Traveling with kids can be rough. Long car rides and flights can be a testament to your patience if your child starts getting bored. Thankfully, technology has created dozens of gadgets to satisfy children of all ages.
We surveyed PCMag.com employees with sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews to see what kind of tech keeps the kids occupied while traveling. This set of gadgets -- and the thousands of apps you can download for them -- will surely keep your children from asking the inevitable question: "Are we there yet?"
Nearly every PCMag staff member we surveyed said a tablet is key to keeping kids entertained on planes, trains, and automobiles. If you guessed that Apple's iPad was the tablet mentioned most, you're right. There are just more kid-oriented apps and ebooks created for iOS than for Android or other platforms, and both parents and kids love the wide variety. But the iPad isn't your only option; Lead Mobile Analyst Sascha Segan, who never travels without a tablet, said he has found that 7-inch tablets, like the Google Nexus 7 (shown above), the Amazon Kindle Fire , and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) are the perfect size for his 6-year-old daughter. They're also much less expensive than the iPad, at $200 or $250 compared to $500 for Apple's new tablet.
"Using an Android tablet also lets us play our own media -- the TV shows and movies we have stored at home or ripped from DVDs -- as well as play the many free games and coloring book apps in the Android market," Segan said. The Nook Tablet is another good choice. Segan said his daughter recently took a liking to it because of its excellent children's books and comics reading experience. "Loading a bunch of books on the Nook Tablet prevents us from having to fumble around in a bag for several different books," Segan said.
Of course, if you're going to give a $500 (or more) tablet to a 3-year-old, you'd better make sure it's well-protected. We recommend Hard Candy's super-rugged Street Skin ($39.95), which features shock-absorbing TPU rubber and magnets that keep the case closed. If you don't think your toddler is quite ready to handle your expensive tech toy, Griffin's CinemaSeat 2 case ($39.99) will not only protect the iPad but will also keep your kids entertained in the car. A wide band on its back fits around headrests, securing the iPad at eye-level so that backseat passengers can watch videos.
The other gadget that nearly all of the surveyed parents agreed on is the iPod touch . Smaller, and easier to hold for younger children than the iPad, the iPod touch is great for keeping kids and teens busy while traveling. Sons and daughters of all ages can play games, watch movies, and listen to music and podcasts. The iPod touch shoots HD videos, so your child can document all the joys of a typical family vacation. If you're at a Wi-Fi-enabled hotspot (or Grandma's house), teens can take advantage of iMessage and text between other iOS devices for free. If they really can't stand not seeing their BFF for too long, they can video chat with FaceTime.
LeapFrog makes educational devices for kids from infancy up to 9 years old. Two of our favorites hit the 4-to-9 age range. For the little one who wants a smartphone like Mom's, the LeapPad combines the coolness of a tablet with lots of educational content. With four apps included, the LeapPad is open to a library of more than a hundred cartridge games and activities to buy and download. The tablet has a 5-inch, 480-by-272-pixel (16:9) touchscreen, and 2GB of built-in storage. With a built-in camera and video recorder, microphone, stylus, and an accelerometer, this tablet can do just about everything children could want, including creating their own stories about themselves with personalized artwork narrated in their voice.
The LeapFrog Tag Reading System is an electronic stylus that reads along with specially-coded books, helping kids read stories, solve puzzles, and sound out words that they're learning to read. While they're aimed at early elementary schoolers, the presentation and knowledge were interesting enough to temporarily transfix a 12-year-old as well, particularly the geography pages.
VTech InnoTab Learning App Tablet
Competitor to Leapster's LeapPad, the VTech InnoTab can perform many of the same functions your child loves about your iPad, including playing interactive ebooks that offer story narration, character voices, animation, graphics, sounds, and music. As kids read, they can watch as the words are highlighted, and then touch specific words to hear them pronounced. The touchscreen and motion sensor allow kids to play learning games and apps. Kids can also listen to their favorite songs (thanks to the built-in MP3 player) and watch videos with the video player. There's also a photo viewer, calculator, calendar, notepad, clock, and address book.
VTech V.Reader Interactive E-Reading System
For kids ages 3 to 7, the VTech V.Reader Interactive E-Reading System guides them into reading with enough video-game-like elements to keep them occupied. Kids can touch and play as they learn core reading skills, touch the screen to read the story, and play interactive reading games. The V.Reader comes preloaded with the "What's That Noise" storybook and fun applications such as a photo viewer, video player, and art activities. Additional storybook cartridges (sold separately) offer new stories and adventures and feature a fully narrated and animated story, reading skill games, and a Story Dictionary.
VTech MobiGo 2 Touch Learning System
Created for kids ages 3 to 8, VTech's MobiGo 2 Touch Learning System gives your child his or her own touch-tech toy that's both educational and fun. The touch-activated screen and slide-out QWERTY keyboard let kids imitate what their parents do with their gadgets. Tapping, dragging, patting, sliding, and flicking, kids can choose the way they play and learn spelling, logic, math, shapes, and colors. Parents can visit VTech's Learning Lodge Navigator to download more games and content to the MobiGo 2.
Segan recommends the Western Digital WDTV Live media hub for those days when outdoor plans are quashed by bad weather. To prevent their families from going stir-crazy in a small hotel room or vacation rental, parents can download TV shows and movies before leaving for vacation and place them on a portable external hard drive or flash drive. With the WDTV Live, they can simply plug in the drive, connect the device to the hotel's TV, and play their child's favorite shows.
The time-tested game system of the Nintendo DS Lite and Nintendo DSi is perfect for road trips, train rides, and long flights. The DSi's built-in Wi-Fi allows for games and apps to be downloaded and both the DSi and the DS Lite let you browse the Internet. The DSi takes photos with a built-in camera and also uses an SD card to store music, photos, and games. Using parental controls, parents can choose what their child is able to do on the DSi. They can also select an age range on the Nintendo DS games website to find appropriate games for particular ages. However, as PCMag's Tim Smith pointed out, the DS can be kind of a pain since the games are relatively expensive (about $29.99 each), whereas games for smartphones can be downloaded for much less.
Though we don't recommend it for anyone under the age of 6 due to a manipulation of vision caused by the 3D effect, the Nintendo 3DS -- the DS's 3D-capable brother -- is a good option for kids who want to take their gaming experience into the third dimension.
Sony PlayStation Vita
For parents who are ready to give their child a gaming device not specifically intended for educational purposes, the Sony PlayStation Vita portable multimedia and gaming device is PCMag.com's current Editors' Choice. Its 5-inch widescreen touch-enabled OLED beautifully displays photos and videos and built-in Wi-Fi allows children to play games against friends. Parents can choose games by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings listed on each game box. We suggest EC (Early Childhood) games for children ages 3 and older, as well as games rated E (Everyone) which has content suitable for ages 6 and older. After that, the Vita is good for other age ranges in addition to ages 5 to 7; just make sure to check the rating before you buy the game.
Speakers & Headphones
If you don't want to hear your child's music, video, or games, or you don't want to disturb other passengers on your flight, a good set of headphones is essential. The Etymotic Ety Kids 5 earbuds are a great choice for kids of all ages because they reduce the sound levels pumping into delicate growing ears, while blocking out background noise to make quiet sounds more audible.
Though many hotel rooms have alarm clocks with built-in iPod docks, it's always good to bring a portable speaker along, especially if you're visiting Grandma and Grandpa and they don't have any iPod-connectable speakers. The Bluetooth-streaming Logitech Mini Boombox , an Editors' Choice, is portable and, according to audio analyst Tim Gideon, "packs a surprising punch for such a small speaker."