Every travel journal sitting on my top left-hand shelf holds many memories.
My stack of travel journals… the green one for Cuba, the pale blue for the Baltics and the rainbow cover for Nigeria. That thick yellow-and-black one from a small shop in Jakarta details my illness in Lake Toba; the sleek orange trip diary from Bührer Stationers in Geneva kicked off a European tour; that tatty burgundy travel notebook was bought in preparation for my trip around the world.
I just have to glance at the shelf and visions of elephants and savannahs and wood fires tumble out, along with the perfume of rice and beans or the song of a toucan.
They contain all the bits of my life away from home.
my trip JOURNAL THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY
Thick, slim, colorful, dreamy, lined, plain, spiral or bound, the cramped handwriting that fills them contains all my impressions of a place – its musty tropical smell, the rough texture of sun-baked walls, the black clothes of weather-worn women who look older than their years. I documented everything, in excruciating detail probably no one but myself will ever see.
But why keep a traveler’s journal these days when there are so many other ways of collecting memories? You can write a blog, post photographs and travel quotes on social media, email your thoughts home… Why not just a digital journal or one of the popular travel diary apps?
Of course you can do that.
I just don’t choose to.
To me there’s something magical about putting pen to paper, especially on that first page. (Who am I kidding? I get giddy just walking into the stationery store.)
Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned. Even though I’ve been pulled into the technological age (kicking and screaming) my thoughts and feelings still flow better through my handwriting.
Whether beneath a jacaranda tree, in a Saharan tent or rocking on a boat off Vancouver Island, the simple action of layering ink into a fresh journal notebook is almost ritualistic: it tells me my voyage has really begun.
Why should you keep a travel diary?
Like any other diary, a travel journal is personal and you can decide to start one for many reasons. Here are some of my best ones.
- If you travel solo, your journal is a friend. I often travel alone so putting it all down on paper is my way of sharing impressions, joys and discoveries. It’s a bit like talking to your best friend or companion.
- Writing a travel journal is also a way of sharing your journey with new friends along the way, or with family and friends back home when you return. (Yes, I know you can email or use social media but to me, that’s less personal than poring over every handcrafted page.)
- A journal is a tool for self-discovery. Mine acts as a mirror: when I write, I’m at my most honest. Since I can’t really delete what I’ve written (tear one page out and a dozen may come loose), once my words are on the page, they stay.
- Your journal can also be intimate and private, never to be shown, to be guarded jealously, a recipient of your own visions, like those childhood diaries you quickly hid under the mattress when an adult came in.
- There is the reportage or information-gathering function – recording the facts, such as the location of that great satay stall or the (exorbitant) price of a Paris-Geneva train ticket. Memory isn’t as elastic as you think, especially as you get older. Think of it as a sort of travel memory book.
- It fills in interminable stretches of time, when you’re on a long flight or train journey.
- I get to keep it forever, no matter what changes in technology.
- Looking at the world through the lens of an iPhone can actually detract from the experience (scientific studies confirm this). You shoot everything and file it away to sort through at some future point that may never come. Writing it all down forces you to notice things and parse what’s important. It helps you linger.
- Travel journaling helps you slow down and savor the moment. It’s a bit like meditation.
- Having to write things down teaches you to observe – a skill many of us have lost in this age of digital recording.
- The act of writing a trip journal is an act of organization. You have to decide what to keep, what to omit, in which order to tell your story. You get to have all your reference materials in a single place.
- Keeping a travel journal is like keeping any journal – it brings out feelings which you might gloss over in your busy everyday life.
- It blows up your creativity! By encouraging you to write every day, you practice the craft of writing and in this case, practice does make perfect. Almost. And it brings out the artist in you (you’ll find plenty of creative travel bullet journal ideas at the bottom of this page).
- A vacation journal is something you’ll treasure forever. You can relive your trip by leafing through its pages and admiring your doodles or bits of leaf – how often will you leaf through your app, do you think?
- It gives you permission to be miserable! Instead of laying out your loneliness at everyone’s feet, you can still externalize it – but without bringing anyone else into your mood.
- Your daily travel journal will inspire you. You can write down evocative foreign phrases or glue in a postcard or take notes about a song you’ve heard, each precious phrase bringing back a special moment in time.
the best travel journals: how to choose the right one
Not just any notebook will do, at least not for me. Scribbling in a cheap school exercise book may get my words on paper, but it won’t make inspiration flow.
I’m a stationery addict.
There. I’ve said it. I could go on for hours about the virtues and vices of each different kind of cover and paper and thickness and… but it’s your lucky day and I’ll spare you.
You, of course, can write in anything you choose, including scraps of stray paper. I can only think of one criterion your journal has to meet: it must inspire you. When you look at it, you should feel that urge to write. It should be calling your name.
Here are some of the characteristics you might look for in a perfect travel journal:
- Inspirational – we’ve just covered that
- Hard-backed – I won’t always find a table or something hard to write on (many others disagree and insist you should get a soft cover…)
- Flat-opening and bound with thread – you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever tried to write on a curved surface
- Dotted or blank – dotted makes it easier to write in a straight line on bumpy buses although a smooth, blank page compels me to pick up my pen and make that page mine; I occasionally used lined pages but only if they’re narrow-ruled and the lines are faint
- Not too large – you don’t want the extra weight or volume while you travel
- The smoothest of smooth papers to power up your writing
- A cover that speaks to me, and even the plainest do
And – your choice of pen also matters.
I know you can pick up a cheap plastic Bic anywhere in the world, but some pens flow better than others. Haven’t you noticed that certain nibs will make your words fly across a page?
You might also want a pen that won’t leak, like a space or bullet pen, some of which can get wet, hot, greasy and still work.
CREATIVE travel journal ideas – YOU MIGHT FIND YOUR BEST TRAVEL JOURNAL ON THIS LIST
I’ve seen beautiful vintage journals and handmade travel diaries, with artwork and feathers and paintings, so if you have an artistic bent, go for it!
But what about people like me, whose art skills lie somewhere between drawing a straight line with a ruler – and not? I need something ready to roll.
Here are my top 3 travel journals, not in any particular order:
- Marco Polo
I’ll start with this one because it’s my latest find, sent to me by the kind folks at Marco Polo travel journals. This is a travel journal with pockets and for that alone it stands out. But I took the travelling notebook on the right with me to Central Asia and found the paper was incredibly smooth, the dotted lines helped keep my squiggles in check, and it was full of stickies and smilies. Perhaps I should have outgrown all that but… I haven’t.
My other two top picks are Moleskine and Leuchtturm and I describe them below. I’ve also included a few others either because I’d like to try them, because friends have tried them or because they’re just a little bit different.
It really is a matter of taste. I may like the plainer blank journal books, but it’s all about what inspires YOU.
How to keep a travel journal and what to write about
I’m terrible at taking travel notes: I want to write it ALL down.
Only when I reread myself do I realize how much useless information I’ve documented.
Here’s what I tend to write about:
- What I see when I look around: colors, textures, buildings, trees, cars, games, foods, anything new or that sticks in my mind
- People I meet: what they look like, what they’re wearing, what they say, what gestures they use, their language, expressions and customs
- What I hear: opinions, stories, random conversations
- What I eat and where I stay: memorable hotels, huts, coconut vendors and food, always great food (sometimes I’m so busy eating I forget to write anything down and kick myself afterwards)
- My day-to-day experiences: what I do that’s different from what I would do at home – take a shower outdoors in the tropical rain and soap with a bottle of baby shampoo would qualify, as would sitting through a four-hour Bollywood movie – without subtitles
- My feelings: am I lonely, tired, happy, curious, homesick, exhilarated, recently showered (you’d be surprised how highly this one can rate if you’ve been on the road for a while)
- My thoughts: what is different, what upsets me and why, new things I’ve learned, expectations exceeded or unmet, new ideas, plans for the future, new directions
- And plain old daydreaming, which allows my spirit and soul to run free, even for a time
So what is a travel journal, exactly? It’s personal and what you want it to be. You will write how and about anything you want. (My favorite book for travel inspiration is Linda Lappin’s Soul of Place – a fabulous workbook for creative writing about place).
That’s the beauty of it – there is no set way. Every way is correct.
travel journal tips: getting organized
I like to have a routine when writing in a travel journal.
When I’m on the road, I always dedicate my first hour of the morning to writing (and drinking coffee). I gather my thoughts, write up the day before, and test my thinking for the coming day. Others prefer making their travel journal entry in the evening (as I should, because memories are clearer then – but I’m a morning person).
I do have a trick to keep things fresh: I carry around a small recorder; in past, that was a Dictaphone and now I use my iPhone. I record snippets, like a lady talking to herself or kids dancing in the street. When I play it back, what I’m hearing is still new, still immediate, and I’m filled with first impressions.
So here’s how to set up a travel journal as I see it.
Sometimes I make an outline in my head and know exactly what I’m going to write. Other times I just write – about anything that comes to mind, with my heart and soul rather than my mind. Both work for me.
If staring at a blank page fills you with dread, and it often does even me, a travel journal template might help: decide what matters to you and divide your page into those sections. In addition to the date and the place, typical sections could include the weather, 3 top places you saw, how you felt during the day, a lesson learned, something you hated, something you’re grateful for, a smell, a taste… anything you feel you’d like to remember. (Or you could just download my sample travel journal template!)
I like to try different tones and voices in my travel journal – I use dialogue, humor or a specific point of view, depending on my mood. I can be serious or flighty, political or naive. They all work and I like the variety. I can be as silly or as rude as I want – no one will read this but me, not unless I want them to (or if an evil cousin steals it and reads the whole thing).
And what about the writing itself?
Normally I don’t care. The words just come. But there is an exception – when I’m on assignment or writing for my blog. In those cases I write as though I were about to be published. I eventually WILL be so this makes sense and saves time. If being published is your goal, do keep an eye on your writing from the start.
Here are a few basic writing tips that I try to keep in mind when I make the effort to write well (and I admit I don’t always):
- When in doubt, read your writing out loud. You’ll know immediately if it sounds pompous or unclear.
- Keep it simple. No convoluted ideas. One thought, one sentence.
- Use active verbs: He bought the bag – NOT the bag was bought by him.
- Use evocative words. Rather than ‘the sun was very bright’, try ‘the sun was luminous’. Rather than ‘my clothes were very wet’, try ‘my clothes were soaked’. You get the picture.
- Add details. “The woman ate lunch” is a waste of space. “The smell of garlic from her frogs’ legs made me feel queasy – how could she eat that? And all that butter!” Doesn’t this awaken your senses?
- Speaking of picture, draw one in your mind. A sentence that paints an image in the reader’s mind is a strong sentence and will turn into a memory for the reader.
In the end, the only way to write – is to write. In this case, practice really does make perfect. If you happen to be a budding writer in search of training, you could start with my free travel writing course. If you’re ready for something more in-depth, award-winning travel writer David Farley has put together a fantastic travel writing course for beginners which is well worth the effort – I’ve written about it here. And if you’re looking for muscle power to plan like a pro, check out Faster to Master.
Beyond writing: travel scrapbook ideas
The written word is only my first step in keeping a travel diary. Then come the nuggets and bits and slices of life.
If I were designing travel journal sample pages I’d probably aim more for the travel scrapbook approach – some of my journals became so fat I used thick rubber bands to hold them together. I cut out local magazine ads, add bills from hotels or restaurants, glue in bits of local cloth, the corner of a banana leaf I used as a plate… or business cards, a few seeds, snippets from local newspapers, a feather from a chicken that was plunked on my lap on a Mozambican bus, a postcard, maps, stamps, candy wrappers, labels, receipts… And this is why you’ll never catch me without my glue stick. (See why using an app just won’t work for me?)
I also use colors. I carry a highlighter pen and colored pencils (stationery addict, remember?) This allows me to mind map (I love these! It’s the closest to art I get…) or draw (I’m really bad at this) or add graffiti or doodle. Since no one’s watching, I can get away with it.
Finally, if I meet someone memorable, I might ask them to write something in my journal – not a dedication or an autograph but a few words about their own world or thoughts. Unless it’s someone famous in which case yes, an autograph.
Travel journals have been around for a long time, as long as people have been traveling. Some of my fondest memories revolve around reading Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra or the even earlier travels of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, which helped nurture my own desire to run away and see the world. More neglected, sadly, are the travel diaries of early women writers, who set the tempo for the many talented female diarists who followed in their footsteps.
For centuries travel journals were the only window we had on certain corners of the world: we had no internet or YouTube, no mass media, no Twitter, no radio or TV, no way to know about China or Africa other than by reading the painstaking notes taken by earlier travelers.
If you really want to run away, at least in your mind, take a look at this Goodreads list of historical travel journals.
Some final tips about travel journals
- Always start with the date and the place. You’d be surprised how quickly everything gets jumbled up if you travel a lot and you won’t remember where you were, when.
- Try to write on the same day or on the next day. If you leave it longer, you’ll forget those essential first impressions. Anything not fresh from the experience will use only your mind, not your senses. I learned this the hard way.
- Add a Table of Contents to the inside cover once you’re finished a journal. If you only have one or two journals, you’ll probably remember what’s in them. If you have dozens like I do, you’ll waste a lot of time trying to find that description of Cuban beans on rice or of Table Mountain in the mist.
- Focus. Pick the ONE thing that struck you most and try to relate your entry to that. It will give your day depth and texture.
- Don’t neglect feelings. What you saw is important, but how it made you feel could be the stuff of legend.
- Add a map or itinerary so you can capture your trip at a glance.
Whatever notebook or pen I use, however I write, whatever the cover looks like – my travel journal is the one thing I never part with, either on the road or when I return home.
Writing a travel journal is an essential part of my journey and I don’t feel I’ve really lived a day on the road until it has been set down on paper.
Every time I open a new travel diary, I’m as excited as a six-year-old on her birthday. That twinge of anticipation tells me that even through I’m not on the plane yet, my journey has begun.
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Want to get really creative? These unique writing journals I FOUND ON INSTAGRAM should shake up your inner artist
Some people have unbelievable artistic skills. These holiday journal examples I found on Instagram reveal just how creative some people are. (I’m not, by the way – a few crooked lines is all I’m able to manage…)