Best travel games for kids and adults—no screens required
The best analog travel games to keep everyone entertained on trips
If you're tired of the old mad libs, I spy game, seeking out an endless sea of state license plates, and every answer to "would you rather" involves jumping out of the car, try these.
I've divided up several travel games by gameplay and age. I also considered safe games to play in a car, but a couple listed below work best in hotel rooms, around a campfire, or safely off the road.
I also wanted to help people worried about excessive screen time that want to keep the kids occupied while riding on long road trips or waiting for flights to come and go. These travel game ideas require no screens, no apps, and no Internet connection.
But if you're traveling at night and someone absolutely wants to play with a screen, remember you can learn and play Mexican Train Dominoes for free on iOS, Android, Kindle, and in your browser on any device like a Windows 10 laptop.
Travel board games for kids
The Wonder Ball Game
Based on an old camping game and akin to hot potato, you toss a ball, plush toy, water balloon, or some other soft object around while everyone sings the Wonder Ball song:
The Wonder Ball
Goes round and round
To pass it quickly
You are bound
If you’re the one
To hold it last
The game for you
Has surely past
This game works best outdoors, around a campfire, or inside a room. Don't throw stuff around inside a moving car. Whoever holds on to the ball when the song is finished is out!
A scavenger hunt is like "I spy", but you can dial it up or down depending on your child's interests and age. Younger kids can get sent on an adventure at a rest stop for specific kinds of leaves, numbers, or colors. You can keep older kids occupied with more challenging scavenger hunt ideas like "What's the zip code or time zone we're in?" Just remind them they can’t use their phone.
Identifying items or objects with specific letters on a road trip can keep kids busy if they're learning their letters and ABCs. It can be played solo or let the kids play together.
Teach your kids how to fold a paper fortune teller
Remember in elementary school those paper "fortune tellers" we all used to fold? The kind where you fold up different panels with colors and numbers and kids draw randomly off the top of their heads to discern some mystic truth, like who you're going to kiss next?
All you need is some paper and colored pencils. Consider teaching your kids how to fold one. It's a bit like origami (more on that below).
An easy, classic game on paper: Hangman
Despite its medieval-sounding name, Hangman is still a great game to play on a family vacation. It's fast-paced, keeps kids busy and thinking about spelling and letters, and doesn't require much on a car ride or plane except paper and a pencil.
Battleship on paper
The problem with many road trip games is the game board and game pieces bounce all over the car. Even the magnetic games suffer a loss of a piece or two. As travel and strategy games go, Battleship is a classic, and you can do it with paper and pencil.
Each player draws two grids numbered 1-10 across and A-J down on a half sheet of paper.
Label out a 5, 4, and 2-square plot for your ships plus two ships that are 3 squares long. No game pieces are required!
Then, each player identifies their ships on one and the enemy ships on another.
Heads Up, Seven Up
Do kids still play this in school? If not, it's time you introduce them to Heads Up, Seven Up. This works best with lots of players, like if you're traveling with a bunch of young kids to a tournament or competition.
Newer versions of this game have plastic machines and devices that handle card sorting and shuffling. But you can get back to the classic game with a simple deck of Uno playing cards.
Talk to your kids about "house rules" and this will be a card game they can remember and play throughout their lives.
Great games for older kids
Origami and paper planes
You could do this with younger children, but origami is a fun way to keep older kids and teens entertained. It serves as a challenge to focus, slow down, and pay attention to a delicate bit of craftwork—something we should all do from time to time.
Check out an origami book at your local library before you leave for more origami ideas that keep people off their phones and away from screens.
An origami ninja star is a fun place to start. And if you're looking for something simpler to start with, try making the best paper plane. You can use a stairway or long hallway at the hotel later to see whose flies furthest fastest.
You can play chess on long car rides with a magnetic game board or gather around a full set around a table at your destination (or home). Chess is an enduring strategy game for good reason, and if your kids don't know how to play, now's a good time to teach them.
Netflix's The Queen's Gambit made chess exciting for a new generation of players. It works our brains in profound and valuable ways, requiring intense focus and concentration. Something a lot of teenagers might need to practice.
If you have a mix of young kids, adults, and teens, try a riff on bingo. Make your bingo card with paper and draw a grid. You can have someone call our numbers or letters or use obscure items to call out and "claim", like "I spy" and you have a way to make a long road trip into something more observable.
For instance, you might say, “Texas” and the first person to identify something with an obvious Texas connection, like a restaurant, license plate, or road sign claims the square.
$25 at Amazon and you get a deck of 52 cards with prompts for things you might actually want to know about a person. Actually Curious asks what each person thinks about their dreams, hopes, ambitions, and sometimes fears.
None of the questions are all that personal and you could use these on a road trip or at the start of your next business retreat. It's a surprisingly deep and fun game to play in the car on road trips.
Cards Against Humanity
You've probably heard of Cards Against Humanity, the people who dug a big hole for no reason. These cards aren't for younger kids, but older teens might like to play. Use your best judgment, at least with slightly older kids.
You could play this with teens on your family road trips, but you'll probably want to be around a table or flat surface. Exploding Kittens is by Matthew Inman, the author behind the Internet's favorite "Oatmeal" comics. The game crosses Russian Roulette with "family and friends who are into kittens and explosions. $20 on Amazon.