Courtney Vondran is a travel blogger, writer & content creator for Courtney the Explorer currently living in Chicago and has almost 7 years of travel (including solo travel) under her belt. Read on for the five most important things she’s taught herself & the one question she HATES when people ask her (+ the one she wishes people would ask!). 

Tell us about your background and how you got to where you are now. What made you want to pursue this path?

I grew up with this pit in my stomach that I needed to be a trailblazer, perhaps it was more of a passion to rebel. I hated school, but I ended up listening to my parents and going to college (more for the freedom and social experiences). My senior year at University of Iowa, I decided to do a summer study abroad trip to Brazil and that pretty much changed my entire life course.

In the middle of the program, I took a solo trip to Rio de Janeiro and slept in a hostel dorm bed for the first time in my life. I met female travelers rebelling against societal standards who quit their jobs to travel the world solo. I thought to myself, this is exactly what I’ve been searching for. So after college, I saved up, quit my corporate job and went on my first backpacking trip to South America.

Along my journey, I started a travel blog to share my ridiculous stories and life updates abroad. I started to receive powerful messages from (mostly) women who were wanting to travel as well. Some messages said they “wish” they could do the same thing, others said they had taken their first trip because of my posts on Courtney the Explorer. I realized how powerful story-telling is and how I could create my life-changing moment in the Brazilian hostel for other women as well.

Photo courtesy of Courtney Vondran.

I started to receive powerful messages from (mostly) women who were wanting to travel as well. Some messages said they “wish” they could do the same thing, others said they had taken their first trip because of my posts.

Travel is so much more than seeing beautiful museums and grand churches, it’s about the growth and experiences you have along the way. My mission is to help women begin and thrive in their travel journey. I want travel to be accessible and possible for everyone, so I provide resources for free, budget, long-term, sustainable travel. I’ve taken three long backpacking trips across Latin America and just recently lived in South Korea for almost a year. With almost 7 years of travel experience under my belt, I am taking a pause (mostly due to the pandemic) to put 100% of myself into my website and business in order to share my knowledge and story and ultimately help and empower women to start their journey as well.

What gets you excited to wake up every day?

Coffee. Food. Connection. People. I love waking up, drinking coffee and doing my morning pages. I’m currently reading The Artist’s Way and one of the exercises in the book is to write three pages every morning, every single day. I mostly look forward to my coffee with almond milk creamer though.

What’s the best/most important thing you’ve learned or taught yourself? Why?

I can’t choose one thing, so here’s five things:

  1. Care take of yourself first.
  2. Listen to your intuition.
  3. Give without expecting anything in return. 
  4. Money doesn’t equal happiness. (You do NOT need a lot to travel & the best travel experiences are usually free.)
  5. Don’t wait. Thinking about quitting your job to travel the world? Don’t wait. It’ll never be the perfect time and you’ll never have the perfect amount of money. Also, don’t wait to find someone to travel with (they’ll never show up and if they do, you’re going to wish you were alone.) Travel solo.

What’s the next thing you’re going to learn or teach yourself? Why?

I’m currently taking Digital Nomad Wannabe’s SEO course, so I guess my answer would be advanced SEO techniques? I honestly love learning now that it’s on my own terms- reading, listening to podcasts, taking online courses, and going to conferences. I believe you’re never too old or wise to learn.

Photo courtesy of Courtney Vondran.

Do you have advice for finding a strong mentor/ building a relationship with one?

I was lucky enough to have an amazing mentor in college. Her name is Marlo Higgins, she’s a very successful female entrepreneur and business coach (and author) and helps entrepreneurs and small businesses mostly with sales and mindset. She’s amazing (was and still is). When I was in college, I studied human resource management. I wasn’t sure exactly what part of HR I wanted to work in, so I shadowed tons and tons of different HR professionals around my area.

I loved networking and asking questions. From one of the connections I developed, I was referred to Marlo. She mentored college students for free, so I reached out to her. Her guidance was monumental. She treated me like a paid client and we met once a month for about a year. I looked up to her and wanted to be an entrepreneur as well someday. When most of my friends (probably) thought my ambition was nuts, Marlo was there cheering me on. I wouldn’t have had that needed support throughout my formative years if it weren’t for me putting myself out there. 

I loved networking and asking questions. From one of the connections I developed, I was referred to Marlo. She mentored college students for free, so I reached out to her. Her guidance was monumental.

Short answer: put yourself out there. E-mail or message the people you admire. You never know who may know someone or what it may lead to.

Favorite resources for ongoing learning?

I pretty much only read travel novels and self-help books. I’m currently reading Vagabonding, it’s amazing!! I recommend it for anyone who needs some travel inspiration. My favorite books are The Artist’s Way, Wild, and Eat Pray Love (cheesy, I know, but I love them both so much)! If you’re nearing 30 (like me) and I recommend the book What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding

Photo courtesy of Courtney Vondran.

As far as podcasts, my top three for motivation are Screw the Nine to Five, How I Built This, and Second Life

What’s your favorite spot where you currently live & why?

My favorite neighborhoods in Chicago are Pilsen and Andersonville. I love quaint neighborhoods with good lunch spots and cafes where you can run into little shops and things.

As far as nature, I love the lakefront near downtown and Loyola beach area. My top restaurants in Chicago are Chicago Diner, Handlebar and Alice & Friends (all vegan and very delicious). The more I travel, the more I fall in love with my home, Chicago. I still believe it’s the best city in the world (but I may be a bit biased).

Related: Pilsen is home to some incredible public works of art and murals – check them out in this guide covering murals in Chicago!

Out of all the places you’ve been, which has been your favorite and why?

Besides Chicago, my favorite city in the world is Cali, Colombia. My favorite country overall is Guatemala. Both places I fell in love with instantly and never wanted to leave. For me, the energy of a city or place is everything. I love warm cultures where everyone is welcoming. Also, good food and dancing is a must. Cali is the salsa dancing capital of the world. If you love to dance, you MUST go! 

Bonus: What’s the one thing you wish people would ask you?

All I can think of things I hate when people ask me – #1: what do you do for a living? Because it’s the hardest question for me to answer, and because our culture puts all our worth in a career. I think there is so much more to life and your identity than how you make money.

I guess I love when people ask me, “what are your passions?” Or “what makes your soul light up?” Or maybe “why do you feel you were put on this planet?” I could talk for hours about passion and go back and forth about why we exist as humans. 

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