Scary Mommy

13 Travel Games That Are Vastly Better Than “I Spy”

April 1, 2015 Updated July 21, 2020


Editor’s note: This article was written pre-COVID-19. When planning a vacation, please reference the latest CDC guidelines for travel.

Planning on lounging beachside for spring break? Sounds great, but first you’ve got to get there. Keep the troops occupied with a few games guaranteed to be more fun than the license-plate game.

1. Two Truths and a Lie (2+ players) Each player makes three statements. Two are true and one is a lie. The other players have to guess which is the lie. For adults, this is a good way to get a conversation going (it’s my favorite icebreaker at dinner parties), and for kids it’s a good way to get their imaginations going (and possibly spark some conversations as well). Did your husband do a brief stint as a Hell’s Angel and just never told you? Has your son been carrying on a correspondence with Betty White?

2. Hanabi (2-5 players, ages 6ish and up) Hanabi is a cooperative deduction game that uses a small deck of cards. The twist is that you hold your cards facing out—you don’t know what cards you hold. Players give one another clues as to what’s in their hands. They work together to make “fireworks,” or sets of numbers and colors, before time runs out. Hanabi won’t take up any space in your bag and is perfect for airport delays. $10 at Amazon.

3. Botticelli (2+ players) Guessing games usually make me fall asleep, one cheek pressed against the car window, drool adhering my face to the glass. But Botticelli is a two-way guessing game, so the clue-giver has something to guess too, rather than just robotically giving yes-or-no answers. To start: Player A thinks of a famous person—say, James Dean—and says, “I am a person whose last name begins with D.” And the other players take turns posing questions about (any) other famous persons whose last name begins with D. For example, Player B asks: “Are you a famous cartoon waterfowl?” And if the clue-giver says “No, I am not Donald Duck,” Player C is then allowed to ask a question (or Player B again, if there are only two people). If Player A can’t figure out that Player B is hinting at Donald Duck, he says “I give up” and must answer one yes-or-no question, like, “Are you alive?” (James Dean is dead, so, “no.”) In this fashion the two sides try to stump each other and Players B, C, etc., glean information about James Dean.

4. Six-Word Memoir (2+ players) Each player has to sum up his or her life in a memoir of exactly six words, like “Hey, Where’d These Kids Come From,” or “Don Henley Stole My Country Song.”

5. Twenty-Five Letters (2 players) A great pen-and-paper game for the airplane tray table. Draw a five-by-five grid (25 squares total) on two pieces of paper and give one to each player. The players take turns calling out letters, any letters, one at a time. You may repeat letters. You plot the letters wherever you want on your grid (keeping your grid concealed). Players try to make words. After 25 letters are called, count your words (formed vertically or horizontally). Five-letter words are 10 points, four-letter words are five points, and a three-letter word is three points. Words-within-words count twice, so “can” counts as a word, as do “scan” and “scant.”

6. Nocturnal Time Completely Lacking Noise. (2+ players) Think of a well-known song, like “Silent Night.” Then make up a synonym for each word. The first player to guess the song wins.

7. Expanda-Tic-Tac-Toe(2 players) The twist here is that the tic-tac-toe board can expand infinitely in all directions. Start with a regular 3×3 tic-tac-toe board. Then, on each turn, players can draw in and play a square outside the board, as long as the square is horizontally or vertically adjacent to a previously played mark (either his or his opponent’s). Whoever gets four in a row first wins.

8. Yikerz! (2+ players) This is a good game for the littlest gamers in your life—say, 3-6 years old—and it will fit in your pocket. It’s perfect either for an airplane tray table or while you’re waiting for your eggs at the hotel restaurant. Each player starts out with a handful of magnets. Players take turns placing them on the playing pad. If the magnet you place grabs any others, you have to take all the pieces it grabbed. (The object is to get rid of your magnets.) First one with no playing pieces wins. $14.99 at Amazon.

9. Famous Last Words (2+ players) Players take turns concocting outlandish “famous last words,” like, “Ho, hum, I think I’ll just lean over this piranha pit for a closer look…” And then everyone yells FAMOUS LAST WORDS!

10. Word Logic (2 players) Word Logic is both a word game and a deduction game. Player 1 writes down a secret five-letter word in which no letters are repeated, like other. Player 2 guesses any five-letter word, say, whack. Player 1 then reports how many of the letters, if any, in that word are in his secret word. (In this case, one, because h is in both whack and other.) Player 2 now knows that w,h,a,c, or k is in the word, and makes her next guess accordingly. Continue until Player 2 guesses the word, then switch. Whoever guesses the other’s word in the fewest tries wins.

11. Dots and Boxes (2 players) Draw a 4×4 grid of dots, for 16 dots total. Players take turns drawing a line from one dot to another. Each time a player closes a square, she marks her initial in it. At the end of the game, whoever’s captured the most boxes wins.

12. Coup (2-6 players) A commercial game with a jockeying-for-power political theme. Members of a powerful family—think Borgias or Medicis—are trying to accrue power for themselves and weaken the influence of other families. Each character has a certain power: to assassinate or to block assassinations, for example, plus some coins. Bluffing is encouraged—it doesn’t matter what powers you actually have, as long as the other players believe you have them. (This is a tabletop game, so good for airports or hotels, not so great for car trips.) $14 at Amazon.

13. Situation puzzles. These are the kind of puzzles that involve some kind of outlandish story, like, “A man goes into a restaurant and orders albatross soup. He takes one bite and bursts into tears. He runs out of the restaurant and tosses himself off a bridge. Why?” And then the other players have to ask yes or no questions to determine what happened—did the albatross soup trigger a memory of some kind? Stock up on a few of these before the trip by Googling “lateral thinking puzzles”—or check out page 122 of The Games Bible!