Paramount purchased Sturges's script for Sullivan's Travels for $6,000. He wrote the film [as a] response to the "preaching" he found in other comedies "which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message." Sturges may have been influenced by the stories of John Garfield, who lived the life of a hobo, riding freight trains and hitchhiking his way cross country for a short period in the 1930s. Sturges wrote the film with Joel McCrea in mind, but found the female lead through the casting process. Barbara Stanwyck was considered, as well as Frances Farmer.
The film as released opens with a dedication:
To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.
This was originally intended to be spoken by Sullivan. Sturges wanted the film to begin with the prologue: "This is the story of a man who wanted to wash an elephant. The elephant darn near ruined him." Paramount contracted with the Schlesinger Corp., who made the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, to make an animated main title sequence, but this was not used in the film, if it was ever actually produced.
The censors at the Hays Office had objections to the script which the studio submitted to them. They felt that the word "bum" would be rejected by British censors, and warned that there should be no "suggestion of sexual intimacy" between Sullivan and The Girl in the scenes in which they are sleeping together at the mission.
Sullivan's Travels went into production on 12 May 1941 and wrapped on 22 July. Location shooting took place in Canoga Park, San Marino, Castaic and at Lockheed Air Terminal.
Veronica Lake was six months pregnant at the beginning of production, a fact she didn't tell Sturges until filming began. Sturges was so furious when he learned that, according to Lake, he had to be physically restrained. Sturges consulted with Lake's doctor to see if she could perform the part, and hired former Tournament of Roses queen Cheryl Walker as Lake's double. Edith Head, Hollywood's most renowned costume designer, was tasked to find ways of concealing Lake's condition. Reportedly, Lake was disliked by some of her co-stars; McCrea refused to work with her again, turning down a lead role in I Married a Witch, and Fredric March, who got the part, didn't get along with her as well. McCrea got along famously, however, with Sturges, and afterward presented him with a watch engraved "for the finest direction I've ever had." Sturges' assistant director, Anthony Mann, was also heavily influenced by the production. 
There were some minor problems during filming. Sturges had wanted to use a clip from a Charlie Chaplin film for the church scene, but was turned down by Chaplin. McCrea does parody Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character earlier in the film. Also, the "Poverty Montage" was scheduled to take three hours to film, but instead took seven hours. Incidents such as this may account for the film, which cost more than $689,000 to produce, going more than $86,000 over budget.
The film was first screened for critics on December 4, 1941. Its public premiere occurred on January 28, 1942, in New York City at the New York Paramount Theatre. Its Hollywood premiere occurred two weeks later on February 12, 1942, at the Los Angeles Paramount Theatre.
When the film was released, the U.S. government's Office of Censorship declined to approve it for export overseas during wartime, because of the "long sequence showing life in a prison chain gang which is most objectionable because of the brutality and inhumanity with which the prisoners are treated." This conformed with the office's standing policy of not exporting films which could be used for propaganda purposes by the enemy. The producers of the film declined to make suggested changes which could have altered the film's status.
Sullivan's Travels was released on video in the U.S. on 16 March 1989, and re-released on 30 June 1993. The film was re-released in the UK with a restored print on 12 May 2000.