Sky-high gas prices, traffic jams at national parks, rail strikes, canceled flights, and lost luggage—can this summer’s travel get any worse?
Yes, it can. At least in fiction. As long as writers have been spinning out prose, they’ve reveled in sending their heroes to postcard-worthy places that aren’t as dreamy as they seem.
“There’s something darkly fascinating about bad vacations—all the effort that goes into planning, the idea of getting away from your stresses and being able to relax, only to have everything go horribly wrong in a place where you may not speak the language, are unfamiliar with the laws, and have no way of getting help,” says novelist Greg Herren, executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America. ”There’s escape in these books.”
Think Homer’s Odyssey, where the Greek isles morph into a monster-filled maze for a returning Trojan War hero, or Agatha Christie’s 1920s Egyptian cruise whodunit, Death on the Nile. More recently, novelist Lucy Foley (The Paris Apartment, The Hunting Lodge) takes her attractive young characters somewhere equally attractive and lets the bodies pile up.
This summer, as you’re wondering if your misdirected bags are having way more fun than you are, turn to these novels to help you get through it.
Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead, 2021
Amelia Earhart-esque aviator Marian Graves sets off to circumnavigate the globe via the North and South Poles. But storms, dwindling fuel—and doubt—plague her daring journey. Woven through this quest is an epic family drama that jets from the wilds of Montana to gritty World War II-era London, buoyant with ambition, resilience, and a decades-spanning romance.
Portrait of a Thief, by Grace D. Li, 2022
A quintet of Chinese-American college students turn museum visits in Amsterdam and Paris into art heists in Li’s anti-colonialism caper. Attempting to return antiquities to China from countries which previously looted them, the unlikely criminals run afoul of Interpol and, sometimes, each other. The nail biter also dives into what it means to exist between two cultures.
The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier, 2021
You won’t complain about the turbulence and the cramped middle seat on your next transatlantic flight when you read about what happens to the passengers on Air France 006 from Paris to New York, in this mind-bendy novel. Let’s just say none of their lives are the same again. The consequences of that fateful flight range from murder and divorce to fame and career-defining success.
The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborne, 2012
After a boozy lunch in Tangier, British couple Jo and David Henninger drive into the Moroccan desert to a decadent party at a friend’s weekend compound. On a dark, dusty road, they accidentally hit and kill a local Berber youth, setting in motion a chilling tale of haves and have nots, of guilt and redemption. Osborne summons the Sahara’s ominous simplicity and a rich cast of characters from the boy’s bereaved father to the drug-addled party host. (A movie version starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain was just released.)
The Lioness, by Chris Bohjalian, 2022
Lion attacks. Millions of stinging ants. Kidnappers with elephant guns. The wide-open spaces of the Serengeti are fraught with peril and beauty in this bloody tale of a 1960s Tanzanian safari gone wildly wrong. Centered around an Elizabeth Taylor-like starlet and her entourage, the travelogue starts out with glamour (there’s a generator-powered ice maker and many chic outfits) and quickly slips into a man-versus-beast horror story.
Two Nights in Lisbon, by Chris Pavone, 2022
An American woman on a quick weekend trip to Lisbon with her new, much younger husband, wakes up in her plush hotel to find him missing. The ensuing mash-up of spy thriller and travelogue takes place in the gritty, pretty streets of Portugal’s seaside capital, replete with the scent of cinnamon-y pastel de nata tarts and the click-clack of its vintage cable cars.
Beach vacations gone bad
Saint X, by Alexis Schaitkin, 2020
Schaitkin uses multiple narrators to tell the story of a wealthy family whose teenage daughter disappears and dies during a vacation on an unnamed Caribbean island. The event reverberates for years with both the girl’s younger sister and the resort worker accused of murder. In the end, this dazzling debut novel is less a missing person mystery and more of a musing on how luxury tourism obscures a place’s true culture.
The Garden of Broken Things, by Francesca Momplaisir, 2022
Distressed over her young son’s behavior at school, a Haitian-American mother takes him back to her Caribbean island birthplace to emphasize how privileged he is. A devastating earthquake follows, throwing the family heritage trip into a nightmare of destruction and death in a country “that had come to expect disasters descending from the sky.” Momplaisir’s prose is as sharp as her insights, and while this is no feel-good tale, it’s a moving examination of family ties and poverty.
The Disaster Tourist, by Yun Ko-eun, 2013
In this satirical eco-thriller, Yona Kim works for a dark tourism company which takes visitors to zones ravaged by hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters. When a predatory colleague threatens her job, she flees on a business trip to review the company’s least popular tour package—a yawn-inducing desert island in Vietnam. But what initially seems like a chance to boost her career quickly turns into a moral crisis, entangling Yona in a plot to orchestrate a headline-grabbing global catastrophe risking hundreds of lives—including her own.
The Ruins by Scott Smith, 2006
In this horror/sci-fi parable, hiking to an undiscovered Mayan temple in Mexico’s Yucatán jungle sounds like a bucket-list dream for four American tourists. But deadly run-ins with arrow-wielding locals and sinister vines plague them in a tense read that suggests wandering off the beaten path—or touching sacred antiquities—isn’t worth the Instagram pic.
Rotten road and rail trips
Nevada, by Imogen Binnie, 2013
Dumped by her girlfriend and adrift in a boozy haze, trans woman Maria Griffiths steals her ex’s car and wheels it from New York to Nevada. Along the way, she becomes an unlikely mentor to another trans woman and discovers both the brighter and seamier sides of downtown Reno and early 2000s Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The Boys, by Katie Hafner, 2022
Anyone who has ever felt ill at ease on a group tour will relate to Ethan Fawcett, a young father ferrying his twin sons on a guided bicycle trip through Italy’s Piedmont. His oddball children—and awkward attempt to retrace his honeymoon route (sans estranged wife)—make him unpopular with his fellow travelers. But there’s humor and hope in these misadventures amid plush hotels, libidinous guides, and ancient churches.
This Train, by James Grady, 2022
On a passenger train hurtling between Seattle and Chicago, Grady riffs on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express with a slew of characters (a coder gone wrong, a corrupt billionaire, a wannabe widow) and crimes (a heist, a killing) in tight confines. Though set in the present day, the thriller’s descriptions of rundown Amtrak stations, shady criminals, and lonely Western landscapes smack of classic noir.