These 9 Books Make Great Travel Companions

by Mary Ellen Dingley

A book is a perfect travel companion; they don’t run out of battery and don’t need charging, they won’t be stolen out of your pocket while in an unfamiliar city, and they won’t judge you if you haven’t been able to shower in a while. But of course, if you’re like me, you want to pack so many books that you end up needing a kindle to save your back and the overweight baggage fees, and then you do have to worry about charging…whoops!

Stack of books at beach

Books can be the best travel companions.

Books can also give you added insight into the places you travel to. Whether you are going to work or study abroad for six months, or just popping in for a weekend, a book can bring a whole new level of understanding and perspective to your trip. So before your next trip consider bringing along these books to read while traveling...

1. A book that makes you feel brave and adventurous.

Going somewhere new can be a little scary, and travel is sometimes exhausting. When you are feeling nervous and tired, pick up a book that reminds you of how brave you are, a book that sweeps you up into adventure and let’s you know that you made the right choice when you stepped onto that plane. I recommend reading this book on the plane, train, or bus itself, or while waiting in the airport. It will keep you pumped and motivated for the adventure you’re on!

Suggested titles: The Hobbit, Life of Pi, Treasure Island, Hatchet, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Around the World in 80 Days, The Twenty-One Balloons, The Bean Trees

2. A book considered a classic in your host country.

The classic literature of a country can tell you a lot about their culture and their history. Who can picture England without thinking of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or the works of Charles Dickens? Find out what is considered a classic, maybe it’s taught in schools, or the author is a national hero, or it was super controversial when published; then find a copy in a language you are comfortable reading (Hint: check reviews to find the best translation!). This will also give you a great conversation starter with locals, since most people are familiar with their country’s classic books. Just drop in an allusion to it in conversation and see their eyes light up (or see them get annoyed because they were forced to read it in school and hated it. That’s a risk you’ll have to take).

Suggested titles (varies by country of course): Anna Karenina (Russia), The Divine Comedy (Italy), Faust (Germany), Independent People (Iceland), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Colombia), Madame Bovary (France), The Odyssey (Greece), Ali and Nino (Armenia and Georgia),The Recognition of Sakuntala (India), Don Quixote (Spain), Death in the Andes (Peru), Short Stories by Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina)

Don Quixote statue

Books considered “classics” in different countries teach about national culture and history.

3. A book that will comfort you in an unfamiliar environment.

Find a copy of that book that always makes you smile or calms you down after a stressful day. Probably not your dog-eared and much beloved copy, leave that one in a safe space at home. There’s no shame in rereading a book, as Gail Carson Levine (who wrote Ella Enchanted perhaps my most reread book) said:

There's nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over. When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you've read only once can't.

Going on a new adventure can take all of your energy, and after a long day of newness you might just want something familiar, something that feels like home. Maybe it’s what you read as a young teenager or a child, or maybe it’s a more recent read whose happy ending makes your heart melt.

Suggested titles: Little Women, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, David Copperfield, Fangirl, The Giver, Holes, Bridget Jones’s Diary

4. A book that is your favorite YA book in your host country’s language.

This is a great way to learn a new language! Pick a book that you’ve read before (multiple times works best), that’s at an easy enough reading level. You could also choose your “comfort book” for this. Find it in your host country’s language and now you have a fun way to work on your language skills! You can pick up fun new vocabulary this way, and keep your mind sharp. And because you’ve read the book before, you won’t be too bogged down when you encounter a word you don’t know, because the context will help you out. It’s also always interesting to see what translates cross culturally and what doesn’t, and this can provide great insight into your host culture.

Suggested titles (to find translated): Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Paper Towns, Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles), Eleanor and Park, The Truth About Forever, Ender’s Game, The Book Thief, The Maze Runner

Stack of Harry Potter books

Pick up your favorite YA book in the local language

5. A nonfiction book about your host country.

A good nonfiction book from a local perspective or an immersed foreigner can bring great depth to your time in a new country. You can choose something that gives a generalized and sweeping idea of the country or a book that focuses in on one aspect, such as culture, politics, or art; it could be a biography of an important figure or a story of an immigrant who has adopted the host country as their new home.

Books on history are especially important; the history of a nation directly effects the present, and understanding the tensions, nuances, and flows of time in your host country will help you understand a lot more. It doesn’t have to be a dusty tome of a textbook. There are so many fun history books on the bestseller lists right now that combine history with adventure travel! But if history isn’t your thing, maybe food, music, or the environment is.

Pick up a good book and immerse yourself.

Suggested Titles: Bread and Ashes: A Walk Through the Mountains of Georgia (Georgia), An Image of Africa (African Nations), The Gulag Archipelago (Soviet Union), Reading Lolita in Tehran (Iran), The Bookseller of Kabul (Afghanistan), Behind the Beautiful Forevers (India), We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (Rwanda), Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (Balkans)

6. An extra copy of your favorite book from your region to give away.

Now that you’ve done a lot of research into books of other nations, think about the book that, to you, best encapsulates where you are from. Maybe it’s just a book you really like, maybe it’s a novel that really captures the flavor of your culture, maybe it’s the book that you were forced to read during high school and whined about, but now you love it. Whatever it may be, find a paperback copy and bring it along to give away as a gift! You could give it to a fellow traveler you meet on the road or trade it at the book swap at your hostel. You could give it to your host family or to fellow English teachers. This isn’t just a nice gesture, but a great way to start a cultural exchange and share a little of your home. Write a note inside the book and pass it along, who knows where it will end up!

Suggested Titles: Cloudstreet (Australia), Here is New York (NYC), East of Eden (California), To Kill a Mockingbird (Southern USA), Watching the English (England), The Handmaid’s Tale (Canada), Why New Orleans Matters (New Orleans), The Bone People (New Zealand), Their Eyes Were Watching God (Southern USA)

Poem written on side of house

Poets can carry powerful thoughts about their country.

7. A book of poetry from the host country.

Poetry reaches the soul, the depths of a feeling or a moment, and in many cultures, memorizing and reciting poetry is an important part of their cultural education. Of course, poetry is hard to translate and finding a good translation can be difficult, but if you aren’t at the place where you can appreciate poetry in your non-native tongue, a translation it will have to be. Reading some of the poetry of your host country will put you in touch with some of the artistic sentiments of a place, and give you a new perspective.

Suggested Poets: Frank Chipasula (Malawi), Rumi (Afghanistan/Persia), Pablo Neruda (Chile), Octavio Paz (Mexico), Federico Garcia Lorca (Spain), Charles Baudelaire (France), Hermann Hesse (Germany/Switzerland), Margaret Atwood (Canada)

8. A modern bestseller by a local author in your host country.

What is the book that people are talking about in your host country right now? What is being reviewed in their newspapers or discussed over drinks? Find out and get yourself that book! It might be difficult to find anything too recent translated, but if it’s a bestseller you have a good chance. Or just go back a few years. Everyone will be impressed with how hip and relevant you are and the effort you are taking to delve into their modern culture. This will help you see the themes and ideas currently in vogue to your host country. Of course, a lot of time the bestseller in a country was not written by a local author (I mean, Harry Potter was a bestseller in just about every country…), but seeing what is popular will still bring you insight!

What is resonating with people right now? What is thrilling them or amusing them? Also, you’ll probably just enjoy the read!

 Suggested Titles: Norwegian Wood (written in Japan, but wildly popular in China and Europe as well), 2 States: The Story Of My Marriage (India), All That I Am (Australia), The Green Tent (Russia), Girl on the Train (by a British author, but a current best seller in many countries)

Little girl reading Beauty and the Beast

Childhood favourites make great comfort books abroad.

9. A travel book that makes you laugh.

Sometimes traveling is frustrating and hard. Maybe you missed your bus, or lost your wallet, or forgot the word for “bathroom.” On those days, you need to be reminded that you aren’t the only one with a bad travel experience. Pick up a lighthearted travel book and indulge in a hearty laugh over other travelers’ mishaps! It will help you relax and put everything into perspective and help you remember why you went abroad in the first place. And maybe your cheery disposition will make others want to befriend you!

Suggested titles: Anything by Bill Bryson. Really, anything. Notes from a Small Island made me laugh out loud on an airplane. A Walk in the Woods is golden too, but all of his work is hilarious. Others - Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (Europe),  Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer (all over).

Pick up some of these travel books today, whether to take on your next trip or to inspire you as you plan one! Make sure you check out local used bookstores for some great deals too. The great thing about buying a book, especially for travel, is that if you ever reread it in the future it will bring back all the excitement of your travel memories, like a tiny portal into the past. 

Let literature be your support, comfort, and eye-opening guide as you head out into the world!