Two for the Road in 80 Countries (and Counting)
In 2013, Michael and Debbie Campbell were a married couple living in Seattle and approaching retirement with financial trepidation and the looming question, What’s next? Today, they are the Senior Nomads ― travelers who live full-time on the road, staying in Airbnbs around the world.
We profiled the couple when they were two years and 31 countries into their journey, renting out their home in Seattle should they want to return. Since then, they have sold the house and visited a total of 80 countries, spending an average of $92 a night on lodging (their target in setting out was $90). They have also become an inspiration to many retirees, who write them emails and, in some cases, have followed their lead.
“We’ve been to old places like Ephesus, Pompeii and Petra,” Mr. Campbell, 72, said. “We saw Handel’s Messiah performed in Granada, Spain. Very few will know this, but Kazakhstan held Expo 2017 in their capital of Astana. We went to that.”
Ms. Campbell, 62, added, “Since we’re not going home, we just set a path and say, ‘Where can we go from here?’”
Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with the Campbells as the Nomads mark their fifth anniversary on the road in July. They spoke via FaceTime from Tokyo, a part of the world they were visiting for the first time.
So how are your accommodations in Toyko?
Ms. Campbell It’s the smallest Airbnb we have ever stayed in out of 191. It’s the size of a small single-car garage. But I managed to cook dinner in the galley kitchen.
Mr. Campbell The first part of the year we were five weeks in New Zealand, then a month in Australia, then working from Singapore north through Asia. We’ve been to Malaysia, Cambodia, Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul and then here. We’re leaving tomorrow for Kyoto.
Of all the places you’ve traveled to, can you talk about a few moments that stand out?
Ms. Campbell One of our goals is to be where history is in the making. We decided to go to London, to spend one week there before the Brexit vote and one week after. We ended up staying in this little lane of 40 houses in Peckham Rye. The neighbors came out in the morning bleary-eyed, like, ‘What just happened?’
Mr. Campbell So many Americans have been to Omaha Beach and the American cemetery in France. But someone tipped us off to the German cemetery. The gravestones aren’t white; they’re black stone crosses. How many Germans go to pay tribute to the Germans who died at Normandy? Our perception is very few visitors.
Are you different people than you were five years ago? If so, how?
Ms. Campbell It’s a gradual change that comes over you. For myself, I’m much braver than I was, more willing to go through any door, happy with less. I have slowed things way down. We have the luxury of time. We’ve really become flexible. We’ve become tolerant and gracious with each other. There’s a lot of grace in our marriage.
Mr. Campbell The marriage has never been stronger. Debbie is left-handed, I’m right-handed. She’s creative, I’m an Excel spreadsheet guy. Yet we’ve been able to bring those skills together to divide the chores, and we’re rowing the boat in the same direction. We have purpose. You wouldn’t want to do this with anyone but your best friend.
You’ve also become role models for people young and old, unexpectedly.
Ms. Campbell Oh my god, I’ve looked at my phone more than once and said, ‘We have a job. How did that happen?’ I’ve written 154 blog posts now. I’ve picked up my game on Instagram. We’ve launched a lot of nomads. People write us: “We’re leaving in three months.” Everyone, no matter what age, says, ‘You are living our dream.’
Mr. Campbell We hope we will inspire people to follow their own North Star when it comes to retirement. They probably have a series of no’s that are comfortable for them: why they aren’t starting a business, why they aren’t riding a bike across the country, whatever.
You may not have become the Senior Nomads 15 years ago, before digital technology changed travel. Besides Airbnb, what apps or websites do you rely on?
Ms. Campbell Michael sat down and had 600 words on paper in 10 minutes describing all the ways we use technology to do what we are doing and the list was staggering. From free library books for our Kindles to Google Translate. I like Culture Trip. You can type in any city and it gives you interesting things to do there.
Mr. Campbell Skyscanner is my go to flight website. Rome2rio helps you plan travel between any two cities in the world, whether to go by plane, train, bus.
You manage your money carefully in order to keep traveling. Have you ever said, “Forget the budget”?
Ms. Campbell I’d have to put Michael to bed. Delirium would set in. What we did do one time to take a break is we spent a week on a boat out of Montenegro. Up the coast to Dubrovnik and back. And I got a tattoo and went on safari in Tanzania for my 60th birthday.
Mr. Campbell We’re going back to Europe over the summer. We’ve rented three different boats in three different countries. We will sit in the marina. The first one is in early July in Croatia, the second is in Valencia, the third is the South of France, near Nice. That’s a splurge.
How long can you keep this up?
Mr. Campbell Once a year we go back to Seattle and we go, ‘Well, maybe this is the end.’ Each time, within a few weeks, we decide we want to keep going. As we sit here, we’ve got plans through early October. It’s hard to know how we will feel when we get back. We could get back going, ‘God, that was enough.’ Or three weeks later, we could go, ‘We haven’t seen South America yet.’
Ms. Campbell We’ve been able to sustain it for five years. We’re not in debt. I’ve crossed over into Social Security land. It turns out that it’s possible.
Mr. Campbell We have five tick boxes: are we having fun? are we learning? are we healthy? are we sort of in budget? and are we in love? Fortunately, we’ve both been on the same page every time we’ve had to cross that bridge.