Slow Travel Is Wonderful, Yet We Still Had Challenges


I’ve had a bunch of reader requests for our lessons learned from slow travel.

I’ll mention parts of our trips during this post, and the “Related articles” section at the bottom will have more information about our destinations. All of our Facebook photos in those links are public, and they have location tags & captions. This post will focus on the process, not so much the destinations or experiences.

2018 was a busy year, and we’d predicted that our life was just going to get busier in 2019.

Boy, were we right.

Image of Facebook flight path from Honolulu to Washington DC for Nordman trip in 2019 | The-Military-Guide.com

Starting our second trip of 2019.

We might have let our ambition get ahead of our abilities… in a good way.

In 2019 we left Oahu for two separate two-month trips. We logged over 17,000 miles on the first trip and over 19,000 miles on the second trip. All of it went to Western Europe through the Mainland, and we happily wandered among a dozen small towns (on both sides of the Atlantic) in six different languages. You can see more of those details in our photos.

You can read about the first trip happening mostly by Space A on Navy aircraft and the second trip covering three life-changing financial conferences on two continents.

This post discusses long-term sustainable lifestyle travel, either with a home base or as perpetual travel. We’re going to assume that you already understand passports, Global Entry, TSA Precheck, the Mobile Passport app, rewards credit cards, smartphone maps, and Google Translate’s camera + microphone.

Now let’s get to those lessons we learned. Again. And this time we really mean it!

Travel with kids and without kids

Image of Nordman family with in-laws at Mauna Loa Macadamia tour on Hawaii Island. | The-Military-Guide.com

Family and in-laws on the Big Island, 2003.

This was our most frequent reader question. It’s also our most important lesson learned.

Some families travel very well with kids, and other families prefer staycations. We did all right with our family trips in the 1990s and 2000s, mostly to neighbor islands, Disney, and Mainland relatives. We did much better as our daughter got older and started touring universities.

During Carol’s college years we traveled around her schedule. We were usually home when she was on break, and we visited her Mainland campus once or twice a year when our other travel passed nearby. We made one family trip to Bangkok over her 2013 winter break, which turned into a fun Navy ROTC tutorial on liberty ports.

Yet even as your teens launch from the nest, you’re still a parent. You’re still being responsible (darn it) and you’re still trying to model good behavior. You’re also struggling to react to your former kid as a young adult, especially when they’re old enough to legally outdrink you.

Meanwhile, your progeny might need the family vacation period for personal recovery time. Maybe they just want to sleep in through lunch and see what’s different in their ol’ familiar neighborhood. They’ll gain a new homecoming perspective as they reflect on how they’ve changed as they leave the nest. The good news is that sometimes it’s simply easier to stay home.

After Carol graduated and started her military career, Marge and I have had much more fun visiting our young adult at her homeports as part of enjoying our own empty-nester slow travel. We’ve visited Carol (and later K.J.) at least once at every duty station. We greatly appreciated the free lodging (thanks again, guys!) while we enjoyed the chance to share their travails and triumphs in person. Carol was stationed in a couple of our 1980s ports, and we really had fun revisiting the old places and meeting shipmates. Maybe it’s because this time we had more liberty and more money… although admittedly less energy.

Image of book cover of "40 Day Trips From Rota" by Melinda and Jim Ronka | The-Military-Guide.com

Visiting Rota? Get this book.

I think we also enjoyed those homeports as personal victory tours of seeing & doing everything that we never had time for between deployments and duty sections. During two separate trips to visit Carol in Rota, we did 36 chapters of “40 Day Trips from Rota.”  (Thanks for the advice and the excellent maps, Melinda & Jim!) At every visit, we’ve also had fun helping Carol & K.J. by unpacking (a few) moving boxes of household goods and hanging (some) pictures.

Best of all, during those trips, we’ve built new relationships with Carol and K.J. as adults and travel buddies. This simply did not happen with my parents when I was in my 20s, and I’m glad that I’ve tried harder with our next generation.

In every other way, empty-nester travel is fantastic. It’s a second adulthood with more personal time and a bigger entertainment budget.

If your family has figured out how to enjoy six-week extended trips, then keep going! But if family vacations have been tough for you to organize & execute, then take heart: your empty-nester travel years let you reset the rules and enjoy yourself.

Travel with a purpose

Image of Hickam Passenger Terminal Space A flights to Washington DC, northern California, Guam, and Japan.

“Where would you like to go today?”

My spouse and I can get a free seat on a military Space-Available flight at just about any part of the month. Typical non-stop destinations are not only the Mainland but Guam and Japan. With three hours’ notice we can grab our passports, stuff a backpack, close up the house, and mark ourselves present at the Hickam Passenger Terminal.

Yet we don’t do that. Not yet anyway.

We allocate enough funds for just about anywhere in our travel budget, but we don’t even “pick up and go” to a neighbor island without making plans. We’ve never scampered down to the Aloha Tower cruise terminal for a last-minute pier-jump fare. Not yet anyway.

Maybe we had too much of that no-notice travel during our Navy days. (Admittedly back then it was a different type of “cruise.”) Perhaps we’re slowing down, or we’re just lazier.

Frugality runs deep in my bones, but our travel seems more complicated than that. Our recurring theme focuses on the value, not the money. I hesitate to mindlessly pay full retail for commercial flights, let alone first class. Instead, I have a great time on military Space A with a $6 box lunch, or we flex our frugal skills by travel-hacking a commercial flight. At this point in our lives, we should relax and stop fretting about the expense of an occasional first-class commercial airline ticket. Yeah, it’s a #FirstWorldProblem, and we worked hard to earn it.

We’re also optimizers. We like to plan the big picture and then be open to the opportunities within that plan. Oahu is over 2500 miles from the closest continent, and we don’t want to make that flight more often than necessary. We’d rather spend two months exploring a destination’s neighborhoods and living like locals instead of racking up the airline miles in a two-week whirlwind.

We’re certainly fulfilled by visiting family, but we also enjoy attending financial conferences and smaller financial-independence meetups. We like bookending our plans with a couple of those events and then filling in the details between them.

Travel with stamina

We’re in our late 50s, but our travel stamina is not only related to our age.

Marge and I like each other a lot and we have very complementary travel styles. We’re both introverts, and we need daily quiet time to recharge. We prefer exploring on our own instead of guided tours, and we’ve learned to leave at least half of the day unstructured. Our idea of a great routine is a leisurely breakfast, a 10 AM departure to a local destination with a few hours of wandering through it, and a late lunch. We’re generally back in our AirBnB for a break before dinner. Sometimes we’re out in the evenings for dinner and an event, while other times we’re lazy at our lodgings.

We are absolutely not out the door at sunrise, racing in a rental car to six destinations for selfies while eating 2-3 meals on the road and then returning home after sunset. We know how to do that, but we deliberately avoid it.

We’ve also learned a few skills with managing our energy levels– and our sanity.

Image of Doug Nordman relaxing with a cup of cafe Americano on lanai of the museum at the Roman ruins of Conimbriga Portugal. | The-Military-Guide.com

“How did we miss that bus?!?”

The first one is “the down day” every 3-4 days. Instead of exploring the town we take care of laundry and e-mail, catch up on social media or writing, and talk about our weekly plans. We’ll shop for groceries or visit a nearby pub for a meal. We might hang out in the local park for a short walk or the farmer’s market. If we’re in a popular weekend destination (like Amsterdam) then we almost always end up doing a down day on Saturday or Sunday while the rest of the crowds race around us.

Our other skill is taking a break during the day for an ice-cream cone or a cup of coffee. What we’re actually doing is sitting down in a quiet corner where we can really figure out how we missed that connecting bus, or which train we need to catch next, or the best walking route to the museum. This usually happens when we’re trying to navigate a crowded sidewalk or figure out directions in a hurry while reading a tour book. We’ve learned to take a break whenever we’re a little rushed, a little frazzled, and a little too locked-in at pushing to a target.

Our military careers taught us how to get stuff done, but we no longer need to crush through obstacles to reach our travel goals. Nobody’s keeping score. It’s far better to take a 20-minute pause instead of racing to make up the 10 minutes you just lost from that wrong turn.

There’s no need to take on mission risk, which brings me to our next lesson.

Travel healthy

Image of horse-drawn carriages parked on the street in Sevilla Spain. | The-Military-Guide.com

Horses on the right, tram tracks on the left.

Our #1 travel rule is “Don’t get hurt.”

It’s not pickpockets or muggings and it’s certainly not ziplines or rugged hiking trails. I’m far more concerned about sneaky trams, loose cobblestones, horse-drawn carriages, aggressive cyclists, and suicidal scooters. When you’re walking while distracted by your map or the scenery, you’re even closer to disaster. It’s one more reason to slow down and not pack too many activities into the day.

In Amsterdam, we quickly learned to fear the cute little “Ding-ding!” bells of cyclists, and we will not jaywalk in Bangkok.  We don’t walk on the bicycle trails in Spain, and we try not to walk on wet cobblestones anywhere.

Image of bicycle parking in Amsterdam, including compartment with seating for kid passengers. | The-Military-Guide.com

“Ding!-Ding!-Ding!” *THUD*

We’ve both had bad colds during travel, and we know we have to take it easy for a few days (even extend our stay) while we recover. We both got nailed with a nasty virus at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and Marge might even have had the flu. (She still doesn’t remember much of her Space A Patriot Express flight from the Ramstein Inn to a Baltimore hotel. She finally perked up on the fifth day after the flight.) This happened despite our 40-year records of annual flu shots.

Our defense is imperfect, but we have good casualty procedures. I pack a four-day supply of decongestants and antihistamines to tide us over to a drugstore. We pack large bottles of ibuprofen and acetaminophen. We pack a small bottle of Pepto-Bismol (unopened so far!) and we’ve visited pharmacies from Bangkok to Barcelona. We stay hydrated and we try to minimize the self-imposed stress & fatigue.

We also practice medical tourism. I’ve had two very thorough physical exams at Bumrungrad Hospital, and I have at least as much faith in their skilled care as I do in our local Queens or Tripler hospitals. We’re also treated a lot better in Bumrungrad than any American hospital I’ve ever visited.

We no longer carry dental insurance, so we routinely get dental exams and cleanings in our destinations. We’ve paid $45 in Coimbra for the same dental care that’s 3-4 times the price on Oahu. We’ve paid a lot less for that in Thailand– and with discounts on full-body massages from the place next door.

We walk as much as we can during our daily travel routine. After two months of 2-6 miles per day during our last trip, I’m back to handling at least three miles with minimal knee pain. On Oahu, I do more surfing (and less walking), but now I’m going to maintain the walking and knee-stability work. And this time I really mean it.

Travel light(er)

We struggle with packing lighter, and we still take a checked bag.

We’re routinely under 35 pounds, but it’s the volume. Some of this is aloha omiyage for friends or thanking a host. Some of it is a few copies of my books (preferably the smaller pocket guides) and business cards for financial conferences.

A lot of it is packing for three climates: hot, rainy, and freezing Space A military aircraft.

We’re not hardcore minimalists, but we’re certainly living lighter. When you travel for two months with less than 35 pounds then you start to apply those principles at home too.

On our last trip we learned several packing tips from Kristy & Bryce of Millennial Revolution. When we take shorter trips then I’m going to consolidate from a roller bag (and a 25-liter day pack) to “just” a 40-liter backpack.

What about our home, our rental property, and our mail?

Our “worst” home problems have been our rental property’s tenants and the U.S. mail.

Neighbors & friends have our lockbox code and can get into the house for emergencies– or they can simply text or e-mail.

Burglars would be frustrated. We don’t own valuables and we don’t keep cash in the house.

We rig the place for hurricanes if we’ll be gone during the season.

Image of the water shutoff valve for a refrigerator. | The-Military-Guide.com

No water leaks in this refrigerator icemaker.

I’m a submarine vet, and we’ve upgraded our home’s infrastructure. Our photovoltaic system generates solar power while we’re away (and gives us extra credits with our electric company). We leave the refrigerator running, and melted ice cubes would tell us if there was a long power outage. We’ve replaced old water valves on every faucet & toilet with new reliable ball valves. We leave the solar water heater system running instead of isolating it, and a leak there would simply flow out of our garage or off the roof.

The most important part of abandoning your home is recognizing that it’s only a house. It’s an awesome home, but if something happened to it then we’d fix it and resume our lives. If a hurricane or a fire destroyed it then we’d file the insurance claim and rebuild.

Our rental property was more of a hassle during travel. Last year our tenants gave their 30-day notice on the night before we left for two months of travel. It’s the first time that’s happened to us!

A friend recommended a property manager who took care of turning over the tenants. The tenants had a lot of trouble moving out, and they held over for nearly two more weeks (at pro-rated rent). We returned home just two weeks after they left, so it was a good thing that we didn’t shorten our trip. They left the rental in decent condition and our son-in-law (thanks, K.J.!) helped us return their security deposit on time.

A full-time property manager didn’t work out (for various reasons) and we’re still self-managing. If this happens again, though, we’ll hire another property manager (or ask a favor of a friend) to handle the turnover.

Image of speeding ticket in Washington DC mailed by contractor for a rental-car agency. | The-Military-Guide.com

This must’ve been too hard to e-mail? Right.

The U.S. Postal Service does a great job of holding our mail, and we could see most of the envelopes through their Informed Delivery service.  However, we could have used a mail-opening service for the government agencies (we’re lookin’ at you, IRS and the state of Hawaii) who insist on mailing letters instead of using e-mail. Nothing bad happened but officials had to wait a month for our response.

Last September as we left FinCon and Washington DC, a traffic camera caught me driving our rental car at 47 MPH in a 35-MPH zone on NY Avenue. Hertz did not notify us of the fine, although they sent us plenty of other unsolicited e-mails. Instead, they turned the ticket over to a contractor who… three weeks later snail-mailed a letter to our Hawaii address. 50 days after my crime I picked up our mail and almost threw that spammy-looking envelope in the junk-mail trash. I paid the $100 fine only a few days before it was due to double.

I wonder how much traffic-camera revenue the District earns from us clueless visitors.

USPS technically only holds mail for 30 days but our local post office has tolerated up to 60 days. (We get very little mail.) We could use a mail-scanning service, a P.O. box, or another favor from a neighbor, but we still haven’t found a short-term mail service that’s worth the setup hassle. It’s also convenient for us to mail packages home from travel, where our local post office will hold them until we return.

Travel on a budget

Sorry, we spend generously on this part of our lives. We do a little travel hacking with loyalty programs and credit-card rewards but we prefer to rent more expensive centrally-located AirBnB apartments.

However, we can point you to a couple of studies.

My friend Tom Wahl (remember “The Wandering Wahls?”) found a fascinating financial report from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. The Employee Benefit Research Institute reports survey data that travelers in their mid-60s spend over 20% less than those in their 50s. The biggest drops in expenses were in food (after the kids leave the nest) and entertainment.

Other EBRI reports suggest that empty nesters spend less with age, and the “retirement spending smile” has also been observed by many financial advisors.

Travel while you still can, knowing that this portion of your spending will decline. Cut expenses on the parts which aren’t important to you (especially off-season) and live like a local instead of staying in resorts.

Our cheapest travel comes from military Space A flights and the occasional AirBnB discount for longer stays. We are not foodies and we rarely eat more than one meal a day at a restaurant. (We prefer cafes and street food.) We follow the typical guidebook advice on discounted admission and we use a travel rewards credit card as much as possible.

“Could we live here for a while?”

Financial independence gives you the opportunity to find out how much you want to travel– and where. You may have already found your mythical “forever home”, but you’d be surprised what you can discover in the rest of the world.

If I had to pick a new place right now, we’d live in southern Portugal or Andalucia on a retiree visa. Chiang Mai is certainly near the top of the list, and we should explore Chiang Rai someday. Italy’s hill towns and Padua are good, too, although we’d find one of the less-touristy locations.

Before I make a long-term commitment to any of those places, though, we need to do more research in Australia and New Zealand. Japan’s on the list too.

Wherever we ended up, we’d use those rentals as a base to explore the rest of Europe and Asia.

Image of Doug Nordman's granddaughter with a copy of the book "The Military Guide To Financial Independence and Retirement" | The-Military-Guide.com

She’s saving her money for travel, too.

That’s our long-term contingency plan, but for the next few years, we’re going to focus on our granddaughter. We have no idea where the Navy will send her family, but I’m pretty sure we’ll enjoy visiting her. (And her parents, too, of course!) Then we’d spend a few more months in their surrounding area and maybe attend a financial conference or two along the way.

Could we do this for the long term?

Heck yeah. Try to stay healthy and plan to travel while you still can.

Paul & Vicki Terhorst have been expatriate perpetual travelers for over 35 years. Billy & Akaisha Kaderli have lived the same lifestyle for nearly 30 years. Kristy & Bryce of Millennial Revolution have been homeless for over four years. Alan & Katie Donegan of PopUp Business School (and FI Chautauqua) recently ditched their home for extended travel.

I get regular updates from Heather Hope and Volkan Akkurt on their years of house-sitting around the world, and Tim & Amy Rutherford document their experiences on YouTube.

My personal idols are an elderly couple we met in a Space A passenger terminal. He was dragging a small roller bag in one hand and using a cane with the other. She had a backpack and a small bag. Both were slim & trim and looked like they could walk all day. They had signed up for “any part of Europe”. (Our flight happened to be going to Rota.) They preferred Germany but they were quite happy to wander through Spain, France, and Italy along the way. They planned to spend at least a week at each stop, but they hadn’t made reservations yet. They were going to leave before their 90-day Schengen limit to spend another month visiting their three families of grandkids on their way home. On earlier trips, they’d applied for longer visas and spent most of a year wandering the continent.

As we talked about Europe, he mentioned that he was 85 years old. He’d recovered from a broken hip and expected the trip to be good physical therapy. He’d flown military Space A longer than I’d been alive.

After hearing their stories, I gained a new life goal.

It’s your turn in the comments. Are there any other questions about slow travel? What lessons have you learned on your trips?

[earnist ref=”the-military-guide-to-financial-independence” id=”70177″]

Related articles:
Should You Attend FinCon, Military Influencer Conference, Camp Mustache, CampFI, and FI Chautauqua?
Military Space Available Travel: Tips for Flying Space-A The Navy Way
Good News! How Our Nords Family Financial Independence Life Will Change In 2019
Surprising Secrets Of Slow Travel
Fast Personal Growth Through Slow Travel
Travel While You Can
Our Retirement – The Spending Smile Of Financial Independence
Lifestyles In Retirement: 90 Days In Spain
Lifestyles In Financial Independence: Your Mortality
Here are public photos from the trips. All of them have dates, location tags, & commentary. Please drop a comment or contact me if you have questions about a specific location or activity!
Facebook photos & captions from Europe 2019 part 1
Facebook photos & captions from Europe 2019 part 2

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
This entry was posted in Military Life & Family, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Slow Travel Is Wonderful, Yet We Still Had Challenges

  1. peter gregory says:

    Of course the post was composed prior to the COVID 19 global event and everything surrounding that. Military Space A travel is indeed travel, just by other means. It will be interesting to note that once all get back into some semblance of getting back to work, what aspects of human behaviors and habits will change. People will resume to fly and gamble by and large I think. But I think taking a cruise will be one of those industries that will in some ways never recovers. As to current state of affairs why travel to X, assuming you can get a flight to X, and stay 14 in automatic quarantine? One would hope that changes soon.

    Also I am sure once this time has moderated just how all those FI plans are working and have many changed their timelines and assumptions? And are the same goals and assumptions pre virus, same as post? These are very interesting times.

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Thanks, Peter!

      I sure hope people are doing the math of financial independence the same way we did it before COVID-19. That shouldn’t change.

      The emotions around FI might be different, but I’d rather go through a pandemic when I’m FI instead of when I’m climbing out of debt or living paycheck-to-paycheck.

  2. peter gregory says:

    Doug: As we speak to an overwhelming military or veteran audience I would be curious as to their investment decisions during this time of markets dislocation. Have they moved out of the TSP stocks funds to bonds or treasury bills? Are those retired under the legacy 20 year plan feel more or less financially secure than those with the current Blended systems? And have their plans or assumptions of FI changed or modified during the ongoing pandemic?

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Peter, those questions are probably better asked on The-Military-Guide Facebook page, and I’ve posted yours there:

      Military families are reacting at all parts of the bell curve– some have sold their C, S, and I funds for the G fund while others are holding their asset allocations. A few are buying more of the stock funds.

      I haven’t seen any comments about the legacy High Three retirees versus the Blended Retirement System pension. A very few vets may have a disability retirement through the BRS, but nobody who’s opted in has reached the regular 20-year active-duty retirement yet. My sense is that everyone has moved on from that debate.

      People who were at the threshold of the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate in January (assets of 25x annual spending) are probably below that level now, and they might hesitate to declare FI and stop working. People who reached FI in January and have already stopped working should be fine– recessions are part of the math of the 4% SWR and there’s plenty of withdrawal flexibility. One way to cope with the sequence of returns risk during the first decade of FI is to hold two years’ expenses in cash (CDs or money markets), and that tactic should work just fine during this recession.

  3. Jason Hull says:

    We love Portugal. My wife went to Lagos and gushed over that area!

    The idea of a rest day during your slow travel is a good one. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Senior Nomads blog, but they make sure that they travel on Saturdays and don’t plan anything active that day or the day after.

  4. KevinO says:

    Retired military veteran living in Hawaii but contemplating retiring in Southern Spain. Been on island over 20 years, need change. Hopefully this COVID is over soon, so I can take advantage of those Space A flights from Hickam. Just wondering how long those flights will be, direct with several stops?

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Kevin, the Space A flights that we’ve taken from Hawaii to Rota have all gone through Travis, JBLM, or NAS North Island. That’s a 5-6 hour flight and generally at least one night in lodging. The next stage of traveling east has been to Norfolk or NAS Oceana (Virginia Beach). That’s usually been a second 5-6 hour flight and another night or two in lodging.

      From either of those places, we’ve usually flown straight to Rota. That’s been (you guessed it) 6-7 hours.

      For other readers who may be wondering, return flights to Hawaii have been oddly better. We’ve always been able to get back to the east coast, usually Norfolk and once at NAS Oceana. A couple times, though, we’ve flown all the way to either Fairchild AFB (nonstop) or Travis (refueling at Goose Bay in Canada). From there we’ve spent anywhere between six hours and four days waiting for the next flight back to Oahu.

      And, yeah, I really miss Space A.

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