Tips for Keeping a Travel Journal of Your Semester Abroad

Apr 20, 2019 10:23:00 AM / by Sarah Mai

In this week's post, Sarah shares how she documents her life abroad—beyond posting everything online—in a travel journal! From writing and sketching to collecting keepsakes, she suggests several ways to fill up your very own travelogue. Check out some of the pages from Sarah's travel journal and see how she captures her time in London and visits to Europe in her own words (and illustrations).

(Original illustrations by Sarah Mai)

First things first: it is so hard to believe that I am coming into my last week in London. I feel like I have done and seen everything I wanted to, but I am certainly not ready to leave this amazing city. At the risk of being cliche, it does feel like I just got here and that time has moved all too quickly. However, even with my stubborn resistance to get on a plane and head home, I do feel like things are finally winding down and the itch to start working and making money is coming back in time for summer.

Right when I started feeling a little sentimental about my time here a few days ago, I started flipping through the sketchbooks that I filled over the past few months. I managed to finish three of them with sketches, journals, notes, lists, and doodles, and I found that some of my favorite pages were my travel logs from the trips I took here. I have kept travel journals before, but these were so much more exciting since every day sort of felt like traveling here. I thought there would be no better way to talk about my travel experiences than to show you how I remember them! Maybe even inspire you to do some journaling… maybe?

Sarah Mai Illustrations

First, I want to convince you of how inexpensive it can be to start journaling. All you really need is a notebook or sketchbook. I always buy unlined ones because I draw incessantly, but if you are more of a writer, lined works great! The paper doesn’t even have to be amazing quality. Some of my favorite sketchbooks of all time are from Muji, which cost a whopping $1.50 and are the perfect size to carry with you. Other things you’ll need are a pen and glue stick, and if you’re feeling fancy, some stickers. I bought mine online for $3.00 and I think they might last forever. I don’t even recommend having scissors since I just rip everything if I need it to be smaller (I think a ripped edge is a nice touch).

Sarah Mai Illustrations

Next, whenever you go somewhere that requires a ticket or has a receipt, like on a train or in a museum, keep it. Just tuck it into your sketchbook or wallet and save it for later. This is the main way I keep track of my trips! A receipt from a nice meal can be a nice reminder of what you ate and where, since the address is often printed on the top of the paper. Train tickets tell you the exact locations you went, and you can always write details beside what you ate or saw. I like to write details about what the travel was like beside them: if the train station was busy, if the airport was huge and confusing, how late or early it was, if I was tired or not. The list goes on. Sometimes photos just aren’t enough to remind you exactly what the trip was like!

Sarah Mai Illustrations

If you come across nice pieces of paper along the way, keep those too. I never bought a single extra paper for my sketchbooks since I was able to find everything around me. For example, at a pizza shop in Corniglia, Italy, I used the paper mat from the dinner table as a little pop of color on the page. I won’t forget where we ate or what we ate because I wrote it down—and I have a little piece of the restaurant with me! Also it didn’t have food on it so it wasn’t gross, I feel that clarification is necessary. I also like to keep some paper wrappers of local candies or treats, newspaper articles, and bits from magazines if they’re in good shape. (Again, it’s all very clean.)

Sarah Mai Illustrations

Next, take all the pieces from the day and paste them on the page so they fit (and leave a little space for writing). I love when I have to lift a flap or unfold something in a journal to read more. It’s the toddler in me who wants every book to be a pop-up book. I also like to circle important names or dates on tickets, and add stickers or drawings around them that remind me of the location. This is a nice way to unwind from a busy day of travel, when you can sit, relax, and reflect on everything you saw. At that point, you know what your favorite part of the day was and what you thought was most important.

Sarah Mai Illustrations

I find it really important to write down the little details of the city I visit since those seem to be the first things I forget. For example, in Copenhagen, nearly everyone rides bikes. There are more bikes than cars on the road, and every street has a beautifully wide bike lane. One thing that struck me was how bold people were on their bikes, particularly about carrying things and doing other activities while riding. This included a man carrying a dog, another carrying a huge suitcase, one smoking a pipe, and one texting with both hands. What an amazing city.

Sarah Mai Illustrations

Finally, it’s important to be honest with your journals. I think one thing that sets a travel journal apart from a couple of nice pictures on Instagram is that it’s really for you to remember what something was actually like. Traveling is not always perfect, and certainly not when it’s being done on a budget. It is not always glamorous, and sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes you miss a train and have to wait an hour. Sometimes a meal is expensive and disappointing. Maybe your travel companions have a fight. Maybe you get sick. Lots of things are bound to happen, so make sure to write a few of those down. These can be the most special because you learn how you have grown since then when you’re reading them in the future.

Sarah Mai Illustrations

This is definitely something I can see myself continuing to do when I am back home. Writing and drawing every day can sometimes get repetitive if it’s not related to what I’m really doing day to day. Every once in a while, it’s nice to check in with yourself and write about what your life is really like in the moment, traveling or not.

Thanks, Sarah!

Sarah Mai


Sarah Mai is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2019, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. An English and Art major at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, she is studying abroad in London this semester.

Sarah's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.

Learn More about the CAPA London Program

Topics: London, England, International Education