Part of the tool belt of any traveler is a good book. Long bus, train, or plane rides can get pretty boring and can give you a lot of “dead” time if you haven’t mastered the art of the 10-hour blank stare.
While traveling, I always enjoy reading books about travel, exotic locations, and living your dreams. It makes me feel good about what I’m doing, and keeps me dreaming of different places. Even if you aren’t traveling, a good travel book can help motivate you to get out there.
Here are some of the best travel-related books that keep us dreaming:
The Alchemist — A story about following your dreams, this is one of the most-read books in recent history. It’s sold 65 million copies and has been printed in 150 languages. The story follows a young shepherd boy from Spain to Egypt as he follows his heart, goes with the flow, learns to love, and learns the meaning of life. The book is filled with amazing quotes, like my favorite, “If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man… Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now.”” It’s one of those books that makes you feel good to be alive. It’s a quick read, in part because it is only 167 pages, but also because you can’t put it down. And once you do, you’ll pick it up again.
On the Road – Written in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic is a classic travel novel. Kerouac’s character’s (who he modeled after himself) frustration, desire to see the world, and adventures resonate with all of us who need a little relief from modern life. The story follows his character, Sal, as he leaves New York City and heads west, riding the rails, making friends, and partying the night away. He finds thrills, adventure, love, sex, drugs, poverty, and excitement while moving from a weak character into someone whose life experience brings confidence. It’s a true American classic.
Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? — A book about the underbelly of travel writing, Thomas Kohnstamm caused a firestorm of controversy with the publication of this memoir. His story of freebies, plagiarism, and subsequent interviews sent the travel writing world into a frenzy and caused some serious ulcers at Lonely Planet. Despite the debate, it’s actually a good book. Smart, witty, and seriously funny, the book follows the author’s first writing gig for Lonely Planet and all the mishaps, sex, and drugs that went with it. It will have you laughing throughout.
Unlikely Destinations — Written by the founders of Lonely Planet, this tome chronicles the start and rise of the company whose guidebook is in your backpack right now. The story follows them from when they set out from England in the 1970s to the beginning of the 21st century. In between, you hear all their travel tales and learn about their early business struggles. You’ll also see a lot of other familiar travel names pop into their story. While the book drags in some parts, it is ultimately a fascinating read about the company that helped start the travel guidebook industry and forever changed how we travel.
The Beach — Alex Garland’s tale about backpackers and their search for paradise can be found all over the streets of Asia. Following Richard and his quest to “do something different” in Thailand, we see the backpacker’s desire to explore and find new places, but never really completely. The book is part adventure and partly an exploration of why we always search for these utopias and the consequences of that quest. It was turned into a movie featuring Leonardo DiCaprio. The book is very different, with a different ending, different characters, and even a different love story.
Oracle Bones — Written by Peter Hessler, this novel about China spans the late 90s and early 2000s. It gives a fascinating look at many aspects of China, from its culture to its politics to its food. The author lived in Beijing for years, and his observations into daily life are insightful. He befriends an Uyghur, one of China’s ethnic minorities, and the storyline gives a lot of insight into how China treats some of its lower-class citizens. This book is thick, and while not a beach read, it will certainly give you a lot of information about the world’s rising dragon. We often think of China as monocultural, but this book clearly shows you it’s not.
Smile When You’re Lying — Written by the slightly jaded Chuck Thompson, this book is a humorous criticism of the travel writing industry. Chuck Thompson rails against the gloss of travel magazines, overused euphemisms, and the Lonely Planetization of the world. He argues that all those travel magazines are nothing but glorified brochures. All the good stories – and he includes quite a few of his own (my favorite was his story of getting robbed by Thai school girls) – don’t get included. Sometimes the book meanders all over the place, but it nevertheless kept me laughing all the way through.
Vagabonding — Written by the godfather of vagabonding, Rolf Potts, this book is a must-read for those new to long-term travel. Rolf spent 10 years on the road (he even walked across Israel). This book contains valuable insights, quotes, and a lot of practical information for the first-time vagabond. From saving to planning to life on the road, this is a must for newbies. It’s an inspirational book and, while an experienced traveler might not get much practical information from it, it’s a good affirming read. The practical advice here will also really help on your trip.
Seven Years in Tibet – Originally published in 1953, this classic tells the tale of Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s 1943 escape from British India, his trek across the Himalayas, and his stay in Tibet. Warmly welcomed, he became the tutor to the young Dalai Lama. He vividly recounts Tibetan traditions and customs that were little-seen or known by people in the outside world. Tibet was relatively unknown then, and Harrer tells of a world destroyed by the Chinese invasion of 1950, which forced Harrer to leave. The book is a great insight into Tibet as it used to be.
In A Sunburned Country — It’s hard to pick just one book by Bill Bryson that’s good, because they all are. He’s one of the most prolific and recognized names in travel writing. This book chronicles a journey through Australia. It takes you from east to west, through tiny little mining towns, forgotten coastal cities, and off-the-beaten-path forests. Bryson includes lots of trivia information in his tale as he travels around in awe – and sometimes in fear (box jellyfish, riptides, crocs, spiders, and snakes) – of this enormous country. This is one of my favorite books, and it inspired me to go to Australia.
The Motorcycle Diaries – This is the story of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s eight-month motorcycle journey across South America as a 23-year-old medical student in 1951-52. The book (recently turned into a movie) mixes observation, adventure, and politics. Guevara left home with a doctor friend of his, and this eight-month motorcycle trip was the start of his path towards becoming a revolutionary. He explores Inca ruins, visits a leper colony, and helps miners and farm workers. His time with the underclass kindled his desire for political change.
The Geography of Bliss — Writer and NPR correspondent, Eric Weiner set out on a yearlong journey to find the world’s happiest places. He heads to places like Iceland, Qatar, Denmark, India, and Moldova (the world’s most unhappiest place) on his quest and while he never finds the secret to happiness, his journey makes for an amazing and lighthearted read. In trying to answer the question “what makes a society happy?”, Weiner has some amazing interactions with locals and cultural experiences which is what really make the book interesting. It’s one of my favorite travel books.
The Lost Girls — Written by the infamous Lost Girls (Amanda, Holly, Jen) about their trip around the world, this book is great inspiration for people looking to quit their day jobs and go travel the world. It’s especially encouraging for females who are worried about leaving their jobs or traveling around the world. The book chronicles their journey and is a good look at what it is like to travel with friends, not kill each other, and come back as stronger friends.