below, and check out my Best Audiobooks for Family Road Trips Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 for some listening ideas for kids of all ages.

A table or work surface for the car (and the stroller if you need it) helps make play with these toys much, much easier. I just bought the High Road Kids Car Seat Cooler and Back Seat Organizer to have for our day trips during spring break next week. I love anything that keeps her drinks and snacks in order, lets us throw an ice pack in for hot days, and gives her a surface to lay out all her treasures. But any kind of car seat table that can fit over your kid’s lap will help with travel boredom.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

We love this HDE tablet case for her iPad mini. There are a million versions of indestructible kid cases out there, but this is the one we’ve bought ourselves and used for a while. It was cheap, and it came in a ton of colors. It also still fits in our TFY car headrest holder, so we can prop the iPad up (and out of reach) if we need to. That headrest holder has been an essential on our packing list for a while. If we’re flying somewhere and renting a car, like our trips to England to visit my in-laws, we throw one of those in the suitcase for the rental.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

A pair of unbreakable headphones is also high on our list. My daughter has Sensory Processing Disorder, and on planes especially it’s helpful to have earplugs or headphones to help drown out plane noises. GeekMom Karen and I saw Onanoff’s BuddyPhones at Toy Fair, and we love them. They twist and bend but do not break, and they fold up to a good small size for travel. I’ve been looking at the InFlight BuddyPhones, which have three preset volume levels to protect kids ears. But unlike the regular BuddyPhones, the InFlight presets go one level higher than the recommended 85 decibel volume level for kids, specifically to help battle extra loud plane noise. They’re perfect for us. AND, just for GeekMom readers, if you pick up a pair from Amazon, use the code “onanoff2” to get 20% off.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

Lego kits that come in their own carrying case are made for road trips. The Lego Juniors Fire Patrol Suitcase is under $20, has partitions you can move around to sort the pieces just the way you want, and it all stays contained in a case with a handle that can move from the house to the car to wherever you need it to be. I also love the Lego Friends Juniors Mia’s Farm Suitcase (that is a mouthful and a half). These cases fit easily in my daughter’s backpack, which we use as her carry-on for planes and her backseat storage for road trips. That makes these suitcases even better.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

If you want to pack some rainy day supplies, or just something everyone can work on together during your down time, we obviously love the new Marvel and DC sets that Lego is launching this year. After seeing the whole lineup at Toy Fair, I think the Captain America jet and Wonder Woman’s dorm are great if you’re looking for something small and packable to have with you on your trip. They’re fun to put together, and really fun to play with once they’re assembled.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

I love, love, love Manhattan Toy Company. Baby Stella is a fixture in our house, and they were one of my favorite stops at Toy Fair this year. They make a few really smart products for kid travel, like these kid-sized neck pillows. We tried out the raccoon pillow (less than $9 on Amazon right now), but they also have an adorable fox that’s heading to shelves this spring. When my daughter falls asleep in the car, her chin hits her chest in the most uncomfortable-looking pose. This pillow, which can velcro closed at the bottom to stay in place, at least makes me feel like she has a little more padding for those inevitable car naps.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.
Photo by Jackie Reeve.

The same adorable fox is available in this little stuffed travel friend from Manhattan Toy, called a Stowie. He has a zippered pouch in his stomach that can carry and hide all of those minifigs and tiny treasures that little kids collect and insist on taking with them. We have a stash of tiny lunch boxes and other containers around the house that she fills with those treasures, but she took to this fox right away and loaded him up with goodies to go.

I like this fox, and his travel pillow buddy, because they’re super soft but not too furry. If this fox gets dropped in the dirt, I can probably brush him fairly clean. Some of my daughter’s treasured stuffed animals have come back from trips looking like they’ve really been through it, because we just didn’t have a washing machine to throw them in while out of town. So every drop on the street, every bit of lunch that gets spilled on them, sticks in their thick plush and stays there. I can run this guy under a faucet and let him air dry without worrying about it too much.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

And my last pick from Manhattan Toy is this Forest Adventure set. This kind of toy is so perfect for travel. I’m obsessed with the Jurassic Adventure set, which I will be buying as soon as it hits stores sometime this spring. I love the fabric hut that stores all of these well-made, well-designed wooden toys (plus a felt pond for the boat to sit on). This has kept my daughter pretty busy for useful stretches of time, and she loves that she can store everything in its own special case and take it with her.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

I’m also a huge fan of the inexpensive packs of Colorforms and Play Packs that I always see near the register at craft stores. I love the idea of stickers for keeping a little one busy, but I don’t really love peeling wayward stickers off restaurant tables and hotel furniture. Colorforms let her stick her little heart out with no permanent damage. And while most restaurants have crayons and paper for kids, I never underestimate the power of a “surprise” to bribe a child on a long trip. An easy pack she can tear open, with crayons, coloring pages, and maybe just a few stickers, is a perfect thing to keep stashed in my purse. Same with any kind of mystery toy packs that she can open and enjoy when we need a happiness boost. I always stock up on stuff like this when I see it cheap, and we make good use of them on trips and in restaurants here at home.

A pair of sturdy kid binoculars can help keep your kids happy and entertained for a surprisingly long time. Especially if you can come up with things for them to look for out the car windows. Learning Resources (another Toy Fair favorite) makes fantastic plastic educational toys, and their binoculars are $13 and built to last. We’ve used these on play dates with considerable exploring and adventuring, and they’ve survived several preschool hands. I love them because you can take them with you at every single stop and find things to distract your kids while you stretch your legs.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

With that same idea, we’ll be throwing the Learning Resources Telescope in our bag for our next trip. It’s less useful for the actual drive, but it’s a great portable thing to keep the exploration going when you get to the hotel. If your kids don’t want to settle down when you’re done for the day, pulling out a small telescope that won’t get crushed in your suitcase can give them something to focus on. We’ll do some stargazing at bedtime to try and bring my daughter’s energy levels down a bit.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

Minnie’s Happy Helpers bag comes with a boarding pass, a passport, cell phone (currently MIA at our house), wallet, sunglasses, and a bracelet. That all fit inside a cute purse. I don’t usually gush over hyper-femme toys, but this is really cute. The passport and the boarding pass are what put it over. My daughter has been practicing for upcoming trips, asking to get her boarding pass scanned and her passport stamped. It’s irresistibly cute, I have to say.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

Tonka has started making Tonka Tinys, little playsets with micro vehicles. I was pleasantly surprised when I opened one of the sets we tried out and saw that it was already assembled. I had to snap on the crane, and the little bridges and extras were loose, but still. This is another fun surprise you could take out to help get through a long stretch on the road, and it wouldn’t require lots of fiddly assembly. Snap a few pieces together, and your kids can have a tiny playset with a vehicle to zoom around in the backseat. And if you don’t want to buy a whole playset, you can collect the little vehicles separately. Which is another great long drive surprise to bring out when the kids are getting sick of the car.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

Along with my theme of anything-with-a-handle-is-king, I love Play-Doh packs like this. They make a few portable kits that you can’t go wrong with. Flat, with a few tools and a few colors, you can throw it in a suitcase or a car bag. You might not want Play-Doh all over your car, but it can be another great thing to keep everyone busy at night. My daughter got this set for her birthday last month, and I’ve already put it aside with our travel gear for the next trip.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.

When my daughter was one, I put together a few DIY toys for a flight we were taking. One of them was this pill organizer I found, with so many great snapping doors, that I filled with pompoms. It’s had beans and a few other little odds and ends in there over the years, but pompoms have always been the favorite. I think this cost me maybe $5 to put together, and let me tell you. It kept my toddler busy for most of the flight. And my daughter still loves it, even it at five. It still gets tucked away in her backpack any time we take a trip. Sometimes the best distractions are cheap and effective.

GeekMom received some of these items for review. 

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Jackie Reeve is a Core Contributor and former Senior Editor at GeekMom. She's a librarian, a writer, and a quilt designer. She's wife to an Englishman and mom to a little geek girl, and she blogs about life and crafts at The Orange Room. Jackie's obsessed with cardigans and thinks Die Hard is the best Christmas movie there is.