Writing a Travel Memoir: How to Capture Unforgettable Moments

13 Aug 2021


Traveling is one of the most memorable occasions in a person’s life. Discovering new places can create memories that last a lifetime. And for some travelers, these adventures are so meaningful that they decide to chronicle them in a journal or diary.

Written descriptions of places and experiences can provide the perfect complement to breathtaking photographs. And in some instances, journals and diaries can become the source of a great travel memoir.

In this article, we will discuss the elements that comprise a compelling travel memoir and the importance of chronicling timeless moments in a person’s life. As T.S. Eliot once said, “The journey, not the arrival matters.”

Travel Memoirs 101

When dissecting a travel memoir, it is best to start with what is not a travel memoir. On the whole, a travel memoir does not constitute a guidebook or generic description of a destination. Moreover, a travel memoir is not merely a collection of random anecdotes pertaining to a trip.

A travel memoir is so much more than a collection of experiences and descriptions of unique places. A travel memoir encompasses a personal journey that culminates in a singular location. According to Writer’s Digest, a travel memoir is “… a delicate mixture of recollection and reflection that reveals how a journey, or a series of journeys, transformed the writer.”

This succinct description underscores the transformative nature of a travel memoir. Therefore, the memoir must highlight a “before” and “after” in the author’s life.

On the surface, a travel memoir should reflect the beauty of its unique location.

Deep down, it should reflect the author’s personal interaction with that singular destination.

As a result, this interaction leads to a metamorphosis within the writer. The memoir should record how an exterior change leads to an interior one. It should narrate how the author’s transformation took place because of the journey.

Also, a travel memoir is not a blow-by-blow account of a trip. A wonderful travel memoir should not waste precious space on inconsequential details and events. Instead, it should focus on the specific moments that led to the author’s awakening. Hence, the trip itself ought not to be the memoir’s main focus. Instead, the author’s experience, feelings, and thoughts should permeate the story.

A great travel memoir must deliver an enthralling story. The story needs to begin with the author’s life prior to the journey. Readers need to know what motivated the author to embark on the journey. From there, the story must take the readers through the entire process of self-discovery.

The climax of the story must highlight that special moment of awakening. Readers must be privy to that intimate moment in which the author reaches their ultimate transformation.

At the core of an indelible travel memoir is the overarching theme. This theme must clearly reflect what aspect of the writer’s life changed forever.

For instance, the author got over a past love or gained a new lease on life following a tragic loss. Whatever the theme, the memoir’s narrative must unmistakably reflect it.

In the words of Saint Augustine, “The World is a book. And those who do not travel read only one page.” A travel memoir brings those pages to the reader. It enables the writer and reader to come face-to-face with one another while being miles apart.

Making the Decision to Write a Travel Memoir

Choosing to write a travel memoir is a deeply personal decision. Any individual who chooses to write a travel memoir must be willing to bare their soul for readers to see. The intensely personal nature of a travel memoir must communicate a profoundly life-altering message.

A gripping travel memoir must reflect a profound journey of personal growth. The travel experience is solely the vehicle enabling the personal transformation to take place.

Journalist and published author Alexis Grant has this to say about a travel memoir’s message: “Your memoir should be about more than your trip; you need an overarching theme that readers relate to, a story arc that includes personal growth.”

Indeed, a travel memoir must connect with readers at an intense level. This connection can only happen when a travel memoir explicitly lays out the writer’s transformation.

For some authors, penning a travel memoir is a cathartic process. It enables them to vent their emotions creatively.

The outcome is to reflect the author’s process from pain and suffering to healing. In such cases, writers must be willing to be honest with their readers. Readers will swiftly smell out embellishment or exaggeration.

A compelling memoir, travel or otherwise, must depict the writer’s moments of weakness. Doing so will provide enough support to the overall outcome.

Not all travel memoirs have to be about the transition from pain to healing. A great travel memoir can serve to help others achieve their dreams.

A classic example is Julia Child’s My Life in France. This book depicts Julia Child’s time and experiences in France. In particular, the story chronicles the beginnings of her extraordinary culinary exploits.

To Julia, France was a spiritual homeland. It was the site where her personal transformation began into one of the world’s most renowned chefs. It is safe to say that Julia Child would not have become the celebrity she did if she had never been to France. Thanks to this transformational journey, Julia Child found her true calling in life. As such, her memoir shows readers just how meaningful her time in France was to her.

The decision to write a travel memoir ultimately boils down to a genuine desire to help others undergo a similar journey. The destination itself is not the main purpose. The journey of self-discovery and transformation is the key element. The destination serves as the backdrop for the journey.

While the destination is certainly meaningful, the writer’s awakening to a new reality makes the entire journey a life-changing one. This message needs to resonate throughout the text. If successful, readers will walk away inspired to pursue their own dreams.

Structure of a Travel Memoir

Authors must be careful not to confuse a travel memoir with a chronological description of events. While a timeline format is useful in developing the story, a compelling travel memoir is a story. Therefore, the narrative must reflect this characteristic. This approach explains why chronological order is not necessarily a requisite structure.

First and foremost, a travel memoir is a tale. Thus, it should sound like a work of fiction, even though it is not.

In this regard, a memorable travel memoir uses the writer’s message—their transformation—as the core element around which all other events revolve. Consequently, places and events should serve to frame the story. However, the book should not be about the place itself.

The story’s overall narrative should take readers through the author’s entire transformative process. This process must reflect the motivations for the trip. Ultimately, the destination is secondary insofar as the author’s inner metamorphosis. Throughout the metamorphosis, the memoir’s theme must become evident. The theme sets the stage for the specific events that will accentuate the protagonist’s singular journey.

The most important decision travel memoir writers must then make is selecting the theme. The theme ought to emerge from a motivation within the writer that led to the trip itself. For example, a writer fed up with the corporate world chooses to leave a six-figure job to embark on a volunteer work tour. By the end of the tour, the writer discovers that the meaning of life helping others and not making money. This discovery could not have been possible without the trip.

The characters in the story must also directly contribute to the author’s transformation. The decision to include characters depends largely on their role. As such, great characters provide some support along the writer’s trek. For instance, they may provide eye-opening advice or meaningful encouragement.

Additionally, specific characters may serve as the catalyst for the author’s decisions. A classic example is the end of a romantic relationship. Thus, the writer’s romantic partner catalyzes the transformative process. It is worth noting that no other character should overshadow the author, regardless of their role’s importance. The author is the main character. Hence, all events need to revolve around the writer.   

As for narrative style, travel memoirs need to resonate to a deeply personal degree. Therefore, a first-person narrative style would be most suitable. This narrative style gives readers the impression they are hearing the author’s voice. After all, this is the author’s journey. Thus, readers expect to hear the author’s words as they would have spoken them.

This idea underscores the importance of keeping the narrative style as close to the writer’s own words as possible. Fancy prose may help the story come alive, but it may not be a true reflection of the author’s personality. Please bear in mind that this is an individual process. Furthermore, the narrative must make the reader feel as if they were sitting right next to the writer, listening to their story.

Mistakes to Avoid when Writing a Travel Memoir

Penning a travel memoir can be a perfectly imperfect endeavor. For first-time authors, it may prove to be a complex exercise. For experienced writers, the process may be simpler to manage. Nevertheless, producing a travel memoir requires close attention to specific pitfalls. By avoiding these pitfalls, writers can reduce the likelihood of failing to meet their goals.

When an individual first thinks of writing a travel memoir, it helps to plan.

Ideally, anyone thinking about producing a travel memoir should keep a diary of the trip itself. Diaries help keep track of events, and most importantly, personal reflections throughout the trip. Without a diary, writing the memoir would rely on memory.

Often, this practice may lead the writer to omit valuable details from the story. Mainly, the aim of a diary is to capture feelings as they occur. The power of these feelings may be lost when writing after the fact.

Also, writers must strive to focus on themselves as the main character. After all, a travel memoir is about the author’s own life and experiences. Therefore, focusing on other individuals takes away from the purpose of the memoir. Consequently, attempting to tell someone else’s story may shift the readers’ attention from the author to someone else. Ultimately, shifting focus away from the author defeats the story’s purpose.

A common mistake is trying to force the narrative. By “forcing” the narrative, writers may try to recreate a surreal environment using overly creative prose. In reality, authors should try to maintain a narrative consistent with their personality. The aim is to take readers inside the author’s soul. As such, the narrative should reflect this reality as faithfully as possible.

A great rule of thumb is to be humble at all times.  Attempting to embellish a travel memoir may lead readers to question the veracity of the accounts in the story.

Lastly, writers must be careful with including intimate details. While the aim is to provide readers with an insider account of the journey, there are boundaries to consider. Mainly, intimate details should be off-limits unless they somehow contribute to the story’s development.

Inexperienced writers would do well to seek assistance once completing a rough draft. Enlisting the help of an editor goes a long way to polishing up a final draft. In doing so, potential book agents and publishers will get a look at a neat product before making a decision.


A travel memoir is a deeply personal endeavor aiming to depict a profound transformation.

Writers seeking to produce a travel memoir should strive to recreate their journey as faithfully as possible. And they should adhere to the story as closely as they can.

In doing so, readers can get a sense of what the author went through. Ultimately, readers should be privy to the struggles and triumphs represented in the story.

The narrative ought to reflect the writer’s own voice.

Attempting to embellish a story with ornate prose may cause the reader to question the accuracy of the accounts in the story. Consequently, keeping a humble attitude is always the best approach.

This approach should enable the story’s theme to resonate throughout the journey. As the theme becomes evident, the book’s underlying message will strike a chord in the readers. A successful memoir will transport the reader into the author’s life. A great narrative will leave readers feeling a deep connection, perhaps motivating them to seek their transformation.

Zach Richter 

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