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Toddlers are loads of fun. They’re just learning how to walk, run, play, and really take an interest in the world around them. All that energy can be a recipe for disaster in a confined space, though. If you’ve got a long car, train, or plane journey coming up, just remember that distraction is your best friend. You could let your kids loose on your iPad or play I Spy until you’re hoarse — but if neither of those options sounds tempting, there’s a whole range of travel toys specially made with bored toddlers in mind. To make your life as easy as possible, choose toys that are light, compact, and mess-free. The best travel toys also have an educational element and can hold a child’s interest trip after trip.
Our Top Picks
Best Overall: Melissa & Doug K’s Kids Take-Along Shape Sorter
The Melissa & Doug Take-Along Shape Sorter is suitable for kids as young as nine months but is also great for keeping older toddlers entertained — giving you great value for money. Designed to develop your child’s sensory, fine motor, gross motor, and logical skills, the shape sorter comes with nine textured, different-colored plastic shapes. Kids will have a great time matching them with the toy’s corresponding slots. When the task is complete, show your child how to open the dog-shaped zipper to start all over again.
On the back, nine crinkly flaps have a picture of a familiar item which corresponds to a picture of the same shape underneath. Smaller children will enjoy the flaps’ feel while older kids can use them to learn shapes and colors and to improve their matching skills. For parents, a major advantage of this toy is that it’s quiet enough for journeys that involve public transport. It’s also compact and lightweight at just 13 x 9.75 x 3.75 inches and 1.5 pounds, and comes with an easy-grab handle that allows toddlers to carry it themselves.
Runner-Up, Best Overall: Buckle Toys “Blu” Whale
Recommended for children aged 12 months to four years, the Buckle Toys “Blu” Whale is a major hit with little ones. The super-soft cuddly toy features six buckles along its belly. These cater to your toddler’s natural fascination with things that come apart and clip together again and come in six unique colors and clasp styles to keep them engaged for a good amount of time.
The whale’s mouth doubles as an easy-glide zipper pocket. Playing with the buckles and zipper helps children develop their fine motor and cognitive skills as well as their hand/eye coordination and problem-solving abilities. Lastly, the whale has different-colored shapes and numbers embroidered on its body which you can use as helpful teaching aids. At 9 x 6 x 6 inches and 5.6 ounces, the toy is practical for traveling and easy for little hands to hold. Run out of space in your carry-on? Use one of the buckles to fasten it to your child's car seat or diaper bag.
Most Creative: AquaDoodle Travel Doodle
The AquaDoodle Travel Doodle uses a special pen and coloring mat to allow mini Picassos to get creative on the road without any of the mess associated with crayons and markers. First, fill the included pen with tap water, then open the portable carry bag to reveal two special canvases. When your child uses the water pen to draw on the canvases their artwork appears in bright red or blue (depending on which page they use). When the water dries, the drawing disappears leaving the page blank and ready to be drawn on over and over again.
The beauty of having two canvases is that toddlers can draw on the second one while waiting for the first one to dry. Best of all, if your little one decides to draw elsewhere — like your vehicle’s precious upholstery, on their sibling, or on the airplane tray table — the pen won't make a mark. When folded, the mat zips shut and has a convenient carry handle. It is also ideally sized to slide into your diaper bag or under a car seat.
Best Puzzle: Janod Happy Fish Magneto Puzzle
Puzzles are a guaranteed winner when it comes to keeping toddlers entertained, yet traditional designs are hardly travel-friendly. The Janod Happy Fish Magneto Puzzle caters to families on the move with its clever magnetic design. Now, children can keep the pieces on the board even when the road gets bumpy or unexpected turbulence disturbs your flight. The puzzle is meant for toddlers aged 18 months to three years and has safety-conscious, smooth-edged pieces that are easy for little hands to fit together.
The bright, primary-colored picture features nine different cartoon-style sea creatures. Each one occupies its own wooden puzzle piece and corresponds to a matching silhouette on the board beneath, giving kids an extra clue as to which piece goes where. Though the magnets are strong enough to keep the pieces from falling out in transit, they're not super strong, so toddlers can easily remove them without help. The puzzle measures 8.8 x 7.9 x 0.4 inches, is wonderfully lightweight and comes with an integrated carry handle.
Best Audiobook: Spectacular Stories for the Very Young
Savvy parents know that if possible, the best time to travel is overnight. But what happens if your little one can’t get to sleep without their bedtime story and you’re busy driving or can’t read aloud on a busy flight? This is where audiobooks come in handy and Spectacular Stories for the Very Young is a great option for the newborn to four-year-old age group. The CD includes four separate stories, all written and hilariously read by much-loved British actor, comedian, and author David Walliams. The stories are animal-themed and include titles such as The First Hippo on the Moon and There’s a Snake in My School!
The CD lasts for 33 minutes — plenty of time to lull your little one to sleep. And if you need to play it again, the good news is that Walliams’ narration is as entertaining for parents as it is for kids. If you can’t play the CD out loud, download it onto your computer and transfer the stories to an MP3 player ready for your overnight flight.
Best Stickers: Giggles & Pebbles Educational Magic Sticker Pad Book
Stickers are a tried-and-true toddler favorite that encourage fine motor skills, cognitive thinking, and creativity. However, traditional stickers are impractical for travel (they’ll end up everywhere) and have a limited lifespan (once they’re used, they’re finished). The Educational Magic Sticker Pad Book from Giggles & Pebbles addresses both issues with fully reusable stickers that employ “cling” technology to adhere to any flat surface. Because there’s no glue involved, they peel off easily without leaving any residue and can be used over and over again.
This set includes over 170 stickers and three different sticker pad scenes (farm, zoo, and ocean). Little fingers will find these stickers easy to grip, peel, and stick since they’re five times thicker than traditional stickers — which also makes them more durable. If they get dirty, you can clean them easily with warm water. Used stickers can be kept safe and tidy inside the sticker pad’s convenient storage area. Because this toy involves small parts, it’s best for older toddlers or plane, train, and bus journeys that allow you to closely supervise your kids at play.
Best Board Game: HABA Town Maze Magnetic Game
Meant for ages two and up, the HABA Town Maze Magnetic Game is a STEM toy designed to develop skills relating to science, technology, engineering, and maths. It’s also a lot of fun. The wooden maze is painted to resemble a cartoon town complete with different-colored garages. Colored balls are held in place by a transparent plastic cover and can be moved around the board using the included magnetic wand. The aim of the game is to get all the balls to their corresponding garages — a task that’s made trickier by obstacles along the way.
The game’s complexity means that it is capable of entertaining smart toddlers for extended periods of time. It’s also completely self-contained, so you don’t have to worry about kids choking on small parts or losing the pieces halfway through your journey. Even the wand is tethered to the board and has its own special storage slot. The board game weighs just over one pound and is conveniently sized for taking to restaurants and other social events once you reach your destination, too.
Best Budget: Munchkin Caterpillar Stacking Cups
If you’re feeling a little strapped for cash, don’t worry — the Munchkin Caterpillar Stacking Cups can keep your toddler entertained on the road for just $5. Although they’re marketed as a bath toy, these colorful cups are eminently portable — and besides, the fact that you can use them to give your child endless bathtime joy when you get there just adds to their value. The toy consists of seven brightly colored cups of increasing sizes that link together to create a friendly caterpillar complete with a smiley face.
Kids love fitting them together, building towers out of them (and knocking them down again), and when you’re able to add water, they can use them to pour or to strain using the small holes in the bottom. The smallest cup includes a fun spinner and all seven nest inside one another to save space in your carry-on when your little one is finished playing. Weighing just seven ounces, the cups are also easy to tuck into a diaper bag for hours of fun at restaurants or on the beach.
Our writers spent 3.5 hours researching the most popular travel toys for toddlers on the market. Before making their final recommendations, they considered 15 different toys overall, screened options from 10 different brands and manufacturers, read over 35 user reviews (both positive and negative), and tested 1 of the travel toys themselves. All of this research adds up to recommendations you can trust.