If you love to read, books can be a real issue when travelling. They are heavy to carry around and in many parts of the world it’s difficult to find quality, affordable books. We have really struggled with this in South America and ended up carrying around three or four novels at a time plus a guidebook, in case we ran out.
We finally had enough and decided to order a Kindle 3G from the US Amazon store while staying in Medellin for a few months. I had resisted up until now as I didn’t want to carry around more electronics, but I realised that an ebook reader is the ideal solution for travelling bookworms.
We fell for the Kindle instantly and it has made a huge difference to our travelling experience: our backpacks are much lighter and we have a massive selection of books to choose from.
Here’s why we think the Kindle is ideal for travellers:
Tiny Size – It’s incredibly slim and light, in fact it’s smaller than a paperback yet contains your complete library. It saves us lots of space and weight in our backpacks.
Huge Capacity – Although it’s small the Kindle can fit thousands of books. It has revolutionised reading the way the iPod did music listening.
Paper-like Screen – Reading on a computer is tiring for the eyes but the Kindle uses an e-ink display which is just like reading paper. It really is amazing. There is no glare so you can read it in bright sunlight. People often talk about the iPad being an e-reader but for me the LCD screen means it isn’t an option for long periods of reading.
Easy to Hold – One thing we didn’t expect is that reading on a Kindle is actually more comfortable that reading a real book. We didn’t go for the expensive leather cover which opens out like a book, but instead bought a lightweight neoprene sleeve that we slip the Kindle out of to read. As it’s so light you can easily read the Kindle in one hand – great for snuggling in bed. There are forward and back page turn buttons on each side so you can change your position and still change pages easily.
Long Battery Life – According to Amazon the battery lasts up to a month without WiFi or 10 days with WiFi switched on. We haven’t properly tested this yet, but without WiFi it seems to last a long time. It definitely lasts a lot longer than a laptop, iPod or iPad.
Great Choice of Books – After a year faced with Dan Brown or John Grisham in hostel book exchanges it’s wonderful to have such a huge choice of books from the Amazon store. It isn’t perfect as many books still aren’t available in Kindle edition – for example there aren’t as many Latin American novels as I’d like, but there’s still a massive selection. There are also many newspaper and magazine subscriptions that will be sent regularly straight to your Kindle.
Millions of Free Books Available – There are many free books available both on the Amazon store and from sites such as Project Gutenburg. Yes, they are mostly classics but it’s a good excuse to broaden your reading habits.
Easy to Buy – Amazon stores your credit card details so you can buy books with just one click. From the Amazon website you can just choose ‘Buy now’ and the book will be delivered within a minute to your Kindle, as long as you have WiFi or 3G turned on. If not it’ll download it the next time you do. Or you can buy from within your Kindle without the need of a computer. In fact it’s dangerously easy to buy!
Sample Chapters – I love the ability to try before you buy. For any book just click ‘Send sample now’ and the first chapter or two will be sent directly to your Kindle. The samples are usually a generous length. If you decide to buy it you can do so from the Kindle with just one click.
It’s Not Just For Books – You can read many document formats on your Kindle including PDFs, DOC, HTML, JPEG and TXT files. You need to get them converted to a format readable on the Kindle but this is easily done by emailing them to the personalised Kindle email address that you are given. There is no charge for this as long as you use WiFi rather than 3G when abroad. I use the free.kindle.com version of the email address to ensure I never pay.
You can also use the free Calibre software to convert pretty much any file to Kindle format.
Ability to Highlight & Make Notes – As well as bookmarking pages (although it always remembers the last page you were on), you can highlight words or passages and make notes. I find this particularly useful for guidebooks, or to highlight Spanish words I want to add to my vocab list later.
Built-in Dictionary -The Kindle comes with a built in English dictionary which you can browse and search in. Best of all if you move the cursor before a word while reading the definition pops up at the bottom of the screen.
I bought the Merriam-Webster Spanish – English dictionary and set this to my default dictionary (Press Home -Menu-Settings-Menu-Change Primary Dictionary). This has been amazing for reading Spanish books. I can easily see definitions without having to disturb the flow by stopping and flicking though a dictionary.
Sync Across Devices – If you have the free Kindle app for your iPod, iPad, iPhone, Android or computer when you buy a book it downloads it to all of your registered devices and even saves your page. So you can start reading on your Kindle and later pick up where you left off on your iPhone. This only works for books you buy though – not personal documents or free books you’ve got from outside Amazon.
Read Blog Posts – I’ve just discovered Instapaper, a free tool for saving web pages to read later. You get given a bookmark and just click Read Later for long posts you don’t want to read right then. I have set my account up to send these posts automatically to my Kindle every day. It’s so much nicer to read them on the Kindle screen.
Free Internet – We bought the version with both WiFi and 3G as we thought it would be useful to be able to check email and Twitter when we don’t have WiFi. The 3G has no roaming charges for unlimited use so it seemed worth the extra cost for us.
The web browser is experimental so it’s not brilliant but it’s definitely good to have. I particularly like being able to download books from Project Gutenburg direct to my Kindle, follow links in books or an Instapaper article, and look things up in Wikipedia. You can even tweet quotes from a page you are reading if you set up your Twitter account.
Extra Features – There are many extra features such as games (click alt-shift-M), a basic music player, and a text to speak option. I’m not really interested in these but some people might be.
So that’s the good, but what about the bad? These are the Kindle’s downsides:
Guidebook Navigation & Maps – Guidebooks are not that easy to flick through and the maps, especially larger ones are difficult to look at. Often they are too small to read easily. We have an iPod Touch though which our guidebooks get synced to and the maps are great on this. Read more here about whether digital guidebooks can replace paper books.
Web Browser – The WiFi is slower than on a computer, so when browsing the Amazon store it can take a few seconds for things to come up. The web browser is quite difficult to navigate and not all pages work very well. To make things easier make sure you bookmark the pages you use regularly and try Article Mode or zooming in for easier reading -all these are accessed by pressing Menu when you are in the browser.
To be honest this is almost a good thing as I don’t want to be distracted by the internet when reading. It is primarily an ebook reader and it does this very well.
PDFs Aren’t Perfect – Not all PDFs read well on the Kindle. If it’s a simple one with mostly text you’ll be fine, but if there are lots of images and tables it gets more complicated. There are options to convert PDFs to the Kindle better but I haven’t bothered with that yet. I have been happy with the PDFs I’ve read so far, even if a few things end up a little out of place.
Can’t Use US Store Abroad – [Update: I no longer have a problem with this] You can choose any address to register your Kindle to (it’s separate from your credit card address) so as we don’t have a fixed address we chose a relative’s US address, as the US Amazon store has the biggest variety and lowest prices for books. However after downloading a few books we got an email saying they knew we were using it outside of the US and we needed to email them ID such as a passport or driving licence to prove we are US citizens. As we couldn’t do this being UK citizens we continued to download books until we were blocked from using the US store after about 10 books.
We didn’t want to use the Latin American store as many books aren’t available, including guidebooks to Latin American countries! So we changed our address to our relative’s address in the UK and switched our purchases to the UK store. I don’t mind this too much as there are some good deals there but some things are more expensive or not available.
How to get around this?
I think the problem is that we initially used 3G to buy books. It’s possible that if you just use WiFi then they won’t notice where you are. I think it’s strange that we are able to use the UK store even though we aren’t in the UK – maybe it’s because we have a UK credit card or maybe they haven’t noticed we are in Colombia as we’ve been using WiFi for purchases.
You could also try using a VPN on your computer (we use Witopia) when buying books so it looks like you are in the US.
I know many people are resistant to giving up physical books but for the traveller the Kindle just makes sense.
Update: In 2014 I updated to a Kindle Paperwhite which is even better—read my review here.
Note: If you buy a Kindle through the Amazon links above we get a small commission. Thanks!
Do you have a Kindle or are you considering one? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.
Are you planning a trip in 2017? See our Gear and Resources page for our favourite tools to help you plan the perfect trip.
Enter your email to sign up for our monthly newsletter and free ebook South America Highlights.