Travel involves patience and waiting, something kids (and thus their adult associates) don’t often enjoy. We’ve spent many an hour this year waiting for restaurant food to come, sitting on buses or ferries, and killing hours at hotels, on park benches and in airports. The thing about kids is they often need breaks, but they also want something to do during those downtimes.

Plugging the kids into IPads is an obvious solution (yes, after some hemming and hawing, we brought two Ipads along for the year; we use them sparingly), but we’ve learned a few tricks along the way that go beyond screen time and help to keep all of us sane.

Our golden rules:

  1. Minimize transitions. If Tim and I were traveling on our own, we’d likely hop around a lot more, but transitions from hostel to hotel or city to countryside mean packing and travel time, moves that makes for grumpy children. So instead, we tend to pick a nice hotel, hostel or guesthouse and use it as a hub, going out for day trips but coming back to the same base every night. This keeps everyone happy.
  2. Stay in hotels/guest houses that provide kitchen access. For us, having access to a kitchen in the places we’ve stayed has made meals easier. It’s hard to spend good money on beautiful meals for refined tastes that go unappreciated because they arrive at the table 20 minutes after our kids’ patience has run out. We shift the money we save on restaurants into slightly nicer lodging. Often, instead of waiting at restaurant tables, we cook while the kids play on the periphery and then we all enjoy time in the pool!
  3. Bring art supplies, books, and games. On every trip, we carry paper and colored pencils to pull out for a spell of drawing in the shade of a tree or at a café table. Read-aloud novels have also been important during our year, but perhaps the unsung hero of our travel with kids has been games.

Therefore this travel article is dedicated to the wonderful travel-size games that have turned what would have otherwise been tedious half-hours of waiting into fun for everyone. Our kids are ages 6 and 9. We have found that 6 is the golden year for games—suddenly we were able to push aside mind-numbing games like Candy Land and replace them with games that are fun for everyone in the family. Granted, we left at home a number of great board games (Catan Junior and Indigo, to name a few) when we moved to Central America, but here are some of our favorites travel-sized games:

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Reid strategizes about which noble to kill (or collect) in Guillotine as we wait for breakfast in Granada, Nicaragua.
  • Story Cubes is a versatile game that includes nine dice, each side decorated with a different picture. The basic version has players roll the dice and then weave together a story using all the pictures–say a Viking helmet, a cave, a potion, glasses, and a cactus. For kids who love to be told stories (or weary adults looking for fresh inspiration), this can be a lot of fun. Time: 5 minutes, or more.
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Try making up a story you’ll share using these images from Story Cubes.
  • Lost Legacy: Flying Garden and Love Letter are two card games that perfectly fill a ten-minute gap. Our kids prefer Lost Legacy, so that’s what we’ve been traveling with. Each player places cards in the collective “ruins,” balancing risk, deduction, and luck to determine where the mysterious floating-paradise-garden card is and whether he will earn the first right to guess its location at the end of the game. My only critique: some of the illustrations on the cards feel a bit too “adult,” but we’ve made use of a Sharpie to add a little coverage on the characters, and we’ve used this as a point of conversation with the kids to talk about objectification. Time: 10 minutes.
  • Hive Pocket is a beautifully designed game with insect-themed hexagonal pieces in which two players alternately place insects to form a hive. The goal is to surround your opponent’s queen bee, but this is not easily done. Ants can move any number of spaces around the periphery of the hive, beetles can climb over the hive (but only one space at a time) and grasshoppers can hop over other pieces in a straight line. Hive is like insect chess, but in six directions instead of four, with creatures climbing all over each other. Time: 10-15 minutes.
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In Hive your goal is to surround your opponent’s queen bee–it’s harder than it looks!
  • Kanoodle is a great one-person game, but we find it often leads to others leaning over the player’s shoulder or joining in the fun. The game comes with tiny plastic balls arranged in lines, squares, zigzags, and other fixed formations. Following the directions booklet, the player uses these shapes to form a pyramid base. With each level, the direction manual provides fewer clues. This is a great game for spatial reasoning and general fun. Time: 5 minutes, or more.
  • Rush Hour is another one-person, spatial-reasoning game that, in our family, often turns into a two-person challenge. Individual cards tell the player how to set up different colored plastic cars and trucks on the small game board to create a traffic jam. While keeping all the vehicles on the board and sliding them around, your goal is to get the red car out of the mess. Kind of like a Rubik’s Cube, but a lot less maddening. Time: 2 minutes, or more.
  • Guillotine is a card game based on the French Revolution. Two or more players strategize with their hands of “action cards” containing varied, often silly instructions to move nobles forward or backward in the line of folks waiting to have their heads chopped off. Collecting Marie Antoinette will earn you five points, but palace guards are only worth one point, unless you collect several of them…. Time: 30 minutes.
  • And then, of course, there’s chess. It’s not generally travel sized, but after scouring a handicraft market in Nicaragua for a chess set, Reid settled on a brightly painted board. Only well into the transaction, after admiring the Andean llamas who served as knights, did we discover that one set of pieces is indigenous people and the other Europeans. There was no turning back at that point—Reid had his heart set on this chess set—so we decided to consider it another tool for exploring the history that surrounds us here in the Americas.

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Enjoy these games, and please let us know what some of your favorite travel-sized games are for filling up those inevitable wait times when you’re on the road.