Books are wonderful. They smell good. They feel good in your hands. They can transport you to other places. Some books can even encourage you to really go to places you might have told yourself are too foreign or too scary or just too far off the beaten path. These books inform, entertain, and inspire. They show that the world isn’t quite as frightening as others might have you believe. They tell you how to accomplish the travel you’ve been dreaming of. How to leave it all behind and travel with only a backpack. How to pinch pennies without cutting back on experience. How to adapt to foreign gender roles. Or maybe just how to find the good parties while abroad.
There are hundreds of great travel books that can steer you toward your travel goals. But this year, at this moment in my life, these are the five that I would recommend to any woman dreaming of travel:
- Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
When I began thinking of authors to include in this list, I imagined they’d all be women. After all, plenty of women are travel writers, and they’re good at it. But this is the book that has inspired me since I bought a used copy on a whim years ago. In it, writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer tells the story of Chris McCandless, a young college graduate who left material worth and a well-cultivated future behind for an adventure to the Alaskan wilderness. Krakaur was assigned the story for Outside, but was so fascinated that he later wrote this book, weaving together flashes of McCandless’ travels and excerpts from the books and letters that ‘Alexander Supertramp’ found inspiration in. McCandless’ story ends tragically, but his journey speaks of the desire to live minimally, to get back to the land, and to really connect with the people you meet on the way. If you’ve daydreamed of leaving it all behind, bonding with people you never thought you’d meet, and looking for a deeper purpose, this is the book for you. Although McCandless’ trail may have been just a little too far off the beaten path, it can inspire you to travel spontaneously; to drop the schedule and be an explorer rather than a tourist.
- The Best American Travel Writing 2013 edited by Elizabeth Gilbert
This choice feels a little like cheating because it’s a collection of 19 excellent authors, but after picking it up, I couldn’t put it down – every story was enchanting, hilarious, captivating. Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat Pray Love, clearly put a lot of consideration into which stories to showcase and how to organize them. Beginning with her hilarious and relatable introduction about the frustrating and beautiful process of travel writing, Gilbert leads the reader through stories from The New Yorker, Outside, The Paris Review, and more. A few favorites are Kevin Chroust’s memoir of running with the bulls in Pamplona (invigorating and beautifully written), Colleen Kinder’s story about trying to “beige out” in the streets of Cairo, and Marie Arana’s “Dreaming of El Dorado,” which humanizes the extreme poverty of La Rinconada in Peru by telling the story of a little girl who dreams of getting an education. Books like this are perfect for when you have the travel bug but no specific destination in mind; you finish this one feeling a little more cultured, a bit more observant, and a lot more inspired.
- Vagabonding by Rolf Potts
I know, another male author. But this book was a wonderful surprise; it’s loaded with advice for improvising and pinching pennies at every stage of travel, gives excellent tips on saving up money, and adds inspiring quotes all in a steady format with tip sheets and what the author calls “vagabonding profiles” on renowned travelers. Potts writes, “vagabonding begins the moment you stop making excuses, start saving money, and begin to look at maps with the narcotic tingle of possibility.” This isn’t the book for a tourist or someone looking on the best advice for packing a suitcase. This is the book for explorers who want to leave the suitcase behind in favor of a backpack. It’s a minimalist’s manifesto, taking the most daunting aspects of traveling – planning, saving, and spending wisely – and making them exhilarating; making the waiting and planning part of the adventure. The practical advice, the websites and budget ideas and reading lists, are so interwoven with Potts’ beautiful writing that you can be sure it’s not like any guide you’ve read before. For tips on female travel – that go beyond dressing conservatively and victim-blaming – and a reading list for more guidance on the subject, read the section “Female Vagabonders” in Chapter 6. 1
- Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman
Gelman describes herself as a “modern-day nomad.” She doesn’t have a permanent address, and she travels where she pleases, living among the locals and learning from women all over the world. She lives a life many would-be travelers dream of. Tales is the book that tells how she made that happen. It begins with her marriage crumbling and a spontaneous, near-disastrous trip to Mexico. From there, she takes the reader to Guatemala, Nicaragua, Israel, the Galápagos Islands, Indonesia, New Zealand, Thailand, Canada and back to the United States. For the woman who dreams of travel but is afraid of leaving her life behind, Gelman is an inspiration. She doesn’t leave her children nor her career; she makes stronger bonds, builds relationships, and shows her reader that with a little courage and a stellar sense of humor, nomadic life isn’t nearly as impossible as you might think.
- Off Track Planet’s Travel Guide for the Young, Sexy, and Broke by Freddie Pikovsky and Anna Strarostinetskaya
This clever guide is everything the intrepid young world traveler-to-be could want. It’s broken into three parts about getting inspired, planning, and giving back. Part One describes the best spots on the globe for extreme sports, partying, food, and more – places from Canada to Ukraine to Argentina are explored in charming detail. It’s designed to let anyone with the travel bug narrow down exactly where they’d like to go. The second part of the book might be the most helpful for the not-so-boring details; the authors cover everything from safe sex to packing your backpack, making sure their readers are realistic as well as excited. Part Three suggests some excellent organizations that need help; readers can find a way to provide clean water, work with kids, or busk for bears. For me, the mouthwatering segment on France in the Food chapter was particularly fun to read.
These are my favorite five travel books of the moment, but countless others can inspire and advise. Tell me what you think of these or leave your suggestions in the comments section!