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How to create a road trip playlist that everyone will love

There are some unspoken rules when it comes to what plays through your speakers

Photo: Alexey Layeroff / Shutterstock

“If music be the food of love, play on!” says Duke Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. One could argue that music is not just the food of love, but of adventure, too. Long drives can do funny things to the brain, and that’s only amplified when crammed into close quarters with several other tightly-compressed humans. A good playlist can go a long way toward boosting the morale of the car, even when said car is stuck in traffic. Here are a few music-on-the-road rules to live by.

The driver makes the call (with caveats)

Generally speaking, the driver gets to decide what music is playing. This is because she or he has the most important job in the car: Keeping everybody out of harm’s way. So, it’s best for the driver to listen to music that will keep them focused, alert, and happy. But, there are some caveats…

  1. The driver should not pick music that will actively irritate everybody else in the car. The driver may love 15-minute accordion solos, but if it makes everybody else want to claw their ears off, then forgoing the polka mix will be a step toward ensuring intra-vehicular harmony.
  2. The driver must be magnanimous. In other words, a true diplomat. The driver can, and should, let others select music as well—the driver may even discover new favorites this way. But the driver also has veto power. If something is annoying or distracting to the driver, they get to nix it.

I asked my friend A.J., who does tons of road trips with his wife and three boys, what his strategy is. “It’s usually split pretty evenly with me being the final say,” he told me. “Most of the time there’s a compromise that we can all listen to and be happy. When it gets to be too rap-heavy, I usually pull the plug.”

Make the mix before you leave

If you want a complete playlist for your drive, make it before you leave—especially if you’re the one who’s going to be driving. You shouldn’t be adding or moving songs around while you’re behind the wheel, as that would compromise your primary duty: Getting everyone to the destination safely. Nearly every streaming music service lets you curate playlists and save them for later. But how do you know what to put into the queue? Read on, friend.

Plan a head and make a playlist before your road trip. Photo: Kaspars Grinvalds / Shutterstock

Know your (captive) audience

If you know who will be in your car, start building around the audience. Choose songs that you not only love, but ones that you think your friends and family will love, too. Consider what you know about their musical tastes and try to work around that.

The reverse is also true. If you know that one of your friends doesn’t like Abba, maybe save The Winner Takes It All for your post-drive shower. Compromise is crucial here. If you love country music but your friend doesn’t, maybe only play a few country tracks and spread them out over the course of the trip.

Match the music to the terrain

We’ll keep this part short—if you’re at a campground that has full bathrooms, then you probably don’t need to read this section (just don’t flush anything weird down the toilet and you’re generally fine). But as things start to get more rustic, it gets a little trickier. Again, do your research and find out what facilities are available and, if none, find out what the recommended techniques for disposing of human waste in that specific area are.

This approach is one of my personal favorites. If you have some strong associations between a musician and a place, chances are that others will have those associations, too. Personally, if I’m driving though Ojai, California, I have to listen to Johnny Cash. Driving through Memphis? Then Otis Redding it is. New York City? It’s Jay-Z, Biggie, Mos Def. You get the picture.

What music would best match this snowy view?
What music would best match this snowy view? Photo: Landscape Nature / Shutterstock

This can work with genres and types of terrain as well. If I’m driving through some steep, snow-capped mountains, I might pine after some swelling, epic classical music. Into the desert? Maybe something a little more edgy, like the Doors or Pink Floyd. Driving along a beach might make you want to listen to some surf-rock. For me, coming over the last hills before dropping into southern California gives me an insatiable craving for ‘90s West Coast rap. I can’t help it.

Match the music to the mood

Consider why you are taking this road trip. Are you going to a wedding? Then keep it light! Think happy, fun songs—jams that will get you in the mood for celebrating, laughing, and dancing.

Music is a great way to get your car ready for its destination. Photo: Monkey Business / Shutterstock

Something like a high school reunion road trip is easy. The night before you leave, take a little time and think about the songs you danced to at your senior prom, or the cheesy stuff that you used to sing in the shower when you thought nobody could hear you.

Going to the big game? Pick something that will amp up your whole car and have you ready to cheer on your favorite team.

Trust in robots

The world doesn’t run on time, and we aren’t always able to put together a playlist before we leave. Thankfully, virtually all streaming music services have gotten good at curating a playlist around the things you like. Most have a “radio” feature (though different services have different names for it) that allow you to input a song, an artist, or a genre, and a custom-curated playlist will be built around your pick. Don’t like a song that comes up? Hit next and it will adjust the list accordingly.

Keep in mind that the quality of the playlist can vary between services, and you may find your mix veering down an unwanted rabbit hole. If that happens, just give it a new starting point to work with. I’ve discovered a lot of new bands that I ended up really liking by using these auto playlists. When you hear a song you love, direct the app to play the album that it’s from and a whole new world of music might embrace you on the other side (hi, Adele).


Life on the road is unpredictable. You see things you didn’t expect, or experience situations, emotions, and interactions you couldn’t have predicted. Sometimes you’ve got to make it up on the fly. Thankfully, your passengers and co-pilot can help with that—while you keep your hands on the steering wheel.

I’ve made many playlists on the fly by choosing a starting song, and then watching how that song triggers different recommendations from others in the car. What started out as a fun, up-beat 90s song may evolve to something entirely different as your passengers choose another song, then another, and another. And while you may not be able to save this collaborative playlist as you go, there’s an ephemeral beauty in finding the right song for the right moment, knowing it will never be exactly the same again.

You never know what music you'll discover when your passengers take control
You never know what music you’ll discover when your passengers take control. Photo: Casezy idea / Shutterstock

Ultimately, there’s no single right way to keep you rocking on the road and guarantee that everybody in your car will be bobbing their heads with you, but these tips and tricks will go a long way. Maybe even all the way to your destination.