Seriously – if you can’t travel right now, is there anything better than indulging in some virtual travel instead? Whether it’s via travel TV shows, books, or video games, exploring the world virtually can be a sanity-saver.
It helps in different ways. You can be sitting at home, and getting itchy travel feet – you know the feeling. A sudden urge to start looking through flight comparison websites. Longing looks at the Lonely Planets in your local bookshop. Fondling backpacks in your local outdoors store, and getting suspicious looks from the staff. But you can’t decide where to go, and you need that little spark of inspiration. Travel TV shows in particular can help massively.
Or perhaps you can’t travel at the moment, whether due to health issues or low funds, and you want to live vicariously and see the world without leaving your living room. Is it possible, without splashing out on an expensive virtual reality system?
Celebrate, my travel-loving friend, because I’ve got you covered!
- updated March 2020
Getting Travel Inspiration In Your Own Home
Sometimes getting travel inspiration is very easy – sometimes, all it can take is one pretty photo on Instagram (damn you, pictures of Cinque Terre!). But sometimes, you want to look a bit deeper at a place. Or maybe see, or read about, some places that you hadn’t even considered. Or perhaps you just need that thing that’s going to push you back into travel, that image in your mind or that idea that sets a fire in your imagination.
The good news is that you don’t need to go to the library and pore through every travel book you can get your hands on, or order half a dozen brochures. Those things are great, but do them later once you have a shortlist of destinations.
To get that first, initial strike of inspiration, relax in your own home and treat yourself. Not to Netflix and a sharebag of chocolates, but to some entertaining wanderlust via your favourite travel TV shows, bookshelf, computer or mobile phone. And yes, you can still have that sharebag. As long as you’re sharing it with me, anyway.
Inspiration via travel TV shows, books, and video games!
All of the shows, books, and games I’ve listed below are ones that I’ve personally purchased and enjoyed, and trust me, they’ve given me plenty of inspiration and ideas. In fact, I’ve now visited the Sorrento/Capri area of Italy four times, and it was all sparked off by a travel book – no photos or images, but pure travel writing.
Plus, travel TV shows are great for inspiration; you’re seeing a place, living the trip, wishing you could see it with your own eyes. And if you can’t afford a trip right now, video games can be an excellent way to give the travel itch a temporary scratch, or in my case, help beat a fear of flying.
So here’s my personal top travel TV shows, books, and games!
Travel TV Shows
1. Michael Palin’s Travel Documentaries
The Monty Python alumni is perhaps Britain’s favourite purveyor of travel TV shows, having been followed by cameras on his trips around the world between 1988 and 2012. Palin makes for an ideal travel companion: always interesting, and interested in what is happening around him, a gentle sense of humour which occasionally veers into the surreal (what did you expect from an ex-Python?), and a dedication to making a quality documentary.
And as there aren’t many corners of the globe that he’s left uncovered, his shows provide the perfect travel inspiration, with cultured narration and beautiful photography. Starting off with the will-he-manage-it drama of Around The World In 80 Days, he progresses to the long and exotic journeys of Pole To Pole and Full Circle, a trip around the Pacific Rim which saw Palin on the road for an entire year.
Hemingway Adventure and Brazil provide mini-documentaries, whilst Sahara and Himalaya explore their respective regions in full detail. New Europe rounds off the set, with a look at Central and Eastern Europe. For UK viewers, Palin’s trip to North Korea is also available on the My5 site.
2. Whicker’s World
Running from 1958 to 1994, it would be easy to dismiss these documentaries, made by journalist and television legend Alan Whicker, as outdated. And they’re not strictly based on travel, as Whicker interviews various worldwide personalities, including dictators, celebrities, politicians, locals, and people who are just trying to get some plastic surgery.
But their age is what makes them fantastic: although some of the views expressed are seriously outdated, it’s a glorious snapshot of the world at that time, when international travel was really beginning. The show was, for a lot of British people, the first time they’d seen travel TV shows, and the everyday life (or in some cases, the very unusual life) of people in other countries, and it sparked a desire for worldwide journeying.
See the world as it was back then, and enjoy Alan Whicker’s dry wit, and subtly snarky questioning of his interviewees.
3. The Amazing Race
Back in 2006, I visited my American friend in Nebraska, and whilst I sat at her dining table suffering from a serious case of jetlag, she told me about an American television show which featured 12 teams of 2 people racing around the world, doing tasks and generally making a whole heap of mistakes in order to win a million dollars.
At first this sounded like something my poor, confuddled brain had imagined – surely making such a show would cost a fortune! And they still had enough left over to award the winners a million dollars?? – but I got home and discovered that, yes, it was true! And I’ve been hooked on it ever since.
Yes, some of the contestants are deeply annoying. Yes, some of them behave pretty badly abroad (to be punished with a highly-disapproving eyebrow arch from host Phil Keoghan). But it’s also a fantastic way to get travel inspiration: there’s few countries that the race hasn’t visited at some point over the seasons, and the production team do an amazing job of scouting some gorgeous locations, often off the beaten path.
Plus if you’ve ever wanted to see people tumbling down a hill chasing some cheese, or getting hit in the face with a watermelon which has just rebounded from a catapult, you’re in luck.
4. Travel Man
I’m a massive fan of Richard Ayoade’s irreverent and fast-paced travel TV shows, which aim to show off a weekend break destination with the barest minimum of starry-eyed wonder. As Ayoade says himself in every introduction, this is travel without mercy.
In each episode, a destination is chosen, before Ayoade arrives with a comedian pal (and occasionally someone he appears to have a thinly-veiled contempt for). Hotels are either very budget, or very expensive, and suitcases are flung on to beds before their owners head out to explore what a city has to offer – all within 48 hours. Attractions are put through their paces, often deemed overrated, before its on to the next one. If that all sounds terribly non-inspiring, it’s actually the opposite! Ayoade is so hilarious in his deadpan disdain of anything marketed as “fun” that it immediately makes you want to try them out. It’s very, very funny!
Travel Man is considerably easier for UK viewers to get hold of (you can get series 1 and series 2 from Amazon), but it’s well worth tracking down if you’re from elsewhere. I promise that it’ll immediately become your new favorite travel TV show – and it’s worth watching purely for the incident with the snow globe, and Chris O’Dowd’s life flashing before his eyes.
5. Levison Wood’s travel TV shows
Levison Wood’s travel TV shows aren’t for the faint-hearted. These are far from light-hearted jaunts to other countries – in fact, someone tragically dies in the very first episode, and it’s heartbreaking.
Wood is a British adventurer with a penchant for walking incredibly long distances, and taking in a bit of local life along the way. A former British Army officer, he’s no-nonsense but incredibly down to earth and likable, and he’s no stranger to dangerous situations. The first of his travel TV shows deals with him walking the entire length of the River Nile, whilst follow-ups see him walking the Himalayas, Central America, and the Caucasus – all whilst dodging some of the most dangerous situations in the world.
Whilst the episodes can be incredibly gritty at times, they’re also uplifting, thanks to Wood’s determination to make his way through adversity and get to his end goal. Seeing him walk the last few miles alongside the River Nile, accompanied by local officials, before he takes a running dive into the Mediterranean is an image which stays with you.
6. Simon Reeve Documentaries
Firmly on the list of makers of incredibly likable and endearing British travel TV shows, is the excellent Simon Reeve. Imagine Michael Palin crossed with Alan Whicker, with a dash of Levison Wood, and frequent exclamations of “bloody hell!”, and you’ve got Reeve. (seriously, make “bloody hell” a drinking game whilst you’re watching!)
If you’ve read Simon Reeve’s autobiography (and you haven’t, you definitely should), you’ll know that he grew up with a good understanding of the rougher side of life, and mental health issues. As a journalist, it gives his travel TV shows a human side that so many documentaries lack – he absolutely, genuinely cares about the people he meets on his journeys. He’s touched by their stories, he’ll laugh with them and cry with them, and it really makes you feel like you’re there, travelling with a friend.
There’s few parts of the globe he hasn’t explored: his first journey sees him travel along the Equator (a journey on which he almost dies shortly after starting out), followed by explorations of the countries along the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Shorter shows see him journey in areas as diverse as Ireland, the Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean.
Get the Simon Reeve travel TV shows on Amazon, and enjoy his pure love of travel!
1. Bill Bryson, various titles
Iowa native Bryson is my ultimate travel writing hero. Notes From A Small Island, his first tour around Great Britain, was the kind of book that you couldn’t read in public, lest you have a laughing fit (in 2003, it was named the book which “best sums up British identity and the state of the nation” after a poll of the public).
I eagerly consumed previous works Neither Here Nor There: Travel in Europe, and The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America and found them just as insightful, colourful, and above all, bitingly witty. Bryson has a talent for storytelling, explaining the history and culture of a place very simply and in an entertaining manner, and slagging a place off without causing offence. He slated my hometown, and I still loved him for it; that’s skill!
Following titles A Walk In The Woods, Down Under (renamed In A Sunburned Country for the U.S.), and The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From A Small Island do not dip in quality, and sit in pride of place on my travel bookshelf.
I have many things to be grateful to the wonderful Lauren for, but this is where I first read her story, when I picked up her book on a whim on Kindle.
The book is a brilliant read, which I quite literally couldn’t put down, and tells the story of how she became a backpacker and the various misadventures which happened along the way. Tsunami? Check! Awkward (to say the least) massage in Thailand? Check! Punching a Chinese scammer? Check! But aside from being a book which was wonderfully written and made me cry with laughter, this really was one that changed my life – as a fellow anxiety sufferer, I noticed so many points in Lauren’s story about early travel fears and anxiety which I really empathised with, and could’ve been taken from my own experiences. It was comforting to know that I’m not the only one who has experienced those fears. This was the book that made me really want to push myself out of my comfort zone, and made me realise that if someone else in a similar situation could do it, then so could I.
And it’s the book that’s launched me on my current journey, made me a more confident and less anxious person, and helped me with aspects of travel such as how to deal with panic attacks. I very strongly recommend it!
Yes, Michael Palin again! If you enjoyed his television documentaries, or if they sound intriguing but you’re really more of a reading kind of person, I heartily recommend reading his books.
Titled with the same names as his shows (see the Television section above), they are the published diaries he kept during his travels. As well as a few behind-the-scenes tidbits, they’re well worth reading purely for Palin’s more in-depth exploration of the things he sees and the people he meets, and a wonderfully thoughtful narrative style. You really get a better sense of long-term travel, and the logistics of taking himself, his loyal Passpartout crew, and the amount of equipment required to film a BBC series, literally around the globe.
A fascinating look into the world, as well as the heart and mind of Michael Palin, who comes across as the cool travelling uncle you never had.
Travel Video Games
I always feel that video games are something of a neglected art – they’re too easily stereotyped as Call of Duty, “kill everything in sight” type shooters, but the reality is that CoD and the like are just one subgenre. Some of the best plots I’ve ever experienced have come not from movies, but from video games. Some of the most tender, peaceful, and most relaxing arts that I’ve experienced have not come from books, but from the humble game or app. Plus I’m a massive nerd, and I just love video games. So let’s have a look at the ones that let you live out your travel fantasies, and maybe give you some ideas at the same time!
1. Euro Truck Simulator 2 / American Truck Simulator
Fret no more; ETS2 and ATS give you the opportunity to do just that, hauling a cargo which could be anything from sulphuric acid to fishfingers at the same time. Whilst a truck simulator might sound painfully dull on the surface, any doubts you might have melt away as soon as you play it (I can personally attest to this – my non-gamer brother gave it a try, and was immediately hooked), and with 4.5 million copies of ETS2 sold, it’s obviously doing something right.
Maps are vast and realistic, covering most of the major cities, and it’s ridiculously relaxing just to kick back, tune into the radio, and drive from Sicily to Stockholm, or Phoenix to Los Angeles. The fact that you can grow a trucking empire becomes largely irrelevant: for the travel fan, it’s a great way of preparing for your next big road trip.
Available for PC via Steam.
2. 80 Days
80 Days started out as a humble IoS app; the fact that it’s now available on PC gaming platform Steam attests to its popularity.
And for good reason: the game, which puts the player into the role of Jean Passpartout in a slightly steampunk-inspired version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, is fabulously well-written. If you ever had one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books when you were a kid, then you’ll be familiar with the format, and Meg Jayanth’s atmospheric writing really gives you a flavour of the various locations you’ll find yourself in. Hop on the Orient Express, solve crimes on the Pacific Ocean, travel to the centre of the earth, the North Pole, or the Moon, and attempt to get back to London within 80 days, whilst keeping Phileas Fogg moderately happy.
Oh, and did I mention that the app doesn’t require any internet connection? So you can play it in airplane mode, and travel around the world whilst simultaneously travelling around the world! It’s sophisticated interactive storytelling, and one of the best travel video games out there.
Available for IoS, Android, and PC via Steam.
3. Urlaubsflug Simulator – Holiday Flight Simulator
Previously holding the slightly snappier title of Ready For Takeoff!, this flight simulator is one of the travel video games that really helped me with my flight anxiety.
A lot simpler to control than most flight simulators (if you want something more advanced, go for Microsoft Flight Simulator X, or X-Plane), the first time I played it, I found myself at the beginning of the runway with an increasing heartbeat and sweaty palms. Yup, even flying in a video game was too terrifying, though it speaks well for the realism of US’s graphics.
But after a few unfortunate incidents, I found that the plane wanted to be in the air – the game accurately captured the design of the planes, and the lift upon it once it was in motion. Indeed, if I took my hands off the controller once I was in midair, it pleasingly gained altitude without me even trying. And it made me feel so much better about flying! Flying from London, to Paris, Berlin, Majorca, or Turkey made flying a more familiar experience, and it really helped when I flew to Italy a couple of months later.
If I’m being critical, it offers far less variety than other flight sims, but in terms of simplicity and helping to beat a phobia, it has been absolutely invaluable.
4. BitGym app
Does a fitness app count as a travel video game? Who cares: this nifty application allows you to turn your exercise bike or rowing machine into a virtual travel center!
Download the BitGym app, sign up, and you’re good to go – there’s no complicated setting up of hardware. Hop on your exercise bike, access the app, and you’ll see that you can choose from a long list of virtual journeys. The genius of BitGym is that is uses your phone’s camera to monitor your motion, and detect how quickly you’re “moving” – it then shows you a video of a town or trail, moving at an appropriate speed. It’s like you’re actually cycling around!
I chose a route around the city center of Munich, and had a pretty awesome time looking at some familiar scenery as I cycled on my machine – it’s definitely motivation to keep going, especially if you’re easily bored by just sitting there with nothing to distract yourself. It also throws some facts up on the side of the screen, so you can get a sense of what you’re looking at, as well as a bite-sized dollop of history.
As travel video games go, this may be a bit different – but it’ll certainly get you fit as well as entertained!
Available on IoS and Android.
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