Travel by Plane, Bus, or Train: Packing Tips for Travel with Preschoolers

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Our kids have been pretty impressive little travelers on our adventures so far. From 15+ hour plane trips, 2 hour bus rides, or the day to day commute, I have gained some mommy wisdom on how to keep the kids entertained and avoid overpacking when on the go. The “less is more” mantra is surprisingly relevant when it comes to travelling with children.

We take public transportation on a daily basis. Well, everywhere we go. It has been a big change from having a car parked in the garage, ready and waiting, like a carriage in a fairytale to living the “city life”. So maybe I miss the convenience a little, but in reality, having a car in Budapest would have been more complicated than its worth. The public transportation system in Budapest is well-developed and quite efficient. Getting where you want to be may take a little longer without a car, but is always a small adventure in itself. The kids scream in delight every time we take the metro as the approaching train creates a wind tunnel and roars to a halt. The doors burst open and all chaos ensues as the kids race for a seat. Fun comes in all sizes. Even the mundane is more exciting with kids.

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Here are some of our essential take-a-longs to help our travel go smoothly.

  1. Snacks
    Some of my favorite snacks on the go for the kids were trail mix, granola bars, rice cakes, string cheese, dried fruit, squeeze yogurt, and apples. When the kids were younger, I always made sure to have a squeeze apple sauce or fruit pouch to help with ear pain for take-off and landing during air travel. I would also pack an “emergency lollipop” or a special treat (ie fruit snacks) for that “just in case” moment that you know will rear its ugly head at some point. To be truthful, I had a snack packed anytime we left the house in the States because sooner or later the kids would be asking for it. Happy to say my obsessive snack packing has evolved and relaxed with our travels in Europe. Granola bars and similar pre-packaged snacks aren’t really a thing here. If I pack a snack, it is most likely fresh fruit or trail mix. The wonderful thing is, when you stop packing snacks, the kids stop asking for them! Such a good revelation. For longer trips, we pack sandwiches, fruit, and maybe grab a pastry to share.

  2. Toys
    In preparation for our flights to Europe, I did a lot of planning to help things go as smoothly as possible and ease the journey for the kids. I ended up overpacking our carry-on with toys on the plane and since then have simplified things. I discovered they really don’t need much to keep them busy. They are happy chatting and taking in their surroundings, snacking, and then if we need a boost I have a few items to pull out for entertainment. We have also been playing more “I spy”, rhyming games, “up high, down low, too slow”, and storytelling in turns. Don’t underestimate the power of these classics.

    Now when we travel, I give the kids a sandwich-sized ziploc bag, they self-select what to bring and are responsible for their own toys. Usually our son brings a few cars, action figures, and drawing supplies, while our daughter fills her bag with princess figures, jewelry, and little lovies.

    For longer travel days, novelty is a good thing. A new toy or book will captivate your little one’s interest and hopefully give you a much needed rest. Here are some recommendations and maybe a few new ideas to surprise your littles with during your adventures. Please note these are not sponsored products and I have no affiliation with Amazon (although I miss it dearly).

    • Stickers (dollar store for the win!) or reusable sticker books- Stickers are like magic for both my 3 and 5 year old. These Melissa and Doug sticker books are very reasonably priced, reusable, and come in such fun themes.
    • Junior Learning Roll a Story - This very portable dice set is perfect for a layover or to enjoy at a hotel. The storytelling dice set is a great way to inspire creativity in your little travelers and is truly fun for the whole family.
    • Tegu magnetic blocks- These beautifully made magnetic wooden blocks are very portable and are accompanied by simple instructions for many versatile builds. Limited pieces means fewer to lose for your junior builders.
    • Mini Lego set- GOLD as always for our 5 year old. He was so stoked to get a new set and spent our entire layover busily building and playing with his new creation.
    • Princess figures- Our princess figures from this busy book typically accompany us in small groups everywhere we go, including the bathtub.
    • Paperback books- Pick up a few new books to peak their interest and to maintain a consistent bedtime routine when on the go. Garage sales and thrift shops are a great place to grab some new reading material.
    • Book reading app- Books can be a burden when travelling. Our kids devour books and get bored of the same handful of books again and again, so we can never pack enough. We have tried several children’s reading apps, but have enjoyed using Epic the most. The app is kid-friendly, easy to navigate, and the books load quickly. There are a diverse selection of both fiction and non-fiction books for various age levels. Our favorite feature is the “read to me” category, a hybrid that allows the child to follow along with the story while listening to the audio. You can sign up for a 30day free trial and see what you think!
    • Tablets/ headphones- Always a back-up. We download shows/movies from amazon prime video and/or xfinity before long trips and are a little more lenient with screen time (within reason). For our kids, too much of a good thing makes them go bonkers.

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  3. Comfort Items
    I like to pack a small stuffed animal/lovey for both kids in case they need something to hug on and to help with bedtime in a new environment. I ditched blankets because they are too bulky and our children aren’t particularly attached.

  4. Melatonin
    If you are flying overseas and are faced with a significant time change, I highly suggest looking into melatonin supplements. After running it by our pediatrician and testing it out before our trip, we used Zarbees Natural Children’s chewable tablets as a sleep aid for our overnight flight and for the first few days adjusting to the 7 hour time difference. Complete game changer. Melatonin was super effective for our children and truly made the adjustment to bedtime in a new environment in a different time zone easy. Nothing is more important than a good night’s sleep.

  5. Additional Carry-on Items
    For overseas flights, I always pack a change of clothes for the kids. Just roll them up and place them in a ziploc at the bottom of your bag. If not potty trained or even if newly potty trained, pack more diapers than you think you will need. Don’t be afraid to slap a diaper on for overnight. Better safe than sorry, as we have learned firsthand. Hand sanitizer and baby wipes are also a must no matter how long your journey.

Whenever we travel we designate one regular sized backpack for the kids’ entertainment, snacks, and personal items. At three and five, I would rather be responsible for the one bag than have my kids carry their own belongings. More bags in my mind is more to keep track of and potentially lose at this stage. I love to pack our carryon items in large ziplocs so everything is visible and can be easily pulled out and repacked.

I created a packing list to help prepare for our move abroad, which I have made available as a printable pdf to those that might find it useful. Packing for a year is no walk in the park. We used vacuum seal bags, the rolling technique, and played a lot of tetris to squeeze into four large suitcases and two travel sized backpacks. We also checked two carseats and 1 stroller. All of our bags were maxed out on weight. Keep in mind car seat travel bags are a great place to stash overflow!

Children truly do make traveling more exciting. Expect meltdowns here and there, but overall kids rise to the challenge and take on new experiences without the preconceived notions that we adults have. Gabe and I love viewing the world through our children’s eyes and hope our travels give them the confidence to be curious and seek out their own adventures in life.

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