We’ve all played the license plate game as kids, but adults need a little more effort to stay entertained on a long road trip. One of the questions that comes up a lot when we’re traveling — especially when we’re spending 10 hours a day in a car together — is how to keep each other entertained.
As a passenger, you can only scroll your Facebook feed so many times before it’s all the same posts. And if you don’t have cell service, good luck watching Instagram stories. For the driver, it’s even worse — you’ve mostly just got music and your passengers to help you make it to the next rest stop. So, what else is there besides staring out the window in silence? Here’s seven things to do on a road trip that we know will keep everyone in the car engaged.
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1. Get to Know One Another Better
Okay, this may sound really obvious, but if there’s anyone in the car you don’t know much about, start there. Road trips are a great way for a group of people to split costs and go somewhere new together. There could be a lot that you haven’t discussed yet, so make sure you ask open-ended questions.
For example, instead of asking what everyone’s favorite season is, try asking why it’s their favorite season and what memories they’ve made during that time of year.
There’s one small problem for us…we’ve been friends since freshman year of high school. We know a lot about each other, and you probably know a lot about your best friend or significant other too. Playing the “get to know you” game isn’t as much of an option when you’ve known one another for over a decade.
What do we do instead? With so much shared history, we’ve made a game out of remembering the past. We also try to focus on the time in our lives before we knew each other (in this case childhood, but if you and your bestie went to different schools, there’s probably more to unpack there too). The key is getting specific enough that you both get to share new information to keep the conversation fresh.
2. Curate New Music to Experience Together
One of the biggest issues on road trips is inconsistent cell service and wifi access. It not only limits your access to social media, but it can make streaming services completely unusable. That’s why I download playlists or whole albums to access offline (and, if you’re oldschool weirdos like us, you can burn CDs).
If you don’t have the same tastes, you can work to broaden your horizons by taking turns as DJ. When we listen to new playlists, we try to give it a solid five-song listen before switching things up. With new albums, we commit to listening all the way through.
If you have overlapping tastes, the next step is to discover new music to listen to. While we don’t pay for any streaming services, I’m still able to use Spotify for discovery for free with ads (Steven likes Pandora). Apple Music offers similar discovery features. You can find a radio station or playlist by artist, genre, or even mood. I didn’t really know how big of a fan of Folk Punk I was until I stumbled upon the Spotify playlist “The Sound of Folk Punk” or how much I love lo-fi hip-hop vibes until I found “Lo-Fi Beats.” You typically have to pay to download playlists to your phone for offline listening (try to do it on wifi), but it could be worth it if you’re burning through mobile data to stream it.
Of course you can also turn to your digital music library to build your own playlists, but remember to stay in offline listening mode unless you have an unlimited data plan. If you really feel like it’s worth it to subscribe to a streaming service to access music on the go (we don’t), consider Amazon Music among your options. Like the other services, you can find new artists on Amazon through curated playlists.
3. Let Podcasts Ignite Conversation
One of our favorite things to do on a road trip is to try new podcasts. Podcasts have soared in popularity, and they’re available for almost every niche imaginable. A friend of mine listens to a paranormal crime podcast every day during her commute. My cousin even started her own!
While entertainment podcasts are popular — those on TV shows, sports, and other pop culture content — we like to seek out podcasts that spur more conversation between us. Think TED Talk-style coverage on topics that are relevant to us.
We’ve listened to photography shows, Magic: The Gathering discussions, personal finance interviews, and more. During our 2019 trip to every US National Park, we found ourselves listening to a lot of Hidden Brain, Freakonomics, and the Landscape Photography Podcast. (Important note: Spotify lets you download podcasts even if you’re not a premium subscriber. I always try to grab a few new episodes when we have wifi access. With Apple Music, you have to subscribe to download and listen to any content offline.)
You know you’re doing it right when you have to pause the program to talk about something the hosts just said. (Make sure everyone in the car knows it’s okay to do this ahead of time!) The point of listening to a podcast shouldn’t be just to pass the time; they’re way better when they spark meaningful conversation between friends.
4. Tune In to a Local Radio Station
You’re probably not be used to turning on the radio to discover new music. After all, every station just plays the same 20 songs on repeat, right? It can mean a bit of hunting, but local radio stations, especially in college towns, often include independent programming that allows for a variety of musical selections.
While driving in Alaska, we came across a pretty eclectic station run by students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus called KSUA (91.5 FM). We had to use our phones to figure out what songs were being played, and while we didn’t like everything, it definitely introduced us to new artists and gave us something else to talk about.
In addition to getting a sense of the music a particular area likes, you can also listen to local news broadcasts to get a sense of what impacts the towns you visit. Listening to area reports and global news can give you more to talk about as well. When we drove through Québec, we even tried to add a few French words to our vocabulary by listening to local radio.
5. Read Interesting Articles Aloud
If you don’t get car sick, one of the things to do on a road trip should be catching up on the latest news and other blog content you like by having a passenger read an article aloud. This only works for me during long stretches of driving where stop-and-go traffic won’t make me nauseous.
While it might feel awkward at first (like when you’re called on in school to read the next paragraph of the textbook), reading aloud helps involve the driver and passenger(s). Again, my suggestion is to pick articles that will trigger discussion to give you even more things to do on a road trip. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve spent hours talking about a single topic presented in an article.
I use and recommend the Google News app because you can customize topics you’re interested in (plus it learns about your interests by what you click through to read). While Apple News manages all your subscriptions in one place and offers you a look at trending stories, it doesn’t really have the same learning capabilities as Google News for article discovery. The Feedly app just helps organize your RSS feeds, so you won’t be doing as much discovering there either. However, I’ve heard good things about Flipboard, which lets you follow topics you may be interested in.
Depending on who’s in the car with you — and how much you value their opinion — you can decide which articles would work best for your trip and whether you want to wade into more controversial topics. I mostly look for finance articles, both those we agree with and disagree with, to read to Steven as he drives, because we both have enough of an opinion on those topics to carry on a discussion. A lot of times they even give us an idea for a future blog post!
6. Catch Up on Books Without Getting Car Sick
Reading books is cool, but it leaves the driver out of the fun and can cause car sickness in some people (read: me). That’s why you should embrace a wonderful invention that solves both problems quite nicely: the audiobook.
While there are a few ways to get free audiobooks, they don’t have every title available nor are they really that easy to navigate, so feel free to roll the dice on that. One of the more popular ways to get audiobooks reliably is to purchase an Audible subscription. Audible also offers a free trial which you could time with your trip — just be sure to set a reminder to cancel before your credit card gets charged. Otherwise, you can pay a variable price by title in apps like Google or Apple Books. Personally, we don’t pay for any of the above.
An audiobook is definitely a longer commitment, which can be a plus for an extended road trip, but you’ll want to make sure you really agree on a title. It’s a little harder to take turns listening to whole books than it is to take turns listening to new albums or new podcast episodes.
7. Don’t Just Consume — Solve Problems and Create Something Together
You may not have even noticed it, but all of my suggestions so far have involved consuming media. Consumption is modern society’s solution to boredom, and it works really well, at least in the short term. All of the above ideas are great, but this last one is what’s really gotten us through the bulk of the thousands of hours we’ve spent in the car together — and it’s made each of us come away as a better person.
When you value the opinions of the person or people in the car with you, you can start to ask for their advice on real-world problems. Instead of just venting about work, try to seek answers that can help improve or solve the problem you’re facing there. Instead of just listening to music or a podcast, create a work of your own together.
For us, this often takes the form of discussing photography techniques we want to try, article ideas for this blog, or making mental progress on other projects like home improvement, financial goals, or how we can help other people we know with their problems. Regardless of what projects excite you, I can assure you that brainstorming about what you can do to improve yourselves and the lives of those around you is a lot more rewarding than just consuming another piece of media. When you engage in this type of conversation, you leave the car with a sense of satisfaction, not just relief.
My biggest tip for this is to designate someone who will take notes along the way. Remember, the key is to make tangible progress on tasks that matter to you, not just talk about them in passing. In our case, that typically means I’m the one to keep an organized list of action items (and sometimes even take care of some of them on the spot) while Steven drives.
Doing as I’ve suggested in all the previous examples will definitely help you learn, grow, and pass the time, but ultimately, doing some work — even on vacation — will leave you with a lasting sense of satisfaction if you’re passionate about it. It’s kept 10-hour car rides feeling more like only an hour or two.