13 Best Movies About Travel

I was debating the best travel movies the other day and tried to build my own list. It’s going to weigh heavily towards planes and airports but I’ve also given some thought to being in an unfamiliar place and growing as a person because of the places you’ve been.

I think each of these films is a classic for a reason, and I try to offer a brief take why they’re one of the best travel movies. That even holds for some of the ones on the list that may not have been so critically acclaimed.

Up in the Air is top of the list of best travel movies for reasons that should be obvious, Die Hard 2 is awesome even if it’s absurd with more plot holes than the business plan for Washington Dulles’ Independence Air. But was there every really a better air crash investigator than Kris Kristofferson in the broadly panned Millenium?

Here’s my top 13 best travel movies. What are yours? What am I missing?

  1. Up in the Air. The movie was not in any way related to the book, which I read on a United Washington Dulles – San Francisco flight in 2001. The two female leads in the film didn’t even exist in the book (Vera Farmiga kind of sort of did). But George Clooney plays us, they go through security and throw down elite status cards and Clooney is on a quest to pad his mileage balance.

    It tries too hard at times to be an allegory for the Great Recession which was at its depths in 2009 when the film was released. It makes one fundamental mistake about rental cars. But the airport and flight scenes, along with hotel check-ins, are absolutely awesome. To know me is to fly with me. Oh, and there’s a deleted scene you may not know about.

  2. Die Hard 2. A year after taking down terrorists at Los Angeles’ Nakatomi Building, Bruce Willis’ John McClane battles terrorists again — this time at Washington Dulles airport.

    Nevermind that the pay phones at the airport say Pacific Bell giving away that this isn’t really Dulles. And I’ve never figured out why planes in a holding pattern that were running out of fuel never sought to divert to Baltimore or Richmond. But Willis trying to wave off a plane that was about to crash land was just a phenomenal scene… And so was the late Fred Thompson ordering all inbound aircraft into holding by declaring “Pack ’em, stack ’em, and rack ’em.”

  3. Flight. Denzel Washington as an alcoholic pilot. Most of the movie is Washington (not) dealing with his addiction but the controlled crash scene is incredible.

  4. Airplane!. Over Macho Grande? I don’t think I’ll ever get over Macho Grande.

  5. Before Sunrise (Vienna) Before Sunset (Paris) Before Midnight (Greece). Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walk and talk — with youthful idealism masked as cynicism in Vienna, reconnecting years later through the streets of Paris, and dealing with the challenges of their relationship and doubts about life on an island in Greece.

    The screenwriting is phenomenal and acting believable, and we get a taste of a different place in Europe in each film.

  6. National Lampoon’s Vacation and European Vacation (but not Christmas Vacation). The first film was the classic family road trip as Chevy Chase takes his clan on a journey through its own history, his own mid-life regrets, and his deeply committed quest to be a good father — taking everyone to Wally World and flirting with Christie Brinkley along the way.

  7. The Terminal. Tom Hanks is on a quest that brings him to New York, but he can’t leave the airport because his passport is invalidated by a coup in his home country. It’s based on the true story of an 18 year stay at Paris Charles de Gaulle.

  8. Lost in Translation. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are lost and detached from their lives, and explore Tokyo together. They see the city as foreigners, they’re foreign to each other and to themselves, and the story revolves as much around the Park Hyatt Tokyo as it does Japanese karaoke.

    I love the Park Hyatt on its own terms (though it’s not really conveniently located) but the movie makes the property special, and the property helps make the movie special. It’s my favorite Bill Murray performance and of course I’ve been unable to sleep in Shinjuku though I found myself at the Denny’s rather than the New York Bar. No Scarlett Johansson, but it was the best Denny’s I ever visited.

  9. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Holiday travel is rough. I hate flying on ‘amateur days’. It’s far worse during irregular operations. But if you’re determined enough, you can get where you’re going — even if it takes changing from a plane to a train and circumstances force you to drive across much of the country.

  10. Airport. This 1970 film was the first of a series, and a classic disaster movie that intertwines the lives of people dealing with keeping an airport open during a major weather event while a bomber plots to blow up a plane.

  11. Millennium. Ok, so this movie only has an 11% ‘Fresh’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Kris Kristofferson plays an NTSB investigator looking into the collision of a Boeing 747 and a DC-10 where all the passengers of the 747 appeared to be dead prior to ground impact, even though the plane caught fire only once it hit the ground. Because, time travel.

  12. Pushing Tin. John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton are air traffic controllers. It’s dark, and probably not a great movie, but the scenes at New York TRACON are awesome.

  13. Boeing Boeing. Tony Curtis is an American in Paris dating 3 different flight attendants — for Air France, Lufthansa, and British United Airways — whose international routes never have them in town at the same time. They all live with him whenever they’re in Paris, with photos and personal touches swapped out to match each one of them.

    Then technology intervenes: faster planes means schedule changes, so that all of their schedules overlap, and hijinks ensue…

What else belongs as one of the best travel movies?

    13 best travel movies ever

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “North by Northwest” (1958)

    -a Northwest Orient prop at Midway Airport-Chicago.
    -a bi-plane crop sprayer.
    -also considered the best train movie with actual filming on board the New York Central’s famous “Twentieth Century Limited” running New Uork-Chicago.

  2. How about Red Eye and Flight Plan? I think they both portrait (fear of) commercial flying experience pretty good!

  3. Sully — we all know it’s going to be amazing, haha.

    The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (the latest one) — makes me want to travel (even more) every time I see it.

    United 93 — intense behind-the-scenes look.

  4. Strangers on a Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Transsiberian, Escape, High Road to China, Titantic, Turbulence, Passenger 57 and at least the hotel points scene in Duets.

  5. Here is a few of my favorites not in any order:

    – Room with View: English tourists in 19th century Italy
    – 8 1/2 Fellini’s masterpiece featuring the Grand Hotel Rimini (and health spa), his favorite hotel
    – La Dolce Vita another great film by Fellini showing Rome attractions during the late 1950s-early 60s.
    – Roman Holiday: Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay about a princess touring the Eternal City and its night life in the 1950s showing landmarks such as Spanish Steps, Boca della Verita, etc.
    – Against All Odds: Jeff Bridges & Rachel Ward roll in the hay at Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and locations around LA such as the hilltop that will become the new Getty Museum.
    – The Motorcycle Diaries: biopic about 23-year-old Che Guevara through Latin America before becoming a revolutionary.
    – The Beach: Young American backpacker (Leonardo DiCaprio) search for mystical paradise in Thailand’s southern islands.
    – AmĂ©lie: If you haven’t been to Paris before you’ll want to plan a trip after stepping into Amelie’s world.

  6. Baraka and Samsara for stunning photography that will inspire you to see the world.

    The Fall, for similar reasons. There’s a plot, but plays second fiddle to the settings in some of the most beautiful parts of the world.

    There’s a couple-minute montage of a Euro trip in The Rules of Attraction that works as a great short film. (Look for “Victor Takes a Trip” on Vimeo.)

    James Bond and Jason Bourne films for action-packed globetrotting.

    Not a film, but the show An Idiot Abroad does a good job of stripping away the veneer of travel and showing the unglamorous side of it.

  7. Airport ’75
    Airport ’77 (not Airport ’79: The Concorde)
    Moonraker (no doubt with the Concorde arriving in Rio + other areas of world….Bond travels)
    * Silver Streak (You could add “From Russia with Love” too here if you’re into trains)
    Catch Me If You Can
    Thunderbird 6 (Gerry Anderson’s Super-marionettes)
    Air Force One (Harrison Ford)
    Rush Hour 2

    * Gene Wilder with Richard Pryor.

  8. Midnight in Paris, A woody Allen Movie.
    Makes you feel like you are in Paris when you are not.
    Enhances being in Paris even when you are in Paris.

  9. More plane related than travel – Always with Richard Dreyfuss. ATC and small planes, forest fire piloting, and a good dash of romance. And everything else above – great list! (Always is streaming on Netflix)

  10. What about The Langoliers? The cast is stuck in a deserted airport when their plane is stuck in time. A little weird, but the entire movie takes place in a deserted airport.

  11. The brute, blatant, and crude product placement (particularly for AA and Hilton) makes the ‘Up in the Air’ infomercial almost unwatchable. The James Bond films at least run concurrent ad campaigns plugging all the shilled products in their movies.

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