5 Games for the Road: How to Pass the Time With Nothing But Your Fellow Travelers for Entertainment

Bus and train trips, flights, delays in airports and train stations, hostels without TV or much light; the list of situations where a traveler has time to kill is long. That’s right — travel is not always exciting. There will be dull downtimes, and you may not always be able to read a good book, play road trip bingo, do crossword puzzles, or doodle in your journal.

That’s when you need a good repertoire of games to spontaneously play with your fellow travelers. Some will be long-forgotten games from your childhood, and you might be surprised just how necessary they’ll be — and how much fun you’ll have — when you want to fill some of those inevitably empty hours on the road.

A quick confession: I’m a bit of a game geek anyway, and an English teacher to boot, so I’ve been known to start these games even at parties. But I promise that they have all been road tested on a real road, somewhere in Tunisia, Finland, Canada or Germany or any place where I was bored and without a book.

#1 – I Spy

You’ve probably all played I Spy a long time ago, but I recommend dredging it back up from your long term memory. If you can’t, it starts off like this: “I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with A”, and the other players have to guess what object you can see. I’ve played this in hostels (especially those hostel living rooms that have trinkets from all over the world gathering dust there), on train rides and in planes, but it didn’t work too well in the desert. “I spy … sand.”

How to play: I like to limit each person to three or four guesses. Otherwise they’ll exhaust every item in the room that starts with “B” and you’ll soon run out of objects to use. I also like the jet lag variation — play it in a dark room at night when you can’t sleep because your body’s on some other clock, and see if you can actually remember what’s in the room around you.


© Mariano Kamp

#2 – Donna’s Alphabet Game

This is not the official name, but it’s the way I like to remember it after my old school friend Donna got a car load of us playing this on a stop-start motorway in south-west England. It’s simple, as long as you’re traveling on a road with signs (and even better, advertising) and these signs use our alphabet. Don’t try it in the western provinces of China, for example.

How to play: Logically, Donna’s Alphabet Game starts with A. Be the first person to spot the letter “A” in a sign and yell out the word: “A is in motorwAy!” Continue with B and get right through to Z. It sounds easy, but there will be a few tricky letters, and if you’re playing in a non-English speaking country then pronouncing the words will be a lot of fun, too. The way we play, there’s no winner — anybody can scream out the next letter when they see it — but natural competitiveness spurs everybody on anyway.

#3 – Stadt, Land, Fluss: City, Country, River

This game has a German name because my German friends taught it to me — which is also perhaps why it always strikes me as being a bit intellectual, but still a lot of fun. It’s also a highly appropriate game for travelers to play because their geographical knowledge should be a bit better than average.

How to play: Choose three or four categories like the names of a city, country, river or lake. To be honest, I’m terrible with rivers so I always change the river category to something completely different — often food, because I like to talk about food. Take it in turns to challenge another player to think of a city, country and river all starting with a particular letter. If your friend challenges you with “D”, for example, you can win by getting out Dubai, Denmark and Danube in under sixty seconds — or whatever time limit you and your bored mates decide on.

Question Mark Sculpture
Question Mark Art, Stuttgart Museum of Art © -bast-

#4 – Twenty Questions

An oldie but a goodie, and you can make it topical by restricting the choice of “What am I?” to be something related to the region in which you’re traveling. I did have a friend, though, who would choose objects like “pyramid” while traveling through Egypt or “chocolate” in Switzerland, and then we could have made it just two questions rather than twenty.

How to play: Someone chooses an object, and everyone else asks them questions about it, but the only permitted answers are “Yes” or “No”. (Or in my rules, “irrelevant”, if I think saying yes or no will send the guessers along a completely wrong path … I like to play fair!). If you’re playing with a group, whoever guesses the item correctly can choose the next word.

#5 – For RTW Trippers: Kalgoorlie, Balladonia …

I think it was my father who started this game when our family took a driving holiday across Australia. We were gone about two months and my sister and I, being about ten and twelve years old, needed a lot of entertaining.

How to play: This game only works with your traveling companions, and only on long trips. It’s more of a challenge than a game, but it always works for me. Simply start with the name of the town you stayed in first. On our trans-Australia trip it was the goldmining town of Kalgoorlie. You then try to name every other town you’ve stayed in, in chronological order. My sister and I were experts at this all those years ago, but today I can only remember the first and second stops.

There are tons of other word and guessing games you can play in those bored moments of travel, and you can adapt these games with endless variations, too. And while it might seem like just a way to kill time, playing games like these is something I really love about traveling. It’s almost as if we don’t give ourselves permission to have that kind of fun if we’re at home in our “real lives”.

Anyway, I’m very keen to learn some new games, too, so leave your favorite travel game tips in the comments. I promise to road test them soon.

17 Responses

  1. XBL

    I like this post, all of them I’ve actually never played (well, I did, some variation on #1, using colors instead of letters – when I was really young).

    Reply
  2. Leslie

    A bit late to post but a game that has kept us entertained (being two adults and a six year old) is where you say a word and the next person has to say one that starts with the first letter the same as the last letter of the last word. eg: Elephan(T), Tim(E), Egg, (G)host etc. You can make it more complicated by limiting it to catergories.

    Reply
  3. Lindsay

    Here’s one I just learned last night!! You need to play with people who know lots of musical bands. You start with the band ABBA. The next person then has to think of a band that starts the last letter of the band. So, say Ac/Dc. Then the next person has to think of a band that starts with a c. It’s a fun way to pass time.

    Reply
  4. Barbara

    Thanks for all the new ideas! My significant other and I have fun passing time by doing name 5 -e.g. I say name me 5 cars from cars the movie then he comes up with his category such as name me 5 types of airplalnes or sometimes we say name me 5 more of what the other person had requested. Also we take songs that have love in them he says or sings one them then I have to sing or name a song with love in it that starts with the letter that ended the previous song or has a word in what you sing that starts with the ending letter of the previous song. We also do 20 questions with animal vegetatble or mineral. By now those are probably on your list however wanted to share with you anyway

    Reply
  5. David

    Grab a copy of the World Almanac paperback version. There’s a million things to play with the info in there.

    For instance, pick a state and start going around the room/car naming cities. Whomever is the last one standing gets a point. Continue with the other states and use the almanac to verify any conflicts.

    Another could be currencies. Start with a penny and name who is depicted. Can u make it to Woodrow Wilson?

    Reply
  6. Elyse

    Whenever my friends and I are bored on the road, we like to see who can find the most restaurants. If we want an insanely hard challenge, we see who can spot the most mattress stores, or diners such as Panda Express.

    When we get bored of that, we have a contest to see who can eat the most Warheads(Sourest candy EVER) at once. Then we all laugh at each others faces.

    Reply
  7. Caitlyn

    When my family goes on a long road trip (there being six of us kids), we always need something to occupy our minds.

    We play “I’m Going on a Camping Trip…” (or Picnic, whichever you prefer).

    You go around the car saying something that you’re going to take with you that starts with an “a”. The next person says the first thing and then adds something that starts with a “b”. The final person has to say all 26 objects in order. The first person to be stumped loses and you continue playing until there is one person left.

    If you want to put a twist on the game, add some adjectives before the object. The adjectives have to begin with the same letter as the object. Sometimes it’s hard to find adjectives that fit, but it’s worth it becausenit is really hard for everyone to remember the objects and the adjectives that go with them.

    Reply
  8. Heather D

    Wow, I am surprised not to see the Cow Game. Although I am beginning to believe my mom made it up. You split the car in two and the left competes against the right. You count cows on your side of the road, but if you pass a grave yard you have to bury them and start over. The team with the most cows wins.

    Reply

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