Last updated on January 16th, 2020
There are people who believe that discussing the merits of funny travel books is disrespectful. Culture, tradition, and customs are only meant to be appreciated and studied and should never appear in humorous books. But these people (often scholarly types who never travel) miss the point. No travel writer sets out to laugh at or mock other cultures. The travel writing genre is rooted in the observation of people and experiences, with the journey or country taking second place. Humour can be a way of dealing with difficult situations.
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According to Peter McGraw, an associate professor of Marketing and Psychology, humour only occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling, or threatening, but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable or safe. It would appear then that humour is the perfect weapon for exploring the differences between people, describing new situations in “strange” countries, and explaining feelings of discomfort in normal (for the locals) social situations.
Look at Bill Bryson. One of the greatest writers of all time in my opinion. His books on topics as seemingly mundane as houses, the English language, and walking, use humour to turn dry subjects into fascinating stories.
Paul Theroux, as much as I enjoy his work (and millions of others, it appears) is, well, a bit dry. He’s a deep thinker. And that’s not to say humorous writers are shallow. Writing a book that sells is hard enough and requires some level of intelligence. But funny travel writers can switch on the right and left sides of the brain at the same time. And that’s a skill I wish I had.
Something to remember about funny travel stories is that writers often embellish their stories. There’s no shame in this and it’s not seen as any kind of dishonest move. What’s better? A dead boring account of something that happened to you, or a hilarious version of the same story, albeit with some poetic license in the telling?
Most people don’t care about the truth in details. That’s why CNN, the National Enquirer, and Instagram influencers are so popular. Most of us know it’s fake, but many of us still consume the stories.
We want to hear funny travel experiences, not dry reports. We all enjoy travel stories that make us laugh.
Many travel books are about hardships and the trials and tribulations of navigating your way through a foreign city. When things go wrong, it’s not a lot of fun. But it makes for great stories. I wonder how many travel writers hope that things go wrong?
As the great Paul Theroux (a man not known for his particularly funny prose) once said, “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.” My own, less eloquent version of this is, “Travel is only funny when told to your mates in the pub back home.”
Here are my picks for the funniest books about travel ever written (or at least the ones I’ve read).
A Walk In The Woods
I could fill an entire blog post with books written by Mr Bryson, but for the sake of diversity, only two Bryson books make the list.
A Walk In The Woods is less a travel book and more a funny hiking book. For the reader, the place names and locations are lost in the details. But you will remember the struggles, discomfort, hilarious misfortunes, and personality quirks of the author and his companion as they walk the Appalachians. It’s a book about hiking and the pleasure and pains of being in the outdoors.
Don’t expect to learn useful travel tips. This is not a guide book. It’s a hilarious account of someone taking on the challenge of walking the Appalachian trail with a (possibly fictitious) companion. The dialogue will have you laughing at some of the most mundane things. Bryson’s descriptions of situations will make you cringe. Read this and weep (with tears of laughter).
That’s the trouble with losing your mind; by the time it’s gone, it’s too late to get it back.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Not a real travel book. (I’d point that out before anyone writes a strongly-worded letter to the editor)
A book that’s difficult to describe in less than a paragraph, The Hitchhiker’s Guide is a cult classic that every sci-fi geek and fan of the weird has read. The novel’s travel-related pop culture quotes and hilarious takes on the laws of physics, future technology, and the weirdness of the universe have become part of internet legend.
For example, the Babel Fish from the book is a fictitious organic version of many of the apps we take for granted today. Babelfish.com is a website that translates, just like Google Translate. Google translate helps us understand the world’s most popular languages and even some obscure ones. The difference (apart from the billions of investment behind it) is that Babelfish has a cool name.
Read Douglas Adams’s view of flying.
There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.
Think about that next time you’re sitting into your seat on the next plane.
Round Ireland with a fridge
There’s only one reason people take on frivolous but all-consuming challenges like walking around Ireland with a large kitchen appliance. That reason is to write a book about it and make millions. I doubt if author Tony Hawkes has banked a million from the book but I don’t knock him for trying. Humorous travel writing doesn’t have to be real, meaningful, or deep. It just has to make us laugh while introducing us to a part of the world we might not know. (This is a part of the world I know well but not from the point of view of an ambulant fridge minder).
So what’s it about?
In case you didn’t guess, Around Ireland with a Fridge is a travelogue with a difference. It’s the account of one man’s experience hitchhiking around Ireland with an enormous old refrigerator. All thanks to a drunken bet. And this is no modern appliance. It’s a monster of a fridge which makes the gimmick even more bizarre.
Without a doubt, everyone he meets is friendly, good-natured, and full of stories. That’s the fairytale image of Ireland and quite a lot of it is true. But the weirdness of the situation helped attract other interesting (weird) people to Hawke’s mission. Breaking the ice in any conversation is easy when you’re depending on strangers to transport you and your refrigerator around the country. I must say that breaking the ice in Ireland is an easy thing to do.
It’s the kind of book that makes you laugh when you least expect it. The most mundane situations turn out to be the funniest. And it’s a good companion to the next book.
This book generated more belly laughs than any of the others. It helps (a bit) to be Irish, as McCarthy’s observations of the Irish psyche are more hilarious when one realises how accurate they are.
Author Pete McCarthy sets off around Ireland intending to have a drink in every bar with his surname over the door. No mean feat, as there are a lot of bars (or pubs as they are locally called) in Ireland. And there are plenty of people called McCarthy. With over 7000 pubs, plus 2,5000 restaurants.
According to the Revenue department, there are quite a few businesses in Ireland licensed to sell alcohol and have trade names that include the “McCarthy”.
McCarthy is a man deeply in love with his ancestral homeland and it shows. He’s also an expert at crafting funny travel stories around mundane, ordinary things. Like going to a pub for a drink, for example.
As funny travel books go, this is one of the best.
I like reading in a pub rather than a library or study, as it’s generally much easier to get a drink.
Hokkaido highway blues
The book is twenty years old but little has changed in the human character. And that’s what this book is about. It’s less a tour of Japan, more a tour of the Japanese psyche.
While it’s not a love story to Japan, Hokkaido Highway Blues takes a reverent look at the Land of the Rising Sun from the passenger seat of cars, buses, and trucks as the writer hitches along the entire length of the country during cherry blossom season (Sakura).
According to WikiTravel, thumbing your way around Japan is the only true budget way to travel. Transport is expensive, particularly for tourists so relying on the kindness of strangers will save you plenty of cash for sushi and sake.
While it’s technically illegal to stop traffic on the highway or even be on a highway as a pedestrian, Japan is a friendly place to hitchhikers. It’s also one of the safest countries in the world. This isn’t a book about danger and suspense. It’s a book about people.
Anyone who’s been to Japan will know that in contrast to the polite, reserved nature of the locals, extraordinary characters are easy to find. Or they will find you. Hitchhikers tend to meet their fair share of oddballs driving the roads. And in Japan, this makes for comedy gold in the form of travel stories by a foreigner.
Every quirky thing you’ve ever heard about Japanese culture is turned up to level 11 as Paterson writes about his observations, encounters, and experiences in one of the world’s most interesting countries and cultures.
People don’t listen to karaoke, they endure it until it is their turn. It is the singularly most self-indulgent form of entertainment available.
The Full Montezuma
This was one of the books that inspired me to travel around Central America. Released in 2000, the following year I was beating my way through jungles in Guatemala, remembering the tales in Moore’s humorous travel book. The title is a play on words inspired by the hit British movie “The Full Monty”.
Packed full of funny road trip stories, Moore’s book takes us on a Regular Joe, non-glamorous tour of a fascinating part of the world. While it’s almost 20 years old, the mix of cultural and funny travel stories makes for a great introduction to the region. If you’re planning to visit and are worried about dangers or security, Moore’s travel writing will ease your fears.
For more of Peter Moore’s funny books, check out The Wrong Way Home (1999), in which the author follows the hippy trail from London to Sydney overland. Hitting some well-known (pre-war) hippie haunts such as Afghanistan, the author finds humour in the most unlikely places.
The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia
“Hang on, that’s a Paul Theroux book. You don’t think he’s funny.”, I hear you say.
Well, okay, the author is not a laugh-out-loud funny author. But the dark humour and grumpy outlook on life can charm, once you get used to it. Ride along the tracks with Theroux for a while and you’ll begin to smirk, chortle even, at the writer’s wit. This will never hit most people’s top ten list for the funniest travel books, but I find Theroux’s grumpiness amusing. Maybe you will too.
I always found myself in the company of Australians, who were like a reminder that I’d touched bottom.
The Great Railway Bazaar is Theroux’s multi-month train journey in 1973 from London all the way to SouthEast Asia. He returns to London on the Trans-Siberian railway route.
The traveller is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur, and in some well-hidden part of the traveller’s personality is an unpickable knot of vanity, presumption and mythomania bordering on the pathological. This is why a traveller’s worst nightmare is not the secret police or the witch doctors or malaria, but rather the prospect of meeting another traveller.
Holidays in Hell
P.J. O’Rourke’s non-fiction account of his visits to war-torn parts of the world can seem brash in today’s politically correct and “triggered” culture. O’Rourke visited El Salvador, Lebanon, and Nicaragua during the 80s when these places were hot spots for conflict.
If you’re easily offended, stay away. If you can take a joke, you might find O’Rourke’s travel writing devilishly funny. It’s not going to be any use as a travel guide, but that’s not why you’d read it.
O’Rourke doesn’t sugar coat anything and hits the offensive button many times. The book’s subtitle is ‘In Which Our Intrepid Reporter Travels to the World’s Worst Places and Asks, “what’s Funny about This?”’
So that will give you an idea of how he approaches the subject of travel in these countries. Tourist boards will disagree and to be fair, many of the places mentioned are no longer war zones. But again, this isn’t a travel guide. It’s part historical report and part quirky travel biography.
This is about as non-Lonely Planet Guidebook as you can get.
Neither Here Nor There
I’ve already mentioned the author and will probably quote him a million times more in my writing. He’s very quotable. Bryson is also the funniest travel writer there ever was. Yes, this is beginning to sound like the BB fan club, but trust me, if you haven’t read his books yet, stop what you’re doing (after you’ve finished reading all of my blogs), turn off Twitter, Tinder, Tik Tok or whatever you’re looking at these days, and read a book. It’s worth it.
…there is nothing like being trapped in a train compartment on a long journey to bring all those unassuageable little frailties of the human body crowding to the front of your mind – the withheld fart, the three and a half square yards of boxer short that have somehow become concertinaed between your buttocks, the Kellog’s cornflake that is teasingly and unaccontably lodged deep in your left nostril.
Bryson is the ultimate geek. He can write in-depth about the nerdiest of topics. He has an entire book about homes. Another about the English language. He has even written a guide to the universe. These topics might seem a little dry, but not only are they filled with wit and humour, Bryson’s books are page-turners. You will read them cover to cover.
Neither Here Nor There, a travelogue through Europe in 1990, is one of the author’s first published books. The book details Bryson’s journey to Sofia, Istanbul, Rome, Paris, Switzerland, the former Yugoslavia, and Amsterdam, among many other places. I have a copy of the 1991 version that I read every year and laugh out loud like it’s the first time.
In the evening I went looking for a restaurant. This is often a problem in Germany. For one thing, there’s a good chance that there will be three guys in lederhosen playing polka music….
If you ever wanted an overview of the best major cities in Europe, this is a good place to start. It’s a warts-and-all account of Europe that you won’t find in the Lonely Planet. A classic.
Do you read funny travel books? What’s your favourite? Which ones in this list do you love? All the above books are available on Amazon (paperback and kindle) and some you will find at your local book store. Load them up on your kindle or go the old-fashioned route and buy the paper version. Whatever you choose, laugh out loud as you go on an adventure into the weird world of travel.