After a little more than a year of travel, I thought I’d add a post about how we live on the road. Of course, this is only our way. We’ve met people living out of hostels, couchsurfing, out of camper vans, off the back of a motorbike, who split their time between their favorite cities and keep apartments in each. It all depends on your travel goals, career, and budget. The amazing thing is that doing it full time for us means that we don’t have the expenses associated keeping with a house or car back home. Unlike a vacation, the cost of this kind of travel is the cost of day-to-day life. We live frugally just like we did in Seattle, only now we do it on a variety of continents.
We use Airbnb almost exclusively. Hotels are too expensive, not private enough, and don’t come with kitchens and in-room washing machines. Most hosts know the local restaurants and transit and tend to be very responsive if something goes wrong. Those good reviews count for a lot. And if we book for four weeks or longer, many rentals are discounted because a longer-term rental saves the host hassle and guarantees that the space is rented out; we saved as much as half on a month rental versus the per-day price.
We spend a fair amount of time researching before booking an Airbnb. We pour over the photos and reviews. We’ll search on Google maps to find the building front just so we get that extra perspective of the neighborhood. Ideally, the kitchen comes with a nice variety of cookware and utensils, there is a washer, fast internet, and comfy furniture or a desk for working. We haven’t stayed in a true studio, though many combine living areas and the kitchen into tight spaces. Preferably previous guests mention that the place is quiet but close to essentials. A grocery store, ATM, pharmacy, and transit stop should all be less than 15 minutes away on foot. In most cities, this isn’t a problem.
Of course, despite extra assessment, not knowing where you are living for a month always comes with surprises and catches. Sure, there is a stove, but only one burner works! Huge screenless windows let in so much light, but also all the mosquitoes! In some places water coming out of the faucet isn’t potable. In others, toilet paper can’t go down the pipes and needs to go in a trash can instead. We’ve had a recurring streak of picking places next to construction zones. Just today, a scaffolding went up on the building right next to our windows, ruining the quiet that we were so proud of finding in the middle of Buenos Aires.
We book airfare and our housing in tandem. A cheap apartment and a cheap way to get there is the winning combination, since our other living costs are small in comparison. Skyscanner is our favorite search tool because it has an “Everywhere” button. It regularly takes us down a rabbit hole of possibilities. The cheapest flights tend toward early morning or late night. We almost always pick the lowest price within reason; we’ll pay a little more to avoid multiple layovers and flying multiple countries out of the way. We’ve arrived in more than one new city at midnight; waking up at 3 a.m. is now a familiar moving-day routine.
Since we need to check bags, we have to factor that into the airfare price. It is a nice surprise when an airline will let bags fly free, as many will do in Europe and on trans-oceanic flights. Of course, the mobs surrounding the baggage carousel on arrival would be better avoided.
If we book a flight on a super-budget airline like RyanAir or WizzAir, we splurge and upgrade our boarding ($5 or so per person) so we don’t have to fight the horde rushing for the gate before it even opens. I’m not large enough to deal with shoving a entire soccer team out of my way so I don’t get separated from Kevin. Yes, I know I’m paying to sit on the plane longer, but I’m also paying to not be trampled. Whatever happened to just getting in a decent line? I thought everyone learned that in kindergarten…
We have great shoes! (Though new insoles would be nice.) Why pay for transit when walking is free? Exploring a new city on foot is more intimate than looking out a window. We find all sorts of shops, street food vendors, and little markets that get missed on a speeding bus. Plus, we get to count it as exercise.
Taxis have a bad reputation for cheating tourists/new arrivals all over the world. We’ve never taken a taxi from the airport and don’t intend to. We work out a public transit route or arrange for a transfer; sometimes our Airbnb host will even meet us. If we need point-to-point around the city, we prefer Uber. It is more widely available every day. The fact that it comes with pre-set pricing, a driver rating, and the ability to track the trip makes us feel more secure. This is especially important if I’m going somewhere by myself. It frees us from needing to carry money and lets us report any issues. In some places, like Lima, using Uber or local apps like TaxiBeat will get you a regular taxi instead of a completely private vehicle. But it guarantees the cost – something that doesn’t necessarily come with flagging one down streetside.
Public transit is more usually more readily available in cities outside the US, especially in countries where cars are still very much a luxury for the average person. The transit may be publicly funded and very traditional – trams, subways, and buses on set routes. Others are more chaotic – songthaews in Chiang Mai are like group taxis and don’t follow routes. Buses in Lima come in all shapes and sizes and with an assistant hollering the route out the door and convincing riders to board.
Eating out is nice, and in countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Mexico, it is feasible to dine at small restaurants and on street food for less than it costs to make it yourself. However, in most places we eat at home to meet our budget. And since Kevin is an especially good cook, this provides opportunities to try local ingredients and recipes. He’s made spicy soups in Thailand, paprika-laden dishes in Hungary, cuy in Peru, and ratatouilles; we’ve even sampled kangaroo and horse. Especially in European groceries, you sometimes find interesting bargains. We didn’t know to anticipate cheap duck in Hungary, but it was a happy surprise.
Growing up in America conditioned us to expect supermarkets with an incredible selection of items, both in and out of season. In other countries (especially in cities where shops are be crammed in to small spaces) many familiar products are unavailable. Our closest grocery might only be two aisles wide and fit into less square footage than our old apartment. And, in Poland, one of the two aisles might be completely taken over with vodka plus a few other hard alcohols. In Argentina it is more likely to be wine and yerba mate. In Asia, wheat bread and dairy products are luxuries. In Argentina, bagels and maple syrup don’t exist. And peanut butter, especially the creamy kind, is a rarity everywhere (in Croatia, a grainy version lived in the refrigerated section; Argentina’s local crunchy brand is turning out to be passable). Produce might also be more seasonal than we are used to in the US, though staples like apples and bananas are never missing. Local green markets are a great place to learn what local agriculture is like, and, at the right time of year, get some great bargains. I paid approximately 17 cents a pound 🙂 for perfectly fresh Italian plums in Hungary.
Everything that moves with us comes in four backpacks and my small purse. Our two checked bags are Gregory hiking packs, the Deva 60 and Baltoro 70. The bags we carry on (with our most essential items) are an Osprey hiking pack and an Eagle Creek backpack. We carry everything, nothing has wheels. This makes steps, tight elevators in old building, and getting out of the airport easier. It is also harder for an aggressive taxi driver to try to grab luggage away from us in an effort to get us to use their vehicle.
With 16 full moves behind us, we are getting reasonably good at packing. Our clothes are contained in large, airtight storage bags. These keep everything dry in rain and shrinks it down a bit to make it fit in a more arrangeable fashion. All our pointy objects (a chef’s knife, for example) go in checked luggage, which should go without saying. Anything valuable needs to go in the carry on. This usually means our electronics, and an couple changes of clothes in case our checked bags don’t make it.
A reminder for anyone who might be tempted to toss pricey items into checked bags: We had a cell phone (thankfully a spare, 6-year-old, worn-out-batteried, now-irrelevant-and-worthless one) taken out of a checked bag, clearly after an airport employee saw it on an X-ray. Also gone were spare luggage locks, presumably so they could rummage through other bags and then close them back up.
Though we count on Airbnbs to contain basic kitchen supplies and items like towels, we carry a few basics we discovered were often lacking. Kitchen items are the biggest luxury-but-really-necessity. It took us a couple months to accumulate our current travel kit of chef’s knife with sheath, knife sharpener, thin cutting board, and clothespins. We purchased tiny salt shakers for spices, but already broke those. And we brought along our own plastic wine glasses (thanks Northwest Cellars!) and a wine bottle opener, which turned out to be very prescient. I picked up a decent sewing kit in Croatia that has a dozen or more colors of thread, perfect to repair a shirt seams and my shoes. Our most used items are the clothespins – for closing snack bags, keeping cords in line, packing – and reusable shopping bags – for packing picnics, returning bottles, and avoiding grocery store bag fees.
Cheap and accessible SIMs spoil us. Just a few years ago getting cell service in another country was a major hassle. Now an unlocked phone will mesh with any network. Cell providers usually have SIMs good for a few days to a few months that are aimed at tourists. Otherwise, there are usually a handful of prepaid plans meant for locals that fit our needs, letting us buy a month’s worth of service all at once or load up with a balance equivalent to the data we need.
Ireland was the exception and charges a premium for short-term contracts that made it as expensive as cell service the US. But in Poland, for example, a SIM loaded with a month’s worth of data and a few minutes of talk time was only US$5. In Romania, for US$9.31/person, we got SIMS and 9 Gigs of data. Since Internet is included in our rentals (sometimes at speeds topping what we had in Seattle), we can get by with small amounts even in places, like Mexico, where prepaid cards are more expensive but allow for a few pesos to be added at a time. Like everything else, we try to only buy the amount we’ll need. Our monthly cell phone bill has averaged less than $15 per line.
All our big vaccinations (hepatitis, measles, tetanus, yellow fever) last more than a year, and so are still up to date. A new flu shot would be nice, but since we are in the southern hemisphere for their summer, we missed flu season and will have a harder time finding the inoculation.
We (thankfully!) haven’t had any major health scares since we left. The minor colds/upset stomachs have all been taken care of with some rest and OTC medication. Of note is that Ibuprofen is much more expensive and harder to get in Europe. If stores sell it, it is usually only available in a 10 or 25 count blister pack, which costs as much as a 200 pill bottle in the US.
In Thailand, I was bitten (lightly) by a dog. We tried the public hospital, but it was late at night and no one on duty spoke English. So instead, we went to the private hospital the next morning. Since they specialized in medical tourism, explanations were easier. I wanted the rabies shots, just in case. The appointments were spaced over three days and I added two more injections to my impressive record for the previous months. Prepping for travel is a good way to learn how to deal with needles.
It may or may not be obvious, but I very much do not want to get pregnant while travelling. (Not least because we’ve been in zika-outbreak areas in the company of some very vicious mosquitoes.) Not to get too much into detail, I take a daily pill. Turns out that in Europe, prescriptions are mostly not necessary, and a pack of pills costs less than $10 almost universally, with some as low as $3. (Why are they $60/month in the US?) Even in countries where you are supposed to have a prescription, you can find usually a sympathetic pharmacist who will sell it anyway, especially if you come in with a wedding band, a used pack, and stating that you do have a doctor in the US. (If all else fails, I keep a story about lost luggage up my sleeve.)
Hahahah. If only… A downside of travelling for an extended amount of time is that we only get to take home pictures and memories. We collect some of the ticket stubs, and randomly have the lid from a pate can because it says Tarczynski on it. Otherwise, the kitchen supplies and toiletries count for a while, at least until they break or get used up. They are at least covered in foreign languages. We’d rather not carry excess stuff with us, and paying to ship it home is no fun either. I’ve decided I’ll just go to Goodwill when we get back to Seattle and see what cheesy things I can find from the places we’ve visited.
Of course, extended travel isn’t for everyone. The distance from family and friends is hard. Living for months in places where the default language isn’t ours can be draining. Familiar things can be difficult to find and the abundance of new experience can be overwhelming. We wear the same clothes. A lot. Our apartments almost never have dryers (except for one with a combination washer-dryer that seemed more like a fire hazard than an appliance) or hair dryers. It would be nice to have our own place and things again. But I’m thrilled we made it a year on the road and have plans to keep going.
If you want extra information or inspiration for planning your own trip/world tour, feel free to contact me. I don’t mind sharing budgets or answering questions (to the best of my and the internet’s ability).