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 travel games to spontaneously play with your fellow travelers. Some will be popular games that you can find online and 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 travel game in hostels (especially those hostel living rooms that have trinkets from all over the world gathering dust there), on train rides, and on planes. Sadly, 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.
#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 carload of us playing this on a stop-start motorway in southwest 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 is one of the only travel games I know with a German name because my German friends taught it to me — which is also perhaps why it 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 of Dubai, Denmark, and the Danube in under sixty seconds — or whatever time limit you and your bored mates decide on.
#4: Twenty Questions
One of my favorite travel games, Twenty Questions is an oldie but a goodie. 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 travel game when our family took a driving holiday across Australia. We were gone for about two months and my sister and me — being about ten and twelve years old — needed a lot of entertainment.
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 gold mining 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 boring 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”.