Low-Tech Toys to Save your Travel Day

Last Updated on

Trekaroo generates revenue from purchases made through links to our partner brands.


You get on the airplane and to your horror, your child loses interest in his toys within fifteen minutes. The three hours remaining on the flight stretch out like an eternity…

You’ve spent all morning getting your kids dressed, fed, and ready for the 15 hour roadtrip south. On the freeway 30 miles into your journey, you realize that you left your toddler’s fun bag behind in the hotel room…

You get seated at the restaurant but it’s taking forever for your waiter to come take your order. Meanwhile, your hungry child starts having a meltdown, and you’ve got nothing in your purse to distract her until the food comes.

Sound familiar?

If, like most parents, you’ve ever forgotten to bring a toy for your child while out and about – or had to forgo packing toys altogether for the sake of traveling light – there are plenty of ways you can “make” toys on the fly… and turn a potential disaster into a fun, creative outlet for you and your child.

On an airplane

  • Ask for a few plastic cups and coffee cups for your child to stack and sort. Once that gets boring, crumble up a page of the in-flight magazine, hide it under one of the cups and start your own three cup monte game.
  • Open up the sky mall magazine or safety card and ask your toddler to identify objects he recognizes.
  • Show your toddler how to open and close the airplane seatbelt buckle (this kept my 1-year-old entertained for over an hour).
  • Turn the air sickness bag into a puppet.
  • Count clouds.
  • I Spy works on planes as well as it does on land.
  • Use a pen and any old receipts/scraps of paper from your purse or carry-on to make a scratch pad for little ones.
  • Take turns telling stories about space and/or flight or creatures that fly.

Need more inspiration? Check out these toys for babies and toddlers.

In the car

  • Take an empty water bottle that you’ve tossed aside, fill it with a few coins, and voila! You’ve got a limited edition Aquafina rattle.
  • Give your child a map to “read,” so she can help navigate.
  • Put your cell phone on speakerphone and leave group voicemails for family or friends – if you can get your little ones to sing a song, it’s always a big hit!
  • Take note of whatever holds your child’s interest in the moment and then count them. We’ve spent multiple hour road trips counting RVs and train cars. This works with toddlers too. My little one likes to shout whenever he spots what we are trying to find.
  • If counting isn’t up your child’s alley, how about keeping a tally of the oddest things you see on the road? Wing from a plane? Check. Tow truck being towed? Check.
  • Making up stories works in a car too. Have the kids identify things around them that should be in the story.
  • Play the license plate game. Variations abound including finding a variety of states, searching for specific letters or numbers, and more.

Here are some more boredom busters for kids on the go

At a friend’s house or in a vacation rental

  • Engage in some old-fashioned fort-making with blankets and chairs.
  • Take a full-page picture from a magazine, cut it up, and have your kiddo put the pieces of the puzzle back together.
  • Raid the kitchen for Tupperware, lids, and plastic cups for stacking, sorting, building, or banging – these can also double as bath toys. And you might have never guessed it, but measuring spoons make great rattles.
  • Make a water table; the plastic storage items can also be “washed” in the sink by kids who like water play.
  • Play Simon Says. Have the kids do physical actions to get out some of their wiggles. For example, jumping in place, frog jumps, spin in a circle, etc.
  • Put on some music and play a family version of musical chairs.
  • Have a dance party.

In a hotel room

  • Have the kids help fill up the ice bucket.
  • Use plastic cups to create a bowling game or bocce ball tournament with a wrapped up trash bag liner as the ball.
  • Take those plastic cups and have a stacking competition.
  • Make bath time fun with water play using cups and the provided body wash.
  • A hotel pad of paper and pen can be used for lots of fun games. Play Pictionary, Hangman, Tic-Tac-Toe, scratch pad, or create a travel journal.
  • Unplug the hotel phone and let your kids make believe that they are hotel staff. My girls love checking in guests, giving out room keys, and “answering requests” on the phone.
  • Open the curtains and play a game of I Spy out the window.
  • Play a hotel scavenger hunt through the alphabet. Finding each letter, in order, is easy and fun with lots of labeled doors and signs.

In a restaurant

  • Dump the little square packets of sugar, jam, or margarine out onto the table and have your child try to stack them back inside the canister or sort them by color or size.
  • Make a small ‘x’ on the back of one of the packets for a round of three-sugar-monte.
  • Take the paper place-mat and impress your child with your origami skills. Ask the server for a pen and turn the place-mat into a drawing canvas.
  • See if your child can use chopsticks to transfer soy sauce packets from the table to a teacup.
  • Ask for a lid and a straw and see if your toddler can pull the straw out and then poke it back through the lid.
  • Make straw-wrapper “worms” come alive by scrunching them down on the straw, setting on the table, and then slowly adding a drop of water to them.

Waiting in line

  • Play I Spy
  • Bring back Rock, Paper, Scissors
  • Play Simon Says using commands that take up little space like “Hands in air,” “Sing ‘Happy Birthday,'” or “Pretend to be a pirate.”
  • Play Thumb Wars.
  • See who can stand on one foot the longest

With a little creativity, your make-shift toys can end up being just as fun for your child as anything you could purchase at a store.

If you have had your own MacGyver-worthy experiences creating toys on the fly, please share them with us!

Featured photo by: Shutterstock

About the author

Eunice and her husband have always loved adventure travel and the outdoors. They used to think that they had to cram in all of their traveling before getting "tied down" with kids. After realizing that they were never going to exhaust the list of places they wanted to visit, they agreed to have kids and figure out along the way how to include them in their adventures. They've had to make some adjustments to accommodate their growing family but have been rewarded with some of the best travel memories to date...and two little boys who love to explore the world as much as they do.