How to get the most out of a travel journal

A travel journal: Your new best friend

A travel journal can be one of your most useful travel — make that life — tools. It can serve myriad purposes from recording your thoughts, emotions (an important aspect many overlook) and experiences to being a repository of creative ideas and even artwork. You can use it as a scrapbook, planning tool, contact book, organizer, reference book (for vital information such as passport numbers, hotel addresses, places to visit, etc.) and even a place to hide certain valuables.

It’s simple enough to put information into your travel journal. The hard part is being able to find or extract that information easily later on. But don’t worry. I’ll show you some techniques, hacks and tips for that and more based on decades trying a wide variety of travel journals and approaches. You’ll find these useful whether you’re an old pro at journaling or even if you’ve never used a travel journal before. And be sure to read all the way through this article since the Additional Resources section at the end is loaded with inspiring and helpful examples and ideas.

Getting started

The first and most important thing to remember is that there is no one right way to set up your travel journal. In fact, I’ve found that the best approach is to just start with something and learn as you go. My first travel journal was basically a daily diary: “Today I did this, etc.” Now, however, I use it in a very different matter. But it all comes down to this: What is the purpose of your travel journal?

First travel journal pages

Two typical entries from my first travel journal on my first trip to Europe in high school. I have upped my travel journal game a bit since then, or so I hope.

This is such an important question because it will guide what kind of notebook/journal/sketchbook you use, how you organize it and how you interact with it. If you’re just starting out, you may not even know your purpose other than to record your experiences. That’s fine. Start there. Then refine over time.

For me, I see my travel journal as a collection tool where I gather ideas, sketches, some to-do’s, trip details and anything else that interests me. But the main difference between this and most journals is that as a tool, I want to use my journal after I return. Not just for nostalgic reminisces on my trip, but to glean from it what I’ve learned, gained and become. I’ll explain this more momentarily.

Picking the right journal

Again, I’m not sure there is a universal “right” travel journal. Your goal is to find what works for you. You can start by determining if you want a blank notebook or a travel journal that comes with prompts, quotes, organizing categories, etc. Here’s a helpful list of 17 travel journals to give you an idea of the possibilities. Mostly, consider if you want to be drawing or even painting in your travel journal. If so, you’ll want thicker paper that won’t warp with the water or bleed through with ink. You likely will want blank pages, as opposed to lines, grids or dots.

Different page orientations

Just as there’s no right or wrong size (just what works for you), so too is the orientation up to you. As you can see here, I sketched holding the journal in a portrait orientation (left page) but wrote (right page, partial) using a landscape orientation. Both work.

If you want to use it as a form of a scrapbook, get one with pockets or that is expandable enough for when you’ve doubled the thickness with all those tickets, stamps, samples of currency, bottle labels and other elements you’ve glued to the pages.

Buying a nice looking or feeling notebook or journal can be motivating. But getting too nice of a notebook to use can be intimidating: You’ll be afraid to mess it up. Thus, I suggest starting somewhere in the middle. Find a journal or notebook that will hold up well (hard covers help in this regard), but isn’t so expensive you’ll only want to use it on special occasions.

Patterned paper pages

Even fancy patterns on your pages can be fun. I tend to prefer blank pages, but sometimes I’ll try different patterns just to mix things up.

Your travel journal is more of a workhorse than a show pony (though sometimes a bit of that too later on). You’ll get far more out of one you use all the time, where you write, scribble, doodle and sketch with the intent that only you will ever see it. If you choose to show it to others later, fine. But don’t make that your main goal, at least as a beginner, or you’ll never get the most out of your journal.

How will you use your travel journal?

Back to purpose, you can choose to have a general-use journal or one devoted only to your trips (or to a particular trip). I have done both, and there are pros and cons to each. A journal for all situations allows you to connect everything you do so that if a great work idea hits you on a trip, you can reference back to a meeting about that, etc. You can also find things easier in some ways since your whole life, trip or home/work, is laid out in a chronological fashion in one book.

Daily entry journal

Here’s a recent journal of mine that I use daily, as well as for trips. You can see the basic outline for this article here that I wrote on the plane on a business trip. How do I know it was on a trip? From the notation that the sketch was done from a photo in the airplane’s magazine somewhere between Baltimore (BWI) and Seattle (SEA)

A really popular approach these days to general journals is the Bullet Journal. Many people swear by this way of organizing their journal and their life. I love many of the ideas found in bullet journaling. But I choose not to follow that approach completely. Why? Bullet journaling is primarily intended as a productivity tool. I personally don’t find it helpful in that regard because, for example, tracking all my calendar events and moment-by-moment to-do’s in a journal slows me down.

Combine digital and analog

Instead, I use a combination of Outlook, Trello, Evernote and Scrivener (the latter two for organizing ideas and writing projects or content) on my phone and computer. The main reason for tracking tasks digitally is that they roll over automatically. I don’t have to constantly move them manually from one day, week or month to-do list to the next.

But the main reason I don’t use the bullet journal methodology for my travel journal is that when I travel, productivity is not my goal. Exploration and discovery are. I use my travel journal to capture what I learn as I explore the world around me and the world within me wherever I go.

Page from China travel journal

On a trip, I’m less interested in productivity than in explaining why this sketch was hard to do well.

In the last few years, I’ve taken up sketching and even watercolors, so for me, I now maintain a separate travel journal for each major trip. I use one that has thicker watercolor paper, so on a three-week trip, I can pretty much fill up the whole book. But for shorter trips, I do use my day-to-day journal. And I’ve even done both: Used my day-to-day journal to record words and a smaller sketchbook for drawings or watercolors. Again, no right or wrong way to do this. Just start with an approach and build from there.

Organizing your travel journal

What follows is how I organize my travel journal. It’s the same way I do my day-to-day but with some additional pages in the end for travel-specific information. My purpose, remember, is to capture ideas, information and experiences and then to be able to use these later. For that reason, the most helpful part of my journal is the index. I’ll explain that in a moment, but here’s what else goes into my journal.

Starting with a brand new empty journal

The first thing I do with a new journal is to put my name, cell phone number and email address on the inside cover.

Next, if the journal doesn’t have a rear pocket, I make one or glue/tape in a small envelope that fits on the inside of the rear cover.

If you glue in your own, consider hiding a few large denomination bills, both dollars and the local currency, behind the envelope or anything else you tape or glue inside the covers. It’s a great place for hiding back-up money. It works because once you start using your travel journal regularly, you’ll find it is one of your most precious possessions. You’ll learn to guard it like your wallet, passport or phone.

Stacks of travel journals

These are just some of the many travel journals I’ve filled up over the years.

In addition to the pocket or envelope in your journal, consider bringing a quart or gallon-sized zip lock bag to hold all the small items you pick up along the way. I used to shove them into pockets in my carry-on bag, but having a single location now keeps them from getting lost or mangled. And it keeps my travel journal from looking like George Costanza’s wallet on Seinfeld. This same bag can hold a glue stick, paper clips or anything else you want for adding items to your journal.

Start in the front and work back

I track everything chronologically noting the date at the top of each day’s entry. If it spans multiple pages, I’ll write “(cont.)” after the date on later spreads so I know to keep looking for the start of that day when I review the entry later.

I work in this chronological fashion for recording most of my entries because I find it flows better to write the item down right away and then figure out how to classify it later. I set up indexes in the back for classifying and locating the entry. But that comes as a review step, not a creative or collecting function.

What to write

Starting at the front section of the travel journal, I may use the very first page as a title page if the journal is devoted to a single trip. Otherwise, I skip over that page and then start with the date of the start of the trip and then just keep going from there. Here are the types of content I write/draw:

Sketching pages

Sometimes, I’ll devote a whole page or spread to nothing but sketches.

  • General thoughts. These make up the majority of my journal and are what you’d expect in any journal.
  • Sketches. I’m still just a beginner, but I’ve committed to one sketch per day, at home or on a trip. Sometimes they are involved. Others (most of the time), are just a quick gesture. But the discipline helps improve my skill.
  • A daily log. At the end of each day, I do a very quick list of summary activities, where I went, who I met, what I did. I actually note it like this: “(Log 11/27/19 – Wed.):” so that I can see at a glance what were log entries versus other ideas. For logs, the shorter the better. Here’s where bullet journal techniques can help: Record a few words as a bullet rather than full sentences. At the end of every daily log, I also record two specific items in addition log entries themselves, gratitude points and what I’ve read or watched.
  • Gratitude points: I jot down what I call a Goodness Journal (abbreviated as GJ) entry. This is the highlight of my day for which I am most grateful. On trips, this can often end up being multiple points.
  • Read/Watched: The second additional component is what I call Read/Watched (R/W) where I list any books I’ve read that day or any movies, programs, concerts, etc. that I watched. It can include podcasts and anything else you want to track. Before I started doing this, I’d get to the end of the year and couldn’t recall all the books I’d read. Now I can just by referring back to these entries.
  • Insights and Ideas. Most of my journal at home is filled with these. On trips, these happen more on plane, train or bus rides than every single day. But they could happen any time which is why I keep a pocket-sized travel journal with me or at least a note card or my phone so I can write the idea down immediately.
  • Quotes. These can be formal written ones I encounter or snippets of conversations I overhear. As a writer, I want to always be gathering dialog examples or clever turns of phrases.
  • To-dos. Yes, I said I record these digitally for the daily tasks. But sometimes on trips, you have opportunities for dreaming and planning. I mark all to-do’s with a checkbox I can fill in later. I like the bullet journal way they do this as well (a dot instead of a box).
  • Stamped page

    I had a gentleman in China demonstrate his woodblock stamps by stamping some examples in my journal. You can paste in stamps, tickets, receipts, postcards or any other artifacts from your trip onto your journal pages as you go (if you remember to bring some glue or paste).

    Emotions. Writing down how you felt in the moment it is happening or shortly thereafter will mean so much to you later on. Go beyond the facts to the feelings. Forcing yourself to put what you’re experiencing in words helps to clarify the experience better. And don’t worry if you can’t. Some big moments defy words, but even noting that — “It was an incredible experience I can’t even yet describe” says more later than, “Great dinner in Prague.”
  • Descriptions. These are either quick notes on what I’m seeing, hearing, tasting or tasting, or longer ways to capture the details of a place. See Look Closely for details on how to do this as a way to learn to see details better or to write better based on your travels. I also make sure to write down the names of places, people, food, local expressions and anything else I want to write about later. Don’t assume you’ll remember it or can look it up later. Write it down.
  • Miscellaneous. I’ve had artists draw in my journal, had people stamp it (see photo above), record different colors of beverages spilled or intentionally dripped on it and a wealth of other things added. Be open to how you can use your journal. Or for fun, try this exercise: Come up with as many ways as you can think of to use your travel journal on your next trip.

The back of the journal

The front of the journal is used for a chronological input of information each day (or whenever you choose). The goal there is to record the idea, insight, drawing or information just like in a diary. The back of the journal is where you’ll organize it all for later retrieval.

Working from the last page backwards, I set up a series of index or topic pages (see the list below) where I record anything related to that topic either verbatim (if I have the time and forethought to write it down there such as contact info or a quote I came across) or as a page number reference and summary line from the front of the journal (hence the reason these back-of-the-journal pages are called Index Pages).

For me, I find that most index sections only require one page (e.g. for Contacts or Travel Details) but I leave two pages for Ideas or Vocabulary since they tend to have more entries. I write small (some would say ridiculously small), so if you don’t, you may want to leave more room.

Review your entries and record them for easier retrieval

I don’t assign page numbers as I write in the front of the journal. Instead, I jot down a page number later, maybe daily, maybe weekly, as I review my journal. Writing down the page number during the review phase shows me which pages have been indexed. No page number indicates it still needs to be indexed. As I review each page, I also code the entries themselves on the journal pages by highlighting the topic or assigning a word or letter to let me know what it is. For example, if there’s a quote, I will write “Quote” and circle it right before the quote. For blog ideas, I’ll write “blog” and circle that, etc. If  an idea that has distinct merit, I’ll draw a star next to it. Particular project ideas get a corresponding code, e.g. if it’s about my book on Hidden Travel, I’ll write “HT” and circle that. The whole point is to make it easier to spot the entry when you’re reviewing the page later.

Quote example page

Here you can (hopefully) see how I’ve written and circled page numbers at the top and put a box around the word “Quote” on the left page and “Visual appeal article” on the right page. Then, on the Quotes index page, I’ll write “108” and circle it with a quick notation like, “E.B. White on saving/savoring the world.” On the Ideas index page, I’ll write “109” and circle it with the notation, “Visual Appeal article questions.”

In case you’re wondering why the index/topic pages go in the back and not in the front like a table of contents, it’s because I often add topics as I progress through the journal. Working from the back gives me room to add new pages whereas if I’d started from the front and I didn’t guess correctly, I’d be out of room before running into my journal entries.

Pre-Trip Items

Some of my index/topic pages get filled in (or at least started) before my trip either as planning or to load my travel journal with important information to have on my trip. Here are some of the key sections.

  • Shot list

    Here’s an example of a shot list from my China trip journal. I tend to write pretty small in the back section of a journal! The whited out area was my passport number in code. Writing key information on pages with other entries makes it even less obvious this is something valuable.

    Travel details. I use the app, TripIt, to record all my reservation information. I also print out a copy in case my phone is lost or not working. But in my travel journal, I’ll record some key addresses and phone numbers of hotels or reservations as yet another backup. Mostly, I write down the passport numbers of everyone in my party, the phone number of my bank (in case my credit card is lost) and even (sometimes) the credit card numbers themselves. However, for anything confidential, I always write these in code, mixing up the order of the numbers or adding in extra ones so that if I lose my journal, no one other than a cryptology expert could figure these out. I also have a back-up copy of all this in a password-protected file stored on the cloud.
  • Vocabulary. On trips to countries where I’m learning the language, I’ll add new vocabulary words here usually starting long before the trip. These are key words to practice, as well as new ones I pick up as I travel.
  • Shot list. When planning my trip, as a photographer, I make a list of specific places, scenes, techniques I want to try or even times of day I want to shoot. Check out my Beginner’s Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photos for more on this and other travel photo techniques. In addition, as I review guidebooks or articles, I’ll add interesting places to this list. Even if you’re not a photographer, you can make a list of “must see” places or “must do” experiences or activities. Writing them down really helps because it makes it so easy to find all these in one place rather than hunting through a guidebook or other pages on your trip.
  • Themes and Moments. This is yet another pre-trip fill-in page. I try to come up with a theme or quest for each trip. Writing down ideas about that or defining it really adds to the anticipation of the trip. On this page, I’ll also jot down ideas for creating magic or defining moments for others on the trip. This includes ideas for the activities or contact info for places or people that will be part of the activity.

Add as you travel

Here are some typical index/topic pages in the back of my travel journal that get filled in as I go:

  • Contact information. I keep a separate page to record the names, email addresses, etc. of people I meet along the way. If, in a hurry, I just write down a name and email address in the front-of-the-book journaling section. I’ll later record the page number and contact name on the page here so all I can find all my contacts in one place later.
  • Ideas. This becomes a catchall for any creative ideas I’ve had. I normally start with the page number(s) followed by a brief summary such as “27 – 29: Dining room chair design” or “73: Article on architecture styles in Morocco.”
Ideas Index Page

Here’s the Ideas Index Page from my China trip journal. I had started the page on the left as a vocabulary list but made room from more ideas when I ran out of space on the page on the right.

  • Books and Movies. This too is a catchall for any form of entertainment I want to read. I constantly get book and movie (and even song or podcast) recommendations as I travel that I add here with an open check box. I also record books I’ve finished to this list noting those with a checked box.
  • Quotes. As noted above, these may be written quotes I come across or snippets of dialog I pick up. I either write the quote here directly or reference the journal page where I wrote the quote with a reminder such as “53-quote from Leipzig waitress on timing.”
  • Things I Notice page

    You can do a trip highlights page on the flight home, but sometimes it helps to record a summary of details in the midst of your trip of things that stand out to you.

    Projects. I have a few big creative projects going all the time like books I’m writing or courses I’m creating. I could just add the page number references to the Ideas page. But because I end up having so many ideas related to a specific project, it helps to give each project its own index page.
  • To-do’s. I said I like to keep my travel journal free from productivity and time management, but I always have big-picture to-do activities that arise on a trip. I’ll record these as I go in the journal section, but for longer-term ones I don’t want to lose track of, I sometimes add a to-do index as well in the back of the journal. This can also be a great place to record future planning ideas for things you want to accomplish after your trip.
  • Trip highlights. I’ll normally note the big moments in the journal section as they occur. But often on the flight home, I like to review these and capture them all in one place with the page reference and a brief notation. I may also add in additional ones at this point because sometimes, you don’t realize how powerful or meaningful a moment was at the time.

When your journal is full

Eventually, you’ll fill up your journal with entries. You’ll then review and have every page numbered with key entries noted in your index pages. Then what?

I use Scrivener (for writing projects) and Evernote (for others) as software/apps to track ideas over time. Thus, when I finish a journal, I go copy the content from my index pages into one of these digital programs.

There are several reasons for this. First, it helps to have all your ideas over time in one place so you can view them easier. Second, with the online tools, I can tag content by subject making retrieval later much easier. Most of us focus our efforts on having ideas and maybe writing them down. But those ideas won’t serve you well if you can’t find them later. Finally, putting everything into one place helps me see patterns and related ideas which, in turn, sparks new ideas.

It all relates to the concept of Collect, Connect and Share. If all you’re doing is collecting, you’re missing out on the main value of your journal.

Make a copy

This may be overkill to some, but my journals are precious repositories of life. I would hate to lose them. I could dictate the contents and transcribe that, but I don’t have that kind of time. Instead, Evernote comes to the rescue.

The Evernote app has a photo function. I open the app and take pictures of every spread or page of my journal. I save the results as an Evernote file and can even tag it by date, country or other criteria. It then resides on the cloud (and I also do a back-up on a drive at home). That way, if the original gets lost, I know that all those memories are secure.

Let’s review

Here’s a summary of the key points:

  • Know the purpose for your journal
  • Choose the type of journal based on your intended purpose.
  • Start with something that’s not too nice so that you’re not afraid to mark it up.
  • Keep daily entries in the front and a list of index pages in the back of the journal.
  • Periodically review your journal entries. As you do, number each page and record that page number and a brief reminder on the appropriate index page.
  • At the end of each journal, photograph each page and save to a secure location. Then enter the index information into whatever tool you use for tracking all of your ideas over time.

Additional resources

Here are other resources to both inspire and help you get the most out of your travel journal:

Travel sketch

Travel sketchTravel sketch

  • If you really enjoy the sketching aspect of a travel journal, you might want to connect with the whole Urban Sketchers movement. Here’s an example of a sketch by Stephanie Bower. I took some of her architectural sketching courses online at Bluprint and they were excellent.

Sketch of Croatia building

Parting thoughts

Finally, if you want even more information on travel journals, be sure to read Lavinia Spalding’s excellent book on the subject, Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler. Here’s one of many great quotes from the book:

“If we’re committed to honest investigation, the travel journal can be a cornerstone of growth and a catalyst for great work, providing a safe container for astonishing discoveries and the life lessons we take away from them. We write words in an empty book, and an inanimate object is transformed into a living, breathing memoir. In turn, as we write, the journal transforms us. It allows us to instantly process impressions, which leads to a more examined layer of consciousness in both the present and the future. It’s a relationship, and let me tell you, it’s no cheap one-night stand.”

You might want to consider writing that quote down in your travel journal. Either in the daily entries or on the quotes index page. Or however you want to do it. It’s your travel journal and the possibilities are endless.

 

Use your words: Why it helps to write things down

Use your words: Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia

I remember the place – Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain – but how I felt at the time or other details? All a blur. I should have used my words…

Use your words

When our sons were little, they’d reach a point of either frustration or excitement where they couldn’t convey their intent. Gestures, crying, repeating the same undecipherable jumble always resulted in our same, calming response: “Use your words.”

Now that I’m older, I have to remind myself of that advice. When traveling to a new place that makes me so giddy with excitement to see more, I can easily put the arm-waving, up-and-down jumping, glee squeaking gyrations of my children to shame. At least on the inside. I do try and retain some external decorum. Try.

But then, after the initial wave of enthusiasm passes and especially later when I attempt to recount the wonder of a place to others, I hit a snag. I can remember the emotions and some of the details, but I can’t always connect the two in ways that make sense to others.

Why? Because I didn’t use my words. I didn’t write down the details of both the place and my response to it right away. As a result, that moment is gone and the specifics that made it so special are, at least partially, lost.

Write it down right away

Earlier, we looked at how details can make your writing more interesting and the free guide, Come Closer: A Novelist’s Approach to Capturing Details. But how and even when you capture those details matters in your ability to use them well later.

The prolific travel writer Tim Cahill addresses this in his story, “The Place I’ll Never Forget” found in the collection An Innocent Abroad edited by Don George. In trying to recount experiences later he notes:

“…it occurred to me that the stories I told would benefit from more detail. I couldn’t just experience something and expect to have it etched indelibly into my memory. I had to give names to the colors and odors and feel of things. I had to assess my own feelings, which gave emotion to the landscape. And I needed to do it on the spot because travel often doesn’t allow you to backtrack.”

That’s vital for writers and artists to remember: If we don’t capture the details and our emotional response to them while we’re right there, we’re rarely given a second chance. Time and memory quickly distort our recollections of the moment.

When it comes to using your words, Cahill notes:

“Some people are certain they can recall such physical and emotional experiences through their photographs. I can’t argue the point, though feeling through a lens is a rare talent and one I don’t possess. I need to put words to sensations and emotions to own them forever. Whenever I can’t figure something out and take a photograph rather than a note, I know I’m losing the scene forever.”

Use your words to capture what lies beneath the surface

I love photography. But I’m finding that like Cahill, sometimes a photograph can’t capture what he refers to as the “interior landscape,” our internal response to the external scene. Taking notes as soon as we can after the experience allows us to record both what we see and feel. We begin to find meaning in the experience right there because we’re processing it in real time.

I still tend to rush into and out of a scene, clicking away and hoping I can later reconstruct through images what occurred there. But increasingly, I’m trying to pause amidst the excitement of the place and at least scribble down or record verbally my reaction to it. Images matter and are a great resource for reviewing later for details. But if you want to capture those details and the meaning behind them, do what we told our kids.

Use your words.