“I’m trying Airbnb for the first time,” a friend confided recently. “But I’m just not sure what it’ll be like staying in someone’s home, sharing their space — let’s be honest, sharing their bathroom with them.”
“You do know you can rent whole apartments,” I said. “Have the entire place to yourself. That’s what we always do.”
Newcomers to the Airbnb world sometimes arrive thinking the whole point is to bond with super-cool hosts. That’s wonderful when it happens (yes, I’m thinking of you, Erge and Martin), but to me, the major draw is the accommodations themselves. You can rent whole houses, boats, even (I've heard) castles. We don't aim that high, but the places we stay have character and creature comforts — sometimes delivered in unexpected ways.
Take our stay in Braşov, Transylvania.
The online photos looked inviting. Walking into it, I said to Rich, “Yikes! We’ve rented Harry Potter’s bedroom under the stairs.” Aside from a tiny lavatory, there were two rooms: one entirely filled by a double bed, the other a minuscule kitchen with a small table and two straight-backed chairs. However, it didn’t take long to appreciate the compact kitchen’s enormous advantages.
“Look at this,” I said to Rich. “I can sit right here and do everything — write blog posts, watch movies on the computer, get a glass of water from the tap, pull something from the fridge, even do dishes — all without leaving this chair. Cozy and efficient. Ya gotta love it.”
Over the years, we've stayed in 31 Airbnb apartments and have learned a lot about navigating the options. But we are total rookies compared to retirees Debbie and Michael Campbell, aka the Senior Nomads, who have been on the road since 2013 and are currently in their 212th Airbnb home. What was it like to be a nomad? I wondered. What had they learned? I decided to ask them.
Why did you become nomads?
Michael: Debbie had said for some time, “We have one more adventure in us!” And that is saying something, since we have been fortunate to have had a life full of interesting endeavors.
Debbie: Then our daughter Mary, who lives in Paris with her young family, asked us if we’d ever heard of Airbnb. We had not. She suggested it might be possible for us to travel full-time as a way of retired living. We were convinced she thought we had way more money than we did. But in fact, after doing some initial budgets based on selling absolutely everything we owned, we realized that yes, for about the same amount we’d spend if we’d retired in Seattle, we could live our daily lives in other people’s homes around the world! Within six months of Mary’s visit, we had sold our worldly goods (and eventually sold our home) and were heading to Paris.
How long have you been traveling?
Debbie: We’ve been on the road as Senior Nomads (as we call ourselves) for almost six years! Since we left in July of 2013, we’ve visited 6 continents, 82 countries and 275 cities, and we don’t see ourselves stopping any time soon.
Michael: In fact, when we are asked how long we will continue this lifestyle, our answer is “As long as we are learning every day, having fun, close to our budget, healthy, and still in love, we’ll keep going.” So far, so good!
How many Airbnbs have you stayed in?
Michael: We are currently in Santiago, Chile in our 212th Airbnb. When we are not in an Airbnb we stay with friends or family, and have found a reliable house-sitting situation we use when we return “home” to Seattle each year for the holidays.
What are the biggest challenges of the lifestyle?
Debbie: Travel fatigue. Sometimes we spend an entire day, and I am talking 20 hours, getting from one place to another on multiple forms of transportation. That means managing our luggage on-and-off and in-and-out of various vehicles, and once we arrive either hauling it up more stairs than we anticipated, or taking two trips in tiny elevators. But once we are settled in, it all becomes worth it. And, since we are not on vacation, we have the luxury of not being in a hurry the next day.
How much luggage do you take?
Michael: Our mantra is “If you can’t eat it, drink it, get somewhere on it, or attend it, don’t spend money on it.”
Debbie: We lug two large rolling-duffle suitcases and we fill them to the brim at 23 kilos each — which is usually the weight limit on the airlines we use. I am sure we overpack, but since we are on the road for almost a year at a time we include some creature comforts including our personal bed pillows. We try to never be over the weight limit — so if we buy new shoes, an old pair has to go! Besides our two workhorse suitcases, we each carry a day pack, and I have a “Mary Poppins” style purse that expands to hold whatever still needs tucking away.
Do you miss family and friends?
Debbie: Of course, but we are constantly making new friends as we go. That’s why, for us it is important to meet our Airbnb hosts. We consider them our “friend in the next city”. We count on them to help us live as locally as possible — and we usually end up socializing with them as well.
Michael: We have four grown children and five grandchildren, and we are frequently in touch via Facetime or Skype. We also visit Mary and her family in France often and see the others when we are in the US.
What are some tips for traveling with your spouse?
Debbie: First of all, don’t try this with anyone but your best friend! After that, patience, flexibility and a willingness to “let the little things go” become the keys to success. That, and some alone time that might include being apart for a day.
Michael: We have been married for 40 years, so we know each other pretty well. But as it is for most married couples, we were busy with careers and raising kids and didn’t spend every minute together, and sometimes we were at cross purposes. But since we began this journey, I think we are “rowing the boat in the same direction— like an Olympic crew team, we are in sync with a common goal in mind.
What life lessons have you learned from being on the road so long?
Michael: We’ve exchanged things for experiences. So as long as we are safe and sheltered, we can say we are “home” wherever we are. That allows us to live in the moment and become more tolerant, open-minded, curious and — maybe best of all — empathic. By that I mean we acknowledge there are many ways of approaching life, and especially as Americans, we don’t have all the answers to what is the right way.
Debbie: I have learned the freedom that comes with owning next to nothing, and the joy of slowing down.
Do you enjoy traveling with next to nothing? Have you stayed in a memorable Airbnb — or other rental? Tell me about your experiences. Any tips to pass along?
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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