14 Dirty Details of Traveling Full-Time

By Nora Dunn on 10 September 2012 (Updated 8 September 2014) 8 comments
Photo: Keith Parker

Does a full-time travel lifestyle sound like a dream job?

Well, it is. (Kind of.) I've been doing it for almost six years, and I can't imagine what my life would be like had I not made the life-changing decision to sell everything I owned and discover what the world held in store. (See also: How to Travel Full-Time for $17,000 Per Year or Less)

But I've also had my fair share of bad days. Bad weeks. Bad countries. Etcetera.

No lifestyle is perfect. And the full-time travel lifestyle has some dirty details that can get in the way if you're not properly prepared for them. Here are a few pesky details you'll need to manage if you want to travel full-time.

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1. Expat Insurance

Once you've been traveling full-time for a certain time period (usually over six months or one year) you don't qualify for standard travel insurance. In this case, you need to get expat insurance, which provides medical coverage anywhere in the world (or certain geographic regions, depending on your terms). Coverage can range from emergency only to full medical plans; generally you get what you pay for. Here's a  primer on expat insurance, including a glossary of terms and tips to keep your premiums low.

2. Mailing Address

Receiving mail (and having a “permanent” mailing address for filling in various forms) is a stumbling block for all full-time travelers. Solutions include having somebody in your home town who receives your mail and alerts you to anything you need to know about, or paying a monthly fee for a mailing service (which basically does the same thing). Here's an article detailing some essential services for the road, including virtual mailbox services.

3. Staying in Touch

You need more than mail to be in touch, and thankfully it's getting easier with location independent careers becoming more common. Having an unlocked cell phone into which you insert local pay-as-you-go SIM cards gives you a local telephone number, and applications like Skype and Google Voice allow you to make inexpensive long distance calls using your internet connection (and free computer-to-computer calls).

One frustration with staying in touch on the road and managing a location-independent career is the constant search for WiFi. Although it's quite prevalent, there are still places where it's simply unavailable or cost-prohibitive.

4. Work-Life Balance

The second challenge with the constant search for WiFi is that once you have it, sometimes it's hard to disconnect. Many of us have come to rely on it for business, pleasure, and communication. So sometimes it's a challenge to actually unplug and enjoy the full-time traveling lifestyle for what it is. There is a (often precarious) work-life balance to manage on the road and constantly be aware of.

5. Getting Rid of Your Stuff

What do you do with all your stuff while you travel full-time? This depends on the stuff you have, your intended travel plans, and your personal preferences. Paying for storage space can be cost-prohibitive, and depending on the stuff you keep, you might have a friend or family member with enough space in their garage to store it for you. (I myself have five boxes of “stuff” tucked away in a friend's garage.)

If you're getting rid of all your stuff, you might want to check out these articles to get you started with some ideas:

6. To Sell or To Rent

If you own your home, you'll have to decide if you're selling it or renting it out in your absence. If the market values have dropped, then selling it might not be preferable (or possible), but renting your place out could be stressful in terms of tenant management if you don't have a point-person to deal with tenancy issues (like repairs, rent collection, finding tenants, and keeping an eye on the place). Using a property management company can alleviate much of this leg-work, but it will also erode your profits.

It's a tough decision, dependent on your home, its current value, how much equity you have in the home, and your penchant for being an absentee landlord.

7. Managing Money

I have an entire series on my site dedicated to Financial Travel Tips since managing your money on the road can be tricky business. Issues include accessing money, getting paid online, effectively using credit cards and debit cards (and dealing with issues like theft, fraud, and complications — which can add some serious speed bumps to the process if you're abroad; I've had to deal with this three times in the past two months), minimizing currency conversion charges, and carrying cash safely, to name a few. (Check out our Travel & Money series for some money management tips and tricks.)

8. Loan Payments

It's best to embark on a full-time travel lifestyle without any debts, but sometimes a lingering student loan (for example) might seem manageable enough to spread your wings anyway. As a precaution, it is good to have 6-12 months' loan payments stashed away in a high-interest account in the event that your ongoing income can't cover the payment for whatever reason. If you also have an emergency fund as a buffer, then you can reduce your loan payment stash.

9. Packing Light

I learned early on that the weight of your luggage is proportionate to the degree of misery you'll feel while traveling. The more stuff you have, the harder it is to pack everything up each time you move, and the more agonizing the act of traveling becomes. I also find that the more stuff I have, the more I'm concerned about the inevitable travel risks, such as having my luggage stolen, damaged, or lost. Lightening your load really does make the journey easier.

However...

Lightening your load also means you're probably compromising on a few items that you'd really like to have but simply can't justify. Once you've had a little time on the road you can learn to adjust or compensate, but sometimes it's simply a drag. A solution? When I stay somewhere for at least a few months I tend to accumulate these extra things that make my life easier — 2nd hand if possible — getting rid of them again before I leave.

10. Getting What You “Need” Abroad

Although most people are thrilled and surprised to discover they can get almost everything they need on the road (like razor blades and specific toiletries), you probably have a favorite product that isn't widely available. Under the premise of packing light it would be bad form to stock up (too much) on those items, and I've been surprised to discover some rare items (or in some cases, better replacements) lurking in distant and unexpected corners of the world. The trick is not to become too attached to a specific product in case you can't find a replacement.

11. Taxes

Your income tax situation will depend on how and where you're making money. You'll likely have to cart around some paperwork (like tax-deductible receipts) and keep it organized as you go. Filing your taxes from abroad can be an adventure as well. I keep detailed spreadsheets of expenses and income, and I email them to my accountant back home, while my “designated representative” who receives mail on my behalf sends my accountant any official income slips I've received. It's helpful to have a relationship with an accountant before you set off on a full-time travel lifestyle.

12. Refilling Prescriptions/Visiting Doctors

Unless you're making regular trips back home, you're subject to the whims of local doctors for medical needs and prescriptions. In some countries prescription medications are available over-the-counter or upon informal consultations with pharmacists (always ask a pharmacist for help before bothering with a doctor — you'd be amazed at how helpful they can be). Otherwise you have to decide if the doctor's visit is worth paying for with cash or claiming on your insurance policy (see the above point on expat insurance).

13. Vaccinations

Some people get pricked up for every conceivable disease before leaving home. This can be incredibly expensive, however, and sometimes unnecessary, especially if you don't end up visiting those countries rife with a disease you were vaccinated for. Not to mention there are risks to vaccinations; I have a friend who spent six months paralyzed from the waist down due to a complication with a vaccination she received prior to visiting Africa.

Travel medical clinics are quite common around the world, and often less expensive (and no less sanitary) than your home clinic. I would suggest getting only the vaccinations you need, when you need them.

14. Withdrawal

Sometimes, you just plain miss your family and friends back home or your chosen family and new friends you've made along the way. Staying in communication via email and phone is viable, but sometimes it's no replacement for a hug from somebody you love. That's okay too; just book a flight home for a visit!

What are some of the dirty details of full-time travel that you have either had to contend with, or are worried about?

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Guest's picture

Great points. I've been traveling for 8 months, and for me, the work/life balance, and wifi need/addiction have been my biggest pain points.

I also have 4 boxes of stuff stashed, but I haven't missed one thing that I've gotten rid of. Kudos for your years of travel. It's inspiring--in spite of the realities you outlined here.

Guest's picture

I've been living and traveling in Asia for eight of the past nine years and the one thing I've had a hard time finding here is deodorant. They have it, but it's generally the spray on stuff, too weak to do anything and smelling so badly that you wouldn't want it to do anything anyway.

I've also found that banking can be a real pain in certain countries, like China, India and especially Myanmar (where it simply doesn't exist).

Guest's picture

While most of these seem pretty concrete, I think the toughest one would be to find for/life balance. Even if you're not traveling, I don't know how well I'd manage working as a freelancer or for myself because I don't do well without a strict routine. Having said that, traveling the world and experiencing life outside of your comfort zone seems like one of the best gifts you could ever give yourself.

Guest's picture
Pamela

Very good points! I've been traveling for one year and what I find the hardest is to have discipline. A sort of routine on the go, I make a point to learn new things but I feel that while I learn something new, I stop doing other things like working out/eating healthy, etc. A balance is always needed.

Guest's picture
Yvonne

These seem like really good points. I'm not a fulltime traveler, but do life abroad and encounter some of the issues you describe.
For me, the 'packing light' is the most difficult. I'm living somewhere but don't know exactly how long I will be here. Sometimes I like to get stuff for the house, to make it feel more like home, but than I don't cause I probably won't be able to take it with me when I move.

Guest's picture
Britany

I'm dealing with many of these concerns as I plan for long-term/full time travel come December. On the topic of loan repayment - thank God for the income-based repayment plans that should make mine management once I report that I'm no longer employed.

Guest's picture

Thanks for the list, Nora! You covered a few things I've kinda wondered about but wasn't quite sure how to deal with as a nomad.

One of my biggest concerns was health insurance and the other was having an address where I could still receive what little mail I get.

We're in the process of donating or selling pretty much everything, minus keepsakes, and it's been actually pretty easy - and fun. I'm excited to see how living with so little will change my life.

Guest's picture
Tim

Thanks for the list, we are less than a year away now from taking the leap. I agree with kimolsonphoto's comment; so far it's been fun getting rid of everything.