Beyond I Spy: road trip games to try on your next vacation

Family road trips aren’t just about getting from here to there. Ideally, the journey is just as much a part of the fun. There’s so much to be learned from the road, whether it’s geography or meteorology or just catching a glimpse of other people’s day-to-day lives as you whiz by.

Rubber Neckers Travel Game But, really, does it actually play out that way? Stuffing kids into a metal box and hurtling with them down the highway for long stretches of time isn’t most people’s idea of happy family time. And, while DVD players and game systems may have made the process quieter (at least for families with older kids), they’ve also sucked the “family” part out of the road trip. Each person plugged is into in his own electronic bubble, never even glancing out the window.

The answer? Break up the electronic entertainment with road trip games! There’s nothing better (besides stopping for a picnic) for coaxing people out of their bubbles and back together.

Your kids may not know it, but you’re way more fun than a Game Boy. Still, you might meet with some skepticism, especially from your tweens and teens. Keep the big picture in mind. If one of your kids is less than enthusiastic about participating, try to keep the mood light. Better to let the outliers witness the fun the rest of the family is having, and join in willingly. Try staging friendly competitions between the front and back seat. When your kids can join forces to beat you in a game, it just may turn things around.

I’ve actually written up a loose “schedule of events” for long road trips that lists lunch and gas stops, and, for the time in between, slots that alternate plugged-in time with family time. For my kids, having a concrete schedule helps them deal with the inevitable discomfort of long drives, and it also assures them I won’t force them to play the License Plate Game with us for three hours.

But what to play? My family is I-Spied-out, so here are a few of our current favorites:

Kids Build Your Own Story kitCooperative stories: One person leads off with a story hook, the sillier the better. “Once upon a time, there was a tiny elephant who lived on the head of a pin…” Each person adds a line to the story until it’s so ridiculous everyone’s laughing uncontrollably. This method works well with a magnetic poetry set as well (create poetry on the back of a small cookie sheet).

Identify the crops: This is surprisingly fun when you’re driving through agricultural areas. My kids were surprised to see what a cotton field looked like, and to notice groves of almond trees in bloom. Bonus: stop at a roadside fruit stand for a great snack and good people-watching.

Mad Libs JuniorText message secret codes to each other: I have been known to hand my cell phone to the back seat and my husband text messages the kids from the front. Yes, it’s electronic entertainment, but one that brings us together.

Point out state license plates: An oldie but goodie.

Travel games: Don’t forget the amazing selection of travel games you can buy, from magnetic versions of favorite board games to card games meant to be played on the road.

 Mad Libs: Who doesn’t love Mad Libs? Road trips are the perfect time to pull out a fresh new set.

I’m sure you’ve come up with a bunch of ways to keep the family entertained while on the road! What’s your favorite road trip game?


  1. says

    It’s not a game (per se), but it is humourous.

    My kids and I like listening to podcasts. Doctor Floyd is a current favourite, and it’s educational in addition to the laugh-factor.

    Plus, I enjoy the ten-minutes of silence from the backseat!

  2. Penny says

    For my youngest son – we play rhyming words – who can come up with the most words that rhyme with “cat”…. the person who comes up with the most words gets to pick the next word we rhyme to.

    Then with my eldest son – we play License Plate Acronyms… the vehicle nearest to us has to have at least two letters in it… and for all the letters in it, we have to come up with a phrase that could be represented by the letters in the plate – (we added a new rule for the letter x – it could be a word that starts with x OR ex)…. so XGE is EXtra Great Elantra (which gets bonus points if it is an Elantra) or PHE is Perfectly Helpful Elf… we keep coming up with phrases until we find another car with another set of letters to play with. We can actually play this for a good half hour or more – and when we get tired of playing, we’ll bring up the most memerable or funny phrases and vote for our favorite.

  3. says

    I love the idea of MadLibs, especially now that my finishing-up-first-grader can read. I’ll need to get some of those for our upcoming trip.

    We play the alphabet search game, road trip bingo, pass out pipe cleaners for some creative play… We also love “I’m going on a picnic” where you have to name something you’d bring on a picnic starting with each letter of the alphabet. You have to remember what everyone before you said so by the end of the game it’s quite the memory feat (especially for us older folks).

  4. Lo says

    We also love the alphabet search game (look out the windows for something that starts with a, then b, and so on) and when we were kids my sister and I *loved* finding license plates from as many states as possible.

  5. says

    We start our trip by making our own scavenger hunts. We try to anticipate some things we might see (Spanish moss, a bridge over water, a train, a pink house) and we toss in some tricky items (a truck carrying more than seven cars, a cement mixer, a pink sports car). The whole family works together to check off the items.

    We’ve also made a BINGO card of state names and played with license plates. This was especially fun when we drove from Atlanta to Niagara Falls.

  6. Stephanie says

    When I was growing up, my brother and I always counted how many four-legged animals we saw on our respective sides of the car. We would set some random length of time for this “contest” and declare a winner when it was over. It doesn’t seem like much, but for competitive siblings, winning is everything- no matter how silly the game is.

  7. Dabni says

    Name that tune using a playlist on your ipod with songs that everyone knows. So much fun!

  8. Emily says

    We would divide into 2 even teams and pick a word (pretty general) like sun or love or cry. Then each team would take turns thinking of and singing a song with that word in it. Rules: You had to sing the phrase with the word in it, and you had to be able to sing a decent amount of the song (a good two phrases). Teams take turns going back and forth until one can’t think of a song. (Helps to have a time limit for thinking.) Then we start over with a new word. With a word like ‘Love’ it can go on and on, which is part of the fun. Kids and adults love playing this.

  9. Tina says

    I love your ideas, and I plan on trying some of them on our upcoming Thanksgiving trip. I also wanted to recommend: Crayola Window crayons and markers: and a package of disposable window cleaning wipes. This kept our girls busy for quite a while on our way to Family Camp last summer. We have an old car, and don’t really care how messy the windows are. If you care about that sort of thing, then maybe this isn’t for you, but we love it! And we ONLY use these in the car – they haven’t figured out that they work on all kinds of windows yet, and who am I to spoil the magic?!

  10. says

    There are various cooperative games and great videos for kids available on tablet PC’s which should keep them entertained while learning although I’d watch out for motion sickness if your kids are prone to such.