Road to (almost) nowhere: What to do when you can’t get out of the car


Sometimes, road trips don’t have to have a destination. What can you do in the car when you don’t have anything to DO, anywhere to BE but just be in the car? Taking a drive, in and of itself, could be a fun activity for your family. Whether you don’t want to spend money or wake a sleeping baby or you just want to just drive to the really good drive-thru burger place that just happens to be three hours away, we’ve got a few tips for making Going For A Drive an Actual Activity, rather than just a way to get from Point A to Point LITERALLY ANYWHERE ELSE.

But! Before we get into the fun stuff you can do in a car, a quick (obvious) reminder that you need to abide by basic rules of the road. Wear your seatbelts, only licensed and insured drivers get behind the wheel and absolutely no texting while driving. You can follow some of our basic tips to get the best gas mileage you can, but you don’t technically have to wear shoes while you do it. If you’ve got two (or more) licensed and insured drivers in your family, take turns at the wheel: Someone can drive “there,” (though again, not all of these drives have actual destinations), and someone else can drive “back.”

And one friendly reminder: You (or your passengers) don’t have to document any of the below for social media. You can just enjoy the time with your family. 

Ready to play? Let’s go.


Look, stuff! 
If you have children, you know how satisfying a scavenger hunt can be for them – even in their own backyard or their own block, kids love a good look-and-find moment. Depending on the age(s) of your kid(s), make a visual scavenger hunt or a written list of things you may (or may not) pass on your drive. You can also download, create or buy Car Bingo boards. In addition to the stuff you’ve probably already thought about including on such a list, depending on where you live (Stop sign! Billboard! Airplane! Cow!), we’d like to add:

  • Remnants of rotting jack-o-lanterns
  • Person wearing a hat
  • Person wearing the wrong hat for the season
  • Person wearing sunglasses
  • Car held together with duct tape
  • A full rainbow of house colors, or a house that is painted like a rainbow
  • Sign with moveable letters that says something inspiring
  • Sign with moveable letters that is missing letters/has been rearranged to something naughty

Where are we?
Drive to the houses where you or your parents grew up, drive past houses or buildings that are featured in your favorite movies or TV shows, drive past abandoned amusement parks, drive past airports and watch the planes without leaving your car. Some light Googling will take you where you need to go to find everything from Walter White’s house (please do not throw pizza on the roof, we beg you) to the frontage where Kevin McAllister was, famously, Home Alone.


Turn the radio UP
Ok, it doesn’t have to be the radio. The list of things you (and/or your loved ones) can listen to in the car is borderline infinite:

  • Podcasts: for kidsfor familiesfor Gilmore Girls stans, for everybody. 
  • Audiobooks: Your local library or your not-local Amazon can help you access them, or services like Scribd.com or Libro.fm can get you started, too. Via Libro, you can buy audiobooks from your local bookstore – check your bookstore’s website to see if they’re hooked up for that.
  • Playlists: On every music streaming service for every kind of road trip, or you can make your own. May we suggest the “feud format” playlist, where you alternate songs between two bands or artists and everyone in the car determines who rocks more?
  • Singalongs: Oh, have you not explored the available karaoke tracks on music streaming sites as thoroughly as we have? You’re WELCOME. Roll down the windows and Let It Go.

Listen, words!
There’s a whole catalog of games you can play using your memory, the alphabet, license plates you pass or just … your brains. Play a round of “We’re going on a road trip …” where the driver starts with something they’re bringing, and the next passenger says that item and their own, then the third says those two things and their own … you get it. You can make the game follow the alphabet, or the alphabet backwards or even bring a die with letters on it (remember Scattergories?) and make each person roll a letter before they start. 

Make up phrases that other cars’ license plate letters stand for (JIR = Jim isn’t right! MRX = Monkeys rock xylophones!), and then make up stories about the people driving the cars that incorporate those phrases. Keep it going as you pass new cars. And while you may be thinking, isn’t this just an elaborate improv game? To that, we say: Yes, and!?

No, seriously, play the quiet game. Bribe your children to play the quiet game by offering a drive-thru milkshake or a lollipop or first dibs on the bathroom when you finally get home to the person who stays quiet the longest. We especially recommend this for older kids when you’ve got a napping baby or toddler in the backseat and when the person in the passenger seat just wants to zone out for a little while.


The tiniest tailgate
In the event that you must have a destination, why not go somewhere you’d usually exit the car and be stuck in a crowd, but maybe there’s a global pandemic or it’s the off-season! Parking lots or access roads near your favorite professional stadiums or concert halls, scenic natural vistas, some of the spots listed above under “Where Are We?” (not an occupied private home, don’t be a monster!) – these are all great spots to pop the trunk of your car, sit in the back and eat a picnic you packed yourself. It beats your kitchen table/sofa, and it gets you out of the house.

Unconventional drive-thrus
Though the landscape of drive-thru establishments across the country is not especially varied, there are some unconventional meals, services and tasks you can experience without leaving the comfort of your car.

In New Orleans, you can drive-thru at the DBC Bar & Grill to get cocktails (to take home!), and across Florida, Farmstores will shop for you while you wait in the car, and bring your order out to you. In Memphis, Tenn., Smartmart has done away with human staff and created a drive-up automat for your convenience. If you need some of that old-school roller skate soda fountain service (or what passes for it these days), the internet’s got you covered with some great lists of the nation’s best drive-ins (not -thrus!).

Churches around the country offer drive-in services, where you park, tune your radio to an FM station, and listen in to the signal being broadcast from the chapel within. Outside of San Francisco, you can find a drive-thru tree park, where you can get close to nature without, you know, touching it (::shudder::). In Westerville, Ohio, the public library features a drive-thru book pickup!

When in doubt: Fast food
But why get fancy when you can just get loaded up with fast food? See who in your car (assuming everyone has decent fine motor skills/you aren’t off-roading) can make the best french fry dipping sauce out of available condiments. Hit 4-5 different fast-food joints and have a taste test of nuggets, burgers or fries. Order a “Sproke” or “Dr. Dew” or some other disgusting combo of sodas and see what tastes the best/worst. Order one thing on a menu that nobody in the car has ever tried. There are a lot of ways to make your standard burger chain visit a little more interesting. 

And home before dark
Even if grandmother’s house isn’t the destination, you can still road trip over the river and through the woods, and then just come back under the highway and past the lake. It can be a lovely way to spend a few hours with your family, away from screens – you’ll notice we didn’t mention any in-vehicle movie-watching – and maybe even getting some fresh air. Buckle up and enjoy the road!

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