Finding Books on the Road

“A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold.” — Henry Miller, The Books In My Life (1969)

Depending on where you are traveling, finding books to read can be either very easy or very difficult. Clearly, the task is more difficult depending on your preferred language and that of your travel destination. In the section on e-readers I will detail a great many resources for finding electronic reading materials, but assuming you are a purist (a.k.a., old-fashioned, Luddite, stubborn, etc) what are your options?

  1. First and most simply, is to bring with you whatever reading materials you may require for your trip.
  2. Second, you can seek out book stores in your travel destination. In a place like Buenos Aires, that will be very easy, in a place like Salento, Colombia, not so easy. In other places it might be easy but very expensive, especially if you are looking for books in your native language.
  3. A third, very useful option will be well-known to the backpacker set but maybe not so well known to others, and that is to exchange books at hostels. The selection and quality will vary greatly depending on the location, the size and popularity of the hostel, luck, etc. Regardless, it is worthwhile to investigate the options at several of the area hostels. Many offer straight one-for-one exchanges with no charge. Some charge a nominal exchange fee and others require a two-for-one exchange. But, in my experience staying at the hostel is not normally a requirement, so don’t let that prevent you from searching for something interesting to read.
  4. Besides hostels, a fourth option in some heavily visited areas is a visit to local restaurants and tour agencies that offer used books for sale and/or exchange.
  5. Fifth, there is a section for selling books on craigslist so if you are in a city that has a local craigslist that may be an option. Likewise, similar sites like eBay, Mercado Libre, etc. might be of value.
  6. A sixth option I have never used but have read about is The Book Depository, which apparently has an enormous collection of physical books and a complementary library of thousands of free e-books. Lifehacker compared the prices at The Book Depository to several other online retailers, including Amazon and Barnes and Nobles, and found The Book Depository prices generally the lowest, even without considering the free shipping. Thus, for international travelers, it is almost sure to be the best value.

A final option is the numerous book swapping sites online. Here is a partial listing for your consideration. Since some of these sites only function in the United States I have listed them separately.


  • BookMooch is a community for exchanging used books. Under a points system, it lets you give away books you no longer need in exchange for books you really want. There is no cost to join or use this web site: your only cost is mailing your books to others. You receive a tenth-of-a-point for every book you type into their system, and one point each time you give a book away. In order to keep receiving books, you need to give away at least one book for every two you receive. You can request books from other countries, in other languages. You receive 3 points when you send a book out of your country, to help compensate you for the greater mailing cost, but it only costs the moocher 2 points to get the book. You can also give your points to charities such as children’s hospitals (so a sick kid can get a free book delivered to their bed), Library fund, and African literacy. Other useful options include the ability to keep a “book wish list” that will automatically arrive to you when you have the points and/or the book becomes available in our catalog and feedback scores (each time you receive a book, you can leave feedback with the sender, just like how eBay does it).
  • ReaditSwapit’s motto is “If you’ve Read It, Swap It!” With more than 350,000 books available, this is another free service to consider and one that focuses on connecting individual swappers. The site is based in the UK so I presume most of the members are based there as well, though with the way the system works there should be no reason international shipping can’t be arranged between swapping parties.
  • MoochMuch is a handy way to help you and your friends mooch stuff from each other. The site lets friends search for something, keep track of who has it, and automatically remind them to return it.
  • BookCrossing is a great idea and a site that aims to be the world’s library. BookCrossing is the act of giving a book a unique identity so, as the book is passed from reader to reader, it can be tracked and thus connecting its readers. There are currently almost one million BookCrossers and more than eight million books traveling throughout 132 countries. How does it work? Label. Share. Follow. The site’s online archival and tracking system allows members to connect with other readers and trade and follow their books. Users are able to tag and track their individual books by marking them with BCIDs (BookCrossing Identity Numbers). Each BCID is unique to each book—once it’s registered on our site, the book can then be followed and journaled forever. There are many other interesting features to the site, including the ability to hunt for books in your neighborhood or around the world using the “Go Hunting” pages. BookCrossing is free to join and free to play.
  • claims to be the world’s largest swap marketplace with nearly 4 million swaps. It is an online marketplace that enables you to list what you have and swap for the things you want across many categories, not just books. Though it is a global site, when I visited there were only eight countries listed in the find swap search feature.


  • With more available books than the largest Barnes & Noble, Bookins claims to be the leading book-swapping site. The site arranges for trades—from you to one member and from a third member back to you, and so on. You never have to contact anyone, waste time, or deal with unpleasantness. You don’t even have to visit the post office. The correct postage for your shipment is provided from the website. You pay nothing to send an item and a flat-fee of US$4.49 to receive something, regardless of size or weight.
  • PaperbackSwap allows you to trade books for free easily: list books you’d like to swap with other club members; once a book is requested, mail it to the club member; in return, you may choose from more than 5 million available books! Note that books you request are mailed to you for free. Also note that despite the site name, you can swap NOT just paperback books but also hardbacks, audio books, textbooks and more.
  • By eliminating the need to buy and sell, SwapSimple’s powerful exchange solution gives its users a modern, effective, and lower cost alternative to purchasing the used textbooks, general literature, DVDs, and video games they desire.

So, assuming one or more of these options for finding books while you travel proves helpful, how might you go about deciding what to read? Most avid reader won’t have this problem, but rather a list that is too long. Still, Lifehacker has a great guide, How to Create an Awesome Summer Reading List that might help you expand that list. GoodReads can also help. It is the largest social network for readers in the world with more than 5,300,000 members who have added more than 160,000,000 books to their shelves. A place for casual readers and bona-fide bookworms alike, Goodreads members recommend books, compare what they are reading, keep track of what they’ve read and would like to read, form book clubs and much more. Last, but certainly not least, is my list of 100+ travel-specific reading options.

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