Sullivan's Travels was not as immediately successful at the box office as earlier Sturges films such as The Great McGinty and The Lady Eve, and received mixed critical reception. Although the review in the New York Times called the film "the most brilliant picture yet this year" and praised Sturges's mix of escapist fun with underlying significance, the Hollywood Reporter said that it lacked the "down to earth quality and sincerity which made [Sturges's] other three pictures a joy to behold" and that "Sturges...fails to heed the message that writer Sturges proves in his script. Laughter is the thing people want — not social studies." The New Yorker's review said that "anyone can make a mistake, Preston Sturges, even. The mistake in question is a pretentious number called Sullivan's Travels." Nevertheless the Times named it as one of the "10 Best Films of 1941", and the National Board of Review nominated it as best picture of the year.
Over time, the reputation of the film has improved tremendously, and it is now considered a classic, with at least one reviewer calling it Sturges's "masterpiece" and "one of the finest movies about movies ever made."