Kids playing with toy airplanes

Travel Hacks to Help Keep Kids Entertained

Published January 26, 2021
6 min read

Even travel-savvy parents struggle with making sure they have activities to make an airline flight fly by. So, when parents need to entertain a crew of kids while in transit, meltdowns may happen. But, thanks to these tried and true entertainment hacks from family travel gurus Alex and Chris Stearns of Hart & Col , it doesn’t have to be this way.

The lifelong travelers now bring their two toddlers on every adventure, including a recent 40-hour travel adventure to Bali. Whether it’s an hour-long trip or a transatlantic flight, consider these pro tips to help keep the kids happy and engaged from takeoff to landing.

Activity-based surprises

Family trips include some tiny first-time flyers whose nervousness about planes might get in the way of their trip excitement. “Kids and adults are nervous about the unknown, so let your kids be part of the experience,” advises Chris, who is also a licensed pilot.

“Put them in charge of holding the baggage tickets,” he adds, “of course keeping the important documents to the adults, but let them have something active to do. We don’t rush to our gate as soon as we get through security. Sometimes I make an airport scavenger hunt or airport bingo.”

Even though Hartley, 19 months, and Coleson, 3 years, have been in planes with their parents since they were born, Alex and Chris say parents can make flying exciting and less stressful for by asking for a cockpit tour. Not only will kids geek out sitting in the pilot chair, they’ll get to learn from pilots about how planes actually work. “They love to see the buttons and things,” Alex says. “And if they are in the age range of five to eight, it’s a lot more beneficial for them since they will remember it.”

When Jermaine and Amanda Fruitt of Brooklyn, New York, travel with their boys Khaye and Eliel, they also enjoy a quick tour of the cockpit. “We were on a plane and they invited both boys into the cockpit before we took off,” says Amanda. “It made them feel much more comfortable.”

family wearing pilot hats

Another, easy way to calm young nerves ahead of the trip is to surprise the kids with themed acceptance letters. They can detail where they’re being whisked away to via plane, and include a list of activities they can also look forward to – like snorkeling, seeing animals up close at the zoo, or swimming at the hotel pool. That way, the travel feels like part of the adventure.

Encourage quiet creativity

“We love crafts on flights because it stimulates their brain,” Chris says. “It’s great to zone out watching something because it keeps them in their seat, but focusing them on an activity will keep them from getting restless.”

If you requested a window seat, get them set up with reusable window stickers and they’ll have fun all flight long. If they’re stuck in the middle or an aisle seat, get magnets for tray tables. If they’re old enough to write or want to color, surprise them with their own travel journal. Ask them to draw, or write, about their experience so far and list out what they want to do on vacation.

Add in more creativity to the mix by giving them a Polaroid camera with the creative task of documenting the entire trip. They’ll feel important and have fun watching the photos develop in real-time.

Alex and Chris recommend using it as a teaching opportunity to work on their manners: “One of our favorites is bringing paper and crayons and making thank you cards for the flight crew and captain and handing them out on our way out!”

Inexpensive gifts

If there’s one thing kids of all ages can obsess over no matter where they are, it’s unwrapping presents. But instead of buying expensive items, head to the dollar section for toys and activities. “Stick to a few beloved activities and toys you know will be crowd, or bribe, pleasers,” Alex says. The parents of two use these presents as mini rewards for good behavior. “I don’t wait until they are freaking out to give them these new toys,” Alex says. 

The Fruitts also like the idea of affordable little gifts for their two creative kids to unwrap during the flight. “We came up with the idea of art supplies and we wrapped them up,” says Amanda Fruitt. “Each time they get bored, we open another trinket like it’s a big surprise,” adds Jermaine.

orange present with a bow

For Alex and Chris, their go-to dollar store toys for the boys include balls and packs of mini trains they separate one by one (more bang for your buck). They also combine these dollar store toys with simple items on the plane. “Hartley loves squishy balls to throw around,“ Alex says, “so we gave him that and used a cup from the airplane and he keeps himself entertained just doing that for an hour.”

Just remember to pick toys that don’t make noise and aren’t super bulky – no parent wants to make enemies of their seatmates.

Strategic screen time

For parents going international with the entire family, Alex and Chris believe it’s the perfect opportunity to immerse their kids in new cultures and languages, so make sure to preload plenty of interactive travel guides and language programs for the long flight. “We like apps for language learning,” Chris says. “It helps them start to say ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ in the language of where they are traveling.”

For older kids, the Stearns suggest getting them busy researching about where they are going and picking out activities.

If the kids do play with screens all the time and you want to get them involved in other flight activities, Alex loves setting up timers to get them to take mini screen breaks without it causing a meltdown. She says on their Bali trip, she was worried about Coleson being too attached to an e-reader for this reason, but it ended up working in their favor.

“We don’t do a ton of electronics and we try to save them when we really need them, but he did really well with it and he was either doing that or sleeping,” Alex says. “Until I came back from the bathroom and saw that a flight attendant handed two ice cream chocolate bars to a toddler…”

Whether it’s getting creative or learning a new language, incorporate these entertainment hacks into any adventure to make sure the kids have a blast – and they’ll help parents create memories with the entire family before they even get to their destination.


A year ago we traveled to Puerto Rico. It was the longest flight we took.

We’ve got to get creative with how we’re going to entertain these boys.

We came up with ideas of art supplies. We wrapped them up. From the outside I’m like, “Yay, cool, a present. But, on the inside, I’m like, “Yes! What is it, what is it, what is it?”

We were on a plane and they invited both boys into the cockpit before we took off. It made them feel much more comfortable.

Self-care is usually the last thing that happens for me. If he can watch the kids for a half an hour, I can go get a quick neck massage.

We travel a lot, and these hacks make the journey as enjoyable as when we get to our destination.

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