Nomad Retirement: How to Enjoy Your Retirement On the Road

My husband Tim and I are living proof that older people can learn plenty of new tricks. And our errors have been almost as much fun as our home runs. In 2011, we sold our comfortable California house, dumped the furniture, put our small treasures, art, and clothes in storage, and kissed our four daughters and seven grandchildren goodbye.

At ages 67 and 72, respectively, we became senior nomads. We had taken stock of our lives and realized that we were happier on the road than anywhere else—and that becoming home-free would give us the flexibility we needed to experience life in other cultures. Since then, we’ve lived in nine countries, and we have no plans to stop until the wheels fall off!

Highlights include living like a local in Paris, France, a month in a Georgian mansion overlooking the Irish Sea, and living by the River Thames, just blocks from Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court. These were dream experiences that could never have happened if we’d kept to our old lives.

We often travel in Old-World style, too. Cruise lines move their fleets seasonally and charge much less to passengers who can travel off-season. Since we’re home-free and flexible, having a nice room, all of our meals provided, and arriving at our destination without jet lag are enormous pluses. Making new friends on the cruise and having the luxury to write and read for two uninterrupted weeks are big bonuses.

But, I hear you ask, how exactly can we afford it? Here’s how: We have no home maintenance, taxes, or tenants to worry about, yet we continue to draw exactly the same stipend from our portfolio that we did before we changed our lifestyle. Even additional expenses, such as international health insurance and annual trips to see our family and friends, do not tip the budget scale.

Bottom line: Being home-free and traveling costs us no more than a stationary California lifestyle. But for us it’s more challenging and rewarding. We determine our itinerary far in advance and factor in variables like climate, cost, transportation, and budget. For instance, we must balance a month living in London, which is very expensive, by spending some time in Mexico or Berlin, which are more reasonable.

Also, cities with good public transportation eliminate the need to rent a car, so we can justify the higher overhead. In smaller towns rents are cheaper, so having a car is possible. Each place we’ve been has presented particular challenges. But we have learned how to orient ourselves quickly so we can begin enjoying our new home as soon as we arrive. For instance, experience has taught us to hire a car to take us from the airport to our apartment when we reach a new country. It’s worth the extra expense.

After a long day of travel, when we’re tired of other people’s fussy children, impertinent flight attendants, delayed flights, and all the other joys of travel, the sight of a guy waving a sign that says “Martin” really cheers us up. We know that this man will whisk us expertly to our new digs with a minimum of fuss. There will be no language problem, nor any anxiety about the address or directions.

We have developed a checklist that we use when the owner or rental agent gives us our keys. In the excitement of reaching a new place, it’s easy to forget to ask for a demonstration of the heating or air conditioning. And finding the agent later can be difficult. Experiences like trying to figure out a washing machine with instructions in Turkish, or living on microwaved food for a couple of days because we couldn’t figure out how to work an induction stove led us to create The List.

We whip it out on arrival and insist that the agent stay with us until we’ve covered all our concerns. When we arrive, we usually find a local restaurant for a good meal and get some rest. The first day we unpack, assess what we may need to make us comfortable, and venture out to inspect our neighborhood. We look for shops and other amenities like laundries, barber shops, or whatever we need at the time.

Most important, we find a grocery store. Of course, grocery shopping is different in every country, so we’ve discovered that hovering around observing the locals is a good way to avoid humiliation. For instance, plunging your bare hand into a big pile of tomatoes in an Italian grocery store will earn you gasps and stares from other customers. Plastic gloves are provided by Italian markets, but even so, massaging the produce is frowned upon. In Italy, you touch it, you buy it. In Paris, however, food is more like a religious experience.

Everyone seems to understand when a shopper spends many minutes quietly contemplating the fresh peaches before making her selection. Learning how to live as locals is half the fun for us, but we’ve certainly had our moments! The second day in a new place, we usually try to learn the city’s transportation system, which also means observing the locals to see how it’s done. Sometimes in a large, unfamiliar city we’ll take a hop-on/hop-off bus tour to familiarize ourselves with the city’s highlights and to get oriented.

By the third day, we’re off to the races and ready to start living. We may go to the movies, see a site, take a long walk in a famous park, do some shopping, or just enjoy a “down day” staying at home reading, cooking, and watching TV. Within a few days, we have usually established a routine and begun to feel as if we are at home… except that the Eiffel Tower or the Irish Sea may be part of our view! We have never been seriously disappointed in a property. We usually rent places for at least a month, sometimes longer.

Our goal is to get to know the area and live like the locals. Getting to know the neighborhood cheese monger by name, finding new friends to invite for cocktails, and feeling completely at ease with our new city make almost every place feel like home to us. Although we are wowed by the glorious sights, the history, exotic new foods, and the excitement of exploring new places, Tim and I agree that our new friends are the best part of our home-free life.

Perfect strangers have extended themselves to help us, and their kindness, curiosity, and generosity have changed us in a fundamental way. We ourselves are kinder and more generous as a result of our experiences in the world.

The Turkish hotel-owner who presented me with a backgammon board one day after I’d watched him and his friend playing…the Paris apartment-owner who escorted me to a world-famous beauty salon so she could interpret for me…the couple who lived next door in Ireland who invited us often to their magnificent apartment for cocktails and gossip…the charming German women who shared their wine as we watched a performance of Aida in Verona’s third-century Roman arena…these are just a few of the encounters that have given us a more global view of our fellow humans.

Living on the road has made us more patient, relaxed, and able to laugh at ourselves. We travel lighter than we did, find it easier to shrug off inconveniences, and we’re even healthier and happier than we were when we started. Of course, living in rented apartments and houses internationally, with no home base, requires massive planning and some fortitude. Our lifestyle is not for everyone, and the fact that we are both outrageously healthy makes it all possible.

We are now in Portugal and will spend the next few months in Ireland, France, Germany, and Britain. Tim is looking into cruises to Australia for 2014. Southeast Asia is looking like a good idea for later that year.

Tips on How To Plan Your Nomadic Retirement

Planning: Determine your itinerary by deciding where you would like to go and then investigating housing, transportation, and living expenses. Your budget will guide you in determining how your plans come together. We balance more expensive destinations like Britain with less costly places like Portugal or Mexico to stay within our budget.

Schengen Agreement: Be aware that, if you are not a European-Union citizen, you may only be in Europe for 90 out of each 180 days. If you plan to stay longer, you will either have to adjust your itinerary to comply or acquire a longer visa. See here for full information.

Insurance: U.S. Medicare, Canada’s national health insurance, and most U.S.-based private health-insurance plans will not cover you abroad. You will need an international health-insurance policy. We buy ours from

Getting Around: Cruising is a great way to travel when you have no time constraints. We use and we also check the sites of individual cruise lines. It’s important to look far in advance for these, because the rest of your itinerary may be predicated on these choices. When we do fly, we find a driver to meet us, since we have learned that having someone take us directly to our new home without hassles is a great investment. See:

Finding accommodation: We use and for lodging, because they offer an enormous range of accommodation worldwide.

Language: I speak very marginal Spanish, but we find that, in most places, we can do very well with smiles, sign language, and good applications on our iPhones.

Communication: We use Skype, FaceTime, and email to stay in touch with our families and our writing commitments, bill-paying, and travel-planning. We buy pay-per-use disposable phones in each country we visit, because it’s much more cost-effective than U.S. phone plans.

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