Thursday, May 14, 2015

Part II - Michael Answer Questions from Readers

After the article ran in the New York Times and other publications at the end of February we received lots of emails from readers who were encouraged by our journey. The emails also included questions that might be categorized as "how to" do what we're doing. On March 22nd, I wrote a blog post that addressed the issue of budget.Today, I set aside some time to answer a few more questions.

We are currently staying in our 58th Airbnb since we started in the summer of 2013, but this time it's not a house, not a flat, not an apartment but a sailboat. Who knew that you could find "boats" on Airbnb? We didn't until our son-in-law Gregoire showed us how.

Our family started sailing  20+ years ago so being on the water is part of our DNA. When we decided to become Senior Nomads, we made the difficult decision to sell our sailboat, Butterscotch. When we learned that Airbnb included boats we quickly started searching for sailboats and voila, about 6 weeks ago we found one in Italy in the Cinque Terre Region. In the meantime, we visited Cyprus, Israel, Amsterdam and Malta before getting aboard Serena IV last Friday here in Le Grazie, Italy.

All this means that we are far from museums, food markets and football matches so this was a perfect opportunity to spend some time on the laptop. Hopefully this information will be helpful to those who are planning an adventure similar to ours.

Gelato has no calories when eaten before noon

Q. How do you stay in Europe for more than 90 days at a time?
A. This has been the most common question we've received. We're certainly not experts, but we can tell you how we did it.

If you are not familiar with the Schengen Zone, here is a link to a site that is a good place to start - As you will read, the 26 countries of the Schengen Zone have agreed on certain rules for immigration. My knowledge is limited but I do know that citizens of the USA are welcome as tourists within the Schengen Zone for a total of 90 days within any 180 day period. Since we were planning on staying longer we obviously needed to see how to get through that hurdle.

Early on we learned that France, and maybe some other countries (Spain and Sweden?) offer long term visas up to a year if a person meets certain requirements. We researched the requirements with the help of our daughter Mary (the one who is married to Gregoire, the Frenchman, living in Paris.) We found the details online at the French Consulate in San Francisco which is the one closest to our home in Seattle. Here is a link to the details - you scroll down to #6 you will find the list of requirements.

One of the requirements is an in-person meeting with a French Consulate and that seemed like a good excuse to go to San Francisco, so in April 2013 flew to San Francisco loaded with paperwork and  our checkbook for the appointment we'd booked online. To make a long story very short, I'm happy to report that two weeks later, we received confirmation of our visas.

When we got to France in July we reported to the nearest immigration office (OFFI), completed more paperwork, paid some additional fees and passed a  physical exam which completed the process. (See stickers in our passports below.)

Then last summer we repeated all the process and received another one-year visa which runs through November of this year. The whole process was not without its challenges but we are happy we jumped through the hoops because we've been able to travel easily in and out of the Schengen Zone Countries for almost two years without counting days. As the Master Card slogan goes, the peace of mind has been "priceless".

Our current Long Term French Tourist Visas honored throughout the Schengen Zone
Q. What do you do about mobile phone service outside the USA?
A. Before we left Seattle, we cancelled our monthly cell phone plans and bought pay-as-you-go plans from AT&T. This allowed us to keep our American phone numbers for something like $10/month. Since we are not in the states, we don't get charged for making calls. We recorded a  message that said we were traveling and the only way to reach us was by email. We also had AT&T unlock our phones so we could put in SIM cards that work in the country we are in at the time. 

In Europe we purchase a new prepaid SIM card in each country. This means we have a new phone number every time we arrive in a new country but it has worked really well for us. We spend less on phones that we did in the states. The amount we spend each month depends on how often we move from one to country to another but on average, we spend about $50/month for each phone which gives us a set amount of local (in country) minutes for phone calls and text messages as well as data (access to the Internet). Every country has lots of cell phone providers to choose from. Some of the most common are Vodafone, Wind, T-Mobile, Tele2 and Orange.

Every time we move to a new country we send an email to our family with our new phone numbers just in case they need to reach us in an emergency. For our regular communication with family and close friends we use FaceTime and Google Hangout.

Purchasing SIM card in Turkey. So far we've had 30 + phone numbers since leaving home
Q. How do you travel within Europe and estimate expenses?
A. It may come as a surprise but travel within Europe has not been as expensive as you might think. We started out staying two weeks in each city which meant moving camp twice a month. Over time, we have shorted the stays which means we travel 3-4 times a month has increased travel between cities but we work hard and use the Internet to minimize expenses. Our two favorite apps are: and

Our top four travel games: Scrabble, backgammon, dominoes and cribbage. I win occasionally.
We fly when it makes sense. Otherwise, we use public transportation: trains, buses and ferry boats. Flying on high-traffic (and thus super competitive routes is affordable thanks to Ryanair and Easy Jet). For example: Last fall we flew from Paris to Bilbao, Spain for $90 each. Recently we flew from Malta to Milan for $63 each and last month we flew from Tel Aviv to Amsterdam for $179 each.

We get most of our news online but finding a paper copy of the International NYT is a travel day treat
Local trains can be very affordable. We use buses whenever it makes sense. Usually we find that buses cost about 1/2  the cost of train tickets. The buses have all been very "first class" in that they are comfortable, roomy and often have a WC aboard even in Morocco and Turkey. Here are a couple of examples: Naples to Bari, Italy $14 each. Tallin, Estonia to Riga, Latvia $30 each. Madrid to Seville, Spain $25. The scenery is often spectacular and you almost always end up in the center of your destination.

Aboard one of the many ferry boats we took in the Greek Islands
Q. What do you do for Medical Insurance in Europe and back home?
A. We purchased Medical Insurance that covers us while we are outside the United States through an online company we found called I am sure there are others to choose from. I was not sure how much coverage to purchase or how large a deductible made sense so I just used my best judgment and went for it. I liked the fact that the policy included "evacuation coverage" in case either of us got really sick and needed to be flown home. Quite frankly, that seemed like the most important benefit.

So far, we have not had to make a claim for any medical expenses outside the USA. For the small aches and pains we've had, we've just paid cash at local pharmacies with two short and affordable doctor visits in Paris.

At home, we kept our medical coverage...just in case we got really sick and needed to go home in a rush. I am on Social Security so get my coverage through Medicare plus a supplemental policy. Debbie has an individual policy through Regence. We did raise the deductible on Debbie's to lower the monthly premiums since we not in the states. There is no way to know if our approach was the right one but it just felt right for us.

A big shop. This one for a week's supplies on the Euro debit card in Malta
Q. How do you pay your day-to-day expenses in Europe and keep up with mail?
A. We have visited all 19 countries that use the Euro. That leaves 12 countries we've visited who use their own national currency. Two months before we left Seattle in 2013 we opened a bank account in Seattle with HSBC, an international bank with locations around the world (including Seattle). If you meet their minimum balance requirements, then you can open an account in another country. We chose France. There is no charge for opening the account. Without this work-around or some other, you can not open an account in without establishing residency. (Or, so I believe). In any case, this has worked very well for us.

Each month we transfer funds online from our American HSBC to our French HSBC account which has a debit card with a European chip and PIN. So, we can use the card without any bank fees or currency transaction fees for each transaction drawing down our Euro account. In particular our HSBC debit card also allows us to use any ATM worldwide without incurring bank charges which is how we get cash for our daily spending.

Our Euro debit card with PIN. As you can see it's a little worn around the edges from regular use.
If we are in a non-Euro country then we still use our HSBC card to withdraw cash in the local currency, however, we avoid using the card for daily expenses to avoid transaction fees and currency conversion fees. This means we pay for more things in cash in non-Euro countries.

Restaurant receipt from Lithuania before they converted to the Euro earlier this year.
As far as mail is concerned, we  rented a P.O. box in Seattle which was very affordable. Our son lives right around the corner from the facility so once a month he goes to the mail box and scans any mail he thinks we need to see and sends us a PDF with all the correspondence. Over time, the amount of correspondence has become less and less. Now, we probably get a 10 page PDF from Chris each month. We have some U.S. checks with us so if needed, we can mail a check to pay a bill, or more likely just go online and pay for it using a USA debit card or bill-pay online.

I hope these answers were helpful and inspiring! There are still a handful of questions we have received which I'll answer soon. Debbie is looking forward to writing about packing,  provisioning and cooking on the road.

We leave Italy tomorrow on the train heading north to Verona where we're thinking we'll find a bus that will take us through the Alps to Salzburg and then on to Brno and Prague in the Czech Republic for 10 days. After that, we'll see which way the wind is blowing.

Safe Travels!



  1. Michael, Thank you for this informative and really interesting post. I've commented before because like you, we have been travelling slowly, mostly through Italy, so we've been staying in airbnb and other apartments. It's been a wonderful adventure.
    All your tips, particularly the preparation of your bank accounts make perfect sense. If we do this again I would certainly follow your advice. The visa situation in France for people who can support themselves without working is very interesting.
    One more questions for you - Do you ever get weary from travelling? We've been on the go for the past 5 months. Two weeks ago we arrived in Lipari off the coast of Sicily. We found a lovely little apartment and looked at each other and immediately agreed to stop. We will have stayed here 3 weeks, our longest stop in this time, then we're back on the road. I wonder if you've ever hit the wall like that? Enjoy your next stop. Jenny and Stephen

  2. What great information! You answered questions I didn't even know I had. So far, our retirement travels have mostly been in the US (except for our visit to Cuba in January) but we hope to venture further soon. Happy trails!

  3. We have enjoyed your posts - both the travelogues and the informational posts. But we're sorry to hear you sold your sailboat in order to travel -- sailing and travelling aren't mutually exclusive!