The top 10 best travel movies

The best travel-based movies capture the spirit of exploration, discovery and romance, writes Garry Maddox. And, above all, they instill a yearning for the featured place or journey.

The great travel movies are about more than just scenery. They tell stories that capture the spirit of travel and encourage that familiar longing to head off somewhere new. At their best, they give us a sense of infinite horizons and endless possibilities for adventure and renewal. It could be a regular tourist destination or somewhere spectacularly remote that provides a different perspective on life. So many visitors must have gone to Morocco after watching Casablanca, for example. 

Or Paris after seeing Amelie. Or New Zealand since Peter Jackson started adapting JRR Tolkien novels into epic fantasy trilogies. Australia had its moment when Crocodile Dundee became an international hit and Americans in particular saw the charms of the outback.

But these are movies mostly about destinations rather than journeys. The most indelible travel movies have characters going places and discovering things about themselves along the way. Reese Witherspoon's journey in Wild, about Cheryl Strayed's epic hike along the Pacific Crest Trail to get her life back on track, will adds to an inspiring collection. Here are the 10 best travel movies.


Location South America

Why we love it Brazilian director Walter Salles's beautifully made film centres on the 1952 expedition across South America by Ernesto Guevara and friend Alberto Granado, initially by motorcycle. What starts as an adventure becomes a radicalising experience as they see the plight of South America's poor, hungry and sick.


Location Tokyo

Why we love it A famous Hollywood actor, played by Bill Murray, making a whisky commercial and a neglected young philosophy graduate (Scarlett Johansson) bond unexpectedly in cool Tokyo. It's a dreamlike film that captures the dislocation of travel, the perspective it gives on your life back home, the surprising intimacy and poignancy of new relationships and an affection for the Japanese capital's neon-lit quirks.


Location Small-town America

Why we love it There are many movies that capture the spirit of being on the road, including Easy Rider, Badlands, Rain Man, The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert and Y Tu Mama Tambien. But Thelma & Louise, starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, beautifully captures a sense of escape and freedom as two women struggling in their ordinary lives in Arkansas take off in a 1956 T-Bird and discover their independence and resourcefulness.

UP IN THE AIR (2009)

Location American airports and hotels

Why we love it For the corporate traveller, every luxury hotel and business-class flight there is the dislocation and sometimes loneliness of landing in new destinations in different time zones. It's a condition that's well captured in the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) – a high-flyer in every sense. Nearing 10 million frequent-flyer miles, he is a corporate downsizer who travels throughout the country firing people. Though it has its comic and romantic charms, it's not exactly a pretty portrait of corporate life as Bingham finds he eventually has to come down to earth.


Location A European train then Vienna

Why we love it The excitement of discovering a new city with a new love is captured in a film, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, that inspired two sequels set nine then 18 years later. On a train in Europe, a young American and a French student begin to talk. Tantalised by the prospect of a new romance, they get off in Vienna and discover each other as they tour the grand city one night.


Location South Dakota to Alaska

Why we love it In a film directed by Sean Penn and based on a real-life story, young law school graduate Christopher McCandless renounces the world of material possessions and careers to become an adventurer. His long journey of discovery takes him into the brutal Alaskan wilderness. If there is something troubled about McCandless, he is also an uncompromising idealist who considered himself an "aesthetic voyager". His is a spiritual journey.


Location Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Tahiti, Hawaii 

Why we love it There has to be a surfing film in a list of great travel movies. The the waves, the people and the sense of fun and adventure combine with invariably spectacular scenery. The seminal surf documentary The Endless Summer captured the appealing idea of following summer around the world to find new places to surf. It inspired the idea of the surfing quest for the perfect, uncrowded break in an idyllic location. 


Location Paris

Why we love it An American writer (Owen Wilson) visiting Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her parents discovers he is transported back to the glorious 1920s after midnight. Woody Allen's best film in years captures the beauty of the city and its rich history as the writer meets the likes of Hemingway, Picasso, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. It shows travel as a magical, transforming experience. 


Location Santa Ynez Valley in California.

Why we love it Two longtime friends – a depressive wine aficionado and an actor about to get married – set off on a wine-tasting trip in a film that balances comedy with dark drama. In the course of a week, life goes in unexpected directions. There are adventures and romances but also shocks, misunderstandings and violence. Not every trip can be idyllic and relaxing but sometimes great things can come from a messier-than-expected trip.


Location Africa and Europe

Why we love it A television journalist struggling to make a documentary in Africa makes a dramatic life-changing decision – switching identities to make a fresh start. David Locke (Jack Nicholson) abandons his wife (Jenny Runacre), child, job and responsibilities as he takes on the life of a dead hotel guest. Heading back to Europe and learning the guest was running guns, Locke gets involved with a young architecture student (Maria Schneider) but finds he is being hunted. The Passenger captures that desire to escape your life – escape yourself – for new possibilities.

Garry Maddox writes on film for Fairfax Media.


Five leading travel industry identifies name their favourite travel movies, moments and locations.


Chief Marketing Officer, Helloworld

Favourite travel-themed movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel because it demonstrates the transformative power of travel.

Favourite travel-themed movie moment Gorillas in the Mist when we see the baby mountain gorillas, interacting with Dian Fossey in the wild.

Most movie location-worthy place visited Sultanahmet Camii (The Blue Mosque) in Istanbul.


Managing Director, Adventure World  

Favourite travel-themed movie Lost in Translation – captures the nuances of Tokyo perfectly and the alienation that we sometimes feel when we travel. 

Favourite travel-themed movie moment I loved so many scenes in Before Sunset where Jesse and Celine are walking through Paris and cruising along the Seine – it's hard to choose just one scene. 

Most movie location-worthy place visited  India. My imagination was inspired to travel to this beautiful country by watching the visual feast of The Darjeeling Limited.


Managing Director, Insight Vacations

Favourite travel-themed movie I'd have to say Casablanca. Based on the play Everybody Wants to go to Rick's, it's simply a wonderful film. The setting is Casablanca, Morocco during the Second World War, a jump off point to get to Spain and then America. 

Favourite travel-themed movie moment Ilsa after leaving Rick standing at a Paris train station walks into Rick's Café with her husband after everyone has gone home for the night where Bogart mutters the famous "Of all the gin joints...". 

Most movie location-worthy place visited Without a doubt, India. The vibrant colours and contrasting sounds and scenery make India not only the perfect film backdrop, but also a star in its own right.


Executive Officer, Luxury Lodges of Australia.

Favourite travel-themed movie I'm torn between Red Dog and Rabbit Proof Fence – both beautifully shot Australian movies, both extraordinary journeys and deeply moving.  

Favourite travel-themed movie moment The moment of grudging respect on the tracker's face as he realises he has lost the trail of the runaway girls in Rabbit Proof Fence.

Most movie location-worthy place visited God's Window on the Blyde River Canyon in the Drakensburg Mountains of South Africa – a breathtaking location in the timelessly hilarious The Gods Must Be Crazy.


Chairman Asia Pacific, PONANT

Favourite travel-themed movie Born to be Wild

Favourite travel-themed movie moment Watching the carers at Camp Leakey, Borneo, bathing the orphaned infant orangutans.

Most movie location-worthy place visited Tanjung Puting National Park, Camp Leakey, Kalimantan, Borneo. A zodiac ride up the river, amongst the wild habitats of orangutans, proboscis monkeys, rhinoceros hornbills, endangered waterbirds and nesting grounds for egrets, hornbills, deep forest birds and many wetland species.