Road Trip Essential: The License Plate Game

the open road map and license plates

The road trip is a quintessential part of  the American psyche. The obsessive reading of websites planning a route, the mandatory overpacking, the defying of the known laws of physics to load the car, the excitement of seeing family and friends and the serendipity of going adventuring in places both imagined and unimagined—what’s not to love.

Many of us rely on She who Sees All and Knows All (Siri) to guide us to where we want to be. She would never allow us to be inconvenienced by middle of the night road construction because She will see it and She will re-route us around it. Technology is awesome but for those of us of a certain age, there’s a smidge of nostalgia for when we didn’t know the highway was at a standstill around the next bend. And also for the old timey adventure of finding places to eat and get gas, sometimes at the same time. But then again, while it is less charming, it is definitely also less challenging to the digestive tract to stop for dinner at a place with decent Yelp reviews.

We spend less drive time looking out windows and more time looking at screens now. We probably still sing as much now as we did then, although now we can choose from our iTunes playlists instead of making the best of whatever the static-enhanced AM radio gave us. If we want to sing Dancing Queen or Take it Easy or Uptown Funk over and over and over, we can. And we will.

Road trips may have changed, but one tradition is as strong now as it was in the days when cars had fins and rest areas had Howard Johnson’s restaurants and that is playing the License Plate Game. Back in the 60s and 70s when plates designs were two colors and maybe a motto, you could spot a state plate three lanes away. Now, not so much. Florida alone has 124 specialty plates. It adds a level of complexity and advantages the young with their sharp eyes to actually having to read the fine print on a plate before you can claim it for your tally.

It is very important to car harmony to delineate what the official rules of the License Plate Game will be for your trip before you hit the interstate. Like poker and solitaire, there are many variations on how the License Plate Game can be played. Therefore, we present…

A Survey of License Plate Games Rules

Governing body that determines the rules of the game: everyone in the car

Number of people who can play: limited only by the number of seats in the car or the number of cars in the caravan plus the number of players in those cars (excluding the driver) with texting abilities.

Objective: attempt to spot a license plate from all 50 states

Bonus objective: attempt to spot a license plate from all 13 Canadian provinces and territories

Materials: paper and pencil, tablet or phone, anything you can use to log your plates. Note: you can start with a blank sheet or a checklist of states, depending on desired level of competitiveness and complexity.

Play options: all-for-one-and-one-for-all, team play or every man for himself

Scoring: The simple option is a check mark for every state. More complicated scoring schemes can be developed involving the awarding of points based on criteria like distance, scarcity and even finer details if you are a competitive lot.

Variables to scoring: Players must determine eligibility of license plates: passenger vehicles only or anything on the highway with wheels. Agreement must also be reached on if vehicles must be in motion or if vehicles in parking lots are fair game.

Determining the winner, if there is to be a winner: Whomever spots the most plates from the most states first or before the destination is reached wins. Unless someone spots Hawaii. Anyone bagging Hawaii wins automatically. Play may continue, but it is for the title of runners up.

Wherever the road takes you this summer, we wish you lots of North Dakotas, Colorados and perhaps even a few Alaskas. If you like to play the game with a checklist, we’ve included a PDF just for you here:

The LicensePlateGAME!





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  1. I love this, and have started playing it with my grandsons. Now if I can teach the 4 year old to read those plates! It’s a game that never gets old either. And I love road tripping too!

  2. The License Plate game is a MUST-DO game while in the vehicle for any length of time. Switch it up with spotting the entire alphabet on road signs (in order) on the trip home. And for those shorter road trips, form words using the license plates that pass you by – longest word using the letters in the order they are in on the license plate, wins! Playing games like this is a fun family activity and it makes the “are we there yet?” questions less frequent. Thanks for the handy checklist – I think we need to make a road trip now…

  3. How fun! I use to read out loud EVERY sign I seen. My parents were entertained for a while but I remember them eventually telling me to read to myself so they could “hear themselves think”. Ha!

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