A Little Confession… Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely

Alone is a beautiful thing; it’s when I process my thoughts, absorb new travel experiences, find unexpected friendships, and detox from being “on” with other people. Lonely is not so beautiful a thing, though if I’m honest, the lonely, soul-searching lessons I learned over the past four and a half years were as instructive as any. For all that I love time alone, and I do, I have felt  sharp moments of pain staring at myself in a mirror in a random foreign country, questioning my decision to travel solo so long and so often. In tackling this subject, a subject readers email me about on a weekly basis, I aim for honest and not an upbeat “you should totally go travel solo!” I hope I always hit honesty in my writing, but sometimes I shy from the weighty subjects because there is a delicate balance between validating that I too share a fear and noting how and why I overcame the need to let that fear lull me back into conformity.

traveling alone at loch ness scottland
Solo in solitude as the only person taking in the bright sunshine on the shore of Loch Ness in Scotland.

Many parts of solo travel have made me a stronger person, but I respect that there are nuances to each of us — what makes solo travel so right for one person can become a negative for someone else. And so in framing this discussion, as we look at the nuances of being alone and tips at the end for fighting lonely, let’s to look to the English language first.

We have two words in English to describe the feeling of being alone: loneliness and solitude.

Each word centers on the principle concept of having no company, yet they exists on opposing sides of a single spectrum of the human experience. One day the very circumstances that trigger solitude turn into an inward bout of its darker counterpoint, loneliness.

Counselors and therapists, or even advice from a trusted best friend, gift us with a chance to reframe a situation. They help us take an overwhelming moment in life and reframe how we perceive it. Though it’s harder to do alone, it’s a muscle I still work at; every day of my life I try to train myself to find a new perspective on an old pattern, feeling, or negative situation. Most negative feelings and behaviors in the human experience have a counter-positive like this, a word we use to express the other side to that very same situation.

When does assertive cross into argumentative?

Or vivacious into loud?

When does the welcome respite of solitude shift into loneliness?

In recognizing that one day I revel in solitude while the next wallow in loneliness, I give my brain a perspective it can latch onto for this yo-yo of emotions cropping up every so often. And in looking at the many times I have rejoiced in my ability as a solo traveler to read a book for hours at a park, or to pace myself through a museum, I recognize that loneliness is an impermanent state and one I just have to ride out until it slides back down the scale into solitude.

On Sharing Travel with Others

into the wild
The iconic image of McCandless, at his Alaskan campsite.

In a divergent train of thought, let’s move back into my personal experiences with loneliness on the road.  The book (and film) Into the Wild is a wonderful, heartbreaking, and lovely read. The book bears into this discussion because I often think about a sentiment Christopher McCandless wrote before he died. McCandless marked this passage in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago:

“And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness … and this was most vexing of all.” 

In the margins of this book, he scrawled, “Happiness only real when shared.”

There’s no way of knowing how close he was to death at that point, but he was isolated and alone in the Alaskan wilderness for months when he read this book. I can only speculate from my own experiences about what he was feeling to prompt writing such a statement, but it feels like loneliness from where I sit.

Sometimes when I hit the road I think about that conclusion McCandless came to before his death and I assess if I feel any of that creeping into me. Will I regret not seeing my family for the next six months? Invariably the answer is no, and that is partly because I am rarely actually alone on the road. I meet travelers, I pass time with them, and I meet locals in each new place and pass time with them too. In leaving solo, I am not truly alone, and I think that’s the key under it all. With communication at hand and hostels filled with other backpackers I have experiences to pull me from any bouts of homesickness.

I’ve been nostalgic for home, but less often than I feared before leaving. And less often than I think most readers who email also fear. The fear of having no one to talk to never manifested for me on the road, or at least not for very long. I’ve had clashes with culture shock that left me overwhelmed for a couple of hours, perhaps a day or two of generally feeling down, but that’s contrasted with more than four years of most days being new, fresh, exciting, or at least interesting (because I won’t claim laundry days are either fresh or exciting, but hunting down the laundry, negotiating for a rate, etc — it’s interesting!).

On Personality Types

Any conceptions you hold about an ideal personality type for travel is wrong. There is no ideal, there is merely how you take your approach to the world and mesh it with travel. Extroverts may not worry so much about the lonely aspect of travel because they’re confident in their ability to make friends. But introverts who have emailed me see some travel bloggers sharing photos of raucous groups celebrating on beach bars in Thai islands and wonder if they’re destined to sit alone, holed up in a hostel crying in their tea. Neither type is better suited for travel, nor is either type excluded from loneliness because loneliness is not about just being alone, it’s about the emotional place you’re in at that moment.

Tophu nway, Shan soup.
Some people fear eating solo; when your food looks this good you get over that fear pretty fast. And with the market culture in Asia, mealtimes buzz and hum with interesting activity.

I am, at my core, a bit of a loner. I am super sociable too, that’s for sure. And I smile a lot, which gets mistaken for being an extrovert (I end nearly every tweet with a smiley face, I know it’s obnoxious but I can’t help it).  But in reality, large groups overwhelm me and I can ramp up into manic.

If you want to talk Myers & Briggs types, I’m an INTJ, and the analysis is pretty solid. I will note too (being prone to meticulous logic) that it doesn’t say anywhere in there that I make the “perfect” solo traveler. It’s just me, and I bring all that with me as I navigate new countries and find new friendships. For there are many new friendships even for introverts.

Rather than personality types, I really think it comes down to curiosity. Leave to travel with curiosity and you’ll find the new people and experiences that light you up inside and battle away any notions of loneliness.

On Sickness and Loneliness

I move back to the quote from Into the Wild. McCandless looked at the end of his life fast approaching and he was sick, isolated, and sad; I felt so deeply for him as I read that part of the book. Those three feelings form the darkest combination of loneliness I know. And if that trio met often in my life I would seriously consider traveling less.

I have classified myself as “seriously sick” only a few times since traveling (and once in high school). The worst occurred in 2009 while I backpacked in a remote area of Laos. In that moment, I faced a loneliness I had never known because I honestly questioned if I would live through the night. It’s still one of my darkest moments in all of my travels.

How close I was to dying that night is something I’ll never know for certain, but I was weak, exhausted down to my soul, and sick enough to scribble some last thoughts for my family. Thinking back on that night spent alone on the cold-tile of the bathroom floor, after six days of self-medicating my worsening sickness in a remote area of Laos, makes me tear up. I was at a low point in my life, and if that doesn’t make someone contemplate the choices that put them in the middle of Laos without access to a phone capable of calling for a medevac, then I don’t know what else would (and I would have accepted medevac without hesitation).

Laos Countryside
A beautiful but remote area of Laos far from the Thai border and thus far from medical care.

There is no happy conclusion to this section on loneliness, it’s the only one I can’t explain away and tell you gets better. I can only say the moments are rare, and the circumstances of being in such a remote area while getting such a serious illness are not common. I recognize that it’s not common even though it happened to me.

Last month I looked at the fear of rape as the most salient point in the solo female travel argument, and I noted that I had no antidote for it — I strive to lessen the chance of that happening, but other than that I continue on with my life. I feel that way with sickness and dark loneliness. I don’t take my life lightly, and the Laos experience gave me a deep appreciation for the technology allowing me to touch base with friends and family. Which I do, often. And then I release the rest to chance.

On Missing Family and Friends

Beautiful Tuscan Landscape
My only friend to join me on my RTW, Jenn and I backpacked through Italy and Croatia for a month!

A reader once emailed me intimating that perhaps I don’t have people back home who I miss, going so far as to ask if I love my family (I chose not take offence, it’s a fair question). I miss people and moments every single day I am on the road. I missed several “big moments”  in the lives of my friends and family as a trade-off to this journey; my four closest friends each had a baby in 2011. I missed each birth. I Skyped them from the road, my voice cracking from my spotty wi-fi cutting in and out; I shouted my congrats and sent all my love propelling across the oceans toward them.

And I continued traveling. Despite “missing” these people and moments, I am certain this is still the right time and right choice for my life.

8 Tips for Travelers Fighting Lonely

If your time on the road is tending toward the darker end of the spectrum, to fight the lonely I offer up these ideas:

  • Call home. Call your parents or best friends using either Skype or Google Voice; if they’re savvy you can even video-chat or FaceTime with them. Those friendly voices are often the best cure when I’m feeling blue, and I’ll even indulge and spend several hours just catching up with people so I erase the feeling that I’m missing out on the lives of people I love and care about.
  • Volunteer. Selfless-service is a great way to recalibrate your sense of gratitude and happiness. As an added bonus, it often allows you to interact with other great people who will also help pull you from your funk. (::cough, cough:: I wrote a book on international volunteering should you be so inclined).
  • Find other travelers. Though I have always found showing up in a new place provided enough new people for me, my level of interaction would be downright anti-social for others. If you love the experience of meeting new people, organizing trekking partners, and finding travel buddies, there are numerous forums to get you there. I have used Couchsurfing in the past with success, I got great advice from the indie travelers in BootsnAll’s forums before my RTW trip, and the Thorntree from Lonely Planet is a good starting place if only for the sheer size of their user base. And for a ton of other options, this site shares the a list of travel forums.
  • Stick with travelers you like. In the early days, it was hard for me to honor my inner lemming and take others up on their offers to tag along. Sure a day trip is fair game, but to up and join a formed group of other travelers … surely they’re jesting and don’t want me to say yes?” Yes, they do or they wouldn’t offer. I have met amazing people by pairing up and agreeing to take off my solo-travel mantle for days and weeks a time; trips that beat away any fingers loneliness that were creeping in and formed lifelong friendships.
  • Indulge in the mindless. Partake in your couch-worthy activity of choice and refuse to feel guilty. That may mean spending a few hours catching up on Nashville (I’m guilty of streaming this show), or with a good book, or surfing the internet. As long as you enjoy it, it’s fair-game.
  • Splurge. Give yourself a break in whatever way you like to splurge. Book a nicer guesthouse for a few nights (this can combine nicely with TV time if you choose well), get a massage, treat yourself to a tasty food that makes you feel good. Sometimes lonely creeps up when other things about travel combine and compound over time.
  • Remember, this too shall pass. Loneliness is impermanent, and riding out an evening or two of feeling low happens to me on the road, but also at home. Part of being human is recognizing that  to have our highs, we must accept there will be days comparatively lower. But if it’s more than loneliness and has moved into lingering depression, seek help.
  • Check in with yourself. Listen to your intuition and know that maybe you should go home. While some solo travelers are comfortable with a year away, others with three months. Honor who you are and what you need. In that moment in Laos, I thought with ever fiber of my being that I would never see my family again. When I came out on the other side of my illness, I looked closely at my travels and realized I needed to stay aware of at what point I may reach a similar moment and stare at regret instead of intense sadness. The dynamics of my current travel style — half a year on the road, then a few months at home — were born from that moment in Laos. During that first year of travel, I realized that after being away from home for more than six months I entered a time when I would regret not seeing family and friends if something serious happened to either them or to me.
sunset mexico
A young Mexican boy fishes on a quiet beach in the last light of day.

Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:

A Little Honesty… On Safety and Solo Female Travel

Concerns about my safety on the road plagued those who love and care about me when I first announced my plan to travel solo around the world. Long-term travel is still an uncommon practice in the United States (compared to Europe and Australia) so perhaps the chief issue I dealt with was the fact that most of my friends had never heard of someone taking a round the world trip. Top that with media portrayals of other countries and you might think every country outside the United States is fraught with peril at every corner.

Top of the Monument
Traveling totally solo and feeling very safe in Scotland, safe enough for this selfie on top of Stirling Monument.

I have not found this to be the case on the road these past years, but in my  early days of planning, their fears became my fears and the entire situation caused, to-date, the only anxiety attacks I have ever had. It was the solo aspect more than the safety when I first left (in the throes of the naïveté of my mid-twenties), but both fears were present during that first year. Before I left, my solo fears circled around the idea of loneliness, but safety is the biggie that gets thrown in my face most often, then as well as now, when I announce new places I will visit.

I am a young solo female and thus pretty much lowest on the totem pole in terms of the types of travelers. Couples have safety in numbers and male solo travelers have an easier go of it in terms of world-wide gender inequality issues, a fact not up for debate—it’s just different for a solo man. So, I’d like to take a look at the different elements of safety on the road—it’s broad topic in regards to travel, and most travelers I know have, at one time or another, dealt with safety fears related to: health, physical safety, and risky activities. Health is a topic for another day; today I’m focusing on physical safety fears that I could have let overcome my desire to travel the world. These are fears that I still consciously choose to overcome each time I leave because it’s not a one-shot deal . . . the nature of some fears is that they are solved for a time and place, but not in general. I travel, but it does not mean that I don’t harbor fear; fear is a part of the human experience and evolutionary wise it was needed for survival. Now though, a lot of what triggers fears on the evolutionary scale are no longer valid (it’s unlikely a cougar will stalk me down a city street at night) but they are vestiges of being human, so let’s understand and address the main fears, one by one.

On Traveling as a Solo Female

I have only increased my safety by traveling rather than simply staying home. I now have a greater breadth of experience and knowledge to draw upon when assessing uncertain situations.

If we boil down the core fear for solo women it’s rape. And I can’t downplay that, it’s a fear I share and it’s the main differentiating part of traveling as a solo woman—it’s my fear and the fear of every person who raises their eyebrow when I share that I travel solo. My best friend’s mother heartily disapproves of my travels. And though it often concerns the places I choose to visit (U.S. media does not treat Mexico well in the news), she has known me since I was in high school and she genuinely fears for my safety; she fears that something truly devastating will happen.

And for my family, my dad puts a lot of trust in my judgment because he seldom mentions the core dangers. He emails me travel warnings and keeps me updated on conflicts in areas nearby my travel route—so I know he’s concerned—but he trusts me treat my own life with care, and that’s the main advice I usually email to other travels: respect your own life. I take precautions and steps to mitigate the chances I am in a bad situation; I choose hostels in safe areas, I stay sober, and I stay aware. There are more practical actions too, and I share more at the end of this post. Beyond that, I can’t stop random acts of violence on the road any more than I can at home—and the rape/homicide rates in many U.S. cities prove that home is dangerous, too.

Safety as a solo female traveler also involves discussing sexual harassment. Female readers have asked over the years if I’ve ever feared for my safety, if I’ve had negative experiences on the road. I’m always tempted to write back that I’m lucky nothing terrible has happened to me, but that statement just pisses me off because it shouldn’t come down to luck. As a woman, I shouldn’t have to hope and pray that a man doesn’t decide to harm me, but it’s the state of the world.

Let’s look at that idea more closely: Safety for female travelers comes down to luck and not preparation alone.

Anyone who says that they avoided issues on the road “because they were prepared,” or because they did “all the right things,” imply a false sense of security. Plus it’s an insult to any woman who has been harmed while traveling—citing preparation as the sole reason for safety does a grave disservice to the facts. Violence against women is an epidemic. It’s a problem in the U.S., and a problem in many countries I visit. I can take steps to minimize my exposure to risk when traveling, but I can’t change the nature of the world—this ready violence against women. No one can plan against the sheer ill-luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Me and Jordi around Town
Since guards are down with locals during India’s Holi celebrations you have to be alert, but I will always remember the fun times with my friends Jordi and Neil wandering around town during the Festival of Colors.

For the sake of transparency on this issue, I have been aggressively groped three times in my life. Each time I was disappointed and mad, and (luckily) none were to the point that I feared it would go further. Each incident reminded me that the way society sees women has a long way to go in a lot of places in the world, my own country included. In 10 years as a solo female traveler, I have experienced only two incidences of clear violence against me. One was in broad daylight during a festival in India and another in Jordan, also during the day. The third incident happened before I left to travel, at a bar in Los Angeles, and of the three it was the most aggressive, invasive, and left me feeling the worst—and it was in a crowded bar with my friends nearby.

I didn’t write about these incidences at the time not out of fear, shame, or covering anything up, but rather because they defined my travel experiences in neither Jordan and India, nor in LA. And I wasn’t solo for any of them. In fact, in all three instances I had men and friends nearby and it didn’t stop the harassment. Three continents, three entirely different cultures, and yet similar attitudes toward women created that shared experience . . . more a statement on the way women are treated the world over rather than on travel, specifically.

I can’t say that nothing will befall female travelers, but I can say that it is not the norm. Truly. Kindness the world over has been the baseline of my experiences all over the world, but it’s hard to combat that when the random acts of violence against women are highlighted more prominently in global media. I know that if something happens to me—and there is that chance—that it will likely be random, and it will be poor timing: wrong place, wrong time. And it could just as likely happen during my time in the U.S. as in the places I travel.

I can’t live from a place of fear. I travel with self-defined policies, agreements I have made with myself to lessen my exposure to risky situations. Beyond that, I put my trust in the world. It may fail me, but that is a risk I have consciously chosen.

how to make a krathong
A friend in Thailand shows my niece Ana and Em how to fold traditional patterns into the palm frond krathongs for a local festival.

On Taking Risks

There is no one-size rule. Life, and travel, is about constantly assessing a situation, making predictions, observations, and acting based on those assessments. Sometimes the assessments are off and I make a bad choice. But it is an absolute fact that traveling has greatly increased my ability to size up a situation and a person and make an accurate judgment. In talking to people from all walks of life—all cultures, backgrounds, attitudes—I have created a book of knowledge that I add to whenever I encounter something new.

If safety is the topic, then I have only increased my safety by traveling—I have a greater breadth of experience and knowledge that I can draw from when assessing uncertain situations.

Surf Camp
Not so risky, but tricky enough for me. Learning to surf in Byron Bay, Australia.

A reader emailed me about taking risks. He heard my story about hiking an active volcano in Guatemala on a podcast and asked: “Something that called my attention was your positive attitude towards risk, so different from mine. [Please share] a few sentences about how you approach risk in your travels, and especially inside your mind.”

My response to him:

I am not an adventurous traveler by any stretch—there are those who do all the big, risky, sporty things. For me though, I try to nudge the boundaries of my comfort zone, but there are many things I won’t do that others will. Travel is highly personal, so if you don’t want to hike a volcano then I say don’t do it and stand firm in that decision.

When I was in Belize, just before I traveled through Guatemala, I had a big decision to make and I erred on the side of caution because it made me intensely uncomfortable to do something that some other travelers easily think is okay. I was at the blue hole, a popular dive site off the coast of Belize, and I had planned, dreamed, and anticipated diving there for several years. Once I arrived though, I didn’t like the attitudes of the dive companiesmany take very novice divers down even though it’s a difficult dive. The thought of diving that deep made me nervous, and I decided that seeing the caves 140 feet below the water was not worth the risk—I assessed the situation and realized I didn’t care enough about the experience to put myself on what I perceive is a risky dive. So I didn’t. Instead I snorkeled nearby, did a couple of shore dives on the reef, and had a perfectly enjoyable time. Other divers may think my decision was silly because thousands of people do that dive without harm, but it didn’t feel right for me. I trusted that feeling, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Traveling is highly personal and what one person does, enjoys, or finds interesting another won’t—and the same goes with risk. Find the travel experience that you think fits you personally and that makes you excited to travel and go do that! Travel should excite you and push just at the edge of your comfort zone. That’s how we grow and change—not by necessarily doing outright risky things, but by confronting the small fears that are boxing us in and not allowing us to live the life we want.

My fear of that dive made it unsafe for me. It pushed me too far outside my comfort zone, and it’s likely I would have done something dangerous from that fear. I knew it wasn’t a good choice because I wouldn’t have stayed calm, and that could prove fatal while diving that deep, when there’s no margin for error. For me, the balance of facing a fear versus the risks and safety of travel becomes learning what are informed fears—which are based on a truth—and which are instead masking fears of change or fears of challenging the status quo. It can be hard to tell the difference, at first, but there is a big difference in the actions that should result.

Holding a tarantula in Guatemala
Saying hello to a tarantula my guide pulled from the ground while exploring Tikal, Guatemala.

On the Actual Dangers

The very basic fact of it all is that if something serious happens to me on the road it will likely be a transportation based injury—just like at home. Traffic accidents and drowning are far more common the world over than tragedies from these other fears according to the U.S. State Department. Fatal traffic accidents far outweigh death from terrorism, plane crashes, or infectious disease according to the CDC.

Some chicken bus drivers in Central America are on duty for 24 hours while driving decades-old buses on pothole strewn roads. The rickety buses in India speed over high mountain passes in the dark and careen around curves protected by guard rails held on with scotch-tape and wishful thinking. Rampant corruption in Mexico (and Bali, and India, and . . .) means that no matter your traffic infraction, you can buy your way out of the ticket for less than $100 (and often just $20).

Chicken bus guatemala

And a “Thai tattoo” in Thailand doesn’t refer to getting some ink while tipsy and high on life—it’s the scabs, scars, and road rash mottling the skin of travelers who have crashed their motorbikes. Something that happens often enough that it has nicknames in every places travelers take this risk (it’s also so common in Bali that it’s called a Bali Kiss). In 2011, I got in a traffic accident in Laos with my niece Ana because I made a riskier decision than I probably should have, and I have several gnarly “Laos tattoos” that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Ana came out of the accident unscathed (thank god) but I had a serious muffler burn, went into shock, and limped away with a lot of road rash on my hip, elbow, and knees.

Did you know that fatal traffic accidents in Thailand are the second leading cause of death for U.S. travelers abroad? The first being traffic accidents in Mexico. No joke.

Three to a motorbike
Three to a motorbike with Jodi and Ana in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Transportation laws are sparse in many developing countries, and those they have rarely enforced in full.

Now compare this to the dialogue from people each time I leave for Mexico or Thailand. I hear about the drug cartels in Mexico, getting seriously sick, and the “scary people” who may harm me. The reality is that while precautions for the other areas are needed, our perceptions are skewed by the media. Outside perspectives often simply reinforcing political doctrine or maintain societal norms.

The map of the world according to mainstream media would have me think a broad swath of the world is untravelable, that the people in these countries I visit cultivate hate and will actively harm me. That’s not true. More than 95% of the world may not like the politics of the west. They may not like my religion. But they are not seeking ways to harm me. Or you. In fact, that 95% doesn’t really think about me at all. They raise their kids and work each day to put food on the table . . . just like in the U.S. So in terms of harm, I don’t feel the religious or cultural based fears. Granted, there are regions I approach with caution because of the gender inequality issues, but the danger map of the world is far different in actuality than you might think, so I point you to this post for more on accurately assessing location-based fears.

On Overcoming Fears

Have enough fear to keep you present each moment of your travels, enough to keep you cautious, but not enough to stop you from traveling. Male or female, there is a basis for fear or we wouldn’t discuss this issue. Bad things can happen. But travel changed my life; it made me a better person, it opened opportunities in my life and facets of understanding I never knew I lacked. It bred compassion into the fiber of who I am as a citizen of this world.

Safety and risks come down to time and place as much as anything. Each region, country, or moment of life comes with its own issues, risks, and fears. I take steps to accurately understand the risks of a place, and I act with my own safety in mind. Then I release the rest to chance, which is all any of us can do because risk is a part of life. Just as there are little risks, there are big risks, too. The biggest one for me being looking back on my 20s and 30s and thinking “what would my life look like if I had traveled young?”

A Little Adrift

There are many things I may look back and regret, but this will not be one of them. To close this out, and before mentioning the specific female travel tips, I will say, as I have many times, that I have found true kindness, friendship, and generosity in each corner of the world, in the mostly unlikely of people, and in countries other Americans assume are only filled with foes. People have gone out of their way to extend help when I needed it, times when I was at my most vulnerable—sick, lost, alone—and that common thread of generosity follows me around the world. Fears have a place in keeping us safe, but without frankly talking about the true facets of traveling in diverse places it’s easy to believe the world is the sum of its dangers. By and large it’s the opposite: traveling becomes the sum of human kindness. It only takes a commitment to shifting your perspective to see that.

How safe do we want to be? How much of ourselves are we willing to give up for it?

Sarah Hepola

Practical Solo Female Travel Tips

Safety and Solo Female Travel: An honest discussion and practical advice for female travelers.

These handful of tips should be paired with common sense and they will take you most any place you want to go in life:

1. Do Your Research & Bookmark Important Resources
Read the national travel advisories and research what the government says are the key dangers—many local embassies around the world will update country and city listings with nuanced safety information surfaced by no amount of Google searching. The U.S. government has one, though I find the Canadian one more thorough in some regards. The Canadian one also includes an extensive section on risks for women—have a read and then bookmark because it has a section for “If the worst happens.” While your embassy is one potential point of contact for Americans abroad, Pathway’s to Safety International provides care for American victim’s abroad.

2. Understand Local Cultural Norms
The first thing I recommend to any traveler—male or female—is to understand the cultural norms. Read about your upcoming destination; read memoirs and histories and the accounts of travelers and locals in that destination. Email local expats or locals who blog; figure out the geo-politics and religions and these will inform your travels as well as your behaviors. I have a whole section of this site dedicated to the best travel books broken down by region/country for this very reason—so you can learn and understand before you leave and have a baseline for your actions. In some places you should cover your hair (Iran) while others it’s best to cover shoulders and legs but belly is acceptable (India). The interactions between women and men differ and you cannot travel and assume your home culture will follow you. Although Western women are afforded “male” status in some countries, you cannot accept that as a given. That means things like direct eye contact, touching, and even the way you address others is up for adjustments as you travel.

3. Involve Others in Your Safety
Look around you and find ways to involve the people in this new place in your safety—usually just telling them you are alone is enough. This applies to bartenders, hotel clerks, and any place you might be waiting around. Tell your hotel you’re traveling alone and they will make certain you know any risky areas in the city; many also go out of their way to make sure you arrive home each evening. Bartenders only need to know that you’re concerned to take you under their wing. The same goes with waiting: At bus stations, when I have hours of sitting around, I will ask other groups if I can sit near them (or I’ll just do it). Recognize that you being alone is often a choice, and telling the right person gives you a network of people also aware and concerned for your safety.

4. Choose When You’re Solo
Finding ways to get comfortable once you land, and know that you don’t have to be solo even if you are traveling solo. I often take a free walking tour on my first day or two in a capital city. These tours offer a lot of history and all of that, which is fun, but there’s often cultural information included too, which helps me understand where I should put my attention. And what’s more, walking tours are filled with other travelers visiting for the next few days or weeks. It doesn’t always work out that I meet someone I want to do something else with, but sometimes I will at least meet with tour people for food/drinks/daytrip another day. Even more, I have paid for one- or multi-day tours when I just wasn’t in a state of mind to handle things myself. If you arrive abroad and don’t love how things are going, book a tour, buy your peace of mind. If you mentally set aside a bit of budget to cover it, just in case, then it’s there if you need it.

5. Stay Aware
One reason I sleep for a week straight when I go home is because my brain is taxed after months of maintaining awareness of everything around me. When I’m walking down the street, there’s only one brain mapping the city to make sure I can get back to my guesthouse. On buses, if I’m solo then I’m likely not asleep. To date, the only times I have had issues is when I pair up with another traveler and both of us relax in ways we never would otherwise. We lose awareness and we forget things, get lost, allow ourselves to be surrounded by touts, etc. As a solo traveler, you need to assess and make decisions constantly. This post on how to build situational awareness is brilliant. Read it. Borrow a couple of those books from the library before you leave. And though it’s written from a male point of view, the descriptions of how to teach yourself to continually assess new situations is a valuable skill on the road.

6. Stay Sober
This is a personal choice and it dovetails with stay aware. While I love a good beer, and while enjoying drinks in dive bars around the world is a backpacker rite of passage, I don’t ever get sloshed when I’m solo. My stance on drinking when I’m with others varies depending on the time, place, and situation, just as it did when I lived in Los Angeles.

7. Know Basic Self Defense
Before I left in 2008, I spent four months learning Krav Maga, an Israeli form of self-defense training. The gym was near my home in L.A. and I booked an unlimited package so I could rapidly build my self defense skills before I set off solo. Self-defense training for women is important, not only do you learn reflexive defense skills, but it’s a huge confidence booster. I have never used my Krav Maga training, thankfully, but every day I am the road I carry that knowledge. I know how to properly punch, and I know how to push through the exhaustion-barrier in a fight. Again, while I’ve never needed it, and there is every reason to believe that you won’t either if you are aware and cautious, there is no reason you shouldn’t research local classes and learn the basics. Many local YMCAs, libraries, or women’s group offer affordable classes. I highly recommend it. Will it save me if someone truly means me harm? I don’t know, probably not—but I like my chances better for knowing it.

8. Stop Being Too Nice
Say no to anything that makes you uncomfortable. I read once that men who want to do harm prey on the societal expectation that woman are polite and accommodating—many of us were taught to give indirect and polite noes. Reading that changed how I approach interactions that make me uncomfortable. Because I did that, all the time. There were times in my early travels politely listened, or tried to gently ditch to an over-eager tout, cautious of being perceived as too aggressive or mean. Now I just don’t care if I’m rude, and you shouldn’t either. I would never be rude in the general course of life, but if it’s something unsolicited and I feel uncomfortable, I go for blunt and immediate. You don’t owe them your kindness, you owe your instincts and gut your attention.

9. Carry Travel Insurance
Since we’ve honestly looked at the safety issues, the biggest threat is actual bodily harm from traffic accidents. I carry travel insurance every time I leave the U.S. Although I have never used it—I paid for the Laos hospital visit out of pocket since it was only $80—I feel safer knowing I can call on medevac or a hospital visit if I am in a serious accident or very sick. This post thoroughly reviews options and gives a detailed breakdown of how to pick a good company; or just head to World Nomads if you’re a backpacker and looking for the best policy my research has found, with decent rates to boot.

10. Carry a Doorstop and Safety Whistle
My travel friend Jodi highly recommends both, so although I carry only the whistle, I know several solo females who feel a lot safer with both.

11. Pay for Your Safety
Take a cab. Spring for the closer hotel. Plan enough of your day that you’re not left risky areas after dark and you’re not riding on an overnight bus. Traveling on a budget often puts us in a mind-frame of penny-pinching and it’s easy to get caught up in the notion of saving every dime possible. Before I left, I vowed to myself that if I caught myself in a moment when I was about to make a decision that valued my money over my safety that I would reconsider the choice. I take the cab when I’m lost, unsure, or have far to go, even though a cab is surely not very “backpackery” of me. I schedule my flights to arrive in a new city during the day, if possible, and I book easy transport to the hotel if not. Uber is now in most major cities around the world—download it, set it up, and be ready to use it in a pinch (and of course, buy a local SIM card when you land so you can summon said Uber).

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my assessment of the safety or have any other tips and resources for solo women?

Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:

  • Why I Decided to Travel the World: A close look at the personal motivations for my 2008 round the world trip, as well as what made me want to stay on the road all these years.
  • How We Make the Big Decisions: How do you know if you’re making the right choice in your own life? This piece takes a look at how we should make the big decisions in our life and where the risks and questions lie.
  • Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely: Many readers have emailed about if they should take off on a solo trip, and this looks at what it’s like to travel solo, as well as why it can be a life-changing experience.
  • On Health and Travel Sickness: Getting sick on the road is a primary concern for a lot of travelers; this post takes a deep-dive on where, when, and why I’ve been sick on the road, as well as tips for staying healthy.
  • On Fear, Vulnerability, & the Less Sexy Side of Travel: This is the intro piece about why I started the Travel Fears series on ALA.

If there is ever anything that I can do to help, please do reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and let’s talk about how we can make your travel dream a reality.

A Little Honesty… On Why I Decided to Travel the World

welcome to the united states
Some people go their entire lives without wanting to leave the confines of our borders. That was never me.

Every so often, readers email me asking what compelled me to travel solo back in 2008. Then they wonder why I never stopped traveling. They ask: “Why were you willing to pack up your life and leave my friends and family behind?”

Their curiosity leaps from the page. I hear the gentle upspeak at the end of the question as they wonder about this strange creature who doesn’t have the trappings of many other women in their late twenties: house, toddler, and a 9-5 job.

Some readers presume I use travel as a way to run away from my problems and issues. They hurl the accusation as if they are catching me in a lie. The short answer is: I was probably running, but it wasn’t away from my problems, but rather into the one thing I thought could help me manifest the personal changes I wanted for my life.

There is the shiny side of traveling, which I have talked about before. There is that shining, beacon of hope for travelers that comes from the pure desire to see new places. This is a dream that pushes many to travel. They yearn to see the bright colors and faces of new city, to hear the slide of new languages lilt over the ear, and to capture those moments in time. We capture these moments through story, photos, or simply being witness to the travels. It’s the dream of many, but yet in the U.S. so few of us take the steps to realize that dream; culturally round the world trips are just not very common.

Crafting My Motivations to Travel

I had those shiny travel dreams too, but in the days leading up to purchasing my one-way ticket I realized more than the distant notion of seeing a place, I had perhaps found a way to help me transition into a new and shinier Shannon too. I wanted to quickly shed everything I had built up until then. I wanted to run. I wanted to change the me I saw myself becoming. I wanted to run from obligations I felt looming over me. And I wanted to run from a cookie-cutter pattern for life that felt molded for someone else. I know using personal issues as a catalyst to travel seems naïve — because you can’t solve anything by running—but it’s only naïve if you think you’re escaping by running.

I am impulsive rather than brave. I often let (present tense, it’s still something I do) frustration be my guide as much as anything. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2006, just months graduating college, I gave everyone a four-week notice. Why four weeks? I could tell you it was because I had a burning desire to jump into acting, but equally alongside that desire was a simple truth: I needed immediate space from my family.

When I was 21-years-old, one of my four older brothers died of a drug overdose. His death was a turning point for my family. His death created a crack from which we have never come back. It created rifts and pains that remain unhealed because his death was too much for the fragile balance of our familial dysfunction.

So I moved to Los Angeles. And it followed me, as all things we run from do. I shared a bit more on that here. But suffice to say, I spent two long years living in LA and working in the entertainment industry. I felt the city breaking my spirit. I fielded more family dysfunction from my hometown across the country. I found myself frustrated and primed for a change.

A conversation with my dad planted the seed for traveling overseas. Since I work online (and I had this work even before I read Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek), I had more choices than many in my circumstance. Traveling and working was a novel idea, it wasn’t one that had ever occurred to be mfore. And it came to me at a time when I felt like I was drowning — I hated LA by that point. I don’t hate it now. My hatred was more about me than the city. Now think of that period of time in the City of Angels with a tingling nostalgia. At the time, however, I struggled with the superficial nature of the acting industry. I wasn’t doing a great job navigating my first grown-up relationship. And I had handled my family situation horribly.

We each make decisions we think are healthier for us, decisions that will give us a hand in navigating our life. Choices related to our life’s work or our health, decisions to cut out family members or friends, or perhaps to move out of our home state to gain distance from poisonous relationships.

I decided that I would travel and hope that time, distance, and growing up would give me clarity on each of those other choices facing me in my life. The personal side of me craved the distance from issues I had not yet learned to cope with, just as the intellectual dreamer in me craved the new cultures, people, languages, and interactions.

Accepting Someone Like Me Could Travel

My vision board for 2008.
I unearthed this photo last week, it’s a vision board I created in December 2007 with all the ideas and things I wanted in my life in 2008. The entire lower right corner represents travel; I bought my one-way ticket seven months later.

I have dreamed of travel since I was young and paged through National Geographic magazines. I feel a pull, a need to make distant places feel like my own. To feel like I have laid witness to the range of experience and place this world has to offer. I also love languages and have studied many over the years — Spanish, Italian, Thai, and American Sign Language. Linguistic nuances fascinate me. The way we express ourselves shapes how we think and act. During college, I loved it enough to declare myself a linguistics major for one brief semester in college.

In deciding to travel long-term, I married my internal struggles with my dreams. I don’t regret the dysfunctions or issues that brought me to the decision either. It’s likely these very aspects of myself that motivated me to leave and allowed me to overcome the fear of setting off solo. And I am fortunate that I came to this place in my life in my mid-twenties, when I had the lack of responsibilities, the time, the willingness to “rough it,” and just enough narcissism to justify leaving behind my friends and family.

Accepting that travel was possible for me — a moderately poor, still in student loan debt, no real savings kinda girl — owning that decision, changed my life. From that moment of acceptance to buying my plane ticket spanned about a week. That’s the impulsive side of me. I knew I wanted to travel, I was a little lost in my life (some might even say adrift), and a week later, June 16, 2008, I bought a one-way ticket so I that couldn’t back out of the plan.

Waiting for the tide
Before I left, I felt like a stranded boat at high tide. Stuck.

Using Travel as an Incubator for Personal Growth

My decision wasn’t just about seeing the world and traveling; I needed the time, space, and perspective to become a better person, to feel like more of a whole person. Travel did not fix me, but it instead it was an incubator for personal growth—something I craved five years ago and something I often hear as the main rationale behind why teens and young adults should travel more. Before I left to travel, a close friend told me: “No one out there knows who you are, they hold no expectations. Become the person you want to be.” And the road is a good place for that sentiment.

The travel experience holds a mirror to your face and forces you to come to terms if you’re the person you want to be. Once you see yourself, traveling gives you ample time to dissect the nuances of those discoveries on marathon 36 hour bus rides, endless trains, solo dinners, and dark moments hugging a toilet hours later.

I consciously choose both reasons for traveling, and I know this is not true for everyone. For many I speculate there is more purity in the decision, but heck, I only speculate. Because perhaps, deep inside, many of us know that life on the road will give us the chance to re-write our story. I re-wrote the story I told myself about who I was. And although there are many paths in life, I couldn’t have rewritten my story without this new path in my life.

Travel is an accelerator allowing your own issues to bubble to the surface — healing those issues is an option, you can choose to travel and remain unaffected, or you can seek out the person you want to be and allow the lessons on the road teach you the path. All of this occurring alongside the breathtaking moments of joy as you see whales breaching a foot off the bow of your boat, a spectacular sunrise in a jungle forest hanging from a zip-line, and the laughter of new friendships.

Curbside Balinese offering
New spiritualities and religions waited for me — new ways to reframe the story of the world I had long held as truth.

That being said, if I had known just how forcefully travel would make me face my own demons, I would have lacked the courage to even back my backpack.

It was in my Vipassana meditation course that I came to terms with my brother’s death. Surely some of the peace I now feel would have come through another experience in my life had I not spent those ten days in solitary contemplation. But travel was my gateway. Travel provided me with a path for healing. I am nicer than I was, and that was partly from reconnecting with volunteering and service as I traveled. Traveling butted me up against the worst aspects of myself: the girl who was (is?) quick to anger, the girl with strong opinions, the girl who runs from her problems. Travel is and was my boot-camp for life.

Though, I assimilated life lessons more quickly in the first two years of travel than any other time in my life (which I talked a lot about in my four years of travel piece), I still have a long ways left.

There are pieces of me that will remain no matter what I do. These pieces are a part of my story. But there are issues, patterns, habits, and behaviors that travel mirrors back to me, it allows me to see those that no longer serve me.  Traveling solo built the strength in me to face the issues that propelled me into leaving. It didn’t solve them, but it taught me where and how to find the strength to address them. There are no doubt many other choices in life that can bring similar results, but those were not my path.

And so, that single decision to buy my one-way ticket was the start of the personal journey to fulfill my dream to travel, and to become a better person. It was the day I decided not allow circumstances to dictate who I am.

sunset in mexixco

I needed time to heal through some personal struggles — and I have healed through many, though far from all — and to follow what I now believe was my path. I was meant to be a traveler, and in coming well into my fourth year on the road I realized that the time and experiences with my nieces and nephews have given me a clearer vision of what I want to do with my life in one way or another (and once I overcome the fears related to this new venture): I want to share travel with youth, to get to them when they’re young and inspire them to find the new ideas, perspectives, and personal growth that long-term travel and service provides.

More than anything I want the next generation to learn their place in the world, because I know that only in making myself whole, only in taking that personal journey over the past four years have I come to a place where I can begin to truly be of service.

Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end. — Pico Iyer

Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:

  • How We Make the Big Decisions: How do you know if you’re making the right choice in your own life? This piece takes a look at how we should make the big decisions in our life and where the risks and questions lie.
  • On Safety and Solo Female Travel: What’s it like to travel as a solo female, and what are the real fears versus perceived fears for travelers.
  • Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely: Many readers have emailed about if they should take off on a solo trip, and this looks at what it’s like to travel solo, as well as why it can be a life-changing experience.
  • On Health and Travel Sickness: Getting sick on the road is a primary concern for a lot of travelers; this post takes a deep-dive on where, when, and why I’ve been sick on the road, as well as tips for staying healthy.
  • On Fear, Vulnerability, & the Less Sexy Side of Travel: This is the intro piece about why I started the Travel Fears series on ALA.

A Little Honesty… On Fear, Vulnerability, & the Less Sexy Side of Travel

Over the years I have shared stories and snapshots of life on the road — glimpses into the beautiful people and places I have experienced. Sometimes, I shared the obstacles along the way, the harder and more personal moments of travel that were more wholly rooted in who I am as a person than the stories of the people I’ve met.

But not often. I my focus has long been on telling the stories of the people I meet. And while it’s my favorite part of this site, it’s only one part of the story. A lot of travelers face big decisions and tough choices when they think of traveling the world. And so you’ve emailed and asked for more.

wentworth falls

The internet is an inquisitive place, and as the A Little Adrift community grew, I realized there were a handful of common questions coming through my inbox. I have fielded hundreds of emails from other dreamers planning their own trips. I’ve corresponded with dozens of readers who were curious about my internal motivations for the decisions I have made in my life. These emails ask planning specifics like safety concerns and what to pack, and esoteric questions about how my views on religion have changed through travel. Interestingly, in all these emails about the where, how, and why of travel, there is a common thread that stands out in each one, and usually comes in the closing moments before they give thanks and sign off.

It’s the moment when the nugget of their true question inside takes hold, when I see that thing that drives them to reach out to me for advice. It’s their fear statement. Nearly every email ends with a question or story that encapsulates my readers’ one overriding fear causing them to hesitate in accepting the call to adventure.

Often it’s that last question that bowls me over with the willingness of others to seek the help and guidance they need. This is not something I am good at. I have a hard time asking for help. But I am so grateful you have trusted me enough to share your own stories. It’s this sharing that allowed me to realized that there room for a frank discussion on the fears, insecurities, and motivations behind travel. More than anything, we all want assurances that it’s a shared fear, that we are not alone in this moment.

antigua guatemala

My own doubts and fears have long prevented me from sharing the more personal parts of my journey. That’s about to change. I packed up my life in 2008 and spent years learning what it’s like as a long-term traveler. Earlier this year, I set a silent goal to share the darker pieces of travel. I started the year talking about my struggles in transitioning from long-term travel into something else . Every day I ponder what I should take as my next steps. And now, years later, I’ve had a good number of experiences that I can share with one goal: to admit and acknowledge my fears so that another may realize they are not alone.

sunset in san panchoFor the next few months, I will answer the most pressing reader questions I’ve fielded over the years. You can expect a deep-dive into the topic with stories, ideas, and resources too. This Tuesday the first post goes live and my palms are already sweaty. Just kidding, my palms don’t sweat. Instead I clench my jaw, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it now does it? But truly the post is queued and I have an overriding compulsion to delete all the personal parts. Good times.

Anyhow, the post focuses on the whats and whys that catalyzed my decision to travel around the world. Beyond the desire to see the world, there were personal problems, ideas, and dreams that convinced me to buy my one-way ticket five years ago, and some might even say it was running away. So, I’ll look at how personal the choice is for each of us, as well as what keeps me on the road.

In the spirit of this new series, I invite you to ask me anything and I’ll work my way through the questions in the coming months. Ask here in the comments, or shoot me an email. Either way, in these coming months I will talk about the scary joys of travel. If you have a specific question, ask away! :)

Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:

  • Why I Decided to Travel the World: A close look at the personal motivations for my 2008 round the world trip, as well as what made me want to stay on the road all these years.
  • How We Make the Big Decisions: How do you know if you’re making the right choice in your own life? This piece takes a look at how we should make the big decisions in our life and where the risks and questions lie.
  • On Safety and Solo Female Travel: What’s it like to travel as a solo female, and what are the real fears versus perceived fears for travelers.
  • Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely: Many readers have emailed about if they should take off on a solo trip, and this looks at what it’s like to travel solo, as well as why it can be a life-changing experience.
  • On Health and Travel Sickness: Getting sick on the road is a primary concern for a lot of travelers; this post takes a deep-dive on where, when, and why I’ve been sick on the road, as well as tips for staying healthy.
gifts for travelers

A Little Review… The 8 Best Travel Gifts for Women

As a long-term traveler on the road for more than eight years, I have carefully tested and tried countless travel products. My first was for the perfect travel purse—and after several years on the road, I found one that does the trick for most types of trip. Travelers don’t have a lot of extra space, so it’s important to find just the right gear. There’s an art to travel, and I spent dozens of trips testing options in an effort to reach that perfect mix of practical and useful—but still stylish!

Although finding a great cross-body travel purse was my first goal, over the years I’ve found a few other things that always make it into my luggage. Some of these I bought myself, others were gifts from family members. If you’re searching for the perfect travel gift for a woman in your life, know that all of these things make my travels more enjoyable, and make me look like a more put-together traveler!

1. My Favorite Cross-Body Travel Purse

The best cross-body purse for travelers. It can be hard to find the right fit, size and comfort, but his one is well-designed and perfect for stylish yet comfortable and convenient travels!A lot of travelers, like me, carry a purse in everyday life, so it makes sense to carry one while traveling. I’ve tried to carry my things just in a backpack, or in my pockets, but it’s not for me. So I searched for the perfect travel purse. I have carried expensive bags, cheap sack-like bags, regular purses, messenger bags—none of these bags ever quite kept pace with my travels. I started my yearlong RTW trip with an AmeriBag—this worked well and was easy on my back (it’s designed to remove stress for those with back problems), but it’s not very stylish. And the Baggallini Travel bag is a finalist—it looks good but it’s less durable, so consider gifting it for those who take shorter vacations (like a European trip) versus long-term backpacking.

I did find the perfect travel bag—the Donner by Overland Equipment—but they discontinued it in 2015. When I needed a replacement travel purse, I renewed the search and settled on Travelon, which channels what I loved about the Donner. It’s the best crossbody travel purse I’ve yet found on the market. I like that it looks nice enough to carry out to dinner, but also holds my camera, water bottle, and sightseeing gear.

The Travelon Anti-Theft Cross-Body Bag emerged as a clear leader for its combination of size, functionality, and number of pockets. If you’re a long-term traveler, it will keep pace with your travels, and if you’re heading to Europe, it will transition from go-bag for sightseeing to dinner with friends.

  • Sturdy features, the material is strong and the strap is wide and comfortable.
  • Great convenience factors; there are a range of pockets in various areas so you can easily store and find things. I like the back zippered pocket to hold my tickets and passport for quick access.
  • Good looking and versatile; works in a range of situations from sightseeing to dinner.
  • A great size; this purse fits an outing’s worth of stuff in it: water bottle, sunglasses, mirrorless camera, notebook, snack, chap-stick and Kindle.
  • Anti-theft features; I usually travel with a carabiner to secure my purse strap, and this one has it built it. So handy! It also has locking zippers and slash-proof fabric. In Europe, the carabiner and anti-theft features are particularly ideal so you can affix the purse to your chair in places like Paris and Rome where petty theft is high.

I always carry a purse on my travels, and if you’re looking for something ideal for your trips, this one hits all of my positives. That said, it’s on the larger end of the bag perspective (I always need mine to fit my camera). So if you want a lower-profile option, the Travelon Anti-Theft Classic Messenger Bag has the same anti-theft features but a bit of a lower profile. And to go completely safe but low-profile, this Be Safe bag is cute and won’t make you look like a tourist!

Picking one out as a travel gift for the woman in your life: Amazon has a range of gorgeous colors. I prefer the black Travelon so that it matches a lot, but the grey one is cute, too.

2. A Stylish Pocket Scarf

Wearing a scarf is a great way to dress up an outfit when you’re traveling, and a Pocket Scarf is a fun, practical addition to your travel wardrobe. It’s wicked useful and come in several of colors. Women can use the pocket to keep passport, credit cards, and spare cash safe as you roam around Europe or squeeze through crowded streets in Asia. This is also a great way to go lightweight for a night out on the town as it takes the place of a small clutch.

The best travel wardrobes have items that function in different capacities, and this wins on that front. Give this travel gift to a woman backpacking in Europe, or perhaps one planning a lot of overland travel. She won’t regret tossing one of these into her bag in a neutral color that coordinates with most of her outfits.

Note: I own this black scarf from Clever Travel Companion (a company specializing in pickpocket proof clothing) and it is a winter scarf—it’s larger and thicker. This Pierron & Co one is a bit lighter for multi-season travel. Both companies use great materials that will last—cheaper brands use thin material that shows the bulky contents of your scarf (thus defeating the purpose of hiding things in it!).

3. A Stylish, Warm, Durable Cardigan

best travel caridganLook no further for the perfect cardigan for your trip. Made from Merino wool (a breed of sheep from Spain), the Icebreakers Bliss Cardigan is my favorite piece of travel clothing. It’s a travel must, especially when venturing around Europe. The weather fluctuates a lot in Europe and you are likely facing warm days and cool evenings. The great thing about Merino wool is that it stays cool in warm weather and warm in cold weather. Having a good sweater is important so that you can keep yourself warm on chilly planes, buses, and trains. And even more, this sweater looks so good that I always get compliments on it when I’m on the road. It works just as well on a plane as it does in a bar for happy hour. I own this sweater in grey and blue, and one of them is always in my travel bag.

 4. Cute, Comfortable Sandals

stylish travel sandalI never thought I would say this, but I have found the perfect travel sandals and they’re Crocs. I am in love with my sandals. I know, don’t make that face though, because I’m going to make my case.

The Crocs Sexi Flip Sandal is so comfortable, and surprisingly stylish, too. Like my cardigan, people have stopped me on the street to ask about my sandals. They’re as comfortable as you would expect from a pair of Crocs, but the style is downright trendy. The soles are manmade and the ankle strap fits well (they are very tight when you first order them, so round up a size and know that they fit much better once you wear them in for a day or two).

I have worn these through a dozen countries now and they’ve never given me a blister. I am on my third pair, each lasts me about a year of near constant use. This is the perfect sandal for hot summer days spent wandering through historic European cities or rural villages in Africa or Asia.

5. Smartphone Security

lifeproof case reviewYour smartphone is likely one of the most expensive items in your day bag and the traveler in your life (or you!) should keep it safe. The best cases on the market are both the Otterboxes and the Lifeproof cases. While Otterboxes are good for daily use, the Lifeproof FRE case wins out for travelers. There is a reason why Lifeproof cases are so popular among travelers: They are almost indestructible. Lifeproof cases protect your phone from falls, sand, snow, and water. Anything you dream up for your trip—your phone case can handle it. There are several colors and styles available, and they also have a floating case if you’re planning a beach holiday.

6. Stylish Camera Scarf

comfortable camera strapFinding a comfortable camera strap is challenging. If you own a DSLR, or if  you opted for the Lumix that I recommend, then you might want to upgrade your camera strap. With the Capturing Couture Scarf Strap, I love the idea of a camera strap that is made from a scarf. Made from soft jersey fabric, this scarf camera strap is comfortable, functional, and stylish. It will look great as you snap photos of anything from the Taj Majal to the Eiffel Tower.

7. The Perfect Travel Camera

perfect camera for travelDepending your travel styles, most travelers have done away with point-and-shoot cameras in favor of using cell phones. And it’s a solid trade-off. You don’t need to have a big fancy DSLR camera to take great photos when you’re travelling. That said, for a traveler visiting once-in-a-lifetime locations, consider a small but powerful micro-four-thirds for the traveling woman in your life.

The Panasonic LUMIX GX85 is phenomenal. I use the GX7 and this line of cameras upped my photography game considerably, while not adding the weight of a DSLR camera.These line of cameras are the hands-down best travel cameras for quality and size. While most travelers will enjoy using their phone for convenience, for those who want to truly record their journey, read my review of my Panasonic LUMIX—it’s my favorite purchase in years. And the GX85 now comes with a lens bundle and is half the price of what I paid for mine, so it’s a real steal.

8. Travel Themed Jewelry

Gorgeous Travel-Themed JewelryAdorable Silver Travel Bracelets: Love the Zenned Out store on Etsy. If you buy the sterling silver you can easily use on the road without worrying about showering with it on, but still look cute and class-up that wrist of traveler bracelets all long-term travelers seem to collect.

Gorgeous travel themed necklaces: I love this compass necklace(adorable, fashionable, and could perhaps pass for practical?) and I bought myself this antiqued plane charm necklacethis globe is stunning, and I completely geek-out for this solar system necklace.

stylish travel giftsOther Travel Gift Ideas

In addition to these travel items, I always pack a few extra things that make my travels easier.

  • Backup Battery: If you’ll be using your smartphone then don’t forget a backup battery. I carry the mid-priced and compact Jackery power bar, or consider the Power Brik Portable charger, which is less expensive, slim, and it will carry at least one charge for your phone.
  • Reading Material: I always bring a Kindle as I like have a single-purpose device and no distractions. You can download a few books related to the country you’re visiting and learn about the history, culture, and people as you travel.
  • Tunes for the Road: Spotify won’t work overseas, so consider upgrading to Spotify Premium for your trip. With premium, I download all of my music so I have offline tunes for the train rides and days out wandering new cities.
  • Handy Travel Journal: There are no better notebooks than a Moleskin and this travel themed one is super cute.

That wraps up the handful of my very favorite travel items that make it into my backpack on each trip, despite the extra weight. And there are other things I love (my backpack, my hiking boots, etc), but each one of these items have made my travels better in some identifiable way. As a traveler, every single thing I add to my backpack adds to the weight I carry on my back.

And as a woman running a business from all over the word, I need to look nice when I’m on the road. For this reason I am ruthless and meticulous about what I allow into my bag. And while many of these items cost more than other brands, these are the ones that tend to combine quality, style, and function. If it’s only going to break or look misshapen a few weeks into my trip, then it’s not a good purchase. My full travel packing list is here. And if you’re interested in generally the best gifts for world travelers, I put together a gift guide for those who love to travel—practical and inspirational gifts!

pretty clouds lake district

A Little Technology … How a Long-Term Traveler Backs Up Heaps of Data

When set off traveling in 2008, I never fathomed what a data hog I would become over the years. I left the US with my trusty (but old) PC laptop and a point and shoot camera. And what’s hilarious to me now, is that I felt like I was overdoing it compared to the romantic round the world journeys a century ago—they sufficed with a journal and a pen on their long overland trips. But I had to travel with my laptop so I could work and blog from the road, and the camera was a given.

reading in hammock
My niece Ana camped out in a hammock on Otres Beach in Cambodia as she finished the Percy Jackson series on the Kindle. Those Kindle books=more types of data to store now!

Fast forward to now though, and packing heaps of technology when we travel seems par for the course: I think nothing of traveling with my laptop, a smartphone, my Kindle, my nice camera, and a backup hard drive. I read data on our outrageous and upward spiraling demands on data usage recently, and scientists are looking to DNA, bacteria, and diamonds even as an eventual solution to the compounding effect of each person’s growing digital footprint. No faded photos for us, scratched and worn throughout a century,it’s feasible to think my great-grandchildren could read an archived incarnation of this very blog.

guatemala postage stamps
Enough stamps to get my backup hard drives and some souvenirs from Guatemala to Florida–and yes, I licked each and every one. ;-)

Now, one could argue there’s no need to preserve every nuance of my digital life, but today, I do actually need the data I create, and I realized I needed a more effective way to store the heaps of data I produced every week as a long-term traveler—gigs upon gigs of photos, documents, videos, etc.  In my first two years of travel, I sporadically mailed home DVDs filled with my photos and I backed up information locally on a small external hard drive that I bought in Slovenia eight months into my trip. Sadly, just as I was leaving for Central America, I discovered that one my two backup hard drives was corrupted. And because my backup copies were not meticulous, in one moment I had lost all my photographs from my many months in Nepal and India.

The news devastated me. And I learned four important lessons from it:

  1. Backup often.
  2. Backup everything.
  3. Backup online.
  4. Backup in multiple places.

I haven’t figured out the exact perfect solution to fully storing everything, but between external hard drives, online storage in the Cloud, and remote backups to a home computer, I have the found a workable rhythm and a complete backup system for long-term travelers like me! So let’s look at the highs and lows of each three, as well as why I’ve chosen this exact setup for backing up … each one has specific reasons to be used in tandem with the others.

Backup Online to the Cloud

The best way I’ve upgraded my digital life was through online backup and storage in the Cloud. Most of us use Cloud storage everyday now without even thinking about it. Gmail and Google Documents stores your data in this mysterious “Cloud,” as do photo storage companies like SmugMug, which is where I host all the edited photos for this site—it’s a pretty interface and my preferred choice as a photographer and blogger combo.

But these are both file specific Cloud backups. Full online backup solutions on the other hand, provide complete coverage for laptops and hard drives—they backup every single file on your computer, every single day into the Cloud.

crashplan backup reviewBack in May, CrashPlan approached me to ask if I was interested in testing out their backup services for a year. I was already sold on this type of service, (my friend Jodi bought Mozy backup services when someone stole her laptop and she lost everything), and I was keen to try an easier way than what I was doing—solely backing up files manually.

So I agreed and here we are, six months later. Below I’ll outline the pros and cons of CrashPlan and online Cloud storage, particularly with international travelers in mind.

Because it’s not perfect, but it is pretty close.

Pros for Online Cloud Storage:

  • Data is immediately backed up. The software checks every file and folder on my computer daily (or even hourly) for changes and backs up files immediately into the cloud.
  • Automatically sinks and checks your entire computer. I never have to “remember” to backup certain files or folders, the software does it automatically each day at during the times I specified.
  • Can restore to my backup if my computer is stolen. CrashPlan won’t save my computer, but all the data is secure and I can restore it to a fresh computer if mine is lost/stolen/broken.
  • Access your files immediately online. My laptop crashed a few months ago, before CrashPlan had even  finished the initial backup, but it saved my life by allowing me to quickly grab my client’s most important files until I got my laptop repaired.
  • Ability to set percentage of processor used for backing up. The program can easily run in the background without me noticing very much, but for the first months of the initial backup I kept the computer on all night and let it use full processing power.
  • Seed drives allow an easier initial backup. I did not use a seed drive, but Dan and Audrey had great success using CrashPlan’s seed drive, which you fill with your data and then mail to them—it’s faster than doing that first backup entirely through the internet.

Cons to Backing up to the Cloud:

  • Initial backup time is lengthy. It took eleven weeks to back up the 300 gigs of photos and videos from my home internet connection in the United States. And while that’s a fair amount of time for that much data, for a traveler it’s worth knowing ahead of time so you can buy before you leave, and/or time it to when you will have solid internet connections (or do the seed drive service).
  • Backing up each day relies on an internet connection. Your files only backup when you are online, so if you’re in a country without much internet, or with slow internet speeds (I’m looking at you India and Bali) it can take many days and a lot of bandwidth to back up a lot of photos and video.
  • The backup uses processing power. I’m a multitasker at heart, so I often have dozens of programs open at once: Photoshop, a browser, Tweetdeck, Evernote, Word … the list is long and I have occasionally paused CrashPlan for a couple of hours when I was hard at work on something else.

Bonus things I happen to love about CrashPlan is: the user interface (it’s intuitive and simple), customer service is speedy to respond, they have tiered pricing plans (which will come in handy when I pay to renew next summer). And for you Mac users, all the major backup companies work for you guys too.

Also, note upfront that “backing up” and “archiving” do not mean the same thing, CrashPlan backs up the hard drives I have, but if I delete a file, so does it (on a delay though in case you need it!). It’s not data storage per se, the service is made as a fail-safe—if something happens to your hard drive, you can use their mirror image of it to duplicate the information on a new drive. Which is what we’ll get to next, the external hard drives as a second step in the complete traveler back up solution.

Love the Clouds
How pretty are those clouds in the Lakes District in England?

 

Back up on External Hard Drives

As a (mostly) solo traveler, all my data is usually stored in one place: me. Even if I spread out the hard drives and store them in different backpacks/luggage, I am the one carrying all my data on a travel day, which makes the thought of theft daunting. But online backup alone just isn’t enough because most backup services are a duplication of what you have on your computer/hard drives.

That means I still have to keep terabytes of information at my fingertips. So, I carry my laptop as the first storage spot—it has a 450 gig hard drive—and a small external hard drive as my backup. Now, all hard drives can fail (as I found out the hard way), and it’s likely best to have two external ones, but I have found the combination of laptop and external hard drive effective for now since I have amble online and remote storage as well.

Best external, portable hard drive options for travelers:

  • Western Digital Passport: This is my current hard drive, it’s tiny (literally the size of a passport), reliable, and durable—mine has traveled through at least 20 countries and is still kicking.
  • LaCie Rugged: This will be the next portable hard drive I buy; my current one is creeping up in age (three plus years of a hard life on the road) and the LaCie rugged looks like it can take a beating. The brand is solid according to my techie friends, so I’ll likely buy one of these in the next few months so that I have my Passport, and this rugged one both.
  • Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt: This one is super fast and fancier than the other two, the device’s transfer rate is higher because it has a Thunderbolt connection.
  • Transcend Information with Military Drop Standards: A reader submitted this one for consideration–he noted that it has similar proportions to the Passport, but very rugged and sturdy!

Remote Backup to a Home Computer

My dad is a computer systems engineer (official title) and at the core it really just means that he enjoys the geeky side of all things computers. When I left to travel his top concern was a way for me to back up to his home computer remotely. Though this was tricky in my first years of travel, CrashPlan has completely free-to-use remote backup software that allows me to now easily access my dad’s computer network—we have four working computers online and running SETI at all times—so I backup to those hard drives. This is the icing on the cake for me in my quest preserve every single aspect of my digital life since it effectively means all my old files and any new files are easily accessible. :)

E.T. and Elliot
Yep, my dad’s computers are left on all the time so we can process radio waves and hope to find E.T.’s home :)

There are ways to do remote backups via FTP (my dad’s first method of choice years ago) but software like what CrashPlan offers (again, this service is free) is easier. Much easier. Like Cloud storage though, it requires a strong internet connection. It also requires hard drive space, a computer that is turned on, and it must have the CrashPlan software installed on both ends (yours and the backup computer). It’s easy to set up, but it’s something you should do before you head out on the road (my mother would never have the skills to install it, but any of my friends could do it easily … if that gives you a gauge of the difficulty).

The Trifecta of Storage Near-Perfection

The last year of my digital life has felt the most secure. After I lost my photos in 2010, I saw how tenuously connected we all are to this digital life. I had no negatives in my hands to simply re-print the photos I lost. My story has a surprisingly happy ending, I gave my broken hard drive to my friend Doug who was studying advanced data recovery at University, and after a year testing different programs on my sad little hard drive, he recovered all the data. I did a happy dance of thanks when he emailed me the news. :)

Pink skin from Holi and picking up the Taj Mahal from Agra.
My life was missing this photo of me–pink-tinged skin and all because of Holi–picking up the Taj Mahal. Thanks for giving it back to me Doug, I won’t be that careless again, I promise! :)

I don’t expect him to create a miracle like that again, however, so I use these three fairly simply methods to ensure that all my work files, my photos, and my documents are secure. The fact that I sometimes have very little access to the internet is the only hitch in this current method—the moment we have global free 3G access I will do a giant happy dance. But since that is decades away from becoming a reality, I will stick with Cloud, external, and remote storage in tandem to keep me traveling.

How do you manage your digital life and data storage?

travel speaker volunteering

A Little Announcement…Meet My Book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook

Volunteer Traveler's Handbook image
buy on amazonbarnes & noble buy

Writing this book over the past nine months functioned as a perfect mirror for my own personal fears and vulnerabilities—my book about volunteering ended up with so much of me exposed in the process that the thought of publicly launching was overwhelming.

When I left the United States in 2008 on what became my open-ended journey around the world, I had no idea where my travels would take me. I did however, have hopes that traveling would act as a reset button on my life—that I would find a new focus beyond the acting industry I left behind in Los Angeles and the advertising background I studied in college. I had no idea that four years later I would write a book about volunteer travel, but my path has led me here, to announcing my new (and as yet only) book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.

Why did I think this book needed writing?

After years of volunteering and supporting local communities in each place I visited, I wanted to work on a project that would help others create positive change as they travel. The more I traveled, I affirmed my belief that there is good that can come when we all focus more on socially conscious travel—acknowledging that everyone cannot give, serve, and volunteer in the same way. Over the years, as A Little Adrift found more growth and success, other travelers emailed me with questions about how they could find ways to connect their travel experiences with small, grassroots organizations and local social enterprises all over the world.

And it felt good. And there was a need for this information in the community.

With those needs, and the countless emails I have received over the years as an impetus, I wrote The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. The book addresses the complicated facets of the international volunteer industry, and delves into the ethical issues related to working in developing communities. Through personal stories, and stories from other travelers and organizations, the book paints a clear picture of the ways people can pair travel and service. Sometimes this means through volunteering, but the book also offers ideas for short-term travelers who are perhaps not able to commit to a full volunteer project. On the whole, I wrote the book to address these core elements:

  • Foundational ideas about volunteering in developing countries
  • The interplay of ethics and development work
  • Identifying your motivations for volunteering
  • Picking either a volunteer tour, middleman placement company, or an independent organization
  • How to research and vet organizations to ultimately decide which jive with your personal ethical code
  • Managing your expectations
  • Pre-trip cultural research
  • How to navigate the experience once you’re there
  • All the nuts and bolts of travel like packing, safety, insurance, and visas

The book is a tapestry of ideas on the voluntourism industry. It weaves stories throughout the text to illustrate practical ways to apply the advice, as well as photos, resources, and ideas.

Why me?

In essence, I wrote the volunteer guide I wish I had before I left to travel. I made mistakes on my volunteer journey, I supported companies that were not working to better their community, but were instead purely profit driven. And in that same breath, I found wonderful grassroots businesses not listed in any guidebook that needed a hand in a way only I could lend. And I found friends and guidance along the way that shaped my views on development and aid work, the potentially harmful impact of naïve do-goodery, and the simple ways we can affect change.

I have traveled within and throughout communities all over the world, always looking for the simple ways I could lend a hand. My first international volunteer experience took place in Nepal, and since then I taught in Nepal, tutored children in Guatemala, built stoves, supported local causes, and found ways to integrate service into my travels through Southeast Asia with my niece last year. I don’t know everything, far from it, but I learning and understanding have underpinned each moment of my travels over the past four years. And with my meticulous nature, coupled with a lot of research, interviews, and questions, I gathered the information and perspectives I think each travelers need before they head out into developing communities.

Volunteer travel collage
Photos, each with its own memories and stories from my volunteer and travel experiences around the world.

This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I put a very real piece of myself into this book. Across several continents, countless countries, and many months (and while caring for my niece) I spent long hours thinking about the best way, the right way to encourage other people to ethically volunteer. I had a lot of fears about the project—surely there were more books I should have read before writing, or if not that, I was no doubt going to grossly overlook fundamental ideas and challenges in the aid and volunteer industries. The fear monster was on full attack, usually in the dawn hours when no one else was awake; it was just me and the book staring each other down.

Volunteering is the easy word for this book, but really the subject touches on development and international aid policies, the ethics of “developing” these countries in the model of the west, and the tangible value and harm volunteers can bring to international projects. I care so much about doing the subject justice, with all of its nuances and hotly debated opinions, and for a time, this made it a struggle for me to overcome my fears.

That struggle, though, made it better. The concern made me ask more questions, interview more people, and ask for guidance from a diverse range of opinions within the realms of sustainable tourism, international development, and, ultimately, volunteering.

Actually, as Neil Gaiman noted in his keynote speech (that my friend Mike so graciously pointed me to in my moments of angst) the launch of my book is like standing naked in front of my entire community and baring a part of my heart and my soul because there is risk, there is potential failure and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t admit that failure is a scary prospect.

But as I noted above, I felt the book needed to be written. And that overrode the fears.

volunteer travel

I think the sum total of this book can create positive change. I believe this is the truth. And I believe this is an immediate core focus for my life and my personal journey, to spread this positive message. I also think any new traveler, veteran traveler, and even arm-chair-occasional-two-week travelers will find value in the message—will find a way to use this information to travel with a more grassroots mentality of supporting local communities.

It took many months and many people (editors, designers, my partners in the book collective, family, and friends) to complete the project and hone the message down to its core components. But it says everything I want it to say. And now I’ve said nearly everything I want to say; I am happy with the results and there were are no words to do justice to the feeling of looking down at the cover and seeing my name in print for the first time.

Thank you! (And now I need your help)

I believe in the change we can create with the right information and the right focus, and I am so happy/excited/terrified to launch my new book into the world. The book is for sale at all major online outlets, and if you or someone you know is interested in this prism through which they can see the world—through local level service and volunteering, I would love for you to pass on the book, share it on Facebook or Twitter (the volunteer book’s permanent landing page is here).

buy on amazonbarnes & noble buyIndie bound buy

And if you buy it (thanks!), let me know what you think. There are likely things I overlooked, or ideas that will morph and change over the coming months and years and I am eager and open to feedback. Further, I would love to hear your story if you have your own experience volunteering or serving communities anywhere in the world; share it with the community in the comments, or send me an email.

Since I launched this site in 2008, I have grown to deeply value and appreciate the community of travelers who find their way here. I could not have made it to this point in my journey without the support of fellow travelers, readers, and friends. To all of those I have met along the way, for you feedback, guidance, shared stories, and encouragement, simply, thank you.

~Shannon

How to Work Abroad and Find Overseas Jobs

A Little Thought… On Why I Left to Travel, How I Pay for It, and How to Work as an Expat

Mythology and story, new cultures, and finding just the right way to describe what it feels like to watch a new day begin as the the sun warms the streets of an unknown city . . . these are the things I usually think about when writing new posts. How can I transport other people into a new place?

Since many readers won’t make it on a rickety bus rocketing through the dry deserts of India, I share that with words and photos. It’s those travel moments that compelled me to keep up travel blogging—the want to share the experiences and the stories along the way.

What I rarely talk about is a bit less glamorous and a lot more personal. More pointedly: my job. I’ve only mentioned my work a handful of times on the site, but after many emails from the ALA community about how to save for travel—and more specifically, how I afforded a long-term route around the world for a year! And then for another nine years and counting.

Now, I decided I have something to say to the countless travelers and dreamers emailing about how to work remotely, and how to build a digital nomad lifestyle, or work internationally.

How I’ve Worked Online for 13+ Years

Watching Titanic in 3D in Phnom Penh
My niece and I visited an expat friend who lives and works full time in Cambodia. The three of us found a theatre playing Titanic in 3D and yes, oh yes, we went to see it!

To those not keen to live as a digital nomad, why not try on life as a true expatriate.

After months backpacking Southeast Asia, my niece and I stayed with Anna Jura, a traveling expat friend living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She works in the public health sector and navigates the ins and outs of finding expat work abroad. As an aside, having Anna (my friend) and Ana (my niece) share names made for a fun week of confusion and I often elicited raised eyebrows pointed in my direction since the dynamics of talking to an 11-year-old are a far-cry different from talking to another adult! :-)

Anyways, Anna opened her door to us with a spare bedroom, opened her evenings to us with wandering rants about local Cambodian politics and culture, and with enthusiasm she showed us the tastier eats around her city.

More than that though, she showed me what it is like to truly work abroad an expat in a city you’re in because you like both the city and your work.

cambodian food

A simple veggie fare for lunch...not really Cambodian, but delicious!

Why You Should Work Overseas

Chalk it up to lack of critical thought on the subject, but in my narrow world, it hadn’t fully occurred to me to encourage people to find work in their field of study. To actually take their University degrees and apply for work abroad.

Over the years, I have given a lot of advice in emails always encouraging people to embrace online, remote-based work.

I wrote to one questioning traveler: “Think about all of your unique skills and leverage those into remote-based consulting.”  And to another I emailed that she could “build up freelance gigs in one of her skill-sets or consider teaching English abroad.”

breakfast
My niece and I cooked a thank you breakfast on our last day for Anna and her neighbor!

All of this is good advice if you want to work from a laptop;  and that is my primary frame of reference. I have said it before in places on this website, what differentiates me from many round the world and gap-year travelers is that I worked the entire time.

In the past six years, I have only truly taken two long breaks from my SEO consulting work, my freelance online work, and the weekly upkeep on this blog. One break was in 2009 on my RTW trip for a ten-day Vipassana Meditation course in Nepal; I spent ten days in complete silence and they locked all our gadgets and notepads in the center’s storage areas for the entire ten days. The other break was in Myanmar earlier this year; I knew the internet was intermittent in the country and welcomed three weeks offline, only checking in once or twice to make sure there were no fires to squash.

How to Work Abroad and Find Overseas Jobs
My “office” is usually a wifi cafe somewhere in the world . . . and the best cafes have fellow blogging friends gracing their tables like Jodi of Legal Nomads and James from Nomadic Notes!

My “office” is usually a wifi cafe somewhere in the world . . . and the best cafes have fellow blogging friends gracing their tables like Jodi of Legal Nomads and James from Nomadic Notes!

It’s worth noting that I left back in 2008 to travel knowing this was my reality, knowing I wouldn’t have the same freedoms of other 20-something backpackers who had spent years saving up, then quit their jobs and traveled unhindered and free to indulge in each travel moment. It’s a great story, the quit my job and traveled story, but it’s not my story. I have no regrets, and the fact that I can work remotely regularly makes it on my daily gratitude list.

My Backstory (Exactly How I Pay my Bills)

For a season of my life, I worked at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles. I do believe those three-and-a-half months qualify as my only “real job” after college. Well, the only 9 to 5 I’ve ever worked, I should say. I took the NYFA job to help myself transition between Florida and California.

I moved to LA just after graduating college in 2006, and, like so many other young actors, ambition, naïvety, and likely a hint of narcissism fueled me through the move. But, even back then, I had lucked into fully online based work through a series of happenstance connections shaped by the people, professors, and friends I met while studying at University.

So, I took a location-based job. And I did it simply to meet new friends and find an instant community in a town where finding a community is the only way to survive the crushing anonymity of living in a city with nearly four million inhabitants.

Graduating college in 2006
Graduating university and just a month before I decided to pack up and spontaneously move to Los Angeles, California to pursue acting and continue my online work.

I had worked with NYFA on their annual summer program in Orlando, Florida, so they were a logical choice when I wanted part-time work. It was a three-day-a-week job that necessitated a blouse, skirt, and super cute heels. The outfits were the best part of that job. That’s not to say anything about the company, my colleagues welcomed me, the NYFA students were bright and passionate, and the work was challenging.

But I hated the lack of power, the oversight of a boss when I’d only previously justified my time-management on projects to myself. And lest you think I simply didn’t like work and skated through University on a trust fund, I got a full merit-based scholarship to the University of Central Florida, and I waited tables, bartended, and nannied to pay for the other costs; each of these was a job I loved aspects of, though the former two were jobs I swore I’d never return to again once I graduated.

Back to Los Angeles. I found myself in the routine, packing my lunch each day, the same smiles, the same jokes with friends, and after-work exhaustion, or happy hour on a good day. And it didn’t feel like me. There was a restlessness stirring inside of me, fighting the constraints in the daily routine.

So I quit. Okay, not quite like that, I finished the project . . . my fancy title was the Assistant Director of New Programs, and what it boiled down to was me co-writing an application to grant MFA degrees from one of the NYFA programs. With the project finished, rather than stay on, I gave a cheery goodbye ( still on good terms). Then I went back to my online work, nannied for two families in LA, and spent another year and a half toiling through life as an actor in Los Angeles.

I had an epiphany of sorts, in a conversation with my dad . . . I told him how I was itching to move again, and since I had enough SEO consulting work I was thinking of moving to Boston for a change of scenery. He said “Well, you can pretty much work from anywhere, so I say do it.”

And to this day my dad maintains that he never imagined the sorts ideas that conversation would spark. Within two weeks I had embraced the concept: I bought a one-way ticket to Australia, gave notice to my landlord, and decided to leave acting behind for a while and instead travel and work.

hollywood sign, los angeles
My last day in the US back in 2008, just before leaving Los Angeles to Australia for my RTW trip. I hiked Runyon Canyon with my friend Lisandra to say goodbye to the Hollywood Sign (in the far background)..

I left just five months later, in November of 2008, with a conservative sum of money I gained from: selling my belongings, my modest savings, and extra work I crammed in the last couple months. To fund the full year of travel I had planned, I knew I needed to bill about 25 hours a week on average for most of the trip, and slightly more than that once I arrived in Europe, where the cost of living is higher than in Asia.

Since that time, I have continued many of the same jobs (still doing SEO, online marketing/SEO consulting, freelance writing, and this blog), while also diversifying my work and income (I have a volunteer site in the works and a book publishing later this fall . . . more on that soon!). Through it all though, I have always and will continue to work remotely, from my laptop, for the foreseeable future.

Back to the Present: Living Abroad as a Working Expat

From my background and experience, I have given career advice in countless emails to steer people into working remotely. And in some responses I noted that you could find work abroad, but I never really understood all that it can mean to live as an integrated expat until I lived with Anna Jura for a week.

I am not fond of “real” jobs—ie. office jobs with bosses and clocking in, but that’s just me.

Some people thrive under the structure and work 9 to 5 on projects they love. This is not a novel concept to most of my friends, who love their homes, love having evenings off, and love a structure giving them weekends free of work concerns.

But maybe I finally get it. Anna and her roommate both clock into “real” jobs each day.

By choice.

Given the option to switch jobs with me, they’d choose their job.

Sunset phnom penh palace
Sunset over the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia from one of the walks Anna took us on around the city

Every expat I met through Anna while in Phnom Penh was highly educated, most were specializing in development work of some sort, though some in marketing, or business, and all were content with their work and life as an expat in Cambodia. 

In the past, I’ve met disgruntled expats, those frustrated or with their jobs and ready to take the money they earned working abroad, do a last hurrah of travel until it ran out, and then move home. But the community I met in Phnom Penh changed my perception; these people found a place for their specializations, for their college degrees. Beyond that, the prospect of living and working in this particular foreign city excited them. Their work is not a means to an end as it often is for those teaching English abroad or some such (the end usually being traveling). These are jobs for the love of working in a subject field, and, ultimately, professional work satisfaction.

So much of the travel community is “rah, rah travel, rah, rah save up and take a massive trip . . . or work remotely and travel perpetually.”  That’s just one option. There are also opportunities abroad for those with wanderlust and a wish to have a home-base, set-up shop, live, raise a family, and truly enjoy life as an expat abroad.

Small Thatched Cottage, Ireland
The thought of living in this thatched cottage, cozying up with a daily up of tea, finding new friends and settling into a new rhythm makes Ireland’s rural Western coast appeals to me if I ever want to go off the grid as an expat :)

That’s my new advice. Try on your University degree and see if it fits abroad. Or try consulting and build an online business. Or save up a chunk of money, travel, and return to home-base. My point is, I heartily support travel and think anyone with the opportunity and inclination should take it . . . and think outside the advice anyone might give you and follow your own path to that end.  :)

How to Find Work Overseas

How to Find Work Overseas (And How I've Work Remotely for 13+ Years) — Extensive tips and firsthand advice for #digitalnomads

I’ve never worked for a traditional company abroad, but I have many friends who have. This page on A Little Adrift does a very deep, thorough dive into how to find specialized expat work from people who have done it. If you’re looking to work online, I recommend that you start here with your research as it covers every step from deciding what work is good for your skills, to finding work, to how to travel as a digital nomad if you choose remote-based work.

How to Work and Travel as a Freelancer or Digital Nomad

If you’re interested in moving overseas, that job hunt is a different process. These resources will give you a better idea of where to find overseas jobs, as well as how others have done it before you.

International Organizations & Databases

  • Escape the City: A London-based company that has a weekly newsletter you should sign up to have the best-of-the-best job recs that the week. It has some great resources if you are looking to change careers, or just find new work in your same field—just from a more interesting location!
  • Cool Works: The site’s tagline is “Jobs in Great Places” and there are a lot of sorting options—seems like a good place to peruse. The site specializes in seasonal and shorter-term jobs all over the world. (And if you’re looking at seasonal work, you can learn more about it at Job Monkey).
  • ReliefWeb: Start here for many development jobs all over the world—it’s easy to search and full of opportunities in many fields.
  • InterNations: A huge global community. I haven’t participated, but I know they host events and have active forums.
  • Modern-Day Nomads: This has a range of both remote-based jobs as well as location-based adventurous job opportunities in interesting places.
  • The Working Traveller: You’ll find more seasonal work here listed in their JobSpy category that is updated regularly for opportunities all over the world.
  • Go Workabout: Seasonal jobs for foreigners in Australia; it’s a great database. This is especially handy if you’re considering applying for the fairly-easy-to-secure one-year Work Holiday Visa for those under 31 years old.

Information Sites

  • Expat Focus: A good starting point, you will find yourself lost in this site for hours as you start plotting and planning a move. Though there is a free membership part to some of it, you can search through country information without logging in.
  • Expat Finder: A full service site that has information on every part of the move.
  • Expat Exchange: A robust site with information on a wide range of countries.
  • Expatica: Nice all-around resource for every side of the process, it has job boards, community forums, tips articles, and is a well-trafficked site and it looks like there is pretty dynamic content!
  • Four Ways to Become an Expat: A few paths you can look at for finding jobs and a type of work that will take you overseas.
  • Transitions Abroad: Dense with information; I didn’t like that they don’t link out to other job boards and that such, but has a range of possible topics covered.


Additional Resources for How to Work as an Expat

  • The End of Jobs: An essential book for anyone who wants to work as an expat or digital nomad; speaking to why MBAs and JDs can’t get jobs, research on integrated living, and more.
  • Big Magic: You don’t have to be a fan of Eat Pray Love to enjoy this book. An inspiring read about creativity that is helpful to expats, digital nomads, and bloggers.
  • Four Hour Work Week: No doubt you’ve seen it for years, but if you haven’t read it yet, you should. Some of Tim Ferris’ viewpoints are very counter to how I live my life, but I will give him this: his book changed my perception about what is possible in building an online business. It’s still a primer read for a reason, it’s worth having that knowledge and perspective in your head as you move forward.
  • The 80/20 Principle: A good companion to the Four Hour Work Week, this book talks about how 20% of your efforts will generate 80% of your results. As an expat or digital nomad working smarter, not harder, is key and this book provides a good base.

If there is ever anything that I can do to help, please do reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and let’s talk about how we can make your travel dream a reality.