Lots of us dream of traveling in retirement, but not many make it happen full time!
I had the pleasure of interviewing Craig Hammell, who together with his wife Donna, started an instagram account and blog to document their retirement slow travel adventures: “2 Suitcases for 2 Years.”
I asked Craig the burning questions that will answer the larger query: Can retirees really make full-time travel happen?
Why Slow Travel in Retirement?
“Why did you decide to leave home and travel?”
One night my wife came home and said she’s a little burnt out after 25 years as a pastor. I was still working, but not wild about my job, so I was ready for a change.
A few more discussions, and we agreed it would take us a year to get everything in order.
It would be an early retirement for us both at age 63.
Making Long Term Slow Travel Happen
Now Craig spills the tea on how they made everything work, from downsizing to finances.
How to Downsize for Retirement Slow Travels
We sold 2 cars and everything else we didn’t want.
The rest went into a storage pod for 2 years at $200.00 per month. This is an expense I would advise folks to try to eliminate.
“Did you keep a place to live back home?”
No. We didn’t own our home to begin with, and we sold everything we didn’t want.
Our housing was part of my wife’s salary package, so when we left we would be without a home or health insurance.
We liked to say we were officially homeless, jobless, and uninsured…and enjoyed every minute of it.
“Did you miss having that home base?”
Our goal was to travel for two years.
We did return to the states for short stays at Christmas twice to see our seven grown kids and one grandchild.
How to Make the Finances Work
With a quick financial review one night we determined it was feasible if Donna took her pension and I started taking dividend withdrawals from my retirement account.
We are by no means wealthy and I think this might be a misconception folks have of us. We live frugally and choose to save our money for travels.
So we needed to bridge two years before Social Security and Medicare were available to us. We were experienced travelers before this and had always talked about living in a foreign country, maybe as expats, but we weren’t sure.
Choosing a Destination (or Many!)
We determined that to rent an apartment in the metropolitan suburbs of NJ/PA would be unaffordable, and it made no sense to us to live beyond our means.
On the other hand, many long-term Airbnb rentals of a month or longer offer 40, 50, or 60 percent discounts, especially in the off seasons.
We determined that living overseas should be slightly less expensive than living in the U.S. and at least we would enjoy the destinations. And this is in fact the case when you factor out the travel between places.
Italy was high on the list because of my wife’s heritage, but totally unaffordable.
“Did you plan to travel the world, or did you have only a couple of destinations in mind?“
Originally, we were hoping to make it all the way around the globe, but that didn’t happen.
The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador were our first stop in August 2018. We had wished to go there for our 60th birthdays but working got in the way.
It was our very first destination because we didn’t want to risk missing it for some unforeseen reason in the future.
(I love that they made sure it happened after work had previously made them miss out!)
We were trying to hit countries we hadn’t been to before:
Italy was the only repeat for us, as it is the land of Donna’s people.
Our longest apartment stay was 6 weeks.
Our longest country stays were 3 months in South Africa and Guatemala.
In Cape Town we had 3 different apartments in various neighborhoods
across the city.
How Long Should You Slow Travel For?
“How long did you plan to travel for?“
2 suitcases for 2 years was what we originally planned until the pandemic cut it short at 21 months. Not a bad run. I was beginning to lobby for a one-year extension before that though so we could get to Asia.
We are/were notorious long-term planners, and we are not sure what the right balance is.
Having an enjoyable apartment is crucial for long stays.
If we really wanted a particular place we booked very early, sometimes 6 months ahead.
The Schengen visa restrictions, 90 days total for all the European Union countries, is difficult to work around when slow traveling. So we needed to rearrange 6 months of our schedule to be able to reenter Europe in the fall.
(There is a way to work around this, as not all EU countries are part of Schengen, but Craig is right, it is difficult.)
Extra Expenses to Consider for Long Term Retirement Travel
We decided not to buy health insurance. It’s just too expensive and for the most part we are very healthy so it was a calculated risk to do without it.
With everything we’d been reading for years about the affordability of other countries’ health care systems, we decided to pay for any medical expenses out of pocket.
We did purchase travel insurance with a medical evacuation policy in case of anything serious.
How to Pack for Slow Travel in Retirement
The most difficult part was packing the final suitcases. Really Donna gets one and a half and I only get half of mine.
(Sounds about right.)
Small suitcases are needed especially if you want to rent a car and secure everything, unseen in the trunk.
(The most affordable rental cars often have very little trunk space.)
We also decided to follow spring like weather across the globe. This made our wardrobe choices easier with the intent of layering up or down.
(I have never heard anyone suggest this before, and it’s genius! I can appreciate it from the standpoint of someone who likes to pack light, but I also don’t do well in extreme heat. So smart!)
Assessing the Pros and Cons of Long Term Slow Travel
“Were you nervous about the risk?”
We are adventurous and I wouldn’t want anyone else as a travel partner.
Over the course of our 15-year marriage we had steadily widened our traveling experiences and levels of comfort.
“What surprised you about travelling full-time?”
We went from being a 9-5, six days a week working couple to instantly being a 24/7/365 retired couple, and we survived. Donna might have been tempted, but she did not throw me to the lions.
It becomes a way of life and you get into a groove.
Not every day needed to be filled with a fabulous activity or destination. Just finding a nice café worked for us.
“Walk a little then café, then walk a little more,” is how we describe our approach.
For us the joy was the ambience of a place. Trying to immerse ourselves into its daily flow. Shopping in the local markets so we could cook our own dinners most nights.
Practical Reasons to Slow Travel in Retirement
Ecuador was top on our list because we had read so much about affordable dental care there.
Our first long-term stay was in Cuenca and I was able to get a tooth extracted for $25 and a dental bridge made for $250.
We also found the best dentist in Cape Town, South Africa, and both of us had very affordable root canals done.
(Sounds like this Craig and Donna didn’t experience many downsides!)
Facing Challenges When Traveling in Retirement
“How did your plans change as you travelled?”
Six months into our trip we were in Portugal for 6 weeks, one month in Lisbon and a two-week road trip.
After Portugal we were scheduled to do three dog sits in England over two months’ time then head to France for a WorkAway assignment over the summer months at a 16th century chateau as a way to save funds for our time in Africa.
The first dog sit canceled and the dog at the second one had become gravely ill and was canceled.
With an unfavorable UK pound to dollar exchange rate, England was out of our
budget without the dog sitting, so we canceled the third dog sit.
At this same time Donna was ill from a lingering sinus infection that would not go away and required finding a doctor in Portugal. We were advised to go to a private hospital for an out-patient visit, which only cost $150 to see a specialist and was covered by our travel insurance.
At this point we re-evaluated what we wanted to accomplish and while living and working at a chateau sounds wonderful, it’s still a working obligation.
We cancelled out of the Workaway, quickly and unexpectedly picked Sofia, Bulgaria for our next 30 day stay.
Experiencing Culture Shock While Slow Traveling in Retirement
“Did you encounter any culture shock?”
The extreme poverty of some regions in Africa is astounding. Miles of shanty towns in South Africa.
Communities digging for water in dry riverbeds in Ethiopia. At the end of the day we all share the same concern of just wanting to provide happiness and well-being for our families.
What to Do in Retirement After a World Travel Adventure
“Where are you now?”
In March 2019, 21 months into our journey, we were just wrapping up a six week stay in Seville when Spain and the rest of the world instituted the shutdown for the pandemic and all travelers were advised to leave.
We had thought about staying since it was originally supposed to be for two weeks, but fortunately decided to play it safe and we flew back to the states the day before all flights were canceled.
(Well that was a lucky decision!)
Without a home, and coming from a Coronavirus hotspot, we decided not to visit any of our kids upon our return.
Originally at the end of our trip we going to visit our children in NJ for a few weeks before flying on to Albuquerque, NM to retire there, but we had not made definite plans.
In the meantime, friends offered us their vacation cottage in rural Georgia as a place to quarantine.
So, returning from Spain we landed in Newark, NJ, and spent the night at an airport hotel, without seeing any of our family, before flying down to Georgia for an indefinite quarantine.
Living in Georgia
We never expected to enjoy Georgia, but there is a tranquility to the lake we are staying on that resonates with us and we’ve fallen in love with the place.
We bought a vacant piece of property a few doors down from our quarantine cottage, and are having a house built on the lake shore.
Our belongings and furniture have now been in storage over three years as we wait for our retirement home to be finished. We are about forty minutes south of Savannah.
What an inspiring story! I hope if you are considering long-term slow travel either in retirement, or for a gap year, you will find Craig and Donna’s story helpful.
I love how casual they sound about uprooting their entire lives for over three years now!
You can keep up with the Hammels on their Instagram: @2suitcasesfor2years
Or their blog: 2suitcasesfor2years.com