Tech-Free Travel: Road-Trip Games, No Screen Necessary

CARS.COM — Traveling with kids isn't always easy, but games help keep it fun. It may seem quaint now in a time when even a civilian minivan can be equipped with individual seatback-mounted touchscreens loaded with games, a Blu-ray player and Wi-Fi. But it wasn't so long ago that families had a rollicking good time on long road trips playing games that required no multimedia system, USB port or battery life. All you had were games to play and the open road to get you to your destination. 

Related: Video: Chrysler Pacifica's Uconnect Games Bust Road-Trip Boredom

Back in the day, the most a family needed to fill the hours in a road trip might've been a pencil and paper to keep score, or maybe a triangular wooden game board with pegs stuck in holes. Now, that's not to say that we here at Cars.com aren't down with the modern technology; quite the opposite. But most of us here also recall the simple joys of those tech-free times, so we reminisced on our childhood family road trip adventures and came up with a list of our favorite wireless games — and not "wireless" as in necessitating no Ethernet cable, but "wireless" as in no wires of any kind.

Here are our eight favorite family road-trip games that don't require a screen:

1. The License Plate Game

Easy to play, nearly impossible to finish. This one is best played over one of those old-school summer-long trips to the Hamptons or the Poconos that no one you've ever actually met has the vacation time to take. The first one to spot a state's license plate during the drive, in no certain order, calls it out, and the first player to 51 (don't forget the District of Columbia) wins. Or you could just tally up whoever spots the most states — otherwise, good luck on that Hawaii license plate. 

2. The Alphabet Game

This game can be chaos, but it's one of the quintessential no-tech road-trip pastimes. There are several variations on the rules, but basically, using any sign or billboard you see on the drive — in the foreground, before you pass it — each player looks for words that start with each letter of the alphabet, in order, and calls it out when they see it ("Q in Dairy Queen!"). If you're playing the version where you can use any letter on a sign, X's are a dime a dozen thanks to exit signs; if not, well, get ready for a long period of tense silence near the end of the game. Whoever gets Z first wins.

3. 20 Questions

One player thinks of a person, place or thing and the other player has 20 yes-or-no questions to guess what it is. This game is a process of elimination, gradually narrowing your search with each question of increasing specificity — but it's also fun to go for the occasional hole-in-one and make a random guess right off the bat. A variation of this game is "Animal, Mineral or Vegetable?" — but if you're with some boring nerd making you guess minerals, it's gonna be a long ride, so you may wanna keep those earbuds handy just in case.

4. I Spy

"I spy with my little eye, something [FILL IN BLANK WITH CLUE]." Not dissimilar to "20 Questions," but maybe a little more manageable for younger kids. If you guess right, you got next!

5. Travel Boards

If you play it on a board, they're likely make a travel version. For example:

  • Car Bingo
  • Travel Yahtzee
  • Travel Battleship
  • Travel Chess
  • Travel Checkers
  • Travel Monopoly

6. Punchbug

If you ain't bruisin', you ain't tryin'. You may get child protective services called on you if your kids play this, but at least it'll keep the little tykes occupied. Every time you see a Volkswagen Beetle, you punch your opponent in the arm and cry out, "Punchbuggy [INSERT COLOR OF CAR HERE]!" Use the contusions to keep score!

This is not to be confused with "Padiddle," a nighttime game in which every time you spot a car with one headlight burned out, you punch the roof of the car and yell out the eponymous non-word. For less violent families, this game merely causes damage to your car.

7. Finish the Story

This is a great way to get the kids — and the adults — to use their imagination. The format calls for two or more players to finish off the previous player's sentence and then start a new one for the next player to finish, keeping the same participant rotation throughout. The story ends, basically, when everyone gets sick of thinking about it and just gives up — you know, like the writing team on a Michael Bay movie.

Cars.com's Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays' family played a variation on this game loosely titled, "Give Dad a Couple of Subjects and He Makes Up a Long Story" — which could also be called, "Father B.S.es Best."

8. Spotting Cows

Known by different names such as "Cows in a Cemetery" or simply "The Cow Game," players count every cow they see out of their side of the car and try to milk their journey for the mooost points. However, if you have the misfortune of passing a cemetery on your side of the car, holding your breath might save your life, but it won't save your score: Back to zero for you.

In other bovine-based car games, Cars.com Multimedia Coordinator Leslie Cunningham noted her fondness for the unironically named, "Hey Cow!"

"This is where we would roll down the window and yell, 'Hey cow!' at every field we passed," she explained. "You got points for how many cows turned and looked — hey, I'm from Nebraska, what do you want from me?"

Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

 
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