I’ve been meaning to write about the best travel books for a long time but it was an overwhelming task as there are so many to choose from. To make it more manageable I’m going to break it down by category, mostly by destination as I love to read as much as I can about a place, both novels and non-fiction, before I visit.
I have already written about the best books to read before visiting Japan and South Africa, and today I’ll share my picks for the best travel memoirs.
Most of these travel memoirs are about long-term travel, so they are perfect if you are considering a big trip or making a major life change. Armchair travellers will enjoy these fun reads too. They are all written by women and show that it’s possible to travel whatever age you are and whether you are single, in a couple, or have children.
1) Love with a Chance of Drowning by Torre DeRoche
Australian Torre meets a handsome Argentinean in San Francisco and is swept off her feet. The problem is he’s about to set sail for the South Pacific on a small sailboat. Despite her seasickness and phobia of deep water, she decides to overcome her fears and join him on the exhilarating and terrifying voyage.
Love with a Chance of Drowning is a fun and inspiring read that made us want to buy a boat and explore the remote islands of the Pacific despite the challenges they faced. More than just a love story or travel memoir, it’s a story about living life to the full despite your fears.
See our interview with Torre about her travels and the process of writing and publishing a book.
2) The Worrier's Guide to the End of the World: Love, Loss, and Other Catastrophes—through Italy, India, and Beyond by Torre DeRoche
Torre’s sequel to Love with a Chance of Drowning is just as wonderful, funny and poignant. In The Worrier's Guide to the End of the World she is struggling with grief when she makes an inspiring new friend in Italy. Despite being entirely unprepared she joins her on a walking pilgrimage through Tuscany (heavenly) and India (shocking and challenging). It’s another uplifting story of facing fears and anxiety that I couldn’t put down.
3) How Not to Travel the World: Adventures of a Disaster-Prone Backpacker by Lauren Juliff
Lauren sets off on a typical backpacking trip around the world in her early 20s. The difference is she suffers from debilitating anxiety, is battling an eating disorder, and has led a sheltered life—never before even riding a bus or eating rice.
She hopes travel will change her life—and it does, but along the way she suffers a series of cringe-worthy disasters and hilarious mishaps. Despite these incidents and her ongoing fears, she continues to travel and stretch the limits of her comfort zone. It’s an entertaining read and a good lesson in how not to travel the world.
4) The Yellow Envelope: One Gift, Three Rules, and A Life-Changing Journey Around the World by Kim Dinan
Kim and her husband quit their jobs in Seattle to travel the world indefinitely. Before they leave friends give them a unique gift—a yellow envelope of money to give away on their travels to anyone who moves them. There are only three rules: don't overthink it; share your experiences; don't feel pressured to give it all away.
As they travel through Ecuador, Peru, Nepal, India and beyond it turns out to be harder than they expected and their relationship faces major challenges. The Yellow Envelope is an inspiring and honest book, as much about Kim's personal journey as the places they visit and the people they give to along the way.
5) Married with Luggage: What We Learned About Love by Traveling the World by Betsy and Warren Talbot
Married with Luggage is part couple travel memoir, part love story. It tells the story of how Betsy and Warren turned their relationship around from the brink of divorce, quit their corporate jobs, and sold everything they owned to travel the world at age 40.
It’s an honest, engaging, and entertaining book that I devoured in two days. I loved reading about their funny, embarrassing, and frightening adventures including storms in Antarctica, volcanoes in Ecuador, and living with Mongolians in a ger in the Gobi Desert. But the book is more than a travel tale. Along the way Warren and Betsy examined the issues they experienced in their relationship and shared the lessons they learned that have made them closer and stronger.
6) Mother Tongue: My Family's Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine Gilbert
For families and language lovers, Mother Tongue is an inspiring tale of Christine’s ambitious quest to learn Mandarin in Beijing, Arabic in Lebanon, and Spanish in Mexico, with a toddler and less-enthusiastic husband in tow.
Things don’t go quite how she planned—pollution in Beijing and political issues in Beirut force them to leave early and she doesn’t reach the fluency levels she hoped for. But it’s an interesting read with lots of research about language learning and shows how travel with kids is possible—she even has another baby while living in Mexico.
7) Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Wild probably needs no introduction as the book and film are now world famous, but I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it yet.
In her mid-20s Cheryl Strayed had lost everything—her mother died, her marriage fell apart, and she fell into a self-destructive life of drugs and sex. With nothing to lose she makes an impulsive decision to hike 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail along the west coast of America.
It’s a beautiful, brutally honest, and raw account of the mental and physical challenges she faces on the trail and how it ultimately healed her.
I also love the words of wisdom she shares in her book Tiny Beautiful Things and podcast Dear Sugars.
8) Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World by Rita Golden Gelman
At the age of 48 and on the verge of divorce, Rita sold her possessions and became a nomad. She lived in a Zapotec village in Mexico, slept with sea lions on the Galapagos Islands, observed orangutans in the rain forest of Borneo, visited trance healers and dens of black magic, and cooked with women on fires all over the world.
This isn’t a typical backpacker journey as Rita has a knack for really getting to know the people and culture of a place and it’s inspiring to see that it’s never too late to travel.
9) What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir by Kristin Newman
While the books above involve long-term travel, 30-something Kristin takes a different approach to exploring the world. While her friends are getting married and having children, she has no urge to settle down and takes short breaks between her jobs as a television writer for solo adventures.
Along the way she has steamy love affairs in Argentina, Israel, Brazil, Russia and beyond. It’s a hilarious and entertaining read, especially for women who don’t want to conform to society’s expectations.
10) Eat Pray Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
The book so many people love to hate! Well, I love Eay Pray Love and think you should ignore the snobbery and give it a go (even if you’ve seen the film). In her early 30s, Elizabeth Gilbert has everything you are supposed to want—a loving husband, beautiful house, and successful career—but she feels trapped and miserable.
She leaves it all behind to spend a year of self-discovery in three very different places—Italy, India and Bali. These are three of my favourite places so it’s no wonder that I love reading about her immersion in these cultures, the locals she meets, and the joy she finds along the way.
Where are the writers of colour?
As I finished writing this list I realised how white it is. While I have read and loved many travel books by black and Asian writers, they are usually focused on a particular place and I’ll share those in my destination book lists (like South Africa and Japan). Finding long-term travel memoirs by writers of colour is a more difficult task so I’d love to hear your suggestions. In the meantime, I’ve added these travel memoirs by black women writers to my reading list. There’s also Go Girl! a 20-year-old collection of travel stories by black women, but unfortunately it’s not available for Kindle.
I hope these travel books inspire your next trip! What are your favourite travel memoirs? Leave a comment below.
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