Seven Kids Travel Items: To Keep Them Entertained and Help Maintain Your Sanity

As I mentioned in my previous post, part of my planning strategy for a trip to Australia with the kids is to bring items that are age appropriate and will keep them as busy as possible during the marathon flight and multiple layovers.

I should caveat by mentioning that, although I have pretty good idea of what my kids are interested in, it’s very difficult to predict which toy or activity that will be the most successful. On one trip, it was a set of Wiggles figurines that kept Thomas most entertained. On another, it was a Blues Clues notepad. The key is to take a variety of items, some well-tested and some new, and hope at least a couple of them provide enough entertainment to keep your child interested for a good portion of the journey.

Here are some of my favourite travel activities and products that I’m hoping will go a long way to keeping my 6 year old and 4 year old occupied.

1. The best kid’s backpack

The boys are finally both old enough to carry their own stuff which means they will each need a strong, reliable backpack. Thomas has used this LL Bean backpack as his school bag for three years and it shows no sign of wear, which is pretty amazing when you consider how much it’s been thrown around. Samuel is conveniently getting a new backpack just like this one, but in blue, for his birthday in May.

The junior size is perfect for kids of this age but be careful not to pack it with too many heavy books. I made the mistake of putting too much in Thomas’ backpack when I took him to Australia as a two-year-old and he was practically falling over backward.

2. Simple fun – Pad of plain paper and crayons/pencils

While activity books may be good for short-term entertainment (we’ll probably pick up one at the airport during a layover as a surprise), nothing beats plain paper and crayons or pencils for a couple of kids who love to draw. They have tons on coloring/activity books at home but always gravitate toward the plain white paper. For this trip, I plan to buy them each a plain paper notebook that they can use as a visual journal for the journey. I’ll encourage them to draw pictures of the things they see around them between the predictable ninja and superhero drawings.

3. The very best kids activity book

Kids activity books can be very hit or miss. My kids will usually color one or two pages, or finish a dot-to-dot, and then discard it to do something else. I remember when we bought a magic pen book for Thomas during one trip and he went through and filled in all of the answers within 10 minutes and then never looked at it again.

The one activity book I would highly recommend is Draw it Again from Klutz. It’s a dry-erase book with photos of objects like candy corn and brocolli that are used as a starting point to draw a picture. It comes with examples that kids can copy or they can create their own masterpieces. We purchased this book from the Moma store at the San Francisco international airport during our flight from hell a couple of years ago and it proved to be the best $15 we spent on that trip. Thomas literally spent hours drawing and then re-drawing pictures in this book (and we had hours to kill). I’ve bought an extra set of markers for our upcoming trip in the hope that the book has the same appeal the second time around.


4. Apps for the iPhone and iPad.

Modern technology has been so good for traveling parents. Before our trip I’ll spend some time loading up the iPhone and iPad with movies and games that the kids will enjoy – some they may even learn from. Here are a few of my (and my boys’) favourite kids apps:

  • Monkey Preschool Lunchbox and Monkey Math. Great for both Samuel and Thomas although Thomas will grow out of these apps in the next couple of years. Only downside to these apps is that the sound can be a little obnoxious, so you may want to invest in some headphones.
  • PBS Kids (Free) – Video clips and semi-educational games from the shows that my kids already love.
  • Draw Something (Free) – Free drawing game that you play with friends. Thomas is really into this game right now and the bonus is that he’ll be able to play with Kei even while we’re thousands of miles away. Only downside is that some of the words can be a little tricky for a six year old but they can choose the words that work best for them.
  • Where’s Waldo (99c on sale in March) – in the tradition of the classic search and find books.
  • Ninjago (Free) – another free app (with purchase options within, of course) that supports my kids’ latest obsession with a fun spinjistu game and a few video clips from the show. I find myself needing to put a time limit on this one.

5. Books

I never travel without at least a few new books in tow. I stock up on softcover (i.e. light) books in a variety of subjects. This year our portable library will include Ninjago (of course!) – readers and comic books. Probably a couple of Mercer Meyer titles because they appeal to all ages and some Charlie and Lola which is an old favorite. I’ll also spend some time in Powells searching for books that I’m not going to regret having to read over and over again.  Finally, I’ll see what I can find in the way of e-books for the iPad for those times when I can barely keep my eyes open and I need an electronic device to do the reading. We already have The Lorax downloaded, but I plan to do a little research and find a few more before we leave.

6. Action figures

Without a doubt, action figures are the very best thing to bring on a trip for my kids. While the type of action figures has changed somewhat as the kids have become older, the hours of imaginative play time they provide has not. They’re small enough to carry but not small enough to get lost easily, although I know that putting limits on the number that we bring will be a challenge. Do we sacrifice Robin to bring Batman? Good guys or bad guys? Jedis or Droids? I sense a battle ahead.

7. Travel games

I haven’t really tried taking travel games in the past as the kids were a little too young, but I think I’ll try to pack a couple this time around. I’m considering a few I found online such as this memory game from Melissa and Doug and this one with a Dr. Seuss theme and multiple games. I also plan to hit the dollar store to look for some cheaper options.

Do you know of any other travel entertainment options I’m missing? I would love to have a couple of new tried-and-true items to hide and bring out at just the right moment. That right moment, of course, is when we’re all overtired, everything else has been declared “boring” and I find my patience wearing thin. On an international flight, there is no amount of preparation that can avoid the moment when it feels like you’ve run out of options. I’d love to have a little something unexpected to help get us through that moment.

Three Things I’m Doing Now to Prepare for an International Flight with Children

This is the first in a series of posts I plan to write about traveling internationally with small with children. I decided to write this series partially to share the information I find myself  giving friends and colleagues on a regular basis, but mostly to help make the time until my vacation move just that little bit quicker.

I may have mentioned once or twice that I’ll be heading back to Australia soon for an extended vacation. I’m very lucky that the fabulous company I work for has rewarded my years of dedicated service with a lengthy, although well-earned, sabbatical.

The catch is that this time I’ll be traveling at least one leg of the trip alone with two children. Secretly, I’m looking forward to an adventure with my boys, especially now that they’re old enough to enjoy it and both are fully potty trained. At least I say that now, I may have a different perspective after 13 hours in the air or even just two hours of layover at LAX

This will be my 6th international trip after having children so, clearly, I’m no rookie. And the one thing I’ve learned from past experience is that there is no substitute for proper advance planning to ensure a successful trip. That doesn’t mean it can’t all go horribly wrong (see our last trip to Australia part 1, part 2 and part 3), but at least if it does go wrong it (mostly) won’t be my fault.

So, here I share three things I am doing now to help ensure a successful flight before we even get to the airport.

1. Choose your airline and flight duration wisely – and pay extra if you have to.

There was once a time when I would scour the internet for the cheapest flight because, honestly, who wants to pay an huge chunk of change just to get to their destination a little earlier? Well, all I can say is that choosing a shorter flight with an international carrier is well worth the extra expense.

Here’s why:

  • US domestic airlines make most of their money from domestic flights and don’t invest as much in their international service (at least in my experience). Airlines from smaller countries (e.g. Qantas and Air New Zealand) rely on their international passengers for a huge chunk of their business and are much more invested in keeping you happy.
  • Airlines that focus on international travel understand how important it is to keep families happy. This is especially helpful if you’re traveling with an infant. When Samuel was a baby, the flight attendants moved people around after we had boarded the plane just so we could sit in the bulkhead. We didn’t ask for this extra attention, they just understood how we’d be most comfortable and made it happen. Side note: you should always ask for the bulkhead when booking a flight or, at the very least, before boarding the plane if possible. Most planes have a bassinet that  that will save you from having to hold the baby for the entire time,

Photo of Japan Airlines in the 60's. If only traveling were this pleasant now.

  • You’ll never be more relieved that you spent an extra couple of hundred dollars for one less layover than when you’re about to board the last leg of you flight with two cranky kids after the caffeine overdose has stopped doing its job.

2. Be a minimalist

This is the one step that I struggle with every time, but my goal (as always) is to pack as little as possible in our checked luggage and carry on’s. This will also be our first trip without a stroller which, while cumbersome, came in very handy when transporting tired children and all of our stuff during transfers and layovers, so it’s more important than ever that I carry as little as possible. Here’s what I plan to take on the plane.

  • 1 Camera bag/personal item – containing camera, passports, important docs, kindle, iPad. This bag will never leave my body while we’re off the plane and will be safely stowed under our feet while we’re on it.
  • 1 wheeled carry on – containing a change of clothes for each of us (critical as we learned during our flight from hell during our last trip part 1, part 2 and part 3), a few toiletries such as deodorant and toothbrushes (in the outside pocket for easy removal when going through security), books or other heavier items that are too much for the kids to carry, healthy sugar-free snacks such as nuts and granola bars, surprise toys and books to be revealed at strategic times, headphones for all of us and, of course, chargers for phone, ipad, kindle and camera – because you DO NOT want to be stuck in an airport with a dead battery.
  • 2 small children’s backpacks – one for each child that they will be encouraged to carry on their own. Each backpack will hold a few small toys/figurines (but none with small parts that can be easily lost), a couple of small travel-size books, drawing materials (paper and few pencils/crayons) and their favorite stuffed friend. I may also give them each their own snack bag so they can help themselves to snacks as they want them rather than asking me every five minutes.

In addition, I’ll try to fit everything else into one piece of checked luggage, although I suspect this may be difficult because we’re traveling to an Aussie winter. On second thought, two lighter pieces might be better than one humungous one.

3. Plan for your child’s age.

Our first trip to Australia with children was when Thomas was just two months old and, of course, traveling with a two month old is a lot different than traveling with a six-year-old (a two month old is easy). We took our last trip just before Samuel turned two and it was challenging to keep him occupied. I anticipate that this time will be a lot easier now that the boys play well together and are interested in drawing, coloring and watching movies.

Another big advantage this time around will be the advances in technology that will allow me to offer up a movie-filled iPad, as well as the iPhone if they need some time apart. I’ll save the kindle for myself.

My plan, however, is to save the iPad as a last resort and instead try and fill their time with age-appropriate books and toys. I’ve been taking a mental note of things that they’re interested in right now and squirreling away a few books and activities in preparation. For Thomas, I plan to take a couple of level 1 readers that he can (hopefully) practice reading to Samuel. I also found some Ninjago comic books with lots of pictures that will keep them interested if I need a break from reading.

As for toys, both Thomas and Samuel love creating worlds with their Superhero/Star Wars/Ninjago figurines. They’ll take some from their existing collection but I’ll also bring along a couple of surprises to share at a strategic moment.

The thing to keep in mind is that you can never be 100% sure of what will most grab their attention. For Thomas a few years ago, it was a few Wiggles figurines that kept him entertained for (literally) hours. On another trip it was a dry erase activity book that saved our sanity. The key is to bring a variety of small items that don’t take up too much room, but provide them with options so they’re less likely to get bored.

So there are just a few of the most important things I’m doing to prepare in advance of our trip. In the next few related posts I’ll share tips for staying sane in flight and during transfers, as well as some of the kids travel items that I’m counting on to help keep the kids entertained.

Adventures in Hiking, Zumba and Color Blindness

After my incessant whining about snow last week, it seems the Portland weather gods decided to throw us a little love in the form of a couple of sunny weekend days. I could take a moment now to whine about crazy allergies, but I’ll spare you that trauma and, instead share a few favourite photos from a full weekend.

Saturday began with optometrist appointments for the boys. It seems that, although Thomas inherited very few physical traits from his mother, he was lucky enough to receive the X chromosome  from me that carries the deuteranope type of color blindness. Thankfully it will only affect him if he decides to become an electrician or wants to drive a car in Romania. Here’s what Thomas sees.

While Kei was at the optometrist with the boys, I was lucky enough to take a quick Zumba class with my friend LeeAnn. No photos to share from that experience (you’re welcome) but I did learn a few things about myself:

  • Even when a class is fun, 30 minutes will feel like three hours if you’re unfit.
  • I am much more coordinated in 4/4 time than in 3/4 time.
  • The attitude of the Zumba teacher is directly related to how much you will enjoy the class and want to go back for more. My only other Zumba experience involved a middle aged male instructor who counted our steps throughout the class and chose Hava Nagila for his soundtrack (not that I have anything against the song – just doesn’t belong in a Zumba class)
  • On the subject of music, every song has it’s place, and for this one it’s in a Zumba class when everyone’s shaking their booty. (And that’s the ONLY place it belongs in my opinion).

The sun came out on Saturday afternoon, so I sat on the front porch with this…

While the boys did lots of this…

Thomas also had an opportunity to try out the new bike he received for Christmas. One of the things I miss most about Australia is the great weather at Christmas that allows you to ride your new bike immediately. Thomas only had to wait three months…

Is it just me or does Samuel look like a teenager in this next photo? Moving on…

On Sunday morning, Kei and I were treated to a decadent (toy) brunch at the Thomas and Samuel cafe. Hmmm…wooden sushi…delicious!

Here they are deciding on the menu.

After brunch (and major cleanup) we decided to head out for a family hike through Forest Park, during which we saw:

  • About 1000 dogs – with Samuel telling me how much he hates dogs as each one passed by and not for the reasons you might think. He doesn’t like it when they lick him. Sometime being irresistible is a curse.
  • About 1000 joggers
  • A couple of hiking hipsters.
  • A couple of hiking hippies – complete with the lingering odor of an organic smoking substance that we then had to try and explain delicately to our six year old.
  • A man hiking while reading a book at the same time.

And so, during that 2 hour period, all Portland demographics were well and truly represented.

Oh, and I’m not sure what Thomas was doing here but I really like this photo for some reason.

Of course we stopped for a snack along the way before checking out a few birds at the Audubon society.

And then Samuel posed for me in his sunglasses that came courtesy of the optometrist the day before. LOVE this photo – such attitude.

The end.

Well, not really but that’s all the photos I was able to upload at 11pm last night due to the return of Man Men (welcome back – I missed you).

This week is Spring Break, which means very little for our family as we save up our vacation time for a trip to Australia that I’m just a teeny bit excited about. Still, it looks like we might finally have a chance to enjoy daylight saving hours and perhaps some sunshine.

Kidgistics and Bullet Points

I’ve been running around a lot this week moving kids from one place to another (i.e. kidgistics) while Kei works some extended hours. Between messed up work schedules, after hours photo sessions and public school late start days, it’s been a struggle to get into any sort of routine. So I thought I’d blog today in the same way that I’ve been approaching everything this week – in bullet points and random thoughts.

  • Thomas got a perfect score on his second-ever spelling test. So proud.
  • He’s also getting very serious about karate – I think it might have something to do with a current Ninjago obsession. Never underestimate the influence of cartoon Lego characters.
  • I started gathering activities and books for our marathon plane ride to Australia. I know our trip is still three months away but I need to something to keep my mind off Portland’s miserable beginning to Spring.
  • I also started ordering gifts for Samuel’s birthday in May. Again, I’m early but all I can say is 10 straight days of rain, people! It makes you do crazy things.
  • Speaking of crazy, we experienced a 30 minute hailstorm on Sunday.

  • I love the fact that, if I start reading a book to Samuel or Thomas while I’m waiting for them to start school, I will attract at least another 6 or 7 kids who just want to hear someone reading a book. I feel like the pied piper. (told you this was a random list)
  • My three year old corrected my pronunciation of “Banana” this morning. I need to get him to Australia – and quick!
  • Um SPIDERS!!!! (thankfully on the other side of the world but a little too close to my parent’s house to let me feel entirely excited about our trip).
  • The boys indulged me with a photo together on Sunday (this is a rare occurrence). It’s a little out of focus but I love it.

  • Of course I had to take this one first…

  • On the entertainment front
    • Walking Dead finale – lots of blood and gore, but AMAZING! Almost can’t wait until next season.
    • Good thing I have Mad Men starting this weekend to tide me over.
    • Saw Hugo on the weekend – very sweet film. Imagine it would have been amazing in 3D if only we had unlimited babysitter credits that allowed us to see movies in an actual theatre.
    • Speaking of theatres I have my tickets to see the Hunger Games on Friday – So excited!!

And with that brain dump out of the way, I leave you with one more photo from the sky somewhere over the middle of the country. It reminds me of what a blue sky looks like – although I could do without the snow.

You Know You’re in Austin, Texas When…

It’s easy to find somewhere to park your horse.

The street performers look like they just busted out of prison.

You feel like you’re walking through one enormous outdoor art gallery.

You turn a corner and find yourself face to face with a mariachi band.

You are subject to some extremely direct marketing.

Someone hands you a slab of meat that is bigger than your head (and you’re tempted to eat the entire thing because it’s SOOOO good).

You have absolutely no problem finding a place to grab a quick drink (or two or three).

And driving off into sunset is just as incredibly beautiful as it sounds.

Got home late yesterday afternoon and settling back into life while trying to recall everything I did during a wonderful few days in Austin – thankfully not all work-related. Back with more photos and stories soon.