To celebrate the launch of our new Victoria Collection – designed specifically for women – the Jetsetter Series turns its focus to stories of women who inspire us.
Enter Shannon O’Donnell of ALittleAdrift.com. Most people only dream of traveling as much as she does. Since her first year-long solo trip in 2008, Shannon has lived and volunteered in various cities across the globe, spreading her passion for service as she goes. Shannon was kind enough to chat with us, so read on for her top travel tips and tales.
1. Do you prefer to travel alone or with a companion?
I have mostly traveled solo for the past few years, but each style has its pros and cons. Ultimately, I enjoy the freedom of a solo trip and the increased focus I am able to give to connecting with local communities and people on the road. I love sitting at a market in Asia, eating dinner and watching the rush of evening conversations, the pace of life and the whirl of activity. Traveling solo opens me up to unexpected conversations with locals, impromptu dinner friends and a lot of time to process and sink into my new surroundings.
2. What are your top tips for solo female travelers?
Of course there have been times on the road where I felt uncomfortable traveling alone; but overall, each new country and culture I’ve encountered has welcomed me with open arms and incredible kindness. That said, these three tips will help make you a smart solo traveler:
- Understand the cultural norms. Read widely about your upcoming destination in memoirs and guidebooks and understand the geopolitics of the region. This will help inform your behaviors, mannerisms and the dress code you should follow and respect.
- Involve others in your safety. Tell your hotel or bartender that you are alone. They will often look out for you and consider your safety a personal priority. Also, consider sitting near groups or around other women and children at bus/train stations. Join a conversation and generally engage with those around you, rather than staying isolated.
- Stay aware and sober. Pay attention to the people around you and understand which parts of the city are navigable during the day but may become less desirable at night. Stay awake at bus stations, watch your drinks and stay sober enough to get yourself back to your hotel.
3. When preparing for your first year abroad, what possessions did you sell to help finance your trip?
Anything of value was fair-game that first year on the road. Although I work as a freelance consultant as I travel, I sold every single item in my apartment—from my couch to my bed! Knick-knacks, paintings and anything without clear sentimental value was sold for my travel fund.
4. When not backpacking, what type of travel gear do you prefer?
I retired my backpack just before my travels through Africa and now love using a carry-on size rolling suitcase. Though my trusty backpack served me well in the early years on the road and does come in handy for trekking, I find the wheeled suitcases are still convenient and allow me to quickly transition from long-term travel to a business meeting all in one go.
Victorinox Travel Tip: Try the Victorinox Victoria Ambition Global Carry-On for traveling lightly and stylishly abroad. Its spacious interior with zippered pockets are perfect for holding small jewelry and pens. Even more so, its elegant silver hardware and sleek leather handles will seamlessly transition from the road to the boardroom.
6. What are some of the best vegetarian dishes you’ve had abroad? Have you ever had trouble finding vegetarian fare on the road?
The salads in Myanmar were an incredible surprise. Though the country has a very fish-based diet like much of Southeast Asia, their fresh cold salads are in a class of their own. My favorite is the tea leaf salad, “lephet thote,” which is very strong fermented tea leaves with crunchy bits. India was also a pure delight—an entire history of cuisine designed around vegetarianism.
There were only a handful of times it’s been difficult communicating my dietary preferences — both China and Bosnia were tricky! Ultimately, I approached the situations with as much information and translation as I could, and when communication failed me, I was content to munch on carrots and apples from the markets.
7. When traveling, what’s your trick to balancing work and exploring?
Traveling slowly is the secret to working from the road. I give myself days and weeks in each new region so I don’t feel the need to rush all of the sights, nor do I feel guilty when I spend the bulk of a day typing furiously from a coffee shop.
Victorinox Travel Tip: Tote your tablet to the coffee shop in style with the Altmont 3.0 Flapover Laptop Backpack, boasting interior and exterior pockets and a slim design.
8. What’s your strategy for finding and vetting volunteer opportunities?
Now that I’ve been traveling for the better part of six years, I love to find independent volunteer opportunities in each new place. Generally, I look for locally run organizations. Once I’m on the ground, I ask around and then visit the project, inquiring what they need most from volunteers and which projects need support. If my time frame and skills are a good fit, and they seem to have financial transparency, I find a local apartment and dive in!
For others who may be planning a trip around their volunteer experience, the process involves a bit more thought and time spent researching motivations and really learning about aid and humanitarian work. The process for new volunteers is outlined in more detail here, but generally looks like this:
- Research the development and aid industries so you better understand the role volunteers play in developing local communities and economies.
- Examine your motivations for volunteering and consider if the length of time you have is a good fit for volunteering. Often shorter volunteer trips fulfill more for the volunteers than those being served.
- Do a lot of research! Look for locally-run projects that involve the community in the project. Also, make sure to ask a lot of questions about how volunteer fees will be used.
9. What were some of your most memorable and fulfilling volunteering experiences?
I spent several months volunteering with my then 11-year old niece in northern Thailand. We traveled throughout Southeast Asia for a bit, eventually basing ourselves in Chiang Mai so we could really explore the region. During our time, we worked with the We Women Foundation to teach English to a Burmese refugee in the region. I loved that the woman was open to having my niece be a part of the experience, and we spent numerous afternoons laughing together and sharing stories as we planned lessons and practiced English. It was a wonderful window into the culture and to show my niece how she could help – even at 11 years old!
10. At Victorinox, we believe it’s important for every woman to have a little piece of luxury. What’s yours?
I love traveling with a pashmina scarf to class up any outfit and just make me feel cozy and comfortable on long airplane rides. There are practical reasons it’s handy too — as a head covering or to keep me warm — but having something beautiful to put on is a lovely feeling when I’ve been on the road for a while.
11. Where are you off to next?
Having returned from Africa recently, I plan to tour around the U.S. a bit. I will spend the fall speaking at a handful of universities in the U.S. By early next year, I hope to head to Peru and explore South America a bit.
For more of Shannon’s travel stories, check out her blog at ALittleAdrift.com