Travel + nomadic living tips← Back to Kevin's homepagePublished: 2019 Mar 21
After 12 years in Portland, Oregon USA, my girlfriend and I decided to evaluate other cities where we might want to live. In 2017 September, we each packed a duffel bag, put our stuff into storage, and skipped town.
We’re not vacation traveling — eating at fancy restaurants, sightseeing castles, skydiving, etc. — but rather just moving to a new city every few weeks/months.
This page covers the tools and tips I’ve found helpful.
The travel log at the bottom of this page details our rough costs, which might help you financially compare this nomadic lifestyle to, e.g., getting a mortgage, dog, BMW, child, etc.
We’re traveling to evaluate different cities where we might want to live. From that perspective, important factors include:
- Cultural and cuisine variety: Are croissants, burritos, and xiao long bao available? Any of them good?
- Pleasant, human-scale public spaces: parks, walkable streets, etc.
- Spaces amenable to working: hipster coffee shops, libraries, quiet bars, etc.
- Places to hike, run, surf, or otherwise exercise outdoors
- Ease of getting around: public transit, biking, walking, driving, etc.
- People doing interesting things with art, business, science, etc.
These factors take time to investigate, so we tend to spend a few weeks or months in each city.
In this case, accommodation cost dominates travel cost. So while it’s easy to comparison shop for flights, there’s a much higher return when that effort is instead put towards accommodation.
Short-term accommodation (a few nights or a week) tends to be more expensive than longer-term accommodation, but tends to be worth it in terms of optionality when first arriving somewhere: It lets you get oriented, find out which neighborhoods actually feel good “on the ground”, and secure a lower rate on longer term digs.
Here’s our process:
- Choose a promising city.
- Initially stay a few nights in a hostel/hotel to get oriented.
- After initial scouting, pick a neighborhood in which to stay longer.
Nomad list provides high-level overview of rough cost of living and climate of many different cities. A particularly useful metric is air quality, which, as someone who grew up in North America, I didn’t fully appreciate until I accidentally moved to a valley filled with coal and ex-Soviet factory smoke.
Weather Spark has almanac weather data by city, which is useful for planning around temperature, humidity, and overall outdoor comfort.
This isn’t a travel blog, but if you’re like me, then you’ll like (in descending order): Amsterdam, Melbourne, Helsinki, London, Berlin, Seattle, and Edinburgh. (If you want specific tips about any of these places, feel free to email me.)
Booking.com is my favorite for short-term accommodation like hostels, airport hotels, student flats, etc. The website has obnoxious blinking “this hotel is almost sold out!” messages, but it’s not a problem if you’re an ice-cold online shopper like myself. I’ve always found the pricing and metadata to be accurate and the properties are what they say on the tin (exact addresses are listed, photos, etc.).
AirBNB is a mixed bag: Pricing tends to be opaque (search results don’t include all fees, which makes comparisons difficult), it isn’t always cheaper than hotels, and sometimes hosts are incompetent. However, it can be nice to work with individuals. (E.g., after spending a month in someone’s flat, we negotiated privately with them to extend our stay for a much lower rate.)
Local real estate agencies. These can be difficult to find online, but tend to be cheaper than any sort of “vacation” accommodation. E.g., we stayed in Edinburgh through Factotum in a centrally located flat with a private courtyard garden (including a pond and gardener) for less than anything we saw on AirBNB.
Google things like “student housing [city name]” or “long term stay [city name]” to find places that might not be listed on hotel aggregator sites.
We stayed in several shared-kitchen with private room/bathroom-style student dorms across Europe which were quite inexpensive, clean, and surprisingly not filled with students (it was the summer).
In Amsterdam we stayed in The Student Hotel which included bikes, a library, and a proper gym with a squat rack, Olympic weights, rowing machines, etc.
Google Flights and Kiwi both have exploratory map views, which can be helpful when you want to change countries/continents and are flexible on the specific destination. (We found a $170 Seattle US to Manchester UK flight this way.)
Seat 61 is some guy named Mark who likes trains a lot.
Flights and car rentals can sometimes be much cheaper when booking through a credit card rewards program, so I tend to look there when booking anything more than a few hundred bucks.
Credit cards are wonderful for travelers because they offer lots of travel-related perks, consumer protections, and insurance. (Just don’t hold a balance, okay?)
I have a Chase Sapphire Reserve, which effectively costs $150/year. Benefits I have personally used:
- I left a Kindle in the seat pocket of an airplane, and the credit card covered the replacement.
- Global Entry (which includes TSA Precheck), which lets you get through customs faster (or to the lounge).
- Priority Pass airport lounge access: In addition to the whiskey, beer, and snacks, lounges are also the only quiet places in some airports.
- Points: For a road trip along the Great Ocean Road in Australia, we booked a $50/day Europcar and they inexplicably gave us a brand new M3.
- No foreign transaction fees.
For ATMs/cash, I have a Schwab High Yield Investor Checking account, which has no foreign transaction or ATM fees.
I carry extra cards in a separate place for theft/loss/emergencies, but don’t use ‘em.
For sending/recieving/exchanging currencies in larger amounts, I have a TransferWise “Borderless” account, which makes it easy to convert and hold currencies and provides local accounts credentials, which have been handy for paying rent in Scotland and Australia. (Shout out to Australia’s banking system, where normal people send money via instantaneous electronic transfer instead of writing checks and waiting 3–5 days like animals.)
Never change currency at physical booths; ATMs will always provide a better deal. (Not sure what to tell you if you’re going somewhere without ATMs — maybe bring cartons of cigarettes and bottles of liquor to secure assistance from locals?)
Special section for Americans: If you spend more than 330 days abroad you may be eligible for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, which could save you $10k+ on your federal taxes.
It’s also likely you won’t need to pay state taxes, since you won’t be residing in a state.
(Note: I’m not your tax expert and this is not tax advice.)
There are many obsessive people on the Internet who like to discuss fancy, lightweight, multipurpose travel stuff. That’s cool, everyone has hobbies.
However, I didn’t buy much — partly because I don’t like buying things, but mostly because I’m traveling to places that have, uh, clean water, electricity, and the aforementioned ATMs.
So I just took the clothes that I already wore and the things that I already used daily.
If you absolutely want buy things via affiliate-links, here are some nice things:
Apple power adapter kit: My laptop and USB-powered things are the only electric bits I have, and this covers 'em.
Casio World Time wristwatch: It knows timezones and has an LCD map of the world which lights up! Also detonates remote mines.
Darn Tough socks: Durable wool socks that can be worn for several consecutive days without getting gross.
ExOfficio boxers: Lightweight, super comfy boxers that can also be worn for several consecutive days without getting gross. They are also super easy to hand wash and air dry quickly. Now you know about my underwear.
Aeropress with metal filter and Porlex mini mill: These make delicious coffee, which can be transformed (using the computer) into money. The hand grinder fits inside of the Aeropress, which saves space, and everything can be cleaned easily with minimal water. (This was handy when living out of a camper van in New Zealand.)
60 liter duffel bag: Everything fits in here, it’s easy to carry around via backpack straps, and will resist light/medium rain. I haven’t had any trouble bringing this carry-on for many flights, probably because it looks (is?) smaller than both rolling luggages and about-to-hike-across-the-continent backpacks.
Phone / data
Before leaving the US, I switched all my two-factor authentications to Authy so I’d be able to log into websites without SMS.
I ported my US numbers to Twilio such that voicemails are emailed to me and incoming SMS messages are logged to a server. This is latter bit is necessary for some shameful two-factor logins which are SMS-only and don’t support Authy.
I use prepaid SIM cards, which I just buy from the first official-looking telecom store I see. (Once an airport vending machine sold me a broken SIM for £20, so now I prefer to work with humans who can make sure data works before I leave the store.)
- In the US: US Mobile (No stores for this one, but I’ve used them for years and they’re great.)
- In Australia / NZ: Vodaphone Australia
- In the UK / Europe: EE. Thanks to the magic of EU regulation, this SIM worked everywhere I went in Europe without roaming.
I just pay for the $20 cheapo plan, which tends to include local calls and enough data for occasional tethering. My phone is a Nexus 5 model D-820 leftover from a 2014 client project. (I’m not really into smartphones, but Google Maps is nice.)
I forwarded my physical mail to Traveling Mailbox, which emails me scans, lets me forward things, and will even deposit checks on my behalf.
World Time Buddy: Timezones are hard, but this makes it easier; useful for scheduling calls.
The following table shows our housing expenses for the first year of our travels.
Excluding free nights spent with friends, our mean cost was $71.58/night — about $2200/month.
|6||$0.00||Sydney||Australia||Staying with friends|
|28||$96.64||Victoria Park||Melbourne||Australia||AirBNB two-bedroom above carpenter's shop|
|12||$107.08||Victoria Market||Melbourne||Australia||AirBNB Ikea special|
|120||$66.78||Victoria Park||Melbourne||Australia||Same two-bedroom above carpenter's shop|
|2||$73.72||Christchurch||New Zealand||Visa run; Jailhouse hostel|
|1||$94.01||Lorne||Australia||Great Ocean Road trip, Lorne Hotel|
|1||$83.93||Apollo Bay||Australia||Great Ocean Road trip, Apollo Bay YHA|
|1||$91.57||Lorne||Australia||Great Ocean Road trip, Pub at the Pier|
|1||$120.95||Wellington||New Zealand||Airport hotel|
|31||$59.43||Lower Cuba||Wellington||New Zealand||AirBNB, private room in two-bedroom apartment|
|2||$65.61||Downtown||Queenstown||New Zealand||Jucy Snooze, 2 of 8 pods in shared room|
|1||$101.14||Queenstown||New Zealand||Reavers snow lodge|
|25||$58.91||Various campsites||South Island||New Zealand||Jucy campervan rental + campsite fees + petrol|
|2||$50.44||Downtown||Wellington||New Zealand||Capital Nomads hostel (private room)|
|10||$0.00||Portland + Seattle||United States||Staying with friends|
|3||$70.83||Northern Quarter||Manchester||England||Hatters hostel (private room)|
|4||$102.52||University of Manchester||Manchester||England||AirBNB Ikea special|
|1||$46.78||Northern Quarter||Manchester||England||Hatters hostel (private room)|
|1||$35.20||Leith Walk||Edinburgh||Scotland||Destiny student accomodation|
|57||$54.00||Old Town||Edinburgh||Scotland||Garden level one-bedroom via Factotum Letting|
|1||$77.69||Aviemore||Scotland||Aviemore Youth Hostel|
|1||$59.00||Iverness||Scotland||City Heart Campus accomodation|
|1||$177.80||Lochcarron||Scotland||Lochcarron Hotel (price included dinner)|
|1||$20.00||Glen Brittle||Isle of Skye||Scotland||Campground (slept in Mercedes CLA)|
|4||$151.31||Shoreditch||London||England||Point A Hotel London Shoreditch (paid w/ credit card points)|
|25||$87.55||Amsterdam||Netherlands||The Student Hotel West (studio room)|
|7||$90.57||Kamppi||Helsinki||Finland||Forenom aparthotel (studio room)|
|4||$68.12||R. Morais Soares 61||Lisbon||Portugal||AirBNB two-bedroom with another couple|
|4||$53.32||Ericeira||Portugal||Surf Holiday two-bedroom with another couple|
|12||$96.53||Anjos||Lisbon||Portugal||AirBNB two-bedroom with a friend (price doesn't include their third)|