Seven Myths Surrounding the Onward Travel Lifestyle
Packing up the plantation and moving overseas is often daunting if you’re contemplating an expat lifestyle. There’s deep-dive research, numerous conversations about the whys and hows, deciding where to call home-away-from-home, logistical planning to get there, and all the emotions you’ll experience throughout the process—from excitement to fear and everything in between.
There is, however, a dip-your-toe-in-the-water alternative that eases you into an international living experience. Instead of going all-in, consider an onward travel lifestyle to kick things off.
Onward travel is a viable option, even today.
My wife, Karen, and I sold everything we owned nearly four years ago and have been traveling since. Your first thought might be, “You haven’t traveled during COVID-19, have you?” And the short answer is “yes,” but not nearly as quickly as intended. Instead of one to three months per country, we had to hunker down in Argentina for five months when COVID struck, before moving on to Scotland (five months) and South Africa (eight months).
We followed local laws everywhere we went and did our absolute best to avoid exposure—which we’re happy to report we have done successfully. Over the past few years, we’ve honed our ability to adapt to whatever life sends our way. Our pace of travel has slowed, but we remain committed to living an onward travel lifestyle.
Like all challenging adventures, there are numerous destinations to explore, questions to ask, and myths to dispel—the latter being the essence of this article. Here are seven misconceptions we’ve experienced regarding the onward travel lifestyle:
- It’s expensive
- You need to speak the language
- It’s not safe
- It’s only for a lucky few
- It’s not sustainable
- It’s too hard being away from family and friends
- You’re always on vacation
Let’s explore each further based on insight we’ve gained during our nearly four years on the road.
Myth #1: It's Expensive
Most people assume we’re wealthy. We’re not. We both have full-time remote jobs; Karen works for a company in South Florida and I’m a contract marketing consultant.
Too many people assume travel is expensive, and it can be when it’s a vacation added to your everyday living expenses. For us, travel is a major chunk of our living expenses—and this lifestyle is much cheaper than living in Seattle. As long as you visit countries with lower costs of living, you can reduce your monthly expenses. During the first year and a half, we paid off all debt and moved that monthly expense into savings. We are traveling full time, yet we are saving even more money than before for retirement, which is several years away.
It’s important to determine what your monthly budget could be, based on expenses in the countries you’d like to visit. During our time in Mexico and South America, our monthly rent ranged from $480 to $1,200 per month. Groceries and restaurant expenses were significantly lower, too. We crunched numbers prior to leaving the U.S. and realized traveling abroad would save us between 40% to 60% of our monthly Seattle budget. So, our mantra became “the longer we stay in lower-cost countries, the faster we'll pay off debt.” And once the debt was gone, our newfound savings allowed for travel to higher-cost countries.
Myth #2: You Need to Speak the Language
We believe it’s respectful to learn basic phrases for countries we visit, and we decided to start our journey in Central and South American countries to maximize Spanish-speaking opportunities. I had four years of Spanish during my middle and high school years many moons ago, but Karen had no Spanish classes under her belt before we left the U.S. She relied on language learning apps and Warren Hardy Spanish classes at the outset.
We always make an effort to speak the local language, but we also let those we are speaking to know we’re still learning. It’s a great icebreaker that gets us to a point where the little Spanish we know and the little English they know are usually enough for effective communication.
In situations when we’re not understood, we don’t get frustrated. We pull out our phones and use translation apps to guide the conversation. On numerous occasions, the non-English speakers use their phones first to begin the translation process. Using apps is a very common practice, so don’t be daunted by it! It’s better to attempt the local language than to get frustrated if they don’t speak your language. Too many times we’ve heard English speakers make comments like, “There are a lot of tourists here, why don’t they learn English?” Don’t be that person! You’re the guest in their country, so make an effort. It’s usually reciprocated.
Myth #3: It's Not Safe
Unless you’re truly adventurous, you’re not going to initiate a travel lifestyle in countries or cities known for social, political, or economic unrest. Research your countries of choice and choose safe neighborhoods in safe cities. Once there, don’t dress flashy, wear expensive jewelry, or carry around tech that screams “I’m a tourist with money in my pockets” since it draws unwanted attention.
It’s the same common sense you use in the city, state, or country you live in today. Confusion reigns when perceptions of a country become your guidepost. We speak from experience: Perceptions are rarely 100% true. Saying the entire country of Mexico isn’t safe due to magnified media coverage of incidents in specific locations is misleading. Mexico is a huge country! We have been asked many times if the U.S. is no longer safe due to protests or mass shootings–which are isolated incidents. Should people not visit your home city due to a single headline-grabbing event hundreds or thousands of miles away?
It’s also wise to connect with resources on the ground vs. following advice from someone who hasn’t visited a location. Join social media groups with people who live where you want to explore, and then engage so you can learn as much as possible before arriving. If you’re active in the online community, you’ll make friends and have contacts the moment you arrive.
Myth #4: It's Only for a Lucky Few
“Must be nice!” We hear this all the time. Our brief response: “It is. Join us!” What usually follows is a litany of self-limiting beliefs:
- I have kids, so I can’t do that. (We know dozens of families with young children traveling the world.)
- I can’t do my job remotely. (We heard this constantly pre-COVID, and now those same people are working remotely.)
- I can’t afford to travel. (See Myth #1.)
- My spouse would never do it. (Have you asked them and discussed the possibilities?)
Instead of stating why you can’t, start asking how can I? More people work remotely than ever before, so there’s never been a better time to consider living abroad. And when we say “join us!” we don’t necessarily mean next week, although that would be nice.
Our journey began in the mid-’90s when we first discussed the idea of traveling to every state in the U.S., and how we could possibly make that happen income-wise. We didn’t make the leap then, but we planted the seed and the desire never wavered. We visited Italy in 2013 and vowed that working abroad would happen one day.
Once we started discussing the whys and hows—not the ifs—everything accelerated. We went from our first serious discussion to departing 18 months later. So, start talking and planning now. If you only think about it and never talk about it out loud, or if you only think about it as being something that you can't do, you won't do it.
Myth #5: It’s Not Sustainable
Another frequent question we hear: When are you coming home? We have no plans to go home because home is where we are right now. There is no physical home to go back to, so we’ve adopted a global-citizen mindset.
Once friends and family realized our intention was to work and explore the world, they understood we were on an extended journey vs. a short trip. Having a traveler’s mindset is critically important to successful onward travel. Breaking free from tethers that keep us location-dependent helps tremendously. Taking a minimalist approach to “stuff” is critically important. Karen is an aesthete when it comes to curating a comfortable home. At the outset, I thought this alone would potentially derail our journey if she didn’t feel in control of her home surroundings. The exact opposite happened: she felt emancipated from being bound to all the responsibilities that come with home ownership.
If you love to travel, it can be sustainable as long as you’re not encumbered by things that prevent travel. Downsizing to a small storage unit makes traveling full time much easier. Giving up “clutter stuff” is essential. Our lives travel with us in two large suitcases, a carry-on bag, and two backpacks. Full-time travel is indeed sustainable with the right mindset and without all the clutter that anchors us.
Myth #6: It's too Hard Being Away From Family and Friends
Most onward travelers say the same thing: family loves visiting us in places they would never go on their own. My mom never entertained the idea of going to Reñaca, Chile, but she relished the thought of visiting us on the beach for Christmas during the Southern Hemisphere summer. Turn holidays or birthdays into family travel events and plan well in advance so everyone looks forward to the gathering. And since you’ll likely save money staying in lower-cost-of-living countries, you’ll have funds to make family visits.
Videoconferencing blew up during the pandemic, and many families used video calls to connect. When traveling, set a schedule for chatting with family and friends based on their availability. You might have to get up early or go to bed later, but it will be worth it when loved ones see you making the effort to stay connected.
Depending on how frequently you travel, you’ll likely make new friends to add to your “stay connected” list. We have made lifelong friends—in Mexico, Peru, South Africa—that we stay in touch with. WhatsApp is the preferred communications app outside of the U.S., so we text and call our newfound friends regularly. Staying connected is much easier than you think as long as you make the effort.
Myth #7: You're Always on Vacation
We work five days a week, anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day, depending on busy cycles and project deadlines. Basically, we’re doing everything we did stateside, but we're doing it in new locations that afford us opportunities to explore on nights and weekends.
Monthly stays in a country mean we have two full weekends for tourist activities. Usually, the first and last weekends include at least one travel day, so we know we need to work efficiently to maximize our fun time in a given location. In many ways, we are more efficient because we want time to enjoy every spare minute in our new surroundings.
Because onward travel is our lifestyle, we also spend time preparing for what’s next. Deciding where to go, finding lodging, and booking flights are a part of our everyday life. We also deal with taxes, healthcare needs, paying bills, dealing with unexpected curveballs—things that, last time I checked, most people don’t do while on vacation.
The misconceptions about a travel lifestyle can easily derail you from considering it. Instead, it’s much better to explore the benefits of globetrotting—meeting people and experiencing new cultures. Maybe your first venture is for a few weeks or a month or two. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. After committing to an extended stay in one location, you’ll learn quickly if onward travel or living abroad is right for you.