In this interview, Shannon O’Donnell, author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook offers some great advice for those looking to do good on their journeys. Shannon funds her travels as a SEO consultant and more recently as a travel speaker. She also talks about her annual travel costs, homeschooling, SEO freelancing, and more in this monster interview. Enjoy!
Please tell us about yourself?
I am a rarity in the United States in that I am a native, born-and-raised Floridian—I grew up in St. Petersburg and lived there until I left for college, at which point I moved about two hours north to attend the University of Central Florida in Orlando. When I entered college I decided to pick a “useful” major rather than my passion, so my degree is in Advertising and Public Relations but I used my four-year scholarship to take advantage of all the acting, theatre, and foreign language classes I could also fit into my schedule.
After graduation, I immediately moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, and it’s at that time that I began to learn about SEO and started consulting and writing on the internet. Those early years when I lived in LA, I paid my bills with freelance online SEO work, but mostly for one client who contracted me for about 25 hours a week, and I made up the rest of my money as a nanny for two families.
Once I left to travel in 2008, I was able to boost up my online work, maintain freelance income and support traveling in more affordable countries (developing countries like Thailand, Laos, India, Bosnia, Guatemala, etc). I have never formally used my degree (I never worked at an Ad or PR agency), but my technical writing skills, as well as understanding of marketing and sales are the foundations of not only my online consulting work, but also how I have managed to grow my travel blog into a full community over the years.
What are your main websites?
A Little Adrift is my main travel blog; the site chronicles my stories and journey over the past four years, and I share photography, long-term travel advice, and really everything that has developed since I left to travel in 2008.
Grassroots Volunteering.org is what I like to call my passion project since it’s a newer project and ambitious as I attempt to grow a new online community. The site is a dual database of community sourced local, sustainable organizations, businesses, and volunteer opportunities all over the world. From this site came the idea for my book that was published in October 2012, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.
Please tell us about your travels?
My first long-term trip started in November 2008 with the idea to travel four roughly a year. I made it to about eleven months before I decided to head home to see my family for the holidays in late 2009. That trip sparked what has become four years of traveling though, and I usually spend about five to seven months traveling, then about three months at my home base in Florida—where my entire family lives—before I head out again to someplace new or someplace loved (I often end up heading back to Thailand, a country I enjoy immensely).
My initial trip took me through Australia for two months, then Southeast Asia, India and I spent two months in Nepal volunteering before heading to Eastern Europe (Bosnia and Slovenia were highlights) and my first year culminated in Scotland and Ireland. Since then I have explored Central America, back to Asia several times, as well as Jordan, China, and a handful of other places. My full round the world trip is detailed here (with budget and country break-down) and my Best Of page highlights my favorite experiences, photos, and stories.
Right now I am in the United States, having finished up a year of home-schooling my niece and now pondering either Mexico or South America to start out my travels in 2013.
How much does it cost to travel like you do?
If I had to ball-park the figure I would guess I spend about US $15,000 a year on traveling. My first trip, which included Australia and several very expensive European and UK countries, came in at under $19,000 and I actually itemized my budget and every expense for that first year by country and by activity, food, etc. I have a great spreadsheet too so other travelers can see how it all broke down, or they can use it to track their own travel expenses.
That first year of travel was my most expensive because I visited so many countries and traveled through them very rapidly. I cut down the travel expenses since then by staying for weeks and months at a time in one spot and instead really trying to integrate into a culture’s daily life and rhythm. Not only are the day-to-day travel expenses cheaper when I rent an apartment, but staying longer has cut down on my plane ticket expenses. Right now I average about $3,000 annually on plane tickets—that usually covers one major international round-trip ticket as well as a few domestic flights to cover border runs for new country visas, as well as travel to some industry conferences. I also use ground transportation when I am outside the US—this means trains and buses.
I never use credit cards and so my budget is dictated by how much money I make, if I can’t afford a plane ticket I either stay put longer so I can work and earn money wherever I am at that moment, or I choose a place with a cheaper plane ticket price. I am vigilant about not going into debt, so I budget out according to my priorities—that means the bulk of all of my money goes into travel. Beyond my laptop and the essential electronics I need to work online, I don’t spend a lot of money on other gadgets, clothes or things; for me, I would simply rather funnel that money into living abroad.
Have you had any major medical issues or other problems during your travels?
I feel fortunate to not have a lot to say here. I use either World Nomads or IMG Patriot (World Nomads when I am solo, and IMG when I travel with my niece) as my travel insurance and have yet to ever make a claim. So that means no major medical issues that required care, but I have been very, very sick on the road two times. The first time I was ill was in Laos, and I thought I would die (it sounds so melodramatic to say that now, but at the time I wrote out my letters and was in a very dark place). Those are the loneliest moments on the road, when you’re completely alone and sick beyond belief. I managed to keep myself hydrated until I could find medicine and lived to tell the tale.
Other than the illness, I have had a few unfortunate run-ins with traffic and transportation police. Every single country has a different method of buying/scanning/using tickets, and one memorable trip on the public bus in Sarajevo, Bosnia had me scurrying off the bus with loud yelling behind me as the transportation police demanded I hand over my passport (never hand over your passport!) because I was wrong in my assumption that the bus driver sold the bus tickets.
Please tell us about your travels and homeschooling with your niece?
In summer 2011 my family and I decided to pull my niece out of traditional school and instead allow her to travel with me, and I homeschooled her from the road. The first months of the decision were tough … my family was on board with the idea, but my niece was instead very keen on attending the 6th grade in traditional school with her friends and the familiarity of a school institution. We over-rode her opinion though, and she spent nearly seven months traveling with me in Southeast Asia—and it only took four weeks for her to sink into the experience and really enjoy what a unique opportunity it was for us both.
There was a large learning curve for both of us, I had mostly traveled solo up until that point, so although I have a lot of experience with children (and my niece and I have always been very close), I struggled for many weeks to balance our travel, work, and homeschooling dynamic!
Are you following a particular teaching program?
For that first year my niece took her four core classes through our state’s official online school, Florida Virtual School (maths, English, science, and social studies). We added Spanish instruction to her work, and I integrated in lessons that I planned myself using online resources on the culture and history in Southeast Asia into every aspect of her studies. So, for example, when we went to Myanmar (Burma) on our trip, leading up to it I had her study their history, write me essays on different types of government. And since she was voraciously reading The Hunger Games at the time, I added a unit on revolutionary heroes, dystopian literature, and societies in flux … all things that dovetailed surprisingly well with our Myanmar studies. Add to all of that a dose of World Religions as we encountered Buddhism and Muslim cultures, and I think she had a very well-rounded year.
Ana spent about four hours four days a week doing the formal online schooling, (some days she split it to a couple hours each day instead), and the rest of the time we spent actively learning as we visited temples and learned local crafts (like weaving). She never had homework, that’s the beauty of homeschooling, once you finish your work and understand a concept you get to move on, so when we were done for day/week, we were able to completely step away from our computers and enjoy the travel experiences (which nearly always included more learning, but in a sneaky fashion so she never knew it was happening!). And to allow her to process the experience of travel, as much an education as any of the formal work we did, Ana blogged and shared her thoughts at A Little Adrift Jr.
How do you earn an income?
My income is split among several main focuses. Since 2006 I have worked in SEO and that is, and has always been, my primary income. Then I moved into consulting just before I left Los Angeles in 2008, and that is my primary income right now (2012).
And to round that out, I regularly sell some of my photography and travel writing. Through my travel blog, I have had many opportunities to expand my presence as a travel speaker and writer—these are my long term goals. I have always been incredibly grateful for the SEO and online work that has allowed me to travel these past few years, but I do the SEO consulting as a way to allow me to focus time on building myself as a speaker … I credit the fact that I gave up acting to travel as the root of this ambition to speak more regularly and from an income perspective, though I have not yet been paid to speak, I am at the point where I am doing expenses-covered speaking internationally (which has been a great way for me leverage a free plane ticket out of the country into more travel too!)
Please explain the SEO work you do?
In the early years of working in SEO, the bulk of my work was in content writing and angling sites to performing better in the search engines by using more optimized content and most of this work was done on other people’s websites (one client in particular). Ghost-writing blogs, from an SEO perspective, so that small businesses have content on their sites gave me some pretty wacky and niche industry knowledge.
Once I better understood the art of SEO, of not tricking the search engines but rather helping the search algorithms understand a client’s site topic, I branched into private consulting. I prefer consulting on many levels—the money is much better, and I use my background in Advertising/Public Relations to go beyond traditional SEO (link-building and questionably ethical tactics) and instead my consultations are a full site analysis of the technical SEO aspects, but also things like visitor flow, content quality, and how to properly use targeted keywords in blog posts and pages.
Typically, a consult report for a client is between 13-20 pages long with information and action steps for them to take—both short- and long-term steps that will help them meet the site goals they outline for me before we start a consultation project together. Some clients have me trouble-shoot a certain area, or ask for a focus on social media as well, but typically a report will include some or all of these headings:
- Analysis of Keywords, Search Engine Traffic, and Performance
- Navigation and Organization Structure and Changes
- Cornerstone Content Pages and Authority Building
- Code and HTML Changes
- Social Media Analysis and Suggestions
- Ongoing SEO for the Site
- Top Five Action Items (Summary)
How do you find clients?
My clients come through completely by word-of-mouth and through relationships I have with others in the industry. I don’t personally design, code, or troubleshoot websites but I work with other self-employed people who do offer those services—we freely pass clients and opportunities and without those relationships I would never have grown my client base to the point that I was able to leave behind content writing and ghost blogging.
Is this difficult work to get into?
The work is not difficult, but making the connections and spending the time experimenting on my own sites was invaluable. Many of the marketing and content recommendations for clients come through my experience with my travel blog, and it’s this knowledge that allows me to offer a well-rounded SEO consult that pulls in all aspects of on-page marketing and content. I have never offered link-building services or anything that wavers into the black-hat SEO territory.
For learning more about SEO, sites like SEOMoz and Search Engine Land are easy starting points, and troubleshooting issues is best done via the SEO areas of Warrior Forum (though be warned that Warrior Forum runs the gambit between white and black hat SEO and is heavy on the affiliate marketing angle, so take suggestions with caution!).
Please tell us about the volunteer work you have done:
In high school and throughout college I volunteered regularly at animal shelters, through Relay For Life, and with homeless shelters in my community. Before I left to travel long-term, I decided to make volunteering abroad and finding ways to give back and support local communities a central tenant to all of my travel plans.
When I first left, however, I had very little knowledge about the international volunteer industry and my experiences that first year were hit and miss. The nature of development work is complex, and I simply wanted to “do good,” but had little knowledge about the pros and cons, the ethical issues, and ultimately how to find a good fit volunteer experience. Orphanage tourism in Cambodia has become a major international issue because of abuses in the industry, but I was lucky to connect to an orphanage outside of Phnom Penh when I was in Cambodia—that was my first international volunteering experience.
Two months later, I used a placement (middleman) organization that allowed me to volunteer teaching English to monks at a rural monastery in Nepal. Since then I have tutored students in Guatemala and built cooking stoves for rural communities. And in Thailand, my niece Ana and I taught English to a Burmese refugee weekly for several months. I also use my online skills to help non-profit organizations use social media and websites effectively. I generally practice responsible tourism in every place I visit and try to spread out my tourism dollars to encompass as many mom-and-pop restaurants, sustainable businesses, and social enterprises as possible.
How can other travellers find quality volunteer opportunities abroad?
This is a tricky question to answer succinctly, but I think the best way to find ethical and good-fit organizations is to start with two areas: the ethics of development work and your motivations for volunteering. As far as the ethics are concerned, there are several prominent books that dissect the subject, as well as blogs and videos—my post on Understanding the Developing World is a primer of sorts for beginning volunteers, start here before you move on to researching organizations. Once you understand more about the industry, dig deeply into your personal motivations and reason for wanting to travel and serve another community.
Once you have examined your personal whys, as well as the whys of volunteering, it’s time to look at the far harder part—which company or organization is worth supporting? Decide whether you want to use a voluntour organization, a middleman, or arrange volunteering independently. If you choose to volunteer independently, my database of organizations at Grassroots Volunteering is a good starting point. And if you are using a placement agency or voluntour, use this list of questions to ask your organization as a starting point for vetting companies and potential volunteer experiences.
In the end, no organization is perfect and you have to follow your gut if you decide to volunteer. And if you have a short two-week vacation, consider skipping the voluntour and instead use the social enterprise database on Grassroots Volunteering to search for eco-friendly and sustainable restaurants, tour operators, massage parlors, and shops.
Please tell us about your volunteer book?
My book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, launched in October 2012 and is a part of a collective of books actually, instead of traditionally published. There are five books in the series and each one covers a style of travel on how a traveler can see the world, rather than the where and when of traditional guidebooks. I was asked to join with the collective to cover volunteer and then recommended Jodi (the Food book author)—it was truly a collaborative effort and together the six of us launched the series and our respective books.
My volunteer book really collates all the information you need to go from desiring a volunteer trip to leaving, and I included travel advice and how to return home and deal with culture shock. The book focuses on weaving practical advice with first-person narrative stories from my travels, as well as a wide range of volunteers and experts in non-profit development work.
The book is available in print and all e-reader forms from all major online retailers (like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iBookstore) and the Volunteer Handbook’s page on my site provides further details, links, quotes and a chapter summary for anyone interested.
What are your future travel plans?
My long-term goal is to continue traveling for the better part of each year and more immediate plans are to spend three to six months in Mexico and then perhaps move onto exploring South America by the end of next year. Really though, until I actually have a plane ticket the plan often changes!