How to Write a Travel Journal That’s Worth Reading

Shelves full of spiral-bound notebooks filled with scrawl you’ll never open again? Or treasure troves of notes and experiences that you’ll re-read until your grandchildren hit college? If you’re planning to keep a journal while you’re traveling, you won’t be alone, but the big question is how to write one that you’ll actually want to read again.

Some travelers swear by a laptop or an online blog to hold their memories, but this is not always practical, or in many cases not that desirable. When I travel, I still rely on my write-anywhere notebook and pen to record the special experiences I encounter.

Moleskine Notebook
Moleskine Travel Journal / © retro traveler

Tip 1: Pick an Attractive Book

This might seem superficial, but I bet the guy I met in a hostel in Vienna who was scribbling in a cheap school exercise book doesn’t open that up too often any more. I’ve always liked to buy a diary or notebook that’s a bit meaningful: in Slovakia, for example, I bought a hardcover notebook adorned with pictures of the pretty Bojnice Castle. I loved writing in it, probably wrote more than normal, and still like to grab it off my shelf today. Because we do judge a book by its cover, even if we wrote it ourselves.

Be careful to balance attractive with functional, though. In fact my favorite travel journals are spiral bound with thick, solid rings. They’re the easiest to open and lay flat while you write, or to balance on your lap or a tray in an airplane or train. Don’t be too cheap with it because this book’s going to get battered around on your travels, and you don’t want it falling apart.

Speaking of attractive: it might be a personal preference, or a completely neurotic habit, but I like to alternate the color of the pen I use each day. It’s more interesting to flip through, and easy to quickly locate where one day’s entry ends and another begins.

Tip 2: Weigh Your Words

Do not make the mistake of writing down every single thing that happens to you. Just because it’s happening in a foreign country doesn’t necessarily make it interesting, even to you.

I often want to remember practical facts from everyday life, like the number of the bus or the cost of a ticket, or even the series of stops my train makes. Instead of writing about this in long-winded prose, I make a few dot points of the salient facts and leave it at that. It’s also not necessary to list the chronology of your day, including how you got from X to Y: if it’s not interesting, leave it out. It usually won’t be that important in the future that you took a bus from the museum to the art gallery and it took 37 minutes.

Whenever you sit down to write in your journal, recall the sights or events of the last days that have made the biggest impression on you. Which special food did you eat, or how did you feel at a new museum? Try and paint a word picture describing your feelings and thoughts about your new experiences, as well as explaining the history or culture behind it. Talk about the different backgrounds of the locals or fellow travelers you’ve met, and why you like them (or not!).

Do make the effort to spend your first few words identifying the when and where. I always include a heading with both the day and date, plus the town I’m staying in, and the place where I’m writing the entry — the name of the hotel, a train line or a bench in a park.

Traveling Art Journal
© Elena777

Tip 3: The Original Multimedia Approach

Keep it interesting for your eyes by adding in the occasional tidbit that’s not just words. This might be a quick sketch to explain the bizarre arrangement of furniture in your current hotel room, or pasting in the train ticket with your name printed in the Cyrillic alphabet. My backpack always contains a pair of scissors and a small stick of glue, useful for many things but especially intended to help augment my travel journal.

Be creative about what the extra bits might be. When I traveled across Russia I bought the most delicious bag of wrapped candies in Irkutsk. I stuck one of these colorful candy wrappers into my journal and I can still taste them when I open to that page. At the same time, be selective about your extras, and don’t just stick in picture after picture from tourist brochures. Pick something meaningful.

Tip 4: Create an Index

I’m serious. While this might sound like an incredibly anally retentive thing to do, it works. Every time I get a new notebook to use as a travel diary (always an exciting moment), I sit down with a pen and number every page in the bottom corner. When the journal is full, I take a half hour to write an index that lists the main destinations of my trip and which page I can find them on. Later, when you want to re-read your journal, it will most often be because you want to check on the name of a museum you visited, or to find out the name of that friend you made in Beijing. You’ll be grateful for your handy index then.

26 Responses

  1. Sheila @ GoVisitHawaii

    I just started keeping a travel journal about a year ago. I wish that I had started keeping one 10 years ago. It’s sad to think of all the great memories I could have recorded from many years past. *sigh*

    One thing I like to add in my journal is the names of people that I meet on my travels. It seems like on each trip there is a special person who goes out of their way to be helpful or friendly and I always like to record that person’s name in my journal. It tends to solidify the memories.

    Reply
  2. Amanda

    I agree completely, Sheila. Especially the special people you’re sure you’ll never forget … I tend to write all kinds of neurotic things in my travel journals assuming the worst about my memory. Sometimes the act of writing helps me remember anyway – but if not, then at least I’ve got something to refer to. That way I can relive all these great experiences when I’m sitting in a boring desk job somewhere dreaming of another trip …

    Reply
  3. Karen

    I enjoyed reading all your tips and pointers. I’ve been planning to have my trips and vacations on writting but never really had the chance. Everytime me and my best friends go out we always have something crazy happening. To top it all, we got lost, miss a turn or take the wrong road to nowhere like today! The trip to Multnomah falls was just an adventure. I really need to have a journal. I’m sorry for this long email. goodluck to us all. Happy travelling.

    Reply
  4. Vietnam « badinage

    [...] also done a little on-line research for some tips on making the best travel journal I can (here and here).  My dream is to do so with every trip I [...]

    Reply
  5. Caitlin

    Thank you for this! I am going on a 6 week holiday to Europe, my first ever overseas, and I agree about the attractive book thing :) The one I got looks really nice with like famous attractions and like a suitcase, all with a nice colour scheme, and its really thick too I cant stop taking it out and admiring it! It also has a little pocket to put train tickets and things in too :) I went on this site to see how I would write it, and this gave me lots of ideas! Thank you :) Oh and I shall make an index :D good idea! x

    Reply
  6. Vanessa K.

    These were great tips! Thanks! I can’t wait to use them on my next trip (which is sadly unknown). On a side note, I absolutely love choosing notebooks. :)

    Reply
  7. Faith

    Hey this was an awesome article, thanks =)
    I’m going away with my grandparents next year and I want to make sure I keep a nice journal…so ta for the tips =)

    Reply
  8. Willy

    Hi Amanda,

    i believe your writing will inspired lot of travelers out there like what i felt just now.

    i can feel that you are not just an ordinary ‘walk through’ traveler, it is obvious that you treat all your journeys as ‘once in a lifetime’ moment.

    i also wishing all the good luck for your writing.

    Reply
  9. Louise Smithers

    Thank you so much for the tips. I’m about to travel to Thailand for three months, and want to create an interesting travel blog while I’m away. I will definitely check out the rest of your blog for some more inspiration!

    Reply
  10. tel

    My journals are usually pretty scribbled in and I really do want to make more time to do some sketches etc. I stick things in too. I like putting parts of maps of where I’ve been. Agree re spiral which is also good for when you stick things in and it gets fat – doesn’t burst its seams. I’ve been using the Art A% ones as heavier gsm so if doodling and sticking it doesn’t go through the thinner paper ones.
    Part of my journal is photos which is one way I see things but these end up in my Facebook albums. ALthough I did get one printed for one trip I did. Expensive though.
    Happy advetures

    Reply
  11. Linus

    I have been travelling overland in a convoy for the past 20 years. It is just us, our machines and the journey. Recently it occurred to me that I must record all my travels in a journal. Can anybody tell me how to I start?

    Reply
  12. Davis Keeler

    I use mid-range small 4-to notebooks because I like to decorate the outside as well as the inside pages. I test my pens before I leave to make sure they won’t bleed away if the journal is dropped in the river. I collect printed ephemera and paste in collages (ephemera distinctive of a place is increasingly hard to find in these days of the global market). I pay attention to what the layout of the pages looks like. I paste pockets into the journal to hold odds and ends.

    As with all writing, the best advice is do it. My early journals are awful; my later ones are a delight. I am at the moment using a journal I wrote a dozen years ago in Oaxaca to write a blog and am having a fine time of it.

    At the moment, I am writing about a lost tomb I got wind of when I was there, a story I have wanted to write ever since I got back. I am interested to see how it comes out.

    Eventually, I will move on to the Yucatan, Central America, Brasil, Greece, Italy and elsewhere. They’re all there in my old journals.

    Reply
  13. Shawn W

    Just a thought on what I plan to try and experiment with. I want to take a large wall size map such as one from the National Geographic store, and using specific locations, mark those areas with numbers, letters, just with some sort of system that can be cross referenced in a journal and a photo album for both visual reference to those memories as well as your documented words about the experience. I definitely agree with the index though. Maybe even dvd pockets for video of the trips.

    Reply
  14. paristhecutie

    This article was really helpful. I have to start one of these! :) :)

    Lol i just have to buy some glue and a notebook now :) :)

    (excited about starting my new journal :) )

    love this.

    Reply
  15. Betsy Burnett

    Ive kept journal/sketch books for the last few trips and love looking at them.one problem is that I’m usually too tired to finish (or even start) the sketches! I’m wondering if anyone has used a voice recorder and edited a journal from that. Thought I might try it for am upcoming trip to Spain. Of course that doesn’t help with the sketches! There never seems to be enough time! And, yes, a glue stick and scissors are essential

    Reply
  16. Wangari

    This is a really great read. I have never kept a travel diary but I realise, I have lost out on a lot. For my future travels, I will be sure to start recording. Thanks for the great tips

    Reply
  17. Fay

    I’m going through my mother’s travel diaries now and putting them on a blog. She kept them throughout her life – starting in 1933 at age 11 on a trip to the Chicago World’s Fair. I’m putting them online for my grown children but others are enjoying them as well.

    Late in their lives, my mom got them all out and would read them aloud to my dad. What a special thing to have and be able to do! Alas both are deceased now…I have so many questions to ask as I write.

    AA

    Reply
  18. The Furries & The Happy Club

    I used to sweat over writing a travel journal – both loving and hating it because it was a real chore to write everything I wanted to. Everything changed when I discovered speed journaling. Just write – don’t try to create bestselling prose.

    Reply

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