Best Travel Game Apps for Under Two Bucks

by  Paul Eisenberg | Mar 6, 2012
iPad / grinvalds/iStock

It seems that toy makers are now defining a “travel game” as any small diversion that can be easily packed in a bag. And while portability is certainly a plus, it does not always a travel game make.

The same goes for apps. They’re all portable by definition, but who’s to say which travel game apps are best? Me, I suppose. Here now, some apps that lend themselves to family fun and, dare I say it, learning.

Emma in Africa. For iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. $1.99

Full disclosure here, I also write for a safari company that recently sent me to Kenya. So when it comes to the yield of a Kenyan safari book app geared toward kindergarteners, my expectations may be a bit high. But I can report that Emma in Africa hits the right notes with its mix of simple storytelling, sounds, and factoids.

During your mini safari, you and Emma learn interesting stuff – for instance, that dik diks are the smallest antelopes in the world, hippos chortle as they swim, and Maasai tribesman are agile jumpers as well as delightful, wonderful teachers – all true to life.  The app’s optional audio read-along component is especially useful if you have a kindergartener like mine in the throes of learning to read. And real photos at the end of the book reinforce what you’ve just learned, though it perhaps might have been more effective if those pictures were sprinkled throughout the app. Likewise, the game’s simple puzzles could be more challenging. That said, the game is a solid tool for teaching small children about meaningful experiences in other lands.

By the way, Tropisounds, who produces Emma in Africa, also makes an iPad game called Wood Puzzle USA ($1.99), which precisely sums up what you get. The app replicates the experience of working wooden renderings of each state into a USA puzzle frame, letting your kid learn states and capitals along the way. The puzzle is recommended for the post kindergarten set – ages 6 and up – but I say the sooner our kids start learning the shapes of the different states and how they fit together, the better.

Bananagrams, Compatible with iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. 99 cents.

After taking the London Toy Fair by storm more than six years ago, Bananagrams shot ahead of the word-game pack and hasn’t looked back since. The three generations of the Nathanson family that invented the game spanned ages 7 to 75, and that’s who the game and its corresponding app caters to as well. If you know how to spell, you will play this game and like it.

If you don’t know of Bananagrams, the original tactile version is a sack of tiles, which you divvy up among players who then try to make interlocking words. Those who become nimble at making and remaking anagrams will succeed, which is true of the game as well as the app. And evidently there are plenty of nimble Bananagrammers in the app’s live play mode; as is the case with many online multi-player arenas, there are game devotees who play at superhuman speeds. But the beauty of Bananagrams has always been that you’re not playing against other players so much as you’re playing alongside them, which is why you will probably end up spending most of your time in the app’s solitaire and solo cafe modes (both modes are timed, though solo permits you to trade in a difficult letter for three new ones while solitaire does not).

In a real world 2- to 4-player Bananagrams game, you’re dealt 21 tiles, which is the case in solo café; in solitaire you can hone your anagram-making skills with 36 or 72 tiles.

Because you need to manipulate at least 21 tiles at once, the tiles can seem a little small on iPhone or iTouch screen (my 12-year old, whose fingers are far more delicate than mine, agrees) so this app may be a bit more gratifying on an iPad.  Still for 99 cents, the exceptional time-killing playability of the app, as well as its stealthy educational component, is hard to beat.

Man v Food Challenge, Free for the iPhone and iPad.

If your family is like mine, at least two things are true: You want travel and joyful eating to intersect often during your vacations. And, you’re a fan of the awesome Travel Channel program "Man v Food," where host Adam Richman travels the country taking up eating challenges from the super spicy to the super sized. This free app’s mini-games give you a minute to build and eat copious stacks of food, from towering tuna melts in Cleveland to dangerously overstuffed frittatas in Syracuse. The app is more challenging than it seems at first – you need to tilt your device just so to get the ingredients to fall into a proper stack, and if you drop an ingredient you need to start again. The more of your minute you use to build your food stack – assuming you successfully build it high enough – the less time you have to consume it – which you can do by either frantically tapping the “Eat Now” button or shouting “Nom Nom Nom!” into your device’s microphone. The latter approach is more fun, of course, but you’ll likely do better with the tapping if you only have a second to spare.

Clips from "Man V Food" broadcasts are incorporated into the mini-games and you’re allowed to skip them – but they’re worth watching, as this is where your kids will learn both about the restaurants’ destinations and history. And the factoids yielded by the show and the app are tailor-made for young minds – for instance, the fact that at Bub’s Burgers & Ice Cream in Indianapolis, 42,000 diners (including Richman) have tried and  failed to eat four 1½ pound Big Ugly burgers. That’s the kind of information your kids can use, and you’ll know you’ll hear it repeated often.

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