Vagabonding Case Study: Shannon O’Donnell

Shannon O’Donnell

Age: 27

Hometown: St. Petersburg, FL

Quote: “Between the two – living frugally and working part-time – I have been able to support slow travel. I try to limit the number of plane tickets I have to buy and in that way tend to stay in a region for at least four months at a time.

How did you find out about Vagabonding, and how did you find it useful before and during the trip? The archives of the site offer up so many great tips and tricks – shortcuts to the travel process that make so many moments on the road infinitely easier. That’s why I love using this site—for the tips and tricks you can only learn from someone who spends their life on the road.

How long were you on the road? My formal round the world trip lasted 11 months; since then I’ve continued traveling and I’m on my third year of travel and still going strong!

Where all did you go? Back in 2008 I felt like I just needed to get the heck out of Los Angeles, so booked my first flight to Australia and worked my way back toward North America. I backpacked through Southeast Asia and fell in love, (this is where I’ve temporarily expat-ed myself since my RTW has ended) then continued on through India and Nepal before wallowing in delicious Italian food when I made it to Europe.

After far less gelato than I would have liked, I ferried over to Croatia and used the fantastic rail system in Europe to train throughout Bosnia, Slovenia, Czech, and the Netherlands. My entire trip was actually planned around making it to Scotland by August for the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival – an item that had been on my bucket list for a decade at that point. I finished up in Ireland in the fall and headed home for the family time over holidays before backpacking through Central America.

Whew, all of that travel wiped me out and I flew back to Southeast Asia earlier this year to live in Chiang Mai, Thailand for six months and explore the region from a home-base.

What was your job or source of travel funding for this journey? I am an active freelance writer and SEO consultant; that has always been my source of funding and I have worked the whole way around the world. To save up the initial nest-egg to springboard my RTW trip I also sold most of my major possessions – my car, my TV, all of the furniture in my LA apartment. It all went up on Craigslist and what was still left was donated to Goodwill.

Between the two – living frugally and working part-time – I have been able to support slow travel. I try to limit the number of plane tickets I have to buy and in that way tend to stay in a region for at least four months at a time.

Did you work or volunteer on the road? My most memorable experiences over the past two years are, consistently, the volunteer work I did throughout Cambodia, Nepal, Guatemala and Thailand. I am so grateful to the people in each place who shared their lives with me for those brief weeks, and allowed me to share some of my experiences and skills with them.

Of all the places you visited, which was your favorite? Ack! The favorite question. I feel like a parent trying to pick my most loved child. If I have to go with a single country (and it’s seeming like I do) I pick India. The country is vibrant and engaging and you are absolutely guaranteed to leave with a story.

Traveling through India can be difficult; the highs and lows in India were intense for me, but the food and culture made up for those questionable moments. I’ve been a vegetarian for over a decade, and India was, by far, the easiest country to travel through for me – the diversity of options was overwhelming at first and I spent my first several restaurant experiences in the country pouring over the menu for more than 20 minutes!

And just to break the rules a bit – Laos and Guatemala get a shout-out for second place from me. I am so thoroughly in love with the experiences and memories of both these countries.

Was there a place that was your least favorite, or most disappointing, or most challenging? Bosnia was incredibly difficult food-wise; the culture is not vegetarian friendly and the lack of widespread tourism in the region (a leftover from the war) meant I spent many days munching on apples from the grocery store instead of tasty local eats. That being said, I would go back in a heartbeat, but maybe this time with a phrase guidebook and some extra granola bars packed in my sack!

Did any of your pre-trip worries or concerns come true?  Did you run into any problems or obstacles that you hadn’t anticipated? I got sick an awful lot for the first year. This was a worry before I left, and it did manifest on the road. I don’t have a particularly strong immune system, and beyond that I have a tendency toward street food and local eats – most of the time this is a solid option…sometimes though, not so much! But it hasn’t been enough to keep me from traveling, more like, “okay fine, I guess this is just how it’s going to be!”

Which travel gear proved most useful?  Least useful? I adore my backpack. A well fitting, small backpack is the best investment I made. I use an Eagle Creek backpack specially made for women, meaning it fits well across the waist and chest. I’ve crossed paths with other travelers who were exhausted and in pain from ill-fitting packs and made me grateful I picked a good one!

What are the rewards of the vagabonding lifestyle? Perspective and inquisitiveness. You certainly don’t have to be a vagabond to possess both of these qualities, but I have found that travel accelerates growth in both areas. I find myself more intrigued by the little moments in life than I was in the past – I pay attention and notice more, which leads to more questions, and then more learning.

I regularly use the phrase “all knowledge is worth having,” and I wholly believe it’s true. There is so much to see and learn about, and you’re never going to regret taking that Thai cooking classes on your two-week vacation to Thailand…quite the opposite in fact. 🙂

What are the challenges and sacrifices of the vagabonding lifestyle? I spend less time with my family and longtime friends than I would like too. I know that it’s a trade-off, and I have knowingly sacrificed being there for weddings and births, birthdays and holidays. Even knowing that I made the choice to be far away though, it’s still an active challenge and something I try to mitigate through frequent Skype calls to those I love.

What lessons did you learn on the road? I have learned humbleness. So many times on the road I’ve had to eat that infamous “humble pie” our parents tried to serve up throughout childhood. I had (still have no doubt) arrogant assumptions and opinions about people, places, ideas – all sorts of experiences and situations I had never seen nor experienced.

And now that I have traveled, and I have actually seen these places and people, I realize how much less I actually know. How much more there is to learn about the world…and how standing on a soap box and talking about how something ought to be is a whole lot different than going there and experiencing it.

How did your personal definition of “vagabonding” develop over the course of the trip? One of the central, core tenants of vagabonding is the idea that you are “homeless” and to some people in my life that has meant “aimless.” But they’re not the same thing, and that’s what I have come to understand over the past two plus years of travel. I may not have the firmest plans in place, but I love the direction my life has taken – the travels have filled a piece of my life that was missing before. And far from being homeless, I still consider my hometown “home;” I may not live there, but all of the people I love in my life live within a 60 mile radius. So, although I travel for the better part of every year, I guess I now understand that vagabonds can still attach to the term home and have a direction and purpose to their wanderings.

If there was one thing you could have told yourself before the trip, what would it be? “Actually keep up your journal, Shannon. Or send yourself emails. Something! Your travel blog is not the same thing – many people and experiences will not make it into the blog and you will want more personal evidence of this journey.”

Any advice or tips for someone hoping to embark on a similar adventure? Plan less! I worried and stressed myself into a nervous wreck in the days leading up to my RTW trip; at the point that the planning stops being enjoyable…just stop. Take care of the essentials (vaccines and gear) and then stop. You can truly figure everything else out on the road, taking the advice of other backpackers as you go.

When and where do you think you’ll take your next long-term journey? I head home to the United States for the summer…and then my plans are so up in the air. I have so many ideas and the “plan” changes constantly. Last month I was sure that I was going to backpack South America this winter and fulfill my dream to visit Antarctica. Now I am dreaming of truly taking off a few months and backpacking through Burma. Who knows?! It’s one of those things I’m leaving open-ended right now to see where life takes me over the next few months.

Twitter: ShannonRTW Website:

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Posted by | Comments (4)  | April 20, 2011
Category: Vagabonding Case Studies

4 Responses to “Vagabonding Case Study: Shannon O’Donnell”

  1. Vagabonding Case Study: Shannon O’Donnell | Travel Guide And Holiday Says:

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  2. Scott Says:

    Love your quote on slow travel!