You have hundreds of travel photos. You might have thousands of travel photos. And yes, it’s true, these photos are priceless and you should keep them forever. At the end of Titanic, after all, there’s a reason the camera lingers on the many photos from Rose’s rich life — they easily capture the golden memories.
But. Years from now, when you reflect upon your travels, these photos will only take you so far. They tend to focus on the picturesque highlights — the view of the waterfall, the statue at twilight, the pose (you know the pose) by Machu Picchu. All fine photos. Yet they rarely catch the smaller moments, or the “less visual” nuggets of your travels, like the time they accidentally gave you ten pounds of rice, or when you almost missed your train in Budapest because you had to get a cup of coffee, or that hilarious argument with the snooty maître d’.
Keeping a travel journal has a sneaky upside. You’ll be giving a treasure to your Future Self, and the very act of journaling will help keep you grounded in the moment. Bonus? Studies have linked journaling to a better recall of memories, a lowering of stress and anxiety, and even — in this 2013 study from New Zealand — the ability to recover faster from injuries.
I’m not promising that your travel journal will heal your broken leg. But I’m confident that you’ll get something out of it, that you’ll appreciate it in the future, and that it’s easier than you think. Here’s how to make it happen.
Don’t sweat the writing.
No one ever needs to see your journal. It’s just for you. It can be rough, raw, sloppy. Fragments are fine. Fragments are great. And the words flow easier when you put zero pressure on the writing itself. Just jot down some things that you did that day. Facts. Names. Raw memories. Lists. Try to write as fast as you possibly can — this will minimize your inner-censor and, in something of a paradox, the writing itself will improve.
Don’t sweat the platform.
What’s the best app to use? What’s the perfect journal? Honestly… it doesn’t really matter. Some people swear by apps like Journi, some use the iPhone’s native Notes app, and of course some love the romance of a pen-and-paper journal like Moleskin. I’m partial to an app called DayOne, which easily synchs from your phone to laptop, but the reality is that virtually any platform will work. Getting the memories down is more important than getting the best tech.
Use a gimmick.
Staring at a blank page (or screen) can be intimidating. Gimmicks can help. For example, sometimes I’ll stick to a format of “5 quick things.” That’s all it is. 5 quick things that happened on that day of traveling. Or maybe “Best and Worst.” The best thing that happened to you today, the worst thing that happened. This sounds silly — and maybe it is silly — but the structure makes it easy to start and it helps remove the stress.
Do it every day when traveling. (No exceptions.)
Make it a habit. In fact, make it an unbreakable habit. There’s an old saying that it’s easier to follow a rule 100% of the time than it is 99% of the time, because once you allow the rare exception, soon you’ll find all kinds of reasons to flake. If you only have 2 minutes to bang out a quick journal entry? No problem. That works. You’ll be amazed by how much mileage you get from dashing out memories as fast as you can for 2 minutes every day.
Drop in some photos
Most journaling apps make it easy to insert photos or videos directly into the entry. This gives you a powerful one-two punch. The image gives your Future Self an easy way to access the memory, and the journal gives the context of why it matters and how you felt.
Bring in the smells, sounds, and feels.
What did the restaurant smell like? Did the tuk-tuk make some weird thumping sound? When they let you pet the tusk of the elephant, what did it feel like? Capturing the senses today will let you relive it tomorrow.
Focus more on the mundane than the profound.
When I look back at old travel journals, sometimes I’ll come across entries where I was wrestling with “deep thoughts” — musings about relationships, anxieties about the future, questions about my path in life. Honestly? That might have been useful as a form of quasi-therapy — and I’m not suggesting we avoid introspection — but the entries I enjoy most are the ones that simply give the meat and potatoes of what I did that day. For example, I just flipped at random to a journal entry from 2019, in the Algarve in Portugal, and read the words “karaoke barbecue…Grease, Summer Loving.” And that’s enough. Those 5 words were all I needed to conjure memories of a magical night in Portugal…and my absolute inability to carry a tune.
And something else about that night? I didn’t think to take any photos. Good thing I had a journal.