I was a handful growing up while travelling. One of my earliest memories was travelling to Florida to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins. I remember the neon lights from each town. This was before the days of interstate highways, actually before when they were authorized by President Eisenhower in 1956. My father volunteered to use his truck, normally hauling turkeys from our farm to the markets, to move my aunt’s household goods to Cocoa, Florida where they had just moved. My Dad placed me on a pile of pillow in the middle of the cab and he and my mother sat on either side. They figured that they could make better time at night and I would sleep through the night. You see, I was one year old. I didn’t sleep at all. Each time I was ready to drift away, another town came along with fresh neon lights.
It wasn’t very long until my parents scheduled a trip to Utah to visit an uncle there. I may have been in kindergarten at the time. Still, there were no interstate highways, at least no completed ones. We might have travelled a little on the first official section of I-70 in Kansas, but probably not.
My parents suggested that I play the license plate game on the trip to Utah. They told me to find the tags on the cars and see if I could find all 50 states. I mostly recognized different state tags. I wasn’t reading yet. On two-lane roads, the game was frustrating. Less than half of the states had tags in the front and you only saw one license plate in front of you until my father had a chance to pass. The game really came alive when on two-lane roads when you stopped for a meal, gas, or the motel at night.
In spite of these frustrations, I have been playing the license plate game for about 60 years. I may have driven over a million miles. That is a lot of license plates.
The License Plate Game – Basic Rules
When you see a license plate from a state, make note of it. Keep track of the different states that you’ve seen. With smaller children, they have magnets that can be purchased to help you keep track. You can write them down. You can have an atlas and check them off in the table of contents. I prefer picturing the map of the states in my mind. Depending on which states that I have found, I’ll travel in my mind’s eye from Maine to Florida and then west or from Alaska and Hawaii and travel east. It takes a basic grasp of US geography to do that.
The Grown-Up Rules
Okay, I have applied some rules to my game as an additional challenge. You can accept or reject them.
I never count vehicles registered in the state where I am currently driving. For example if driving through Pennsylvania, I don’t accept Pennsylvania license plates. What is the challenge in that?
I eliminate interstate hauling trucks. You may have a semi with a tractor from Nebraska and a trailer from Mississippi. Who knows, maybe the driver is from Kansas. The trucks that I will accept are work trucks (welding, high voltage line repair, etc.). These trucks are more likely to be from the state of their registration and working a contract in another state.
I eliminate rental trucks. One popular rental company registers all of their trucks in Oklahoma. Another company registers most of their vehicles in Arizona. Those tags don’t mean anything regarding where it came from or where it’s going. I will accept the car that the truck may tow.
The same could be said for rental cars, but there is no way of telling. Most rental car companies have removed the obvious decals of the company. This stems from Germans travelling to Miami and being attacked due to the rental car decals identifying them as travelers. The gang of thieves figured that cars with rental decals might have valuables and cash. I don’t know why the victims were mostly Germans, but that got stuck in my mind from the news reports. To illustrate how odd rental car travelling can be, I recently rented a car in Pennsylvania with Georgia license plates and travelled to Nebraska. I have probably rented one hundred or more cars from Pennsylvania locations and less than half have had Pennsylvania license plates. In the 90s at O’Hare airport in Chicago, one rental car agency only had Indiana registered cars (actually registered at South Bend, IN), avoiding the higher tax rates for Illinois.
If you have competition going in the car, let one side find tags on pick-up trucks, minivans and SUVs while the other side looks for automobiles. If one side gets too far ahead, switch the vehicle type.
If travelling in one state only, try to find all of the variations of tags for that state. Most states have a variety of personalized tags. Many states offer donations to a specific cause for license plates that advertise that cause, like breast cancer awareness, wildlife protection, education initiatives, etc. With this type of variant, you’ll need to write them down.
Of course, license plate poker is a different game entirely.
The first thing to consider is the travelling speed. I try to stay within about five miles of the speed limit. This means that on interstate highways, I am being passed by most of the vehicles on the road, and I will pass most of the trucks that are carrying a load, especially climbing hills. As cars pass, it is important to keep an eye on the vehicle, thus I can recognize the state license plate while performing a safety check.
I have been tempted to speed up when I didn’t recognize a tag. Don’t do it! It is probably just an alternate license plate of the state that you are in. I have been passed by a Florida car when driving from Florida into Georgia, keeping up with the car long enough to see the car pass into Georgia. Speeding to accomplish this is silly. Pull into the Welcome Center, and there will probably be ten Florida cars parked there.
Chasing a car to read a tag is foolish. Oklahoma came out with a new license plate recently. I was seeing a blue and white tag and never could read it. It was frustrating. Then, while riding the ferry from the Bolivar Peninsula to Galveston Island in Texas, I saw the tag on another car on the ferry. Safety wins.
Socioeconomic Aspects to the License Plate Game
This story is not from the US, but it illustrates my point. I first travelled to Thailand in 1997. The place where I was working was south of Bangkok between the cities of Chon Buri and Pattaya. The traffic to our hotel in Pattaya was horrible, even at midnight when we arrived. It was gridlock until we were out of the city of Bangkok. The traffic each day to and from work was horrible. It was worse than rush hour in the States. After two weeks, my work was complete, but I returned to the same location the following year. There was no gridlock, but a little traffic leaving Bangkok. There were hardly any cars on the road going to and from work each day. After about six weeks, we went home, not because the work was completed, but because the customer had filed for bankruptcy. All of Southeast Asia was suffering from a financial collapse in 1998. No one could afford to drive a car, and there was less business travel.
Regardless of what the US media says about the economy’s health. You can tell the health of the economy by playing the license plate game. I have travelled from Washington, PA to Columbus, OH countless times over the past twenty years. I can usually find over twenty states in that part of I-70 in good times and maybe ten states in harder times.
On my recent trip to Nebraska, my return trip on I-80 from Council Bluffs to the Quad Cities (all travel in Iowa), I saw 32 different state license plates, not counting Iowa. The unemployment rates were lower. They had just lowered the price of gasoline. It was during the week of the 4th of July. If I took the trip in mid-June before the change of gasoline prices and removed from the holiday, I might not have seen half that many.
I took a trip last March from Pennsylvania to Texas. By the time I reached our destination, I had not found 32 different state license plates although I had travelled over 1400 miles to get there and travelled through eight different states. The economy had not rebounded. The gasoline prices were higher. While many schools had their spring break at that time, most schools were still in session.
All of these factors have an effect on the game. By the way, the Texas trip in March lasted a full month and I found 46 states (round trip). The trip to Nebraska was for a week and I found 47 states (round trip). Economy and summer holiday travel had more of an effect than the direction and the number of miles travelled.
States that are easy to find and States that are hard to find
Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, and California are usually easy to find regardless of what direction you travel. Florida isn’t fair. There are so many snow birds, Florida license plates can be found in most of the eastern states. The same may be said for Arizona when travelling out west. When I was growing up, New Jersey seemed to travel everywhere, but not as much anymore. The next tier beneath these states would include New York, Washington, Oklahoma, Colorado, Tennessee, and Georgia. Since most of my experience is travelling east of the Mississippi River, these observations would be quite different when travelling in the Mountain and Pacific Time zones.
Refer to the socioeconomic section and apply that to each state. Considering that, predominantly agrarian states will not travel much. Poorer states will not travel much, although some people in these states will follow contract work in construction and services. I have travelled through Arkansas on a trip from Pennsylvania to Texas without seeing an Arkansas license plate until five miles short of the Arkansas border. I have done the same thing with Mississippi, but within fifty miles of the border. On my recent trip to Nebraska, the first license plate that I saw when I reached I-79 in Pennsylvania was from Arkansas. Was the driver someone travelling to PA to find work or simply on vacation?
The size and population of the state also have a factor. When there are five states left to find on an extended trip, they will usually be Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware, North Dakota, and Hawaii. Hawaii is rare for obvious reasons. On the aforementioned Texas trip, Vermont, Rhode Island, North Dakota, and Hawaii were the four states missing. For the trip to Nebraska, the three missing states were Delaware, Hawaii, and Alabama (for some odd reason). Actually, Mississippi was the last license plate added to the list, within a hundred miles of home.
Where you travel makes a difference. If travelling in Florida you can be more successful at the game than travelling to a farm in Kansas. Think of National Lampoon’s Vacation and the quest to go to Wally World. Regardless of state economy, state businesses that produce tourists from outside the state, or population of the state, when you travel near a military base, or into one, you can find half of the states within a few miles. You might even find the rarely seen tags, even Hawaii.
Good travels and be safe.