What does it really take to make a location independent travel lifestyle work? Many people assume that it is okay for single people in their early twenties to take a gap year to travel the world, but what if you are getting older and need to focus on a career? What if you are travelling as a couple? How do you make a living? Simon Fairbairn and Erin McNeaney of NeverEndingVoyage.com share their experiences transitioning to a life of long-term travel in this interview.
Please tell us about yourselves.
We are a British couple who’ve been together since we were 18 (we’re now 30). Our first backpacking trip together was around Europe when we were 19 and we’ve continued to travel ever since. Simon has worked his way through varied careers as a musician (the highlight was playing at the Glastonbury Festival), legal caseworker to help asylum seekers stay in the UK, and web designer. I worked for a community arts organisation working with refugees to organise arts projects and events including an annual multi-cultural festival attended by 10,000 people.
How did you decide to embark on a nomadic lifestyle of long term travel?
Although we had taken one month backpacking trips around Europe and I spent three months volunteering in Sri Lanka after university, I always knew that I wanted to do a year-long round the world trip and after working for a few years I was keen to head off. It took a bit of effort to convince Simon but as soon as we set off at the end of 2007 he was hooked. We spent an amazing year travelling around Asia, Australia, the South Pacific and the US and had more incredible experiences that year than we had in the previous ten.
Returning to the UK was hard and we struggled to fit back into the dull routine of working 9-5. We had been back a few months when I discovered the world of digital nomads – people who could work and live anywhere in the world. This seemed perfect for us, especially as Simon was developing his web design career at the time (after designing websites for fun for 10 years) – an ideal location independent job. It was a natural step for us and wasn’t really a difficult decision to make. We decided to save as much as we could in nine months (as we were already experienced at saving for our previous trip we managed to save 75% of our income, sell everything we own and then hit the road. We left England with a one way flight to Rio de Janeiro on 1st March 2010.
What countries have you visited so far?
On our first trip we visited Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the Cook Islands and the US.
This time we spent our first year travelling mostly overland in South America: Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia; then Panama and Costa Rica. From there we moved on to the US, Canada, England, Hong Kong, Japan and now Thailand.
What are your most and least favourite countries so far?
Our favourite country is India. It’s a country of extremes, vibrant, colourful, challenging but never boring. We also loved the food and as vegetarians it’s one of the few places in the world where we can eat local food without worrying that it contains meat.
Our least favourite is New Zealand, which is a bit controversial as most people love it. For us it was too much like England and it didn’t help that we were there during the winter and it rained constantly, so we couldn’t do a lot of the outdoor activities that it’s famous for. That said, least favourite is relative and we still enjoyed snowboarding and heli-hiking on a glacier.
Can you give us a rough break down of monthly living expenses?
Our living expenses vary widely – when we are house sitting and have free accommodation we spend very little, but then other months can be expensive when we are travelling around places like Japan and have to buy international flights. During our first year in South America we averaged £1500 a month for the two of us. Our second year so far is working out at £2000 a month on average as we have travelled to more expensive places like the US, Canada and Japan, and we’ve spent a lot on international flights. As we don’t plan our travels very far in advance we buy one way tickets and these often aren’t much cheaper than returns so flights have been a big expense this year.
These days we don’t travel that frugally, although we are flashpackers rather than luxury travellers. We always stay in private en-suite rooms, and as we spend a lot of time working in them we can be quite fussy. We also spend quite a lot of money on food, but we don’t drink very much. After a few months travelling we often need a break from moving around to get some work done so we rent apartments for a few months. We usually end up choosing quite luxurious places as we want somewhere comfortable to work. These cost anywhere from $650 a month in Thailand, $800 in Argentina up to $1200 in Colombia.
Can you please tell us some administrative details about your banking, health insurance, credit cards, etc.?
As UK citizens we don’t need health insurance but we do have travel insurance which covers medical emergencies while we are travelling. We manage all our finances through online banking and access our money by withdrawing cash using debit cards at ATMs. We also have a few credit cards for emergencies. It’s important to have a number of different cards in case one gets stolen (which has happened to us). We also carry a few hundred US dollars just in case.
Although we don’t have a home base it’s impossible to manage without an address so we use a relative’s address where our banking and tax related mail gets sent.
Do you return to the UK often?
We’ve been back to the UK once in 20 months for a friend’s wedding and to visit family. We don’t know when we’ll next go back, it’ll depend if a visit works out with our travel plans. While we were there we stayed with various family members.
We sold almost everything we owned before we left and don’t have anything in storage. We keep two small boxes at Simon’s mum’s house with some documents and photo albums.
Do you still own a house there?
Unfortunately we do still own a house in the UK, which we are desperately trying to get rid of. The market is awful at the moment so we haven’t been able to sell it, so we’ve just put it on the rental market. We don’t like having the tie, and there’s always the worry that something will go wrong with the house (ours is over 100 years old) and it’ll cost us a lot to fix it. Dealing with the house from abroad is a bit of a pain, and we are lucky to have a friend and relative nearby who have helped us out a lot. If we find a tenant then we’ll have the estate agent manage it for us. Ideally we’ll rent it out for six months and try selling it again next year.
Do you travel with a lot of possessions?
We travel with a carry-on size backpack each plus a travel guitar. We love travelling with just carry on luggage – we save time at airports and always have our bags with us on planes and buses. It’s also much easier not having to lug a big backpack around when looking for accommodation. You can see exactly what we travel with on our packing list post. People are fascinated by that and it has been our most popular post for the 20 months we’ve been running the blog.
What are the essential items you must travel with?
Really the only essential item for us is a laptop, which we need to work on. Simon has a Macbook Pro and I have an Asus EeePC netbook (although I have my eye on a Macbook Air). I also love my Kindle – being able to travel with hundreds of books on a device smaller than a paperback is amazing.
Have you had any serious travel problems?
Not really. Simon got pick-pocketed in Costa Rica but he only lost $30 and one of our debit cards (which we had a backup for). We tend not to keep too much in the wallet we use daily just in case it gets stolen. On travel days our passport, cards and money are in money belts and our backpacks are lockable so it prevents anyone being able to get to the laptops easily.
How do you earn an income now?
Our main source of income is Line-In the WordPress web design and development business that Simon runs. We only started monetising the Never Ending Voyage blog three months ago and now have some income from that and another travel website I run, from selling links, advertising and affiliate products. I’ve been surprised at how lucrative it can be and although those sites are making about £900 a month at the moment, I have no idea how long it will last.
We aren’t currently making quite enough to cover our expenses (we saved up before we left to give ourselves a cushion) but to be honest we haven’t tried that hard, and have often been distracted by travel. We aren’t particularly good business people, and Simon loves what he does so much that he tends to over deliver way more than clients have paid him for. It turns out being a perfectionist isn’t so good for business!
Ultimately client work isn’t scalable so we are currently settled in Chiang Mai, Thailand for three months to develop some products to sell including Premium WordPress Themes. We aim to have income coming in from multiple sources.
What are some of the downsides of a location independent lifestyle?
Sometimes we get tired of moving around and we miss home comforts like a couch, a comfy bed and having a kitchen. That never makes us want to return to the UK though, instead we just rent an apartment for a few months or look for a house sitting opportunity. After a few months of comfort we get itchy feet and are ready to hit the road again.
Our biggest challenge has been building a business as we don’t have any experience with that.
Is it difficult to travel as a couple?
We don’t find it difficult at all and argue less on the road than we did at home when we were stressed with work and commuting. We rarely have any time apart, and that’s not a problem for us, although it is nice to have an apartment with two rooms so that I can sleep if Simon’s working late!
Do you plan on settling down in one country as a home base?
We have no plans to settle down permanently. There isn’t one place in the world that we want to commit to, although we’d be quite happy to spend a few months each year in San Francisco. The world’s a big place and there are still too many places we want to visit. Even if we begin to travel more slowly we are still addicted to the freedom of this lifestyle.
Do you have any advice for people considering long term traveling?
Do it! Get control of your finances, cut down your unnecessary spending and start saving now. It’s important to set a start date for your trip, even if it’s two or three years from now. It gives you something to work towards and helps keep you motivated while you save.