Where is home? For Debbie and Michael Campbell, the answer is everywhere—at least for now, almost five years into their odyssey as self-described “senior nomads.”
These full-time travelers are seeing the world for roughly the same money they’d spend on a frugal retirement in Seattle, where they lived most of their lives. “We’re not on vacation,” says Michael. “We’re just living our lives a week or two weeks at a time in other people’s homes.”
This has been going on since July 2013, shortly after the Campbells’ daughter Mary (who lives in France) spied her parents’ bucket-list of dream destinations and asked whether they’d heard of the home rental website Airbnb. They hadn’t, yet they were intrigued by the idea of staying in people’s homes and living like locals.
But was it feasible? Once Michael crunched the numbers with the help of their financial planner, the couple decided it was and they set off for six months in Europe. The Campbells enjoyed their travels so much that they eventually wound up selling their Lower Queen Anne home, which they’d rented out the first two years they were gone. “You have to be willing to let go of stuff,” says Debbie.
The Campbells look for homestays that cost about $90 a night—less in some cities, more in others. A kitchen is a must, since they save money by buying groceries and cooking their own meals. They also economize by taking public transportation and by shopping for travel bargains—easier to do when your plans are flexible.
Before long, their adventures caught the attention of executives at Airbnb, who began championing their quest. In fact, inspired in part by the Robert DeNiro movie The Intern, Debbie and Michael recently spent 10 weeks as “senior interns” at Airbnb’s San Francisco headquarters. They’ve also published a book about their experiences (Your Keys, Our Home), and maintain a website listing all their travels (seniornomads.com), plus an active social media presence.
In their professional lives, Michael was an events promoter and Debbie owned a design and marketing business—skills that have served them well in their long-term travels. “I look for what we’re going to do, what we’re going to eat, what we’re going to see and Michael gets us there and keeps us on budget,” Debbie says.
The most important thing, they agree, is that they enjoy each other’s company, even after 40 years together. “We’re both rowing the boat in the same direction,” Debbie says. “We both wanted to do this, so the planning becomes fun.” And though the Campbells do take in some sights at their destinations, they spend much of their time as they would if they were back in Seattle: reading, watching TV, playing Scrabble, doing laundry, and just hanging out.
The Campbells say travel has become even more important since they began. “We have to double down on our diplomacy and be the kinder, gentler American out there,” says Debbie. Adds Michael, “Now’s the time to travel,” without fear and in a humble manner, eager to learn about other cultures and people.
“Travel is transformational. It’s growth,” says Michael. “We’re lifelong learners, we’re curious. It’s invigorating—I’m 72, so I’m older—and I’m thankful to be given this opportunity.”
By the time you’re reading this, the Campbells will be in Australia—or maybe Japan or China. Their Airbnb internship ended just before Thanksgiving, and they planned to spend the holidays housesitting for friends in Seattle (where two of their four children still live), then seeing their daughter and her family in France. But after that, they weren’t sure, and that’s OK; they rarely plot their travels more than a month or so ahead of time.
The Campbells’ journeys have given them wide geographical perspective and an expansive view of what it means to get older. “One of the real pleasures of what we’ve done is we’re meeting new people all the time,” Michael says. “We have more friends than when we left and that’s really a good feeling.”
The Campbells say their Airbnb internship was energizing, and neither rules out going back to work, nor do they discount the possibility that they’ll someday settle down in one place. But for now, they say they’ll keep circling the globe—and finding home wherever they are.
Julie Fanselow is an Airbnb user and host who travels every chance she gets. She writes about Seattle and other destinations for the new travel-planning website BinduTrips.com, and she is the copy editor for 3rd Act Magazine.
After nearly five years and 70 countries, the Campbells have perfected the art of traveling and living light. Among their tips:
- One suitcase per person is all you need—and Debbie and Michael even manage to include their own feather pillows in their large roller bags. (They do still have a storage unit in Seattle where they can refresh their wardrobes when they’re back in town.)
- Debbie is often asked whether she’d do this on her own. She says she would—and that home-sharing is ideal for older single travelers since you’ll have a local host who expects you and is concerned for your safety.
- If you do travel with a partner, allow time to pursue independent interests. Michael likes to find the local soccer games, while Debbie has taken classes in cooking and painting.
- The Campbells say extended homestays are a good way to scout out possible retirement locations, too, apt to give you a more realistic view of what a city or neighborhood is like than spending a few nights in a hotel.