There are few better sources of inspiration than movies. The dramatic scenery, the complex character development, the range of raw emotions—all are elements of films which successfully make the viewer feel as if we’re there. When it comes to travel, movies give us the ability to soar across the world and experience foreign cultures without ever having to leave the comfort of our couch.
While travel movies may have an entertaining enough plot to grip all viewers, they have an intrinsic ability to ignite the inspiration of habitual travelers and wanderers. Regardless of the destination, good travel movies are able to hone in on the unsaid minutiae of travel and express this in what becomes an inspirational film. The excitement of experiencing a destination for the first time, the tenuous and genuine relationships you form on the road, the affable and life-changing local people you encounter or the trepidation of stepping far outside of your comfort zone. Watching a movie in which characters navigate their own set of travel adventures reminds us fellow travelers of times when we have either traveled to that same spot or felt that exact same feeling—and it drives us to want to get back on the road.
So while there are a slew of movies out there which prominently feature an international destination, the list below is meant to isolate films which possess the innate ability to touch on the underlying fundamental elements of travel. The struggles, the new experiences, the triumphant moments, the planning, and our reasoning behind making the occasionally irrational decision to simply get up and experience the world.
1. L’Auberge Espagnole (2002)
I have met very few travelers who aren’t obsessed with L’Auberge Espagnole. While there are numerous reasons to love this movie—the romance of Barcelona, the potent sexual tension, etc.—the number one reason why travelers crave this movie is because it’s so incredibly real. Anyone who has ever lived or studied abroad can instantly relate to this film and the way in which it traces the subtle cultural differences and real-life situations experienced by University-aged travelers. Watching L’Auberge Espagnole makes you want to call up long lost travel acquaintances and reminisce and laugh over a stiff drink and focus on the lighter, more important side of life. A final sticking point is the way in which the main character, Xavier, realizes that life’s various experiences and the personal connections you forge are ultimately what really matter, not your salary, title, or career. As this is a mantra many free-spirited travelers hold so dear it’s no wonder the film has fostered such a devoted following.
2. The Way (2010)
A reflective tale of modern day pilgrims on Spain’s Camino de Santiago trail, The Way brilliantly focuses on the personal pilgrimages travelers make for their own respective set of reasons. Whether it’s to lose weight, quit smoking, take a break from your career, write a book, or fulfill the wish of your recently deceased son, there’s a unique impetus behind every traveler’s reasoning for taking to the open road. In addition to introducing viewers to the history of one of Europe’s most sacred pilgrim paths and showcasing the stunning scenery of Northern Spain, The Way has an ability to make us look at our own lives and question if there is a journey on the back burner which suddenly may need to happen.
3. Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
There is an old adage that travel is the best teacher. Through exposing ourselves to destinations and cultures different than our own we are given the opportunity to see the world in a new light. Occasionally, in extreme cases, this can lead to revolution. Tracing the early wanderings of a youthful Che Guevara, Motorcycle Diaries will forever be an example of confronting the status quo and experiencing the somber realities of the world around you. Featuring dramatic scenes ranging from the empty plains of Argentinian Patagonia to the poverty-stricken backwaters of Chile and Peru, Motorcycle Diaries challenges us to question the inequalities we see in the world around us and do our best to make a difference.
4. Endless Summer (1966)
The original iconic surf film which inspired a generation of surf travel, Endless Summer is a classic example of a travel movie which focuses on traveling for a specific purpose other than simply to see what’s out there. Adventurous surfers who roamed the planet from Senegal to South Africa and New Zealand to Hawaii, the surfers of Endless Summer bridged a cultural gap between Southern California beach boys and people living in corners of the world who had never even seen a surfboard. Viewers share in the moments of freedom as the boys carry surfboards across sand dunes in South Africa or spend casual moments laughing with children in Ghana, and in a travel world where so many adventurers dream of the unclimbed, the unridden, or the unexplored, the cast of Endless Summer serve as inspirational pioneers.
5. Seven Years in Tibet (1997)
Is there any story better than climbing the Himalayas, being taken hostage as a prisoner of war, smuggling yourself into Tibet, and befriending one of the holiest men on the planet? Sometimes the only thing better than travel itself are the stories which eventually come out of it, and hardly are there any stories more jealousy-inducing than the one featured in Seven Years in Tibet. With many travelers harboring the philosophy that the best plan is to simply not have one, Seven Years in Tibet is a shining example of the life-altering experiences which may lie in store when plans unexpectedly go awry.
6. Into the Wild (2007)
Sure, not many travelers aspire to starve to death inside of a bus, but I know a lot travelers out there—most of them men—who secretly want to be Chris McCandless. The entire storyline reeks of the freedom so many independent travelers quietly lust for: The feeling of thumbing your nose at society and throwing caution to the wind, the confidence garnered from living off the land, and the unbridled excitement of being in charge of your own destiny and making the entire American West your neighborhood. Into the Wild inspires us travelers to live our dreams and pursue the path we dare to lead, regardless of whether “society” agrees with us or not.
7. Go Ganges (2012)
Although you haven’t heard of it (yet), I’ve been one of the handful of people lucky enough to be granted a sneak preview of this unreleased adventure film. Planning to debut to audiences in 2012, Go Ganges follows the travels of two veteran adventure travelers as they trace India’s Ganges River from her glacial source in the Himalayas all the way to the eventual terminus at the sea. Along the way the duo moves themselves across little-visited parts of India using any means possible including purchasing their own rickshaw and rowing themselves in a tin boat. An incredible film which shows the real-life situations low-budget, independent travelers frequently find themselves in when they embark on an adventure of a lifetime and let fate simply take care of the rest.
8. The Beach
Love it or loathe it, The Beach has amassed a cult following of backpackers the world over and has turned island where it was filmed—Thailand’s Phi Phi Ley—into a honeycomb of tourists who all buzz with the excitement of actually being able to stand on “The Beach.” With the well-established Southeast Asia backpacker circuit a staple of long-term traveler’s itineraries, the idea of stepping off of the grid for a while in a warm-weather, tropical destination where you invariably end up having copious amounts of sex on the beach and embedding yourself on an island covered in marijuana plantations understandably holds an adolescent and romantic allure. With scenery depicting the true beauty of the Thai islands The Beach plays to the hedonistic, warm-weather fantasies of University-aged travelers the world over.
9. 180° South (2010)
This outdoor adventure film follows Jeff Johnson as he moves to recreate the original journey of Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and North Face founder Doug Tompkins who in 1968 drove from Ventura, California to Patagonia, Chile. Rather than driving the entire distance, however, Johnson decides to sail for a leg of the journey, a decision which ultimately ends up with a broken mast and an extended stay in Easter Island where a local female surfer named Makohe decides to tag along for the rest of the journey. With the end goal being to summit the Corcovado volcano in Patagonia, the film brilliantly blends a sense of outdoor adventure with a healthy degree of environmental responsibility and the role travelers play in preserving the places we dream of exploring.
10. The Art of Travel (2008)
To set one thing straight, this isn’t a good movie—far from it. Nevertheless, the wildly unrealistic plot aside (unsolicited threesomes, hacking a road across the Darien Gap, etc.), The Art of Travel manages to capture the notion that we can learn far more on the road through “unconventional means” than any traditional schooling might ever allow. After all, rarely will one year of college-level Spanish classes render you fluent by the end of the term, but after one year of independent travel through Latin America there’s a good chance you’ll be able to rattle off some complex conversations. Furthermore, the film highlights some of the realities of independent travel from finding and losing love interests while on the road to being robbed and scammed out of everything you have. In the end, The Art of Travel exhibits how life experiences while on the road can oftentimes be the best teachers when it comes to elements of self-confidence and personal growth.
11. National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1983)
Perhaps the most hilarious movie ever made on European travel, National Lampoon expertly crafts a storyline where the Griswold family experiences many of the typical realities and stereotypes of Americans opting to vacation in Europe. We’ve all been stuck in a roundabout before (although rarely until after dark), and we’ve all harbored thoughts that the service staff may be saying derogatory remarks about us simply because we can’t understand them. While there’s a good chance you aren’t going to knock over Stonehenge, get matching family berets, or dance wildly in a German square while decked out in lederhosen, European Vacation manages to capture the quirks of European travel and twist them into a feel-good tale which leaves us with the feeling that if we aren’t the best or most-knowledgeable travelers on the road, at least we’ll always be better than the Griswolds.
– Kyle Ellison