Once you're on board your flight and the newness of your surroundings wears off ("reading" the emergency procedures card will only last so long...) you'll want to have some goodies ready to entertain your little one. Don't pull them out too soon--if you're still on the runway when the first surprise comes out, you'd better have a BIG stash handy. ;)
We have found that bringing toys that the little guy has never seen works best. They hold his attention the longest. Depending on the length of your flight, this could get expensive--so try looking at the dollar store, Target's $1 Spot, and party supply stores to build up a great stash before your trip.
Some of our favorites have been a travel Magna Doodle, Crayola Color Wonder markers/paper, stickers, and small board books featuring his favorite characters. The clearance section at Barnes & Noble is a good place to find those.
Magna Doodle--no markers, no mess. The stylus is attached with a short string. It's cool for little people to see that their movements make the picture show up. Less frustrating than an Etch-a-Sketch.
Color Wonder--the markers have NO COLOR. They only show up on Color Wonder paper. You can find blank pads, coloring books, and activity books that use these. Some are sold as kits with a mini coloring book and three markers, or you can find full sets at stores like Target.
Stickers --my son adores peeling stickers and decorating things, including his hands and shoes. He calls it his "project." The dollar store, or office supply row at Target, is a good place to find lots of inexpensive stickers. Bring a small notepad/notebook for them, and be sure to check your seat when you exit the airplane to make sure you didn't leave too much decoration behind.
Board books--they aren't as fragile as paper-page books, which you probably already know by now. They are sturdy enough to get tossed into a carryon bag, dropped on the floor, chewed on by teethers, and read by little hands without coming apart as easily as flimsier counterparts. No chance of paper cuts, either! Barnes & Noble often has sets featuring Disney characters on clearance. Cloth books are another option, which you can also find there.
Favorite toys--while you will want to have some new things, never underestimate the power of a favorite friend. The little guy brings his pint-sized Elmo when we travel, as well as one tried-and-true farm animal book. These familiar items help him feel at home in his new place and on the airplane.
Magazines--use the SkyMall catalog (or any magazine you may have brought with you) and go on a virtual scavenger hunt--look for three dogs, blue circles, find an old lady, have him/her point out something you can drink, etc. The airline doesn't care if the SkyMall mag gets ripped, so ease up and let your kiddo go wild(ish). Stickers can go in here, too.
Crayons--sometimes just good old fashioned crayons and a coloring book are awesome. My son *loves* to color. I can't tell you how many times a day I hear "No Mommy, I'm still colo-ling" when it's time to go somewhere. Crayola makes triangular (and washable) crayons that are nice because they don't roll all over the place. You can buy "travel kit" coloring sets at a place like the dollar store, or Husdon News in the airport for a lot more $$, that contain a few crayons and small-scale coloring books/pages that are nicely sized for a carryon or purse. Even if you don't use them on board, they're great to have available for pulling out in a restaurant that might not provide them.
Creativity--some of the oddest things have kept the little guy's attention when we were least expecting it. If The H or I wear shirt with hoodie strings, zippers, buttons, or snaps, it provides something for him to play with when his toys are boring him. His pair of dog-face (no, really) squeaky mittens became finger puppets and put on a show for him, causing gales of giggles. If you don't have mittens, a clean pair of socks (or hey, the ones your little one is wearing) can become hand puppets in a pinch. A piece of Bubblicious tooth-rotting bubblegum I found in my bag became the Mommy Blows Bubbles show for a few minutes. Get creative!
DVD player--there has only been one flight on which the little guy was squirrely enough to warrant pulling out my laptop and firing up a Handy Manny DVD, but if your child is used to watching shows at home (especially to wind down) bring some along. You can buy a pair of kid-safe headphones (look at Target or on Amazon) just for him/her to use, to make it extra special.
Being prepared before you get on board (I like to shop for travel goodies at least a week in advance so I'm not stressing that I have enough for him to do) will help you keep your cool if and when your little passenger acts like, well, a kid. You'll have lots of fun up your sleeve to distract him/her. It's always nice to hear from fellow travelers "Wow, he was so well behaved!"
Once you get to your destination, breathe a sigh of relief, since you will once again have access to the toys you've packed in your checked bags... OR if you need to save space, you can utilize a baby-equipment rental company like Baby's Away or Breezy Baby Travel Co and rent toys from them! More on them in the next Toddler Travel update.