Everything you need to keep kids busy on a trip

How do you keep kids busy on a trip? Here is everything you need to bring for a successful trip with kids age 4-6. (Updated content covering all the necessities for travel with infants and toddlers is coming soon!)

Age 4-6: What to pack for your preschooler

Traveling with a preschool age kiddo? You got this. With the right tools in their personal item (i.e. backpack), preschoolers can be hands-off for 30 minutes or more! This makes travel feel (dare we say?) almost easy.

Whether you’re looking for tips for air travel, car travel, or even after you’ve reached your destination, keep reading for preschooler-approved packing necessities.

Ideally, you’ll be able to fit all these items into your kiddo’s backpack. Just make sure it doesn’t become too heavy! I pack extra snacks and distractors in one of our suitcases to bring out later on longer trips. Here’s how it breaks down:

Child's backpack filled with toys, books and snacks

Essentials (pack 5)

Essential #1: Tablet and headphones

We have a semi-strict device rule. At home, the iPad never leaves the house and we don’t share our phone with our daughter. That makes it quite special for PB to watch an iPad when traveling, and we’ve dedicated an old one solely for her in-flight/road trip use. Be sure your tablet case can be propped up. We’ve been using this one for months on our international trips. It’s lightweight, stays propped open and has survived a few drops, so if your kiddo is able to be mostly careful with their tablet, it’s a great choice.

We’ve also tried three different pairs of budget headphones, including the fleece headband style (adorable but the sound never satisfied PB) and one with a light-up unicorn horn (which PB loved, but the horn didn’t even last one roundtrip before falling off).

We’ve settled on this volume-limiting kids headphone set for its sound quality, budget-friendly price tag and compact fold, and we’ve even repurchased it after its initial (very useful) life had come to an end.

👉Tip: Using a device on your trip? Preload it with your kiddo’s favorite movies and shows before you leave your home base. It’s not just an issue of wifi access. Rather, not every streaming service or movie catalog is available in every country. i.e. For two weeks in Cambodia, we were locked out of the Disney+ library and could only access our downloaded items. When I realized that at our first hotel, I felt much less embarrassed that I had began a downloading session at 2 am the night before our flight.

Essential #2: Snacks

Does “hangry” run in your family? It sure seems to be a real thing for PB (and I’ll admit me, too!). Hangry kiddos are not happy campers…or travel companions. So, while I sometimes underpack clothes, I err on the side of overpacking snacks.

  • Easy portable snacks for a 4-6 year old
    • Granola bars
    • Grapes, apple and/or cucumber, whole or sliced.
    • Gummy fruit snacks or gummy bears
    • Pretzels
    • Popcorn (but just plain ol’ sea salt or you’ll end of with buttery/cheesy hands)
    • Pringles
    • Homemade sandwiches (peanut butter and jelly or nutella and banana have been good options)
    • Goldfish crackers or teddy grams
    • Skittles or M&Ms
    • Ring pop – not a hunger-buster by any means, but it has worked wonders to keep PB quiet on a flight for a solid block of time
    • Have access to a cooler? Laughing Cow cheese, string cheese and hardboiled eggs also fit the bill

👉Tip: TSA states that gel ice packs are allowed when frozen solid. Slushy ice packs will count toward your carry-on liquids. We’ve avoided snacks that need refrigeration because of that potential stressor. Please note that you can always bring reasonable amounts of gel ice packs for medically necessary items (i.e. medicine or breast milk) even if slushy.

Essential #3: Wet bag with change of clothes

If you don’t already have a wet bag for outings, this size is insanely useful for travel with kids. There isn’t usually space in PB’s backpack for her change of clothes, so I typically pack this in my personal item. In the event it’s used mid-trip and needs a wash up, I’ve done that plenty of times in a hotel sink and let it hang dry for use again.

Essential #4: Plush friend

“Sophie” the Jellycat snow tiger became part of of the family on Christmas 2021 and has since qualified for Silver status with United.

PB simply cannot sleep without Sophie, making her an essential on every trip. While ours was made by the elves at the North Pole, you can find an adorable one to call your own on Amazon or a local Jellycat retailer – amazing!

In all likelihood, your preschooler probably has a similarly special plush friend. When we’re out and about, Sophie usually naps at the hotel (last thing we need is to – gulp! – accidentally leave her somewhere).

You may spot Sophie out sightseeing under special circumstances, like our first visit to Australia.

Sydney, Australia | Little girl underneath Harbour Bridge holding tiger stuffed animal
Sydney, Australia | Underneath the Harbour Bridge with Sophie

Essential #5: First aid and prescription medicine

This is a bit of a tangent since it’s not directly keeping your kiddo busy. But, our active preschooler loves climbing and seems to grow overnight. Thus, bumps and scrapes are a reality.

I always put a tube of triple antibiotic ointment and a few fun character Band-Aids in PB’s backpack (and my own purse). That way, we can go from boo boo back to busy as quickly as possible.

PB doesn’t have any prescription medication, but she regularly takes an over-the-counter allergy syrup. I pack that in one of our carry-on suitcases with other 3-1-1 liquids. Like any other prescription (or important pharmacy items), it’s important that these stay with you in the plane cabin in case your checked baggage is delayed or lost.

These five items are the most critical. If you forget something from the above, turn around or head to a store 🙂

Reading material to keep kids busy (pack 1-3)

After you’ve got your essentials, tuck in 1-3 books or kids magazines.

Prioritize paperbacks over hardcovers (the weight adds up!). Golden books are wonderfully lightweight, easy to fit in a purse later on the trip and there is probably a title covering your preschooler’s favorite obsession be it Paw Patrol, princesses or Star Wars.

Sydney, Australia | Pop a couple of these items in your out-and-about bag or purse when you get to your destination. You may need to pull it out on the train!

We also recently picked up this pint-size Where’s Wally Travel Collection for free from a sidewalk sale (score!). I expected this to be an instant hit, but it took a while (until age 5½) for PB to take to the Waldo series.

Books make an ideal souvenir, too. We bought all three books in the hilarious and endearing Caye Boy series while traveling in Belize. Once back home, it became a true family favorite and helped us relive our special memories from that trip. While not all souvenirs are as long-lasting, this one even made the cut when we pared down and moved to Singapore!

Distractors (pack 3-6)

Choose 3-6 more items, depending on the length of your trip and baggage allowance.

Keep in mind that kids’ interests are sparked at different stages. If you try something and it just doesn’t jive yet, try it again in 3-6 months. i.e. Where’s Waldo.

On the other hand, Uno and Plus Plus blocks have been a constant favorite throughout our preschool years while Color Wonder packs were HUGE for us last year, but not so much this year.

I keep all these “trip distractors” on a high shelf in PB’s room, so I can pick and choose when packing for our next trip.

Something to play

One word. Uno. PB is now an Uno fiend. It does require parent(s) or sibling involvement, but it’s a great way to break up screen time on the trip and useful on a rainy day in the hotel. We have both a full-size pack as well as a nifty pint-sized pack from an Arby’s kids meal.

A spinning top. Who knew? This itty bitty classic kept PB happily busy one evening while we waited 30 minutes for a table. Another kiddo even brought their parents over to watch. So, maybe bring two to encourage interaction? This was definitely one of the best toys to ever come out of classroom birthday goody bags – Shout out to Emma’s parents!

Handheld dexterity puzzle games. There are a lot of options here. The classic maze, ball-in-a-hole or floatie rings. PB has just grown into picture slide puzzles, too. This number version even looks educational!

A puzzle. If in the right mood, PB will chip away solo at a puzzle from 30-100 pieces. For a trip, I’d only pack puzzles under 70 pieces and keep it in a ziplock bag for efficient packing. Snap a pic of the completed puzzle before you leave home, if you think your kiddo may appreciate some visual guidance later. This princess puzzle bundle has held up well, and there are Bluey and Paw Patrol versions, too.

Kratie, Cambodia | Keep kids busy with a puzzle while enjoying sunset over the Mekong River
Kratie, Cambodia | A proud PB put together this puzzle solo while she sipped a mango smoothie. Meanwhile, Nick and I got to enjoy an uninterrupted sunset over the Mekong, wine in hand.

Something to build

Plus Plus blocks come in chunky sizes (we still use our set from toddler travel days) and petite sizes for more detailed building.

We picked up colorful beam blocks in Hanoi, Vietnam (read more here about how they worked magic on that trip). More compact than a regular block set, they are still a little heavy and probably better suited for packing in a suitcase versus your kiddo’s backpack. Use them as a distractor in the hotel or AirBnb, or just tote them to a casual restaurant at home or on your trip. They get loads of positive remarks from other parents!

When we brought our flower STEM garden pieces out once, another parent told me it was the gift all the grandparents were getting their grandchildren that year, and I guess that was true because it was from Grandma and Grandpa! If you’ve been gifted a set, pick an assortment and take your mini-garden along with you in a ziplock or reusable bag. Just be sure to include at least two grass “stands” to give your kiddo building room (or share with others).

Something creative

Colored pens or pencils and a coloring book or memo pad. I’ve steered away from bringing crayons on trips since they can melt if left in the car on hot days, but this may not be a worry in the climate you live/travel.

👉Tip: Our best uses for memo pads? Have your kiddo draw/write a menu then take your order, or make a scavenger hunt for museums, botanical gardens and other outings. There’s also just simple tic tac toe.

When PB outgrew the wonderful Water Wow, we discovered paint with water books with built-in pallet. Just beware of lost paintbrushes! Since there isn’t a a secure storage space, pack a spare and rest a little easier.

Color Wonder markers are amazing for being no-mess! I always look for something to corral them in to prevent escapees… Reach for anything from a ziplock bag to an appetizer plate (below).

Scratch art, like other 90s phenomena, has made a comeback. Check out color reveal scenes from princess to Paw Patrol. There will inevitably be black shavings on the table surface, but I deem the mess reasonable for the value of our very occupied preschooler.

Promote fine motor skills with sticker scene books (I love this brand’s), an easy option en route to and at your destination.

Kid keeping busy with sticker scene books at airport
Amsterdam, The Netherlands | Keeping busy with a sticker scene book at a Schiphol Airport lounge
Kid keeping busy with Color Wow markers at a fancy restaurant
Sydney, Australia | Color Wow markers still did the trick at a fancy restaurant in downtown Sydney.

How do you keep kids busy?

And that’s all folks! I’ll document any new successes as we keep traveling. In the meantime, what are your busy-bag go-tos? If you feel like sharing your parenting win or have a question, leave a comment below.

Upcoming post: Interested in how to prep your kiddo before a trip or how to keep memories fresh? Look for great tips for pre- and post-trip routines here soon.

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