Book Review: Lonely Planet's Flightless

Julie Royce's picture

Lonely Planet’s “Flightless: Incredible Journeys Without Leaving the Ground” is a thought-provoking guide for anyone seeking an alternative to the indignities, monotony or environmental impact of flying and who at the same time wishes to avoid the twelve-countries-in-seventeen-days approach to getting away.

Flightless is an anthology of 26 travel exploits that, as the name suggests, do not include boarding a single plane. While the title prepares you for a grounded mindset this book is not a “how to” of vanilla or white bread land or sea vacations. Buried in the pages are no hotel listings, restaurant options, cruise selections, nor sections on local attractions.  Even after reading these escapades it would be hard to replicate them. Instead, this is a book to make you rethink the way you travel, to encourage you to reconsider where you really want to go, and maybe to even help you set your sights on getting more from the time you spend wandering this planet we call earth.

The writers/adventurers sharing these daring tales board Harleys, Vespas, ships, standard bicycles, camels, canoes, and trains - including the Trans-Siberian Express. Many walk all or at least part of the journey. Most of the destinations seem exotic, in the best sense of the word, and there isn’t a posh, all-inclusive resort in the bunch.

The most ambitious adventure of the collection was only partially completed when Karl Bushby wrote his contribution: “A View from the Edge.” It is an odyssey (expected to take between twelve and fourteen years with a targeted completion as early as 2012) during which Bushby will travel a path of 36,000 miles from the southernmost point of South America to his home in England. During the trip he will cross four continents, twenty-five countries, the frozen Bering Straits, six deserts, and seven mountain ranges. A bit ambitious for the average traveler but, oh, what a story!

Another determined traveler, Mark Honon, set off across Australia to enjoy an “open slate” approach to his journey. With him he packed little more than his thumb. He was undeterred from the time-honored but dying art of hitch-hiking despite his acute awareness that media coverage of highway murders prevented most drivers from picking up a lone male by the side of the road. (And what woman would be crazy enough to hitchhike - think Ted Bundy?) At one juncture Honon waited several hours and was moments from calling it quits. A group of nearby Aborigines found his optimism so amusing that they laughed openly and chided him to give it up.  But as the naysayers got their chuckles Gus pulled up shouting, “Hop in.” And with that the doubters were left to scratch their heads and another adventure began.  

As I read these narratives I fantasized about a more interesting way of traveling and I realized how dull my approach to vacations has been. I had no idea what a tuk-tuk was until I read “Tuk-Tuk to the Road.” And, I envied Amelia Thomas who retraced Mark Twain’s route of “Innocents Abroad” capturing her experience in “On the Coat-Tails of Twain: From Constantinople to Cairo.”

Reading some of the accounts I admitted I lacked the stamina or skill for the described daredevilry.  Yet other selections convinced me that all of us can think of new ways to approach a bit of free time. For example, in “The Great American Ride” a group of thirteen almost-ordinary men and one quite extraordinary woman (to join the company of so much testosterone) embarked on a 4000 mile trip from Manhattan to the Golden Gate Bridge astride Harley Davidson Hogs. The group snaked along back roads enduring rain and cold, but also finding special moments of exquisite beauty in spots where they never dreamed it existed. Unshaven and dressed in leathers they relished giving their best imitation of fearsome bikers, snarling and leering, as they roared past shuddering motorists. In the regular lives these bikers were accountants, white color workers and heirs to fortunes who were simply enjoying a sabbatical from their real-world personalities and jobs. They chased an adventure filled with both imagined and real danger. When they reached California, where the highways crawled with CHPS, they reluctantly abandoned the neck-breaking speeds risked enroute. They slowed to posted speed limits and donned helmets. They also took a moment to reflect on their good fortune – no one was killed or even jailed along the way!  For a moment they considered forging forward, loathe to conclude the venture that had made them friends.  Maybe they could head like banditos to Mexico?  More reasonably they returned home to ordinary families and began dreaming about the next time.

These and other compelling stories make Flightless a great read even for an armchair adventurer.  The prose is a far cry from your average travel guide. In fact, some stories include passages that make you worry the publisher slapped on the wrong cover and you are reading a novel of political intrigue. Consider:  “A boy runs down the lane dragging his pet calf behind him but the sweet picture of innocence takes a macabre twist when a group of swarthy men, dressed in turbans and long white robes, smile at us and raise a bloodied hand in greeting.” Or, “He cackles, his heavily kohled eyes collapsing into glittering black slits, the desiccated bones in his stick thin shoulders clacking like a baby’s rattle.”

Good writing is part of the charm of Lonely Planet, now one of the largest travel guidebook publishers in the world. Originally LP targeted backpackers and brave wanderers looking for uncommon experiences along roads less travelled. LP’s huge success attests to the fact that we all enjoy daydreaming about taking daring journeys rather than boarding a bus and tagging after a tour guide who regularly holds an umbrella high for us to follow along a rigid course that invariably dumps us at the front door of a shop that gives our escort a healthy kickback.

Flightless is a book that challenges the reader to reflect about his or her normal pattern of travel and consider alternatives that may prove far more interesting.  The very best vacation you ever take may be the one you didn’t plan at all or the one you initially thought was crazy.



Julie Albrecht Royce, Michigan Editor, is the author of Traveling Michigan's Sunset Coast and Traveling Michigan's Thumb, both published by Thunder Bay Press. She writes a monthly column for, entitled Michigan's Small Town Treasures.


Click here to see the latest specials on travel guides from Lonely Planet.




Not yet a member of the Wandering Educators community? Get full access to all articles, exclusive discounts, and more. So sign up now - it is free!

Comments (1)

Leave a comment