My husband and I used to stay up late to watch House Hunters International. We both had an appreciation for traveling and living abroad, and we loved to see the amazing properties that often cost less than a monthly parking space in the DC area, where we lived. One particular episode stuck with us. It featured an Australian couple who was moving to Northern Italy on a whim. They both had jobs they could do from anywhere, so they decided to spend 6 months living in a new place and enjoying the beauty of Italy. Their rent was a third of what we were paying, and they had a gorgeous terrace overlooking Lake Garda. After watching that episode, we wondered why we couldn’t do something similar.
If you ask my husband how we decided to take a year off and travel, you may get a different explanation. The way I remember it, the idea evolved over the course of several years, but it was watching many episodes of House Hunters International that planted the seed in my brain.
A Good Life in DC…But is There More?
When we first started talking about doing some sort of extended travel, my husband was a few years away from retirement and we were renting a large townhouse in Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. It was in a popular area with a small cluster of trendy restaurants and boutiques that were an easy walk from our house. One of Arlington’s many recreation trails was literally outside our front door. Our house was spacious, with what is probably the best kitchen I’ll ever have in my life. But it was on a busy road full of auto body shops, warehouses, and other industrial buildings. We shared a wall with our quirky neighbor whose souped-up car shook the pictures off our walls each time he started it. There was no water view, no mountains, and virtually no outdoor space. It was hardly worth $3,600 per month.
By all accounts we had a very nice life. We had good jobs, many friends, and we loved living in DC, despite the high cost. But we couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be more to life than our usual routine. Even though we both worked reasonable hours by DC standards, it felt as though we didn’t have enough time to spend together. The few hours after work and the weekends peppered with mundane errands didn’t feel like living. Often, as I was brushing my teeth before bed, I would look in the mirror and have the distinct sensation that I was in the movie Groundhog Day – each day was the same routine.
I should add here that, initially, I was more enthused about a year of travel than my husband was. Growing up as a military brat, then serving 30 years in the Army, he had done his share of traveling. He probably would have been happy retiring, finding a relatively low-stress job (anything would seem easier than the Pentagon), and having lots of time to golf and tinker with his motorcycle. But he agreed to the adventure because it was one of my dreams. As you will read in other posts, we are both very happy we charted a new course for our lives.
The Question Isn’t “Why?”
When we considered our situation and the possibility of taking a year off, we always came to the same conclusion: why not? We had no debt: no car loans, no student loans, and no mortgage. We had no pets or young children, and both of my stepsons had money for college if they chose to use it (one son can use my husband’s GI Bill and the other is in the Air Force). My husband was retiring from the Army in 2015, so we would have that income and TRICARE health insurance. Also, military retirees are entitled to one final sponsored move, so the Army would pack our household goods and store them for a year free of charge. I had been at my job for 5 years and was ready for a change.
With all those factors working in our favor, the main sticking point was how we would transition back to “real life” when we returned from a year of travel and neither of us had jobs. Ultimately, we decided we would figure that out over time. Even if the landing wasn’t smooth and it took a while to find jobs again, it would be worth the experience.
Saving and Dreaming
During those years of mulling over this idea, we knew we were going to travel somehow. We didn’t know exactly where, when, or how, but we were saving money for it. Besides moving to another townhouse that was $800/month cheaper, we found small ways to eliminate costs, like canceling our cable service and using WiFi to watch TV. My husband and I had a mutual understanding that we were building our savings to give ourselves options down the road. We wanted to be prepared for whatever we decided to do.
As we discussed the possibility of travel, we talked about our individual expectations and goals for the experience. We agreed that we wanted to travel slowly, rather than hopping from place to place. In fact, we wanted to rent apartments and spend a few weeks or even months in the places we visited so that we could become part of the community and get a sense of how it is to live there. That approach meant we couldn’t incorporate every travel experience either of us hoped to have in our lives; we were limiting the number of places we would go. In a way, our travels would be a means of evaluating other locations and lifestyles to help us decide where we wanted to land at the end of the year, if not back in DC.
Making it Happen
We finally made the decision to travel only a few months before we actually set off. Over the previous year, we had spent many hours talking about how we would pack up our belongings, where we would store our cars, and all the other logistics associated with disengaging from our DC life.
Once we were ready, we simply put those plans in motion. We terminated our apartment lease. My husband scheduled our movers. I gave notice at work. We packed our SUV, which we would park in a local garage, with extra clothes and anything else we might need before receiving our household goods at some unknown time and place in the future. Before I knew it, I was sitting on our front steps watching the movers load our belongings into the truck. I had my cell phone, and I was canceling our utilities. One by one, I severed each small connection to our conventional life.
A few days later, it was time to pop smoke. It was May 2015, and after years of dreaming and talking about this adventure, we were finally making it a reality. The first part of our journey together was a road trip within the United States, after which we would head to Europe. That’s about as detailed an agenda as we created. We had no firm plans, only a general idea of where we would go in each season. This was to be a year of living in the moment and choosing how we spent our days based on how we felt at the time—no routines or itineraries. It was an incredible feeling of freedom, and we couldn’t wait to get started!