The Art and Value of Journaling as You Travel

Travel can make you a poet. Travel can be spiritual. You meet people on the road you’d never meet otherwise. Traveling rearranges your cultural furniture, challenging truths you assumed were self-evident and God-given. By traveling, you learn not only about the people and places you visit — you learn about yourself. (You come home pregnant with ideas that you know will piss a lot of people off. And you get a strange joy out of sharing them.)

But without capturing your thoughts on paper, the lessons of travel are like shooting stars you just missed…and butterflies you thought you saw. Collecting intimate details on the road and then distilling them into your journal sharpens your ability to observe and creates a souvenir you’ll always cherish.

Choose your travel journal carefully. I prefer a minimalist journal, light yet stiff enough to protect the pages and to give me something solid to write on (since I often write on the fly without a convenient table). I like invitingly empty pages — not pages decorated with extra literary frills and verbose doodads. It’s my journal, not someone else’s chance to decorate my observations with cute quotes, clever tips, and handy reminders. I use black ink or a mechanical pencil. Nothing should compete with the simple words. Avoid spiral notebooks — they fall apart quickly. A bound book will become a classic on your bookshelf. (BTW: We’ve designed the traveler’s journal of my dreams that will be available in a couple weeks on our website.)

The key to good journaling is being both observant and disciplined…to take the time to notice what you’re noticing and then to jot down your thoughts. I use a tiny pocket-sized notepad to capture the moment right there. Then, when I have time, I pull out my actual journal, sort through those notes, and organize them into something vivid and fun to read.

Thinking back, it seems I’ve always had a desire to capture my discoveries and eureka moments in a journal. On my first trip (as a 14-year-old), I collected and logged my experiences in a file of several hundred postcards, each numbered and packed with my notes.

Every trip I took inspired my passion for filling up an “empty book,” even back when I was simply a footloose, fancy-free vagabond with no intention of being a travel writer. The flight over came with a ritual personal inventory of where I was at psychologically as I began the trip, and the flight home came with a similar introspective wrap-up. And each night in between I wouldn’t drift off to sleep without collecting my day’s experiences, discoveries, and thoughts into that book. The book, which started empty, always came home full.

Hiking deep into a misty English moor as a teenage traveler, I wrote, “Long-haired goats and sheep seem to gnaw on grass in their sleep. We were lost in a world of green, wind, white rocks, and birds — birds singing, but not present. Then we found the stones. Standing in a circle they have waited for endless centuries — not moving — waiting for us to come. And in stillness, they entertained. After being alone with our private stone circle, Stonehenge — with its barbed wire, tour buses, and port-a-loos — won’t quite make it.” It was on the boat to France the next day that I worked on those rough notes, and realized that finding hidden bits of Europe and bringing them home through my writing was what I wanted to do for a living.

Now, three decades later, I still snare those happenings as they flit by, eager to see what I can build with all that fun raw material. On my last trip to Helsinki, I was so flustered by the language barrier in an extremely local sauna that I didn’t know how to get a dry towel. Sitting in the corner to air dry, I decided to pass the time observing and jotting down ideas for my journal:

“People look more timeless and ethnic when naked with hair wet and stringy. The entire steamy scene was three colors: gray concrete, dark wood, and ruddy flesh. Surrounded by naked locals (each with a tin bucket between his legs — to use to splash cool water on his face), there was absolutely no indication of what century I was in. But from the faces, it was perfectly clear: this was Finland.”

With those notes, I can revisit that sauna for the rest of my life. Enjoy the physical act of putting pen to paper, gathering new experiences, lessons, thoughts, and feelings while they are fresh and vibrant.

If your life is a canvas, travels bring new color. And journaling is like being a painter who stands back every once in a while to both understand and enjoy the art as it unfolds.


30 Replies to “The Art and Value of Journaling as You Travel”

  1. Thanks for sharing the quotes from your writing as a teenager. Amazing how good you were at observation even then. As someone who views the world from an anthropological perspective, I appreciate the “strange joy” you get from sharing provocative ideas with those not quite ready to receive them.

  2. Wait! Let me see if I’ve got this right. The longhaired goats and sheep represent the mindless public and the grass they are eating represents the political rhetoric put out by the political candidates. The naked Finns must be Rick’s wish that we strip away everything that is superficial about the candidates and we will be enlightened. So there is an underlying political message to all of Rick’s post! J/K

  3. I like to journal and blog. I tend to write too much though. However, I agree with Rick and not just about travel. I write to remember experiences in my life and reflect. And without that, I wouldn’t have learned all the things I have about who I am if I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on these things. The same is true with my travels. On my last trip to Spain and Portugal, I did a very detailed journal and it makes the experiences I had and the lessons learned so much more memorable. While it was a great trip, journaling helped me learn a lot about myself from that trip. I may have learned more about myself on that trip that any other one I have taken. And that was my 4th trip to Europe in the last 4 years.

  4. I love to journal when I travel. In fact, it’s the only time I keep a journal. I collect my travel journals on my bookshelf, and whenever I want to take a mini-vacation, I reread the notes from a trip and I’m instantly transported.

  5. What a great idea. It has been several years since I “journaled”. I don’t know why I stopped, but when I read your blog I realized how many special moments we lose by not jotting down those special moments as we travel. Thank you for also sharing some of your thoughts with us. Dino, you are very bad; a twisted sense of humor that makes me laugh.

  6. The only time I journal is when I travel, and I was surprised to find that it does make a difference what notebook I use – when I ran out of my usual 5×7 in. Mead notebooks (yes, spiral) in the middle of India, the larger, thinner replacement just didn’t work well for me, and I wrote less.

  7. After the link to the travel store journals, looks like they are being sold right now. But, seriously, I do journal on a PDA with a fold up keyboard when I travel.

  8. I like to make a scrapbook as I go. I take scissors, glue and tape. Some pages I write on. A journal for writting would have to do for packing light until I got home to make my creation of travels. :)

  9. For several years I sent emails to a long list of friends, then this past spring I set up a blog. Each night I’d find myself a computer at the hotel and describe my day’s activities and observations. The knowledge that my friends were expecting to hear from me kept me going when I was really tired. And, hearing back from people was a wonderful bonus. I find that the act of sitting at the computer brings out a better writer in me. When I review what I’ve written afer I return home, I”m often surprised at my use of language and style. Also, my handwriting stinks!

  10. How synchronistic! Just tonight, as I was preparing dinner, I was talking to my adult son about the expansiveness of travel. As he lamented the State of the (American) Union, I encouraged him to go abroad and discover why this is still the best idea for a country the world has ever seen. (OK, I’m biased. But he really needs to see how other societies function before he criticizes this one too much.) I pulled out my journal from a European odessey (first trip) in 1972 when I was 19. I re-read it for the first time in a couple of decades. That trip changed me in ways I can still tap into today. The journal brought back warm memories of a simpler, less-hectic time.

  11. For both safety and business, it is very important to know political facts about the countries one visits. I have provided a link that ranks the countries in the world as to the health of their democracies. To motivate you all to take a look, I will tell you that the USA ranks 17th in the world. This is not to start a fight (though I’m sure it will), but to share simple apolitical facts as viewed by a scholarly source. I think it is pretty reliable since it is for the use of businessmen in planning the futures of their businesses in other countries. If you don’t know how to use the link below, then just google: “world democracy index” and click on the one for “The Economist”.

  12. Angela the article you quoted is not offensive. I think Rick received alot of flack on his last post because it was so blatently and offensively sexist. if it was just his normal anti republican rhetoric it would have been a yeah yeah yawn yawn whatever. But it just seemed to indicate that Rick does not value women intellectually and his first thought of describing Palin was in a sexual belitteling manner. With a daughter attending Georgetown you would think Rick would be more evolved…Oh well.

  13. Dear Rick, Thank you for writing your blog. I’ve been a fan of your travel books/shows/DVDs for years! Next year, I plan to take a longer vacation to Europe and travel the “Rick Steves way”. Writing ad lib is an awesome way to capture moments, reflections and feelings. I couldn’t agree with you more. Moleskine notebooks are classy choices. I also like the ProArt notebooks . They come in different sizes and they have hardcovers and blank pages. The paper is very nice to write on with old-fashioned ink! Like you say, keep on traveling :) cheers everyone! Angela_adlib

  14. I second Rick’s journaling advice! I took my laptop on our weeks-long trip to Europe this summer and journaled each night. Once I pushed through those first couple days of not wanting to sit down and write, I started to look forward to that half hour before bed as a time to reflect upon the day’s experiences. I’m glad that I will always have such a detailed record of a great trip!

  15. Helo Carla: I replied to your comment on the last blog, though I doubt you read it. In fact I doubt you’ll read this one as well, but whatever: Rick Steves is not a sexist. He does, however, live in the land of logic, as I do. Perhaps had he used the word “schoolteacher” or “accountant” or “software engineer” instead of “model” you’d find it more palatable. It also wouldn’t fit in his sublime analogy. Not only that, it was speaking to the point that, yes, Gov. Palin was used strictly to mitigate Sen. Obama campaign “bounce”, and to once again distract from the issues, which only serves the right wing’s agenda. She doesn’t know enough about anything to be a relapse, stroke or heartbeat anyway from the Presidency. Period. There were several conservatives far more qualified–Secretary Of State Condalezza Rice, Sen. Snowe of Maine, Sen. Dole of North Carolina, Sen. Hutchison of Texas–who happened to be female. But McCain needed to excite the base and restart a culture war when so many other things desperately need to be addressed. Surely Americans are intelligent enough to see past another empty facade. Or are we just that easily duped by a feckless politician who begins, fills, and ends her stump speeches with outright lies?

  16. Alfran I do not respond to you because several months ago Rick made a point of saying he did not like it when people interacted negatively with each other or argued with each other and only really wanted us to respond to his blog and him and follow the guidelines particularly “Our Graffiti Wall is a place to post travel tips. It is not a chat board. If you disagree with a particular posting, post your own opinion but please don’t chat back and forth. If you have questions for someone, email them directly (if they’ve included their address). “. He also asked we just post at the most 2 posts per blog. Therefore although tempting to engage in an argument with you, it would be inappropriate.

  17. Thanks for that Economist link, Sarah. That brings to mind Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Democracy’. Part of the lyrics are ‘Democracy is coming to the USA’. That song has been on my mind a lot as we, north of the border, watch and listen to your candidates (and read this blog!) You can find the complete lyrics to that song by googling ‘Leonard Cohen lyrics’. ….PS: Always enjoy reading J. Humbard’s input; thanks for sharing your life stories. MC.

  18. That is an interesting link. Thank you, Sarah. Lest anyone draw the wrong conclusions: although the USA scored at number 17, it still scored higher than France, the UK, Japan and some of our other allies. That being said, they were all rated as “full democracies”. The list goes on to include other categories such as “flawed democracies”, “hybrid regimes” & “Authoritarian regimes”. I think we can be proud to be in the first group …and also of the company we keep in that group. That stated: yes, there is always room for improvement. (I was surprised by Italy’s rating!) Go out and vote and support our vibrant democracy… even if it sometimes looks like a food fight. As to Rick being “blatantly and offensively sexist”, I’d say that is a bit of a stretch. Let’s not start yelling “racist!”, “sexist!”, “Anti-semitic!”, “Anti-catholic” etc, whenever someone disagrees with our politics. Just because the candidates do it, doesn’t mean we should. Save the heavy artillery for when it is heavilly needed. Whoops. started getting too heavy. Sorry. Journaling: Its very valuable. I cherish every scrap of paper that I have from my deceased parents. One day –if we live our lives right– our journals will hopefully be lovingly cherished by our children. Anyway, best regards to all. I like the back-and-forth of this blog. Mostly its thoughtful and honest. Sometimes its strident and accusatory, that’s not very helpful. But I guess it’s unavoidable. Cheers!

  19. What a way to end the week with a reminiscence of trips to Europe past. I travel to Europe 6-7 times per year on business and at least once per year for family vacations. Our children, who are now grown, remember these trips and still can’t wait to hear where will will visit next year together. You are dead on that these experiences open our eyes to the world. It is not only Americans who can misunderstand the world but there some stereotypical impressions of Americans abroad that I relish changing. I treasure those encounters where the person I meet is surprised to learn I am an American since I speak German and French, am free to go to out of the way places, to know their cuisines, culture, history, and holidays, and to do things off the beaten track. Our children are tired of hearing it, but I always remind them we are Ambassadors of America when we travel abroad

  20. I am not a Journal writer at all, but I was very lucky to have the Most Beautiful Travel Companion, who would each and every night at least record the name of the town, and the odometer reading, during our nearly 1,000 European nights a RV. We would mail home boxes of paper work. We still have receipt No. 14687, dated Aug. 25, 1970, that shows we paid 2850 lire ($2) for the RV and four people, two nights in Rome, 25¢ per person, per night. This started long before the Internet, so I was surprised when I created a 1,500 page Daily Journal of those trips, plus many hundreds of pages of Travel in Other than Europe. My Dad was a minister, and was in demand to speak all over the country. My Mom traveled with him, and from 1947 until 1965, she kept a Daily Travel Journal, that I typed as a 1,000 page document. My Dad’s Diary starts in High School, in 1920. He wrote almost daily, but very little. His entry for July 6, 1915 “Married in the evening.“ Except for a half-dozen years that are missing, it ends with my Mother’s note, “Went to be with the Lord, 6:30 AM, May 5, 1965.” While I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning, I can still draw a map of the town where I was born, and we moved from there when I was three. Recently while in the hospital, I was able to draw a map of Manila (where I was for two nights in 1946) for the nurse who was born there. We were both shocked. We were in Zagreb, Yugoslavia one night in 1985, and one night in 1989, and not long ago I drew a map of Zagreb for a lady who was born there. She couldn’t imagine my Travel Memory. At you will find a couple thousand pages of stories and photos of our Travels. I have been accused of Name Dropping, but even more I like “Name and picture catching. The everlasting joys of travel, an added reward for years of exploration.” Oh now I remember, I didn’t have breakfast yet this morning.

  21. I’ve been reading through an old journal I kept on my first trip to Europe. A friend and I are putting together a self-published collection of my essays and his photos on the trip. We’ll probably be the only two to buy a copy, but what the hell. I took a pocket-sized Moleskine notebook on that trip. I liked it, but I realize now that we packed so much in that trip that some days I was too tired to write in detail afterwards. In fact, my time in Ljubljana isn’t even recorded (except for scraps), though Bled and Skofja Loka are. In my daily life I carry a sketch book, though I’m not an artist. (Well, I started doodling some; it’s a sketch book after all, and I feel it’s necessary). I got a book without lines because I wanted to remove limits on my writing. No margins. No lines. I just turn the book any direction I feel like when I pick it up. But I agree, on my travels, I want a hard-covered journal to write in.

  22. Rick, of all the travel advise you have ever given this is the very top. I spent nearly three decades traveling in the states and throughout Europe and the Far East, on business and pleasure. Hundreds of small towns, hotels, resturants, etc. I did not keep very good records and now wish I could sort out some of the great adventures and people and places that frequently come to mind. A journal may not be valuable to anyone but the writer, but to him or her it will be the best souvenir ever brought back from any trip anywhere.

  23. Journaling has never come easily for me. It has happened inconsistently in phases throughout my life, so what journals I have kept are patchy. However, when I studied abroad while in college, I forced myself to sit down and write regularly, recording as much as I could about my experience. The journal I kept during that semester is more valuable than I ever thought it could have been. When I go back and read through it, I read things that I never would have remembered had I not written it down. I knew that if I didn’t force myself to journal and record that I would regret it and I’m certain that I would have. Now that I am again living abroad, the journaling comes easier because I know that the time I put into it will be well worth it after my experience abroad is over.

  24. I’m passionate about journaling when I travel. I have a hard time finding the right books, but I love the Mead, college ruled, composition books. It’s essential to have a book that is sewn together. During travel, there is a lot of paper detritus – restaurant recipes, city tourism maps, the free guides at sites. I take scotch tape to put them in my book as I write about the events each day and come back with a bulging book full of memories.

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