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Our Favorite Travel Stories of 2019

By AFAR Editors

Dec 18, 2019

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One writer’s essay on bringing his son with him to Kyoto—and beyond—was a reader favorite.

Photo by f11photo/Shutterstock

One writer’s essay on bringing his son with him to Kyoto—and beyond—was a reader favorite.

These were the stories we were most excited to read—and share—this year.

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Picking a favorite travel story of the year can be hard, akin to choosing only one meal to eat in a city like Singapore, Paris, Cape TownRome—there are so many options.  

With this in mind, we decided on something of a compromise: to select our favorite stories from AFAR, and ones we read in other publications. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it is a good starting point for your next plane, train, or bus ride, or even when you simply want to sit in your living room and feel, well, transported. Happy reading.

Why You Should Travel Internationally With Your Children — AFAR

You know when a story just speaks to you? You read it and go, “Yes! Exactly.” So it was with Jeremy Saum’s first-person essay on the importance of traveling with your kids. Never prescriptive and always self-deprecating, Jeremy inspired me to embrace this new phase of travel and delight in how our kids see the world, where everything’s new and there’s no “supposed to do” list. As he writes, travel memories are made of the smaller moments, like an origami frog gifted by a doorman in Japan, or the one-eyed cat that followed the family in Greece. I shared this story with everyone I know. —Laura Dannen Redman, digital content director

Rick Steves Wants to Set You Free — The New York Times Magazine

The summer before my semester abroad in Prague, I spent my mornings working at a coffee shop and afternoons watching reruns of Rick Steves’ Europe on PBS as I eagerly awaited four months in Europe. Yes, Rick Steves is a little dorky, but I find his sincerity endearing. This New York Times profile of him summed up why I love him so much as a traveler. I’m honestly jealous I didn’t write this myself. —Lyndsey Matthews, destination news editor

Why We Wept for Notre-Dame as It Burned — AFAR

I’ll never forget the moment we realized the Notre-Dame cathedral was ablaze. We were all catching up during our daily digital meeting when I got the Associated Press alert and said: “Guys, Notre-Dame is on fire.” It got freakishly quiet. We were all in such shock. Our freshly onboarded leader Laura Dannen Redman, AFAR’s digital content director, quickly decided that the best way to channel our grief was with this collection of the staff’s Notre-Dame memories. Not only was it a great read and approach to the crisis, but it also showed us by example the type of digital content AFAR can and should achieve. —Michelle Baran, travel news editor 

Baggage ClaimsHarper’s

Leslie Jamison has a facility for turning the mundane into the interesting, and in this essay, she explores the intrigue, drama, and tension of what might otherwise be an unmemorable encounter: meeting a woman during a layover. Jamison follows her own advice—“Trying to have a travel experience near the Houston airport is like trying to write a poem from the words on a yeast packet. Don’t try to make it beautiful. Just let it rise.”—and the result is a hilarious, heartwarming yarn of all of those in-between-travel moments that actually make travel the experience it is. You’ll never think of your layover the same way again. —Katherine LaGrave, digital features editor

In one of AFAR’s 2019 features, Ryan Knighton and his wife landed in the Paro Valley for a week’s journey through Bhutan.

In Bhutan, Wellness Awaits—Even If You’re Bad at Yoga — AFAR

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Reading about wellness can be a little hokey, even for a woo-woo-dabbling granola-eater like me. Not so if Ryan Knighton is writing about it. For AFAR’s 10th anniversary Happiness issue, the eternally ironic Knighton took a trip to Bhutan—reputedly one of the world’s happiest countries—to experience the many ways people might seek inner peace. There, he got sound therapies and massages and did yoga and met with monks; his self-deprecating sense of humor pervades the page (I laughed out loud even while re-reading it this morning), but he brings a humility and thoughtfulness to the story, too.  —Sara Button, assistant editor

Puerto Rico, Revived — AFAR

Caribbean revival stories are all over the place, and rightfully so. They’re important narratives to tell, and the battered region deserves all the love it can get. But Ramona Ausubel’s tale of her time in Puerto Rico does more than lend a voice to survivors and those tasked with rebuilding. Ausubel transforms Puerto Rico into its own character, comprising nature that is meant to withstand devastating hurricanes; microscopic bioluminescent life forms that can only share their light under a perfect combination of circumstances; and people who unite when a brutal storm rips their homes apart. —Nicole Antonio, managing editor

Big People, Small World Travel Weekly

As an alum of travel industry paper Travel Weekly, I still read it, well, weekly. And while it’s mostly a great resource for staying up to date on the latest travel news of the day, I found this feature story about the challenges and opportunities for plus-size travelers to be particularly inspiring. What I loved about it was that it didn’t just focus on the numerous hurdles they face, but also on ways in which some plus-size travelers are empowering themselves and others to get out there and travel the world despite those hurdles. I was particularly impressed by the couple, Jimmy Lierow and Amanda Ervin, who were featured in the introduction and have started their own YouTube channel, Chubby and Away, to encourage plus-size people to travel. —M.B.

Meet the Revolutionary Women Strumming Their Way Into the World of Flamenco Guitar — AFAR

I still remember when the pitch for this story came in: I immediately wanted to get writer Lavinia Spalding on a plane to Spain to explore the world of women flamenco guitar players. To me, her story encapsulates the best of what we do here at AFAR: It sheds light on a unique slice of the world, it’s firmly anchored in a sense of place, and it’s deeply personal and human. Who can’t relate to a writer exploring the bittersweet nature of family bonds and abandoned dreams? Plus, we assigned the story in the midst of the #MeToo movement—it felt absolutely necessary to champion women who are fiercely and unapologetically forging their own path in the world. —Aislyn Greene, senior editor

The Man With the Golden Airline Ticket — Narratively

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In 1987, an Illinois man purchased an unlimited, lifetime pass from American Airlines to fly first class anywhere in the world. Decades later, his adult daughter combed through court records and family memories to understand why American revoked the “golden ticket” in 2008. I started reading this piece on BART while commuting and ended up sitting in my car for 20 minutes after arriving at the station because I couldn’t wait until I got home to learn how the story shook out. The family drama and legal conflict unraveled in a way that made me feel deep sympathy for both the frequent flier father and the writer daughter. And while there is both a business case and an emotional impact to losing unlimited access to the world, I couldn’t help but side with the airline at the end. Life is complicated, and this story stolidly highlights those complications without losing sight of humanity. —N.A.

Carina Chocano’s piece is not quite a Byron Bay takedown, but a reflection on all of our self-congratulatory, social-media ways.

The Coast of UtopiaVanity Fair 

In Byron Bay, Australia, a cohort of tastemaking, Instagramming, surfer “mums” had their lives unpacked in Vanity Fair by humor writer Carina Chocano, who painted such a vivid, ironic picture, it broke the internet. “The Coast of Utopia” used all the senses, showing us these beautiful people, “perpetually dressed in rumpled linens in dust bowl colors,” and their tragicomic ways—without the usual Instagram filter. Chocano reports the hell out of this story, filling each paragraph with punchlines and pathos. To wit: “Wilkie, whose entire life, including his birth at home, has been documented online, is having an old-fashioned childhood—and that means no screens and absolutely no plastic.” Wow. Is it a Byron Bay takedown? Not quite. It’s more a reflection on all of our self-congratulatory, social-media ways, where we aim to inspire others to achieve sameness. —L.D.R.

Beyond Borders: A Trans Traveler Shares What It’s Like to Navigate the World — AFAR

The beauty of a travel essay, done well, is that it serves as a passport to perspective—we’re able to step into the shoes of the writer without leaving our couch, our desk, our bed. Through Bani Amor, we arrive in Ecuador and learn how being out in the world while trans—and visible—is “at once as radical as it is dangerous.” This story is nothing of a light read, but it is important. “I hoped a trip to my family’s homeland would provide a timely escape from my messy gender troubles and the opportunity to start anew,” Amor writes. “But that’s not how travel works.” —K.L.

Words You’ll Never See Me Use in Restaurant ReviewsSan Francisco Chronicle

If you’re like me and use food as a guiding force for getting to know a place, you should be reading work by Soleil Ho, who became the San Francisco Chronicle’s new restaurant critic in 2019. I could have picked almost any of her columns—she can even make Union Square dining interesting—but this particular piece about language in food criticism, written early in her tenure at the Chronicle, exemplifies why I became a Soleil stan. Ho is not afraid to grapple with 21st-century food issues, like how she’d be approaching the #MeToo movement or a ratings system, or addressing the internet’s impact on how a critic can even operate. Her columns are unfailingly thoughtful and thought provoking; she brings candor and humor to what could amount to a bland listing of menu items, and I am always curious to read what she thinks. —S.B.

Key Change: How a Shifting Climate Is Transforming Florida — AFAR

In writer Rahawa Haile’s feature for AFAR’s March/April 2019 issue, the Florida Keys native returns to her childhood home to find that some of the sites from her earliest, most prominent memories no longer exist due to rising sea levels. I was moved by how this story thoughtfully captured Haile’s experience pondering a question that more and more people around the world are being forced to consider: What happens when the places that are closest to our hearts start to disappear due to climate change? —Sarah Buder, digital assistant editor

>> Next: 25 of Our Favorite Longreads From the Past Decade

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