You may think that all travel books are the same, recounting stories of protagonists traveling, struggling, and returning home transformed. While this is a common narrative structure in travel books, the travel writing landscape is in fact much more diverse and complicated than that. This post will discuss 10 of the most common travel book subgenres, and it will give you some examples of each one.
Travel book subgenres
Like other literary genres, like science fiction and romance, there is a variety of “flavors” in travel books that depend on not just the content of the book, but also how they are put together and organized. For lack of a better term, I’m calling these “flavors,” “frameworks,” and “organizational principles” subgenres.
The subgenres of the travel book are not well known. Case in point: browsing Amazon’s Science Fiction & Fantasy category reveals some of its subgenres like cyberpunk, dystopian, space opera, and time travel, but browsing Amazon’s Travel category reveals mostly countries, regions, and continents. Curiously, there is also a subcategory under Travel called “Travel Writing.” Aren’t all the books listed under the Travel category “travel writing”?
To be sure, guidebooks and other types of books that deal with countries, regions, and continents call the Travel category home. But readers and writers of travel literature find this categorical ambiguity frustrating. So, today we’re going to clear the air and discuss 10 travel book subgenres and give some examples of each.
But first, some caveats. These subgenres are not mutually exclusive. Writers sometime combine elements of multiple subgenres or subvert them altogether. And, there are more travel book subgenres, flavors, frameworks, or whatever you want to call them than the 10 we discuss below. I discuss a few more, along with travel writing tropes, in the Travel Book Guidebook, which you can download for free here.
Caveats aside, let’s dive into the travel book subgenres.
The travelogue is the prototypical travel book subgenre. In the travelogue, the author recounts the experience of traveling to or through some place. It is usually a step-by-step account or description of what the author saw, did, experienced, etc. If you journal when you travel, your diary can be considered a rough travelogue. Indeed, this is the basis of many of the other subgenres below.
Examples: Ibn Battuta’s The Rihla; John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America; Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts; Isabella Bird’s The Yangtze Valley and Beyond.
The quest is a travel book framework where the author travels in search of something specific, or to do something specific. It could involve searching for a physical object, achieving a goal, or reaching a destination. What drives the story here is the emphasis on something external to the author. Note: the protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to achieve the goal.
Examples: Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard; Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods; Sophy Robert’s The Lost Pianos of Siberia; Erika Schelby’s Looking for Humboldt.
In the adventure subgenre, the author/protagonist pushes the boundaries of human endurance and strength, either mental and/or physical. The adventure usually involves overcoming the elements and the limitations of the self. It includes feats of power, endurance, strength, and resolve. The adventure pits man (and historically it has been most often men) against nature and the environment. The adventure is a dangerous one.
Examples: Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World; Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands; John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air; Arlene Blum’s Breaking Trail.
The journey is a travel book framework where the story’s emphasis is on something personal in nature. This subgenre is like the quest, but an inner, spiritual, or emotional emphasis drives the story. This is like a book of self-discovery more than it is a book of discovery. Every travel book necessarily has a subjective element to it, but the individual subjective experience here, the so-called “inner journey,” takes narrative precedence over the exterior journey.
Examples: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love; Cheryl Strayed’s Wild; Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard; Virtually every book written about the Camino de Santiago.
The investigation is a subgenre of travel where the protagonist travels somewhere to solve a mystery or a puzzle. This could be a crime, a disappearance, or an unsolved mystery. It could also have a journalistic or anthropological feel.
Examples: David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon; John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
This subgenre riffs off of the investigation subgenre, but the author/protagonist becomes a central part of the story. Gonzo journalism often has an eccentric, ridiculous, or a comedic feel to it.
Examples: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing Las Vegas; Charles Nicholl’s The Fruit Palace.
Echotourism (Following in the Footsteps of…)
In this subgenre, the author follows in the footsteps of another traveler or author. The author/protagonist attempts to visit the places an earlier traveler visited.
Examples: Alastair Humphreys’s My Midsummer Morning; Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star; Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water.
The Big Idea
A “big idea” or a central concept connects the material in these types of travel books. The narratives in these books do not always move chronologically; the chapters often “bounce around” independently and as thematically-connected essays. These books often use a destination or a series of destinations to illustrate, explain, or comment on a bigger idea or concept.
Examples: Victoria Preston’s We Are Pilgrims; Dan Richards’s Outposts; Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment; Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu; Robert Macfarlane’s Underland.
The Expat Experience
This travel book subgenre recounts the experiences of someone living or moving somewhere different from their home country. Unlike books about passing through a location temporarily, these books involve the author moving to a place for an indefinite period of time and revealing what it is like to move and/or live there. This framework has been particularly successful when blended with humor or wit.
Examples: Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons; Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence; Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze.
In this travel book subgenre, front and center is the mode of transport, be it foot, kayak, bicycle, motorcycle, car, boat, or train.
Examples: Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle; Monisha Rajesh’s Around the World in 80 Trains; Ernesto Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries.
Know more travel book subgenres or examples?
There are more travel book subgenres, flavors, frameworks, or whatever you want to call them than the 10 we discussed above. In fact, I discuss a few more, along with travel writing tropes, in the Travel Book Guidebook, which you can download for free here.
But if you know other travel book subgenres and examples that we should include on this list, let us know in the comments section below!
Last Updated on 17 July 2021 by Travel Writing World