One day we were basking in the beauty of the breathtaking oasis of Huacachina, Peru and sandboarding head-first down 1,400 feet high sand dunes. Two days later we found ourselves stranded in the Peruvian town of La Joya. The name translates to “the jewel”. Believe me, this place is no gem.
Are We There Yet?
Our tour bus was making good time through southern Peru on our sixteen and a half hour overnight trip from Huacachina to Arequipa. The bus stopped at 5:30 am and we were all awakened. We thought we were at our destination. We soon found out that we were still one hour away, and that most likely that hour would become many.
What The Heck Is Going On?
The reason for the delay was a strike by the residents of La Joya and other towns in the Tambo Valley in southern Peru. The residents were protesting the granting of a construction permit by the Peruvian government to the Southern Copper Corporation for their proposed Tia Maria copper mine. The protesters are concerned about the mines effects on the environment and the agriculture of the area. You can read more about the issues here.
Unfortunately, they decided the best way to make their point was to block roads into and out of towns along the Pan-American Highway. Large rocks and small boulders were strewn across the roads for many miles. Hundreds upon hundreds of protesters lined the roads, making the option to remove the obstacles unwise.
We heard that the protests could last for up to 72 hours and that most of the local businesses were remaining closed in support of the protesters. We wondered where we would get food and water.
We Have Priorities People!
But there was a bigger problem. There was a restroom on our luxurious double-decker bus, but it was only to be used for urine. Where would we go if Mother Nature had other ideas? We looked around. There was a sign that said “bano”. This is Spanish for what we needed most. Several of us walked over and encountered a young woman who indicated that she would open up for us. Part of her business was providing a public restroom for 1 peso (about 30 cents U.S.). The other part was a restaurant. Eww. Especially since there wasn’t a sink between the restaurant and the toilet.
This is where it gets interesting. She opened the half-sized door that is so common in Latin America and led us in. The dark, narrow hallway led to a very primitive toilet. A young woman ahead of me was the first to enter and quickly announced that it was just a “hole in the ground”. Actually, it was more than that but very little more. There was no seat and or flushing mechanism. Once you were finished you had to get a bucket of water from a huge barrel and hopefully flush what you had produced.
That poor woman used three buckets of water then gave up, apologizing to her friend who was next in line. By the time it was my turn I learned a valuable skill. You must thrust the water into the toilet if you hope to force anything down. I am happy to report that I perfected my technique that day.
And Now We Wait
The rest of the day was not nearly as eventful as our early morning experience. We read and dozed on the bus, walked the streets aimlessly, and kept our ears open for news, any news. Our tour company arranged for a large restaurant in town to provide lunch for all of us. This was no mean feat since virtually every business remained closed throughout the day.
On The Road Again
After fourteen frustrating hours, the roads were clear enough for trucks and buses to pass. However, they had to go slowly to avoid the remaining rocks and small boulders still left in the road. We arrived in Arequipa sixteen hours behind schedule. Most importantly we never felt like we were in danger and we did eventually arrive at our destination.
When you set out on the road you know things like this will happen. If you are fortunate they will happen infrequently and will not prove to be dangerous or costly.
We are very fortunate that our travel plans allow a lot of flexibility. Many of the people on the bus had planned to ride straight through to Cusco, an additional twelve-hour drive, to start their Machu Picchu adventures. Because of the delay, many of them missed out on pre-planned and often quite expensive activities.
It appears as if the protests had the desired effect. Here is an article about the status of the mine permit as of July 25, 2019.
We’ve all heard about ugly Americans. Tourists from the U.S. who talk too loud, wear garish clothes, compare things in other countries to how it is done in the U.S., and expect everyone to speak English.
A Case in Point
Many years ago I was sitting at my daughters’ soccer practice when a very loud man told a story of his experience in Paris. When he and his wife arrived at their hotel, their room wasn’t ready. They expressed displeasure about this and were upgraded to a suite. The hotel manager told them to help themselves to anything they wanted from the minibar.
He then bragged about how they consumed everything in the minibar. He was proud. I was appalled.
I Am What I Am
At this time the only foreign country I had visited was Canada. But I had heard about ugly Americans and how the rest of the world disliked us. I had also heard that some U.S. citizens who visit foreign countries imply that they are from Canada to avoid being painted with the ugly American brush. Again, I was appalled.
I vowed to never hide where I was from. People will have to take me as I am. If they have any preconceived notions, maybe I can help dispel them.
And as a side note: I don’t tell people I am American, I tell them I am from the U.S. Why? Because there are 35 countries in the Americas. All these people are “American” too.
Maybe We’re Not So Ugly After All
The good news is that after traveling internationally for more than a year I believe the ugly American may be dead, or at least on life support.
In 2018 Steve and I visited seven European countries. I never felt we were being judged negatively for being from the U.S. That doesn’t mean that some people didn’t have those feelings, but if they did, they either avoided us or were very good actors.
Many of our conversations were with Uber drivers. The vast majority of them were fluent in English and loved to talk about the U.S. They knew a lot about our politics and separated their feelings about the acts and options of our president from their opinions of us.
Not to be too mushy, but I often felt like we were welcomed with open arms.
Pleasant Paris Peeps
We met a wonderful pharmacist in Paris. Like most of the Parisians we interacted with during our month there, I found him to be friendly and helpful.
I had lost my mouth guard, and he spent quite a lot of time trying to track down a replacement. He also patiently helped us with other medical issues.
On one visit he disappeared into the back room for quite a while. When he came out he was carrying a small travel bag and several perfume samples as gifts to us. What a wonderful feeling to know that two groups of people who are often stereotyped, ugly Americans and snooty Parisians, saw only the good in each other.
Making Friends is Fun
We also met wonderful people in Bucharest, Romania when we attended a series of group talks at a local hostel. Again we got only positive feedback from the Europeans we met, and are happy to have added several of them as Facebook friends.
We’ve also made friends with several people we met in restaurants and one young woman we met on the grounds of a church in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
The Trend Continues
Our 2019 travels took us to Latin America where we found more positive reactions. Although far fewer people in these countries speak English, we never felt ignored or unwelcome.
In Quito, Ecuador we stayed in a building that had 24-hour security. All the guards were friendly and helpful, but one stands out.
Daniel always had a smile on his face and insisted on taking heavy items up for us even though we had an elevator. He enjoyed answering my faltering question of “como estas?” with his equally awkward “very good”.
I will not soon forget the way he waved like a little boy one evening when he saw us coming back home. His openness and good vibes are characteristic of what we found in Quito.
You Get What You Put Out
I was reading a blog in which the author complained that the people in Quito, Ecuador were very rude, and bashed the city he had spent only four days visiting. Someone responded that he did not have that experience as a tourist. The author then replied that because tourists bring money, the locals are nice to them, but are rude to each other.
I did not see this rudeness during the four weeks we spent in Quito. The locals were extremely polite to us, and to each other. They often went out of their way to be helpful and friendly.
I felt compelled to add a comment of my own stating that I totally disagreed with the author’s opinion and you get back what you put out.
Putting In Extra Effort
I do find myself going out of my way to be gracious and not make assumptions based on how we do it in the U.S.
We were in one apartment where the neighbors were throwing loud parties every day beginning in the afternoon and lasting through the night. People were coming and going at all hours and had no consideration for those who were sleeping.
I could have gone to the guard complaining about the noise. Instead I asked what the rules about noise were in the building. Fortunately, he said any noise that bothers other tenants is not allowed. He knew exactly who was causing the problem.
He was our go-to guard as the partiers continued to disobey the rules until that wonderful day when they were evicted! We showed our appreciation for all that guard’s help with a bottle of scotch.
Except When We Don’t
I did have an ugly American moment of my own. We were in Panama City waiting for a prearranged Uber to take us to a ferry dock. Since we were staying in a gated community I had sent directions, in Spanish, on how to get to us.
We used the app to watch the Uber driver pull up to the guard gate, then we watched him turn around and drive away. Repeated messages to him to turn around and to come back, again in Spanish, went unanswered.
I became frustrated because we had a time constraint. As I called for a replacement Uber driver I exclaimed “and he probably won’t speak English either”.
As soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew how entitled they made me sound. Luckily Steve was the only person who heard them, and it has not become one of our inside travel jokes.
What a Wonderful World
We have found most people to be friendly and helpful. Perhaps it is because we are seldom rushed and therefore more patient, Uber tantrum aside. This makes us more pleasant to be around.
Perhaps it is because we try very hard to be gracious and courteous, and learn some basic phrases in the local language, that has resulted in many positive experiences.
Seeing famous sites, strolling through great museums, and enjoying the vibe of each city are some of the rewards of traveling. But some of my best memories are of the interactions with the people we have met along the way. I hope that we have left equally positive impressions.
Have you dreamed of visiting the Galápagos Islands? I certainly did. It was right at the top of my bucket list. Then in the spring of 2019 Steve and I spent four weeks as land-based visitors to these famed islands. This was one of our most anticipated trips and our most expensive to date. In spite of having many wonderful adventures, it did not live up to our expectations. We found ourselves counting the days until we flew to Quito.
In this article I will discuss a few of our wonderful experiences and illustrate what life is like in the largest town, Puerto Ayora. Hopefully, it will help you in deciding if a land-based Galapagos trip is right for you.
A Little Background
Do you know that there are two ways to visit the Galapagos, ship-based and land-based? Ship-based tourism is tightly controlled by the government and is currently steady at about 73,000 visitors per year.
Land-based tourism is not being controlled and has grown to over 200,000 visitors in 2018.
Since Galapagos cruises are notoriously expensive, and we would be there for four weeks, we chose to be land-based.
I had never given any thought to the fact that there are towns in the Galapagos, let alone seen a picture of one. We arrived in Puerto Ayora with no idea of what to expect.
From our home base in Puerto Ayora we were able to enjoy many of the wonders the islands have to offer. These are just a few of our memorable experiences:
Walking down secluded paths flanked by large lava rocks and cacti to arrive at nearly deserted postcard-perfect beaches alive with marine iguanas and sea lions.
Riding electric scooters to El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve to see some Galapagos tortoises. The coolest thing about them is that each one has a unique look on his wrinkled old tortoise face.
Seeing blue-footed boobies perched on a cliff and later sharing the waters of the Pacific Ocean with them. Their numbers had been declining but are now on the rise. This article from the Galapagos Conservancy, Inc. explains the reasons. Surprisingly they don’t seem to be manmade.
Watching the pelicans and frigate birds looking for handouts at the fish market. The pelicans waited patiently for scraps. The birds took every opportunity to dive down and peck at unattended fish.
Heading into the highlands (again by electric scooter) to discover a privately owned lava tunnel. We explored the one-kilometer long tunnel, climbing over piles of rocks that had fallen from the walls and ceiling. Then heading further down the road to a corny little family owned attraction that featured an edge of the world swing, a petting zoo, and a working sugar cane press powered by a donkey.
The Positive Side of Puerto Ayora
The people were very friendly and accommodating. As long as you had a smile on your face you were greeted with numerous “buenos dias”, “holas”, and even a few “hellos” while walking down the street.
The town is small enough that you can walk anywhere. If you don’t want to walk a taxi costs only $1.50 anywhere in town.
Laundry services called lavanderias will wash, dry, and fold your clothes for peanuts. Seriously, we spent $8 a week to have clothing for the two of us laundered. This and the taxis are about the only bargains you’ll find.
There is a wonderful bike path that travels the main road out of town to the highlands town of Santa Rosa, 13 miles (21 km) away. This is where the tortoise reserve is.
The hostels and hotels all appeared to be well built, clean, and relatively comfortable, at least from the outside. And of course, if you’re willing to pay the price, you can stay at five-star hotels like the Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel for more than $400 per night or the Hotel Angermeyer Waterfront Inn for $300 per night.
The Other Side of Puerto Ayora
Despite the high price tag associated with a Galapagos trip, this is a poor area. Buildings alternate from being well kept to ramshackle, often on the same street.
Sidewalks and street are dangerously uneven. It is not unusual to have to avoid holes a few feet deep.
Air conditioning is truly a luxury. We were lucky to have it in our bedroom. Not even the stores, restaurants, or the gym are air-conditioned.
Litter is everywhere. The beaches and natural sights we visited were pristine but the town was not.
The word that kept coming to our mind was squalor. We realize this comes from our experiences as middle-class Americans and in the context of Puerto Ayora, this is normal. None the less, it was a compelling contrast to the image we had of the Galapagos.
Another thing that surprised us was the strong smell of car exhaust on the main streets. Even though traffic is light compared to most towns, there is a constant parade of white pickup trucks, the local taxis, circling the town. Most of the time 80% of them are empty. Great if you need a taxi, not so great for the environment.
An Internet search will lead you to many articles outlining the pluses (financial) and the minuses (environmental impact) in the growth of land-based tourism. The area, like many, is struggling to find the sweet spot of tourism.
In 2017 Fodors published this article telling people not to go to the Galapagos in 2018. I am not sure if seeing this article or others like it would have led us to make different plans, but I would like to think it would have.
This New York Times article from June of 2018 asks if land-based tourism is threatening the islands.
My advice is to do what we failed to do. Find out as much as you can about the islands and the type of trip you plan to take beforehand. We fell for the romantic idea of the islands but got a lot the unromantic reality.
This trip taught us something about ourselves. We are city folks who love being where there is action, art, parks, and all the services we have grown accustomed to. A day trip here and there to a wild area satisfies our nature yearnings. Toward the end of our trip we had run out of things to do and were actually counting the days until we headed back to the mainland.
I am glad I got to visit one of the places that has called to me for so long. However, if I had been more aware of the impact of land tourism and what life is like in the towns I either would not have gone or would have taken a much shorter trip.
You may be wondering what it costs to travel the world full-time. I think you will be surprised to learn that it can be less costly than you think.
When Steve and I first toyed with the idea of traveling the world full-time we thought it might be a pipe dream. Our main concern was that it would be unaffordable. Then we researched world travel costs and found that many people are living a nomadic life and are generous enough to share information about their costs.
Seeing how affordable travel can be was the difference between having a dream and having a goal. Three and a half years later our goal became a reality.
Now we are happy to share our first year’s costs in the hope that it will help others take the first step toward turning their dreams into reality.
We originally set our budget at $3,000 per month. We then tacked on an additional $4,000 a year for general expenses such as supplies, travel insurance, and virtual mailbox service. This put our original budget at $40,000 per year ($36,000 + $4,000).
This budget included an average cost of $1,000 per month for lodging. After our experience with our Paris apartment, which you can read about in Lessons From Airbnb, we upped the lodging budget to $1,500 per month. This put our monthly budget at $3,500 and our annual budget at $46,000 ($42,000 + $4,000).
All costs are in U.S. dollars. It is important to note that we are only including expenses that relate directly to travel. The following items are not included:
Stateside medical insurance
Base cost of our cell phone plan
Storage of our possessions in the U.S.
It is also important to note that we do not have many of the expenses of daily life that we had when we lived in the U.S. We sold our home and our cars, so we don’t have insurance, maintenance, or property tax expenses. We have no mortgage, rent, or car payments. For the most part, we are spending the money we would have been living on in the U.S. on travel.
2018 Costs by Category
Our 2018 travels included a fifteen-day Transatlantic cruise with five ports of call and stays in fifteen foreign cities over eight months. As you can see, we spent $38,900 (just under $4,900 per month) during these eight months. Annualized this comes to $58,300. This was $12,300 higher than our annual budget of $46,000.
This is where I should write about how bad we feel for going over budget and vow to do better. But we don’t feel bad. If we were putting our finances in jeopardy we would be expressing remorse. Steve and I are working closely with a financial advisor and he’s not worried, so neither are we. We made some conscious choices to spend more in certain cases, and we made a few mistakes. The bottom line is we reached our level of comfort and it costs $58,300 per year.
Our style of travel was higher than backpacker level and definitely under luxury level. I would classify it as three-star. Our lodgings were clean and comfortable, often stylish, and almost always had a kitchen and a separate bedroom. Most of them had a clothes washer. Our meals were either cooked at home or eaten in mid-level restaurants.
That being said, I believe a couple could travel for a year on $40,000. However, it would not be three-star all the time and would not include a Transatlantic cruise.
What These Expenses Include
Lodging – The cost of the cabin for the cruise is not included here. The entire base cost of the cruise is included in transportation because we chose this method to get to Europe in lieu of flying.
Transportation – This includes all costs to get to each destination and fly back to the U.S. in November. It also includes the cost to travel within each city and the cost of a rental car for two weeks in Byala, Bulgaria.
Supplies – The largest cost here was a MacBook Air and accessories for $1,000. It is included as a travel cost because we would not have bought it if we weren’t traveling since we had a perfectly good desktop computer at home. This category also includes $350 for shoes and hiking boots. You can’t put a price tag on foot comfort. Clothing, in general, is not included, but if something was purchased specifically because we were traveling it is included. We also spent $54 to mail several items home from Strasbourg. According to other nomads, it is not uncommon to take too much when you start out.
Medical – This entire cost was for annual Medjet travel insurance coverage. This provides evacuation services in case of serious illness along with other protections. You can read a little about Medjet’s services in Travelers’ Little Helpers: Our Favorite Services and Apps or visit their website at https://medjetassist.com/. Vaccinations and medications needed for travel would be included here but we did not need any for this trip.
Office Related – The largest cost here was $199 for our annual virtual mailbox subscription and $34 for scanning overage charges. You can learn about this service at https://my.travelingmailbox.com/. We spent $125 for additional internet service on the ship. This was necessary since we were in the process of selling our house in the U.S. Website hosting for one year was $71, AAA membership was $66, and a Rosetta Stone subscription was $55. The remainder was for printing, postage, notary service, and office supplies.
Telephone – This was for the purchase of SIM cards and any additional charges we incurred using our AT&T international day plan. It does not include our base cost for AT&T since this is not directly related to travel.
Other items – We spent $200 for laundry for those times we did not have a washer available, $200 in currency exchange costs due to the dollar being weaker that the Euro, and $100 in money lost to theft.
Where We Went Over Budget
Three items in particular contributed to this overage: The cruise, our short trip to London, and moving around too much during the second half of our eight months abroad.
In deciding to take a two week cruise from the U.S. to Europe to begin our adventure we made the conscious choice to spend the extra money. Even though the cost of $4,300 for fifteen days was more than double our budget, we are glad we did it.
We opted for a cabin with a balcony and probably would not do that again. A couple of cruise company sponsored tours also added to our cost. Now we are confident enough to explore on our own. We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the ship and plan to do other one-way cruises again.
In July our daughter Laura and her friend Ashley visited us as part of a two week tour of several European cities. We decided to take a short trip to London with them. The three night trip was fantastic and we look forward to seeing more of London. It was also extremely expensive. This short trip ended up costing $700 per day for a total of $2,100. This included $230 to reissue our Chunnel tickets because we missed the check in time. Ouch!
Staying in Airbnb apartments for twenty-eight days or more provides deep discounts. We visited fifteen cities in these eight months not including the ports of call on the cruise. We spent twenty-eight days or more in five of them and were only slightly over budget for these five combined. Considering that two of them were in France, this was not bad at all.
Our stays in the other ten cities were shorter which drove up the daily cost of lodging. We also chose a few more expensive places like a sailboat in Lisbon.
Moving between cities also increased the transportation costs. We were able to use the very economical trains and buses in Portugal but opted for a personal driver when going from Bucharest, Romania to Byala, Bulgaria. The total cost for this was $225 ($175 plus a $50 tip for our driver who went above and beyond in helping us sercure our rental car). We used the rental car for two weeks in Byala then drove it to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The total cost including gas was $426.
Details for the Detail Oriented
2018 Costs by City
Cost per Day
U.S. to Spain
General costs include $1,700 for supplies, $1,000 for Medjet coverage, $500 for office related expenses including $200 related to our virtual mailbox, $200 for loss on exchange rates and $100 for international driving permits.
You Can Do This Too!
Right now you might be thinking that you could never afford to do this. Guess what? You probably can. We are in our early sixties and are living on money we have saved over forty years of marriage. But you don’t have to wait until your old(er) to travel the world.
Thanks to the Internet you can meet people of all ages who are living a nomad life. Some of them save up for a year or so of travel and others work on the road as digital nomads. You can certainly see many of the world’s wonders and have exciting experiences on considerably less than we spent.
If the idea of traveling full-time is appealing to you Google the heck out of it. There are so many resources that planning has never been easier.
What’s the worst that can happen? You spend all you money and return home with wonderful memories, funny stories, and far too many photos.
Was It Worth It?
I could say that you can’t put a price tag on the experiences we had, but I just did. We met wonderful people, were exposed to different ways of life, and saw sights that we had only read about. We made friends with several cats and ate way too much. History came to life, we enjoyed wonderful art in museums and on the street, and we learned the difference between Bucharest and Budapest.
These eight months have enriched our life beyond words and dollars. And that is really what this whole dream was about in the first place.
Steve and I are pictured above with English language students in Strasbourg, France.
There is nothing like foreign travel to make you examine your beliefs. It used to annoy me when businesses offered a Spanish option on their phone menu. I was even more annoyed when they asked me to press one for English. I felt like many Americans. Why should I have to press anything? English is our language. If people want to live here they should speak English.
A Happy Surprise
Then Steve and I spent eight months in Europe and much to our surprise English was everywhere. From large cities like Barcelona and Paris, to the Bulgarian cities of Plovdiv and Byala, many people, especially those in the tourist and service industries, spoke English.
It was good thing too because being able to communicate in the language of each country we visited would have required us to learn six different languages.
Even though English was virtually everywhere we made sure to learn and use basic words like hello, please, and thank you.
What surprised us the most was how well many of the Uber drivers spoke English. I’m not talking about the basics here. Many were able to hold intelligent conversations about politics and travel in English. This made me wonder how many people in the U.S. can converse intelligently in a foreign language. So I Googled it.
According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 25% of Americans can speak a foreign language compared to 66% of residents of the European Union.
Common travel advice is to learn to say “hello” and “do you speak English?” in the language of the country you are visiting. If the person replies that they do you can switch to English. We found this quite unnecessary. Apparently we look American. Quite often clerks and waiters would begin speaking English to us before we Even said hello. Almost every restaurant we visited either had English on its menu or a separate menu in English. These would often be handed to us before we said a word.
One place where we really appreciated an English option was with SIM cards. These have been the bane of our existence, with sometimes sporadic coverage and confusion on our part on how to make outgoing calls. Although one company that claimed to offer English phone support, but chose to tell us this option in very quickly spoken Spanish, did nothing but add to our frustration. Even with the easy to work with companies we still struggled a little, but is anything related to phone plans ever easy?
Other times we were thankful to see or hear English were in museums, grocery stores, and pharmacies. We were especially thankful for the strangers who stepped in to help us communicate, often without being asked
The Tables Have Turned
Our second year of travel has taken us to Latin America where English as a second language is far less common. Even in tourist areas we have had to rely on Google Translate to communicate.
Since we plan to spend 10 months in Latin America I have started learning Spanish through Rosetta Stone. It’s slow going, but also great to be able to communicate on a very rudimentary level in the local language.
Food for Thought
The fact that English is so prevalent in European counties makes me wonder what those of us in the U.S. are afraid of. From what I can see, being multilingual and offering services and menus in multiple languages hasn’t hurt our European friends at all. The more people you can communicate with the richer your life will be.
I do think if someone chooses to live in a foreign country he should make every effort to learn the local language. But a little help along the way benefits those learning English. And don’t forget, not everyone who is in the U.S. and doesn’t speak English is planning to stay. Some are tourists like us!
Many years ago I was picking out pastries in a bakery in Paris with my older daughter Stephanie. When the clerk pointed to a pastry I confidently replied “por favor”. My daughter quietly said, “Mom, that’s Spanish”.
Mistakes like this are the makings of cute stories and fond memories. As Steve and I prepared to travel full-time we knew that mistakes would be made, and some of them would be more serious than using the wrong words.
Stay on the bus
We started our journey on a Transatlantic cruise from Florida to Barcelona. Being new to cruising we opted for a cruise company sponsored hop-on-hop-off tour in Funchal, Portugal even though it was more expensive than doing it on our own.
One of the things we wanted to do was ride the wicker toboggans. We hopped on the bus and two stops later saw the sign for the gondola to take us to the toboggans. The gondola ride up the mountain was breathtaking, and the fast ride back down was exhilarating. The rest of the walk down the very steep hill as we looked for a hop-on-hop-off stop was not so enjoyable. We ended up spending about $80 to go two stops on the bus.
By the second month of our travels, we thought we had SIM cards all figured out. After getting off the plane in Paris we headed straight to a kiosk to buy a SIM card. The clerk wasn’t the least bit helpful, so we left. We headed to the post office, which was also in the airport, and spent 40 Euros (about $45 US dollars ) for 2 SIM cards. The man who helped us did not speak English, and as I demonstrated above, I do not speak French. Even so, we managed to get our SIM cards installed.
We quickly discovered that they were only good for making calls and didn’t include data. They were quickly replaced with less expensive cards that included everything we needed. We never used them, but carried them around for several months until we finally threw them out.
Slow Down and Read the Email
In order to receive our mail while out of the U.S. we subscribe to a virtual mailbox service. When the service receives our mail they post a picture of the envelope in our account and we direct them to forward it, destroy it, or open and scan it.
One of the first items we received was an insurance contract. I opted to have them open and scan it. They sent an email letting me know it was very thick and would be costly to scan, but I did not read that email. Instead, I verified that I wanted it scanned.
I was not happy to find out that this cost us $35 since scanning it put us well over our monthly scan limit.
Also Read the Train Ticket
The most costly mistake in our first year of travel
involved the Eurostar train from Paris to London. We were heading to London with our daughter Laura and her friend Ashley and I had arranged for all of us to get there via the Chunnel.
Our experience with train travel was limited to two short journeys within France. In both cases, we showed up at the station about fifteen minutes before our train was scheduled to depart. There were no security checks and no one asked to see our tickets. These two experiences made us lackadaisical about the train trip to London.
Armed with our Chunnel tickets the four of us traveled from Strasbourg to Paris without any problem. We arrived at the Paris station with an hour and a half to spare before our train to London would leave so we went out for a delicious breakfast. We arrived back at the train station to find that we had missed the check-in time for our journey and we would have to book a later one. The cost was $230 US.
This was totally my fault as I had neglected to read the fine print on the tickets that clearly stated the check-in cutoff time. As one lady nicely pointed out the train was entering a different country so the requirements were similar to airline travel.
Actually, the difference was that we were leaving the Schengen Area, which encompasses 28 countries that have joined the Schengen Agreement. This agreement allows for movement among these countries without border checks. The United Kingdom is not part of the Schengen Area.
Luckily the trains from Paris to London run every hour so it didn’t set us back too much timewise, but our wallet sure wasn’t happy. In addition to reading the ticket (Linda), in the future, we will check in as soon as possible and then eat.
Close Call in the Schengen Area
Occasionally things work out in spite of our ignorance and tendency to procrastinate. We only had three months to go before we set out for our travels when we first heard of the Schengen Agreement and the Schengen Area. We discovered that we would only be allowed to spend 90 days in this group of 28 countries and would then have to leave the Schengen Area for 90 days.
Cue the cold sweats. We had already booked three months’ worth of nonrefundable stays in Barcelona and Paris. I quickly broke out the calendar and started counting the days. Then I let out a huge sigh of relief. We had booked a total of 89 days!
The fact that we had procrastinated in deciding on the destination after Paris saved us. We had been thinking about Prague. If we had booked a monthlong stay there or anywhere else in the Schengen Area through Airbnb we would have lost that money.
All’s Well That Ends Well
As you can see from this map of the Schengen Area we were left with very few choices for the next three months since we wanted to stay close to Europe so we could re-enter the Schengen Area after 90 days. Our choice was between the United Kingdom and Ireland and some countries in Central and Eastern Europe. We chose Central and Eastern Europe because of the much lower cost. We ended up loving our time in Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.
Some of you would probably be very uncomfortable with having things so open-ended, but it fits in with our travel philosophy that you shouldn’t plan too much because some of the best experiences happen by chance.
Near miss with Booking.com
We were able to avoid a very costly mistake thanks to the goodwill of Booking.com. We had booked an Airbnb for a one month stay in Strasbourg, France. The host canceled the reservation only eleven days before we were due to arrive.
It was the height of the tourist season, and we were not having any luck finding a place to stay for a whole month. We were able to piece together three hotels through Booking.com that would provide housing for a month. Then we found a great Airbnb that was available for the month. We canceled two of the hotel reservations in time but missed the third by one day. This would have been our most costly mistake at $934.
We requested that they waive the fee, saying we had overbooked. We were so thankful when we woke up the next morning to find that Booking.com had waived the penalty.
Warnings Are Warnings For a Reason
When you repeatedly hear that you are in the pickpocket capital of the world, TAKE IT SERIOUSLY!
It happened to Steve while we were boarding a crowded Metro car in Barcelona. First one woman bumped into him on one side, then another woman bumped him on the other side. They both jumped off the car as the doors were closing. That’s when Steve realized that they had taken his passport holder from his front pocket. They got away with his passport, several bank cards, and 40 Euro (about $45 US).
This mistake was more costly in time and frustration than in money. It involved treks to three police stations and a trip to the U.S. Consulate.
Imagine our relief when we were told that Steve’s passport had been found, which saved us the $145 replacement fee. Our bank cards were replaced within a few days, and our credit card company denied the $900 shoe purchase the thieves attempted.
After this Steve carried a camera bag which he insisted on referring to as his purse.
The Rules Are Going to Get You
Our daughter Laura and her friend Ashley visited us in Strasbourg and then traveled with us to London. From there they spent another week in Dublin and Paris. During their trip to the Paris airport to fly home they learned that if you travel enough, something will trip you up.
They chose to take the Metro from their hostel to the airport. The Metro Police stopped them and told them they did not have the proper tickets for the zone they were in. The cost of this innocent mistake was $80 each.
A word of warning for Paris travelers: the Paris Metro Police are vigilant. Be sure you keep your ticket on you for the entire journey and understand the zones and related fares.
It’s All Worth It
Let’s face it, mistakes happen. That’s life. Why would travel life be any different? Given the fact that we spent eight months traveling to fifteen cities in 2018, I think we did a pretty good job. We made all our flights, only missed one train reservation, always had a place to stay in advance, and never went hungry. We also had luck on our side.
And what doesn’t kill you makes a darn good story.
There are many helpful services and apps that are making travel easier and more affordable than ever. Although we aren’t getting paid (yet) to publicize them, we want to share our favorites with you.
Since April 2018 we have stayed in fourteen Airbnbs. We got off to a rough start and were about to give up on Airbnb. Instead we learned to make it work for us. Read about our first year’s experiences here and get some helpful tips from Lessons From Airbnb.
With a monthly budget of $1,500 for accommodations we are able to get an apartment with a separate bedroom, a kitchen, and WiFi. There is usually a clothes washer, and we often have a balcony. At $50 per night this is the bargain of the century. Many hosts offer discounts for stays of more than 7 days, and even deeper discounts for stays of 28 days or longer. We find the site very easy to use, and we have had relatively good support.
For short stays and side trips we prefer booking three-star hotels since that does away with the need to coordinate check-in with an Airbnb host and we aren’t looking to set up house. In these cases we have used Booking.com and we have been very happy with them. They also offer apartment options similar to Airbnb and conversely Airbnb greatly expanded its hotel options in February 2018, although we have not booked a hotel though them yet. A little competition is a wonderful thing!
Booking.com has a loyalty program they call the genius program. It kicks in automatically after you have booked five reservations through them. The program gives you 10% off future bookings with properties that choose to participate as well as other perks like free airport transfers and late check-out. The discount percent increases as you book more.
Book a great accommodation at Booking.com and be the genius you always knew you were.
We can’t say enough good things about Uber. Although we are big fans of public transportation, it isn’t always an option. With Uber we get door-to-door service, all done electronically. No payments to deal with at the end of the trip, no fumbling for tip money, no worries about being ripped off. In one year’s time we only had one billing problem. It was an overcharge due to a technical problem in the browser. By using the app’s help option we were able to quickly get a refund. And in case you didn’t know, Uber’s app will also let you schedule a ride for a later time.
Local SIM Cards
Our cell phone provider is AT&T. They have an international option that allows unlimited use for $10 per day, charged only if you use it at least once in a 24 hour period. That is fine for short trips. However, that would cost $600 per month for the use of two phones if we used it every day.
For longer trips our best option is a local SIM card. A quick online search tells us which providers are available in our location and what prepaid plans they offer. Plans can be as short as one day or as long as one month. After we pick a provider and a plan we go directly to the store and have them insert and register our cards. Be aware that this requires an unlocked phone and ID. And for some reason we still don’t understand it can take up to an hour to get two cards installed.
Our average cost for a SIM card good for one month is $20 US. This includes data, SMS, and local calls. We have found it more economical to use our AT&T international plan when calling U.S. business.
For personal calls to the U.S. we use WhattsApp. It is a free service owned by Facebook that you can use to send test messages and make voice and video calls.
One service we would be hard-pressed to do without is our mailbox service. Without it the best option would be to have mail sent to our daughter. She would then have to open it, scan it to us, forward items we need hard copies of, and deposit any checks received. Traveling Mailbox does all of this virtually. They notify us via email when we receive mail. We then log in to see our mail and tell them what we want done with it.
They will forward mail anywhere in the world and deposit checks for you. Both of these have small fees attached. There are several virtual mailbox providers, but when we researched them in the Spring of 2018 this was the best for our purposes. We have used them since then and couldn’t be happier with their service. This service costs us $199 per year and is definitely worth it.
Medjet is an air medical transport and travel security membership program with two tiers of coverage: MedjetAssist will transport you to a home-country hospital of your choice if you have a medical emergency while traveling. The insurance also covers the transfer of mortal remains. MedjetHorizon covers the above situations and adds guidance and evacuation services in cases of terrorism, natural disaster, political threat, pandemic, and violent crime. They also provide crisis response services if you are a victim of a crime such as kidnapping or extortion, or if you disappear. You can purchase coverage for one trip or for a full year.
Medjet offers a discount for AARP members. Our cost after the AARP discount for a full year of coverage with Medjet Horizon is $1,078 for both of us.
World Nomads travel insurance comes highly recommended. We opted not to use them because some of their coverage would be duplicating coverage we have though our Chase Sapphire Credit Card. Their policies cover emergency medical and dental care in the country you are visiting as well as medical evacuation in certain cases. They will also transfer your mortal remains. World Nomad policies also include things like trip cancelation and delayed or lost luggage coverage.
We use the free MyCurrencyConverter&Rates app by jRuston Apps but a quick look at the App Store shows that there are many to choose from. This is indispensable when grocery shopping and eating out. You can quickly see that your 80,140 pesos meal in Colombia costs you only $25.60 US.
We try hard to learn basic phrases in the local language, but sometimes we just have to resort to an online translator. As with the currency converter there are many apps to choose from. We like that Google Translate allows you to type, speak, or take a photo to get a translation. We have found the photo option is very helpful for translating cooking directions.
Of course when you are traveling in a new city you need a map. Our go-to is Google Maps. However we did have some problems using it in Europe. It would often reroute us, thereby sending us in circles. The lack of street signs in some European cities added to the problem. We have learned to carry a paper map and when possible we plan the trip before we leave home so we have a mental picture of where we are going. Google Maps seems to be working better in Latin America.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card
This card is on many lists as one of the top cards for worldwide travel. While I can’t compare it to other cards, we have been very happy with this card. It has a great sign-up bonus, no foreign transaction fees, and offers double points on all travel and restaurant spending. There is a $95 annual fee, but if you use this card for virtually all your purchases you will get so much more back in rewards. Reward points used for travel are valued at 1.25% so you get an even greater benefit.
A note about our thoughts on credit cards. Many years ago we discovered finance guru Dave Ramsey and worked hard to become debt free. This is the main reason we were able to retire early and travel full-time. One cornerstone of his program is using cash for all purchases. The main reasons are that with cash you can only spend what you have and research has shown that people spend more when they use credit cards as discussed in the article from Forbes.
We have now switched to using the Chase card. By using our card we get an accurate record of our expenses. We have found that when we use cash while traveling we often can’t account for all of it. You would think it would be simple to keep a record of cash expenditures, but being in an unfamiliar environment and not speaking the language means we often fail to get a receipt or record what we spend while we are on the go.
Because I keep a careful record of our spending, comparing our ongoing costs with our budget, and I pay the balance everyweek, we are not putting ourselves in the position of getting back into debt.
The Chase Sapphire card is our primary card but we also carry a AAA MasterCard, a Chase debit card for withdrawing cash, and the debit card from our credit union in Jacksonville, Florida. We are very careful not to carry all the cards in one place in case of loss or theft.
In this post I will share some of our Airbnb experiences and the lessons we learned from them. If you are in a hurry you can scroll to the bottom to see the summarized list.
During the eight months that we traveled in 2018, we stayed in twelve Airbnbs. The option to rent apartments at reasonable rates helps make full-time travel affordable. While Airbnb is not the only place to book short-term accommodations, it is probably the most well-known. We have relied on it and continue to do so. However, it was not without some bumps. One host misrepresented his apartment, leaving us with a curtain in place of a bathroom door. Another host canceled our reservation 11 days before our arrival date. But possibly the strangest thing was the solid block of ice in the freezer in our rental in Croatia. Despite these and some other issues, we learned to make Airbnb work for us, and you can too.
A Not So Smooth Start
After our first three months on the road, we were losing faith in our go-to accommodation booking site, Airbnb. We were initially drawn to Airbnb because of the wide range of choices worldwide and the fact that many hosts offer deep discounts for stays of 28 days or more. This fit in perfectly with our plans to spend one month in each location.
We got off to a less than promising start. Our first booking was an apartment in Barcelona. It was an instant book. Just push the button and your stay is scheduled. So we booked it and immediately posted this milestone to Facebook. We were on our way!
The next day we got a message from Manuel, the host, saying the price was wrong. He didn’t name a new price but asked us to make an offer. We said no and asked him to cancel the reservation. If you cancel an Airbnb reservation of 28 days or more (long-term in Airbnb land) you are liable for the first month’s fee. But Manuel wouldn’t budge.
After waiting several days for Manuel to cancel the reservation I called Airbnb and they said the best thing was for us to cancel and there would be no penalty.
With that taken care of we were able to book another apartment in Barcelona for $500 more than the first one. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a small balcony, and I kid you not, a washing machine on the rooftop patio.
Lesson learned – do not instant book.
We now communicate with the host before booking. We verify the dates and price and ask any questions about the accommodation at this time.
Next Stop – Paris
We were so excited to find a studio for $1,000 US per month. From the description, we knew it was small and we knew that $1,000 per month was very inexpensive for Paris. We planned to spend two months in Paris, so we grabbed this baby. The minute we walked in we knew that there was no way we could spend two months there.
There is small, and there is microscopic. The whole place was about 100 square feet. In addition, two things in the posting were misleading. First, there was a picture of a Murphy bed with shelving on either side. There was a Murphy bed, but no shelving because there wasn’t room for any. Second, there was a review stating that the bathroom didn’t have a door, with a reply from the host saying there was a door. Unless door has a different meaning in France this was a lie. There was a curtain separating the bathroom/kitchen area from the living/sleeping area. And it didn’t even go all the way across. Because of these two issues, the host agreed to let us out of the second month without penalty.
Lesson learned – never book a place for more than one month. We can tolerate most places for that long.
Secondlessonlearned – always verify that there is a door on the bathroom. Only half kidding here.
With the second month’s Paris lodging canceled we decided to go to Strasbourg, France for one month. We had to scramble because it was tourist season, but we found a place. We practiced the first lesson by communicating with the host before booking and came to an agreement with the host.
Eleven days before we were scheduled to arrive she asked for an increase of 54%. We said no. She replied by saying we should cancel the booking. She wanted to avoid the penalties Airbnb imposes on hosts when they cancel a reservation. These include financial penalties and a review stating that the host canceled. We told her that since she had changed the terms she would have to cancel it, which she eventually did.
I was surprised that she did not get a review that said she had canceled. When I asked Airbnb support about this they said they didn’t post a review about her canceling because she had a good history. Great way to support your customers, Airbnb.
We ended up finding a place in Strasbourg that turned out to be nearly perfect. It was clean, spacious, and uncluttered. It was a little higher than our budget but we were happy to pay the difference because it had a real door on the bathroom. Even if it was a sliding door that tended to open on a whim, requiring the use of a doorstop to guarantee privacy.
Lesson learned – do not book with any host whose comments show that they canceled a reservation unless the host provides a good reason.
We realize that emergencies happen. Airbnb gives hosts the option of responding to a cancellation post. If they don’t respond we can only assume that they did not have a very good reason to cancel on a past guest.
Airbnb in Our Future
During this time we had three more reservations booked through Airbnb, two of them long-term. We were feeling a little trapped but knew we had to make the best of it. I am happy to report that all these apartments had good, solid bathroom doors. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t other issues.
The next stay was three nights in London. We found what appeared to be a lovely two-bedroom flat, but it turned out to be quite dirty. The problems included food left in the sink, odor in the refrigerator, mold in the shower, stains on a curtain, and cooking supplies that belonged in the garbage.
I immediately messaged the host to let him know. I suggested he might want to see the apartment’s condition since he worked only two doors away. He did not respond to this. He did offer to have the cleaning crew come back. We declined. Since we only had two full days in London we didn’t want to spend them waiting for and watching cleaners and we weren’t comfortable leaving them with our belongings. And what assurance did we have that they would do a better job since he was not taking responsibility to check on them?
Since it was a short stay we decided to make the best of it. Because of the condition of the kitchen, we ate all meals out. Oh, darn! We were amused that his review of us included that “the apartment was returned clean and tidy”. What?????
No new lesson here. Sometimes you just chalk it up to experience and move on.
On to Zagreb, Croatia
Our next stop was Zagreb, Croatia. We booked a spacious apartment for only $813 US. It had air conditioning and was relatively clean and very comfortable. And it had a real door on the bathroom. There was only one problem, a solid block of ice in the freezer.
We were shown into the apartment by Mladen, a friend of our host. He did not speak English, and we don’t speak Croatian. Steve set about looking around the apartment. He opened the freezer door and saw the ice. Mladen quickly ran over signally “no” and firmly shut the door. OK, so we didn’t have use of the freezer, no big deal.
Shortly after he left we had a message from our host telling us that we must not use the freezer to cool the apartment and if the refrigerator breaks we will be charged for it.
The next day Steve offered to defrost the freezer. Our host’s response was quite chilly. She told Steve not to touch it. She ended up sending Mladen over to take care of it. It turned out the entire freezer was a block of ice, so this problem had been going on for a while. We couldn’t understand why it wasn’t taken care of earlier.
Aside from this issue we had a great stay in this apartment and managed to put this issue behind us when dealing with our host.
Lesson learned – take pictures of any problem areas as soon as you arrive, and discuss the big ones with the host.
We’ve actually been doing this from the beginning. The other thing we do is take pictures before we move any items so we can put them back before we leave.
Lessonreinforced – You can’t make this stuff up.
While in Zagreb we took a side trip to Split, a small beach town on the Adriatic Sea. This time we rented from a Superhost. We were there for three nights and this was a wonderful Airbnb experience.
Superhosts are Airbnb hosts who have met several requirements including receiving high scores from guests, having no cancellations by the host except in extreme cases, and having a high rate of response to inquiries.
Lesson learned – Rent from Superhosts whenever possible. You may still encounter a problem, but it is less likely.
All’s Well That End Well
The seventh apartment we stayed in was in Bucharest, Romania. The host of this one was not a Superhost because we booked it before we instituted that policy. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a very good stay. The apartment was as advertised and the host was readily available even though she was out of the country. And the bathroom had a real door. We were on quite a roll.
During the rest of the year, we stayed in six more Airbnbs including a sailboat in Lisbon. All but one host was a Superhost. Except for some mild seasickness on the boat, all of these stays were wonderful.
The Big Lesson
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. We got off to a less than great start with Airbnb, but it has some serious pluses for long-term travelers. It offers affordable places to stay, it has a very user-friendly search experience, and it has very good support response.
Through trial and error, we learned to make Airbnb work for us and you can too by using these five rules:
1. Do not instant book. Communicate with the host before booking to verify the dates and price and get answers to any questions or concerns you have.
2. Do not book one place for a longer period of time for which you can deal with a less than ideal situation. For us it’s one month, for you it might be different.
3. Avoid hosts who have unexplained cancellations.
During the eight months that we traveled in Europe during 2018 we’ve taken thousands of photos. As you might expect, we have a lot of pictures of cathedrals, monuments, and palaces. But those aren’t the pictures that I find myself going back to repeatedly. It’s the slice of life photos, the unexpected scenes, that really speak to me. I hope you enjoy these photos as well.
Super sweet cat on Isle de St. Louis, Paris, France
Cooling off on a hot day in Place Kleber, the main square in Strasbourg, France
Students learning English at Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg, France
Celebrating the World Cup win in Strasbourg, France
One pair of very tired shoes
Charming street art in Lisbon, Portugal
Tables in the Plaza Real, Barcelona, Spain
Along the Seine, Paris, France
Bike at the Memory Restaurant in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
A curious cat in Faro, Portugal
The Seagull, a romantic restaurant overlooking the Black Sea
A new friend at Quinta de Regalaria, Sintra, Portugal
Hedgie 1 on the St. Martin Canal, Paris, France
Domaine de Marie Antoinette, Versailles, France
Shakespeare and Company English language bookstore, Paris, France
Boot shine, Seville, Spain
A cafe near the cruise ship docks in Funchal, Madeira Island, Portugal
A bachelor party in Sitges, Spain
Then there are the pictures I can only carry in my memory. The ones that got away like the two slim, blue suited men sharing one scooter on a Paris street at midday. Or the adorable young woman merrily riding her bike through the streets of Strasbourg unaware that the back of her dress was flipping up and down in the wind, showing her modest undies. Sometimes the camera just isn’t fast enough.