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Live Well

Retirees living as nomads

SAN JOSE, Calif. >> As the cost of living continues to rise, many Bay Area residents are making changes to their daily lives. Some are cutting spending, others are downsizing. As it turns out, a few older residents have actually packed up their lives altogether — to hit the road and live as modern-day nomads.

Vicki and Bob Enteen, both 76, who currently live in Walnut Creek, Calif., are part of the “Senior Nomads” — a group of thousands of retirees from around the U.S. who have given up fixed residences to travel the world. The couple is originally from New York and up until 2019, were living in various short-term Airbnb rentals around Europe.

“There are a lot of us who, as retired people, gave up our homes and just started traveling around the world,” Vicki Enteen said of their 4-1/2 years as nomads. “We didn’t have a residence and didn’t return to the U.S. during that time.”

Many of those people have been inspired by Debbie and Michael Campbell, a Seattle couple who began their nomad adventure in 2013. Now ages 66 and 77, respectively, the Campbells have been to 90 countries in the past nine years. They are the founders of the Senior Nomads blog and Facebook group.

“In 2012, we were late in our careers, our kids had left, and our daughter was home for Christmas. She lives in Paris, and she asked us if we had heard of Airbnb. We had not, but she said we should retire and live in Air­bnbs and travel around the world,” said Michael Campbell in an interview via Facetime.

The couple had just landed in L.A. when they picked up the phone, having stepped off a plane from Paris a few hours earlier. They’d recently completed a trip to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Tunisia. Next up was Palm Springs for Thanksgiving and then back to Seattle.

“At first, I didn’t think there was any way we could afford it, but we ran the numbers and concluded that if we sold our house, then we could travel the world for the same amount of money that we would spend if we were just sitting in our rocking chairs in Seattle,” said Campbell.

The pair have since written about their journey in a book, “Your Keys, Our Home.” The Senior Nomad Facebook group, which started with 20 people, now has over 4,200 members.

Budget travelers

The Enteens haven’t met the Campbells, but they know all about their story. They too have always been big travelers, selling their New York home in 2006 to move to Paris. After seven years there, they moved to the East Bay in northern California to be closer to their two daughters, who live in the area.

However, the travel bug didn’t fade, and they soon decided to head back to Europe after retiring from their jobs in marketing and journalism. They again gave up their home, packed a few belongings and headed out.

“We had met a couple from Sunnyvale on our travels who had been living as nomads for 15 years. So that kind of inspired us. We just ended our rental and got rid of a lot of our stuff,” Vicki Enteen said.

“We went to every European country except for five of them, all the way from Ireland in the west to Turkey in the east. We spent a month in Istanbul and then we went to Israel, Morocco, Ukraine and Bulgaria. We’ve been to about 65 countries in total now.”

They spent an average of a month in one place. The couple used Meetup, a social media platform that brings people together in one area, to meet new friends. They would often rent cars to explore smaller towns and villages, returning frequently to Paris to see friends. Amsterdam was another favorite spot, especially in the summertime. Winter was spent in sunny Barcelona.

It might sound like a dream to many, but the Enteens actually found themselves saving a lot of money.

“We found living in the East Bay to be very expensive. We were saving an average of $1,000 a month doing this,” Enteen said.

“We were budget travelers. We used public transport a lot. We cooked all of our meals. We paid a flat amount for our Airbnb rentals and often negotiated. When you think about it, when you stay in an Airbnb you don’t pay extra for internet, water, electricity; all of that is included. So it can be a pretty frugal way of living.”

The Campbells agree. “You can control your environment. You can live in an expensive place like Ireland for a while, then you can pull back and live in Albania for a while to save,” Debbie Campbell said. “And you’re not paying for bills, gas, car insurance or any of that stuff that adds up.”

Considerations

The Enteens traveled with nothing but their clothes, papers, a few kitchen tools and a box of spices. Their pet cat, Jasmine, also came along for the ride, pet passport in tow.

The couple would plan their next moves four or five months out. Weather was a big consideration, since they didn’t have a lot of clothes. A lot of Airbnbs wouldn’t accept pets, so that had to be thought out, too.

The Senior Nomad Facebook page was a big help, as were other members of the group. Language proved to be less of a barrier than they had expected, as most people where they visited were able to speak English.

In 2019, the Enteens decided to return to the East Bay. Besides their daughters, a few other issues had brought them stateside again.

“The one thing that is important when you’re a senior is health care. Our American insurance doesn’t work in Europe so you have to pay extra,” Enteen said.

The Campbells have managed to find reasonable insurance that works internationally, so health care isn’t a big concern. However, they do return to the U.S. for annual checkups. “We usually go back to Seattle once a year to see all the doctors and get ready to go for the next year,” Michael Campbell said.

“We have faith in doctors around the world, but there is some value in the consistency of going to the same ones. Especially because we’re nine years older than when we first started this.”

The Enteens have also been taking it easy since moving back to California, but it was tough adjusting to living in one place again — especially after the pandemic hit. Now that travel restrictions have mostly lifted, however, Vicki Enteen already has her planning book open.

“We’re hoping to go to Vietnam and Cambodia soon. I recently investigated my Canadian citizenship — my father was born there — so that’s also a possibility,” she said.

“When we tell people our story, they’re shocked. It’s something that a lot of people wouldn’t think of doing in a million years, but it’s just a fabulous way to retire. Aside from it being a money saver, it’s also a great way to stay young. It keeps your brain cells and energy going.

“Every day was a bit of a challenge but also a great learning experience. When you retire, instead of thinking about making your life smaller, maybe use the opportunity to do things that you never had time to do in the past.”

The Campbells also recommend the nomadic life, but they do have some warnings. “You have to be willing to trade things for experiences. You have to be really curious and a lifelong learner,” Michael Campbell said. “And you wouldn’t want to do this with anybody but your best friend. It either brings you closer together or pushes you apart. Fortunately, it’s brought us closer together. We just celebrated our 44th anniversary.”

Debbie Campbell agreed the lifestyle is not for everyone. “But if you’re comfortable even renting your house for a year to go and travel, then do it,” she said. “You’ll see places you’ve never seen before and learn so much.”

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To learn more about the Senior Nomads, go to facebook.com/groups/SeniorNomads.

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