North Carolina Mountain Getaway, Part Two

The second day of our getaway was all about visiting Biltmore House in Asheville. Brett and I have long wanted to visit and moving to Nashville provided the opportunity. We all got up early once again on Sunday morning and were packed, checked out, and on our way to Asheville before 10:00 a.m., arriving at Biltmore House a little before noon. M, K, and I had tickets to tour the house at 12:15, and Brett had a 2:00 admission. Dogs are welcome at the Biltmore Estate but are not allowed in the house, so the two shifts allowed at least one of us to explore outside with Kaipo while other toured.

It had been scheduled to rain all day Sunday, but while it was overcast the rain never showed up so we were able to make the most of our visit.

Through the main gate and on our way up to the house. The overall estate is huge – it’s a three mile drive from the gate to the house. Leaving the house, it took us over a half hour of driving to get off the property. The landscapes surrounding the house were the work of Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park, Vanderbilt honored Olmstead and Richard Morris Hunt, the house’s architect, with full size portraits, permanently hung in the upstairs living room. Both were painted by famed American portrait artist John Singer Sargent.

The approach to Biltmore House was dramatic. We walked about eight minutes from the parking lot, turned a corner, and this beautiful sight greeted us. I can imagine how exciting it must have been for guests to arrive back in the day. The entrance to the house tour is over on the right, next to the white bus. Behind and to the left of it is the former stable courtyard, now a classy food court with the stable containing a variety of gift shops (all currently selling Christmas items).
One of the first rooms on the tour, and my third favorite, is the dining room. The ceiling sits seven stories above the floor and yet everything in it, from the three fireplaces to the tapestries to the dining table is perfectly proportioned. It was a gorgeous room.
The two views above, from the loggia, are of the Biltmore Estate deer park and looking out to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I loved Olmstead’s use of open space to define and enhance the views.
This is the tapestry gallery, my second favorite room, is a 90-foot long space that served as a formal living room for guests of Biltmore House. Three large tapestries hang from one wall and the other side looks out to the loggia. The change in our visit to late October meant we were able to see all the interior Christmas decorations without paying the increased holiday ticket price.
My favorite room of all was the library. The proportions, the design, and the decor was breathtaking (and I’m not crazy about red).
The Tyrolean Chimney room is one of 33 guest rooms at Biltmore House, and although beautiful it was not the fanciest guest room in the house! Each guest room had its own bathroom (although not all with running water). There are 43 bathrooms in the house, built in a time when most homes did not have indoor plumbing. However, there were no washing machines. Laundresses still stood over sinks and washed items by hand.
One of the colorful murals in the Halloween Room, a large brick storage room located in the house’s basement. The slightly eerie murals were painted in December 1925 by Cornelia Cecil and her husband John for a New Year’s Eve party. Cornelia was the only child of George and Edith Vanderbilt, born in the extremely luxurious Louis XV guest room which overlooked the grounds. She inherited the house upon her father’s death in 1914.
If you’ve got it, flaunt it! Another amazing feature of the house was the huge 12-foot deep, lighted indoor swimming pool in the basement. The house also had a two-lane bowling alley and a fully equipped gymnasium, complete with massage showers. Guests of the Vanderbilts could also enjoy horseback riding, hunting, croquet, tennis, and other outdoor sports while staying at the Estate.
The main kitchen in the basement was like something out of Downton Abbey. The stove in the back is eight feet long, and the copper pots were original to the house. Besides the main kitchen there was also a separate pastry kitchen, a modern roasting kitchen with two giant electric rotisseries, walk-in refrigerators, and multiple pantries.

M, K, and I walked the Biltmore gardens following our house tour. They were filled with colorful plants in fall colors including beautyberry, giant chrysanthemum arrangements, and Japanese maple. The gardens provided all the flowers used in the house as well as vegetables.

The Conservatory

Walking through the conservatory with its abundance of tropical plants was like being back in Hawaii.

Looking up to Biltmore House from the gardens.

Visiting Biltmore House is not inexpensive, with ticket prices ranging from $69 to $99 per person, depending on the time of year one visits (November and December are the most expensive, January through March the least). We were initially put off by the price, but after visiting Brett and I both felt we more than got our money’s worth – days later we are still talking about the things we saw there. Some might feel the place is too over the top, too ostentatious, etc. but George Washington Vanderbilt had money to burn, and the lasting quality of Biltmore House, from the architecture to the artworks and furniture inside to how its employees were treated, still surpasses any private rocket trip into space or vanity purchase of a social media site.

North Carolina Mountain Getaway, Part One

Our weekend trip to North Carolina was a busy one, but we had a grand time and exceeded our expectations. Beyond getting to experience fall in all its glory, our visit to western North Carolina helped connect me to some of Brett’s family roots and gave me the chance to visit some of the places he has talked about since I’ve known him.

Our cozy Airbnb cabin in Banner Elk – we enjoyed having a fireplace!
The view from the cabin on a chilly Saturday morning. We started the day afraid we might have come too late to see much fall foliage.
Grandfather Mountain was our first stop on Saturday. Most of the foliage was off the trees because of the elevation . . .
. . . but when we looked closely, there it was.
The mile high swinging bridge at the top is a must do at Grandfather Mountain, although I could have done without the scary drive up to the parking lot (narrow two-lane road of twists and turns and no guard rails).
The far side of the bridge is higher than the entry, and the mile high point comes in the middle of the bridge. There was no wind while we were there, but the bridge still swung a bit so K and I held hands and went over and back together.
A view off the side of the bridge.
Wind and weather doing their thing on the top of Grandfather Mountain.
We all enjoyed most amazing ice cream sandwiches at Blue Deer Cookies in Blowing Rock. They offer five cookie flavors and five ice cream flavors at a time and customers can mix and match flavors however they like (our combos were snickerdoodle with apple pie ice cream, oatmeal raisin with pumpkin ice cream, and double chocolate with chocolate ice cream). The bakery also offers a wide range of coffee drinks. The town of Blowing Rock was packed solid with tourists, so we didn’t hang around (or take pictures).
Breathtaking views of the Great Smoky mountains from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Blowing Rock. It was named for the fierce winds that usually blow up it from the valley, but there was no wind blowing at all while we were there.
The valley below the Blowing Rock provided the most spectacular view of autumn color.

Following our visit to the Blowing Rock we headed back to our cabin for dinner and to get ready for the next morning’s drive to Asheville and the Biltmore Estate.

Could We Do That?

Back in 2016, Could we do that? was the spark that began The Occasional Nomads’ Big Adventure. We were trying to pick a first location to visit after YaYu left for college from a list we’d put together when Brett said outlaid that he wished we could see them all. We looked at each other and both said, Could we do that? Everything that followed stemmed from that one question.

This past week we once again found ourselves asking each other, Could we do that?

Although we’ve been planning to relocate to Mexico when we leave Tennessee in 2024 we’re still feeling itchy to do a bit of travel first. This past week Brett and I were talking about possibilities for that and road trips came up. We’ve long dreamed of a road trip to visit all the western U.S. national parks, and it wasn’t long before we were asking each other, Could we do that?

We have a car again, and Brett loves to drive. I don’t enjoy driving as much as he does, but can do it and am otherwise a good passenger; long days in the car don’t faze me. Other than my remaining student loan balance we have no debt. Once it’s time to move on from Nashville we will have no obligations, nowhere we have to be at a certain time. It would be an ideal time to head out west and fulfill another dream and it would honestly be our last opportunity to undertake such a journey.

Could we do that?

Someone came up with an ultimate national park road trip map, but we’re only interested in doing the western portion.

We’ve been crunching numbers for the past few days, looking at maps, and gaming out what a big road trip like this might look like and involve. For a couple of days we got excited about camping along the way, and even looked at lightweight campers we could tow, but eventually realized that option didn’t really interest us – for a few days maybe, but not months of it. After figuring out possible expenses (primarily gas, lodging, and meals, storing our furniture) we figured out that by staying in pet-friendly budget motels/hotels and Airbnbs along the way, and sticking to a set daily food budget it would be affordable. We have a lifetime pass to national parks and monuments. We’re still trying to figure out what could be a workable route based on when we could leave but have also realized we need to research more about which parks are open when, which accept dogs and which don’t, and so forth. There’s lots to learn.

While we’re having a good time with this right now we’re still not quite ready to commit to something this big. There are too many unknowns for us right now, things like future gas prices or whether we will even feel up to taking on such a big project in another two years. Is this really even a good idea, we wonder? In spite of the unknowns, the idea is out there now and the big question has been asked.

Could we do that?

We’re beginning to think we just could.

Yes, Airfares Are Expensive but Bargains Still Exist

Japan opened back to foreign visitors in September, so out of curiosity I decided to see what it would cost for us to visit Japan. Back in the day, combining careful timing and a little bit of luck, we could usually find nonstop, round-trip flights in extra comfort seating for around $750 – $850. These days Brett and I wonder if we’ll ever be able to afford a visit to Japan again, and what that could cost us because the best price right now for a premium economy seat is $2,391. Ouch. A seat in economy is $1,319, still horribly expensive.

It doesn’t matter these days where anyone is going, but airfares are higher across the board, currently at their highest point in five years. Between March and April of this year, ticket costs increased 16.8% in one month! Prices are predicted to increase even more as the holiday season approaches.

The airline industry was one of the hardest hit during the Covid-19 pandemic and travel, when both domestic and international travel slowed to a near halt. That period and the slow climb back has obviously affected today’s prices, but there are other things going on as well:

  • Supply and demand is the biggest force affecting ticket prices today. There are fewer flights and more demand for seats than prior to the pandemic. Anyone who has flown this year has most likely suffered through cancellations, schedule changes, and so forth. Airlines are trying to do better by restricting the number of tickets sold in order to reduce the number of delays that plagued travelers earlier in the year. Fewer tickets mean higher prices.
  • Staff shortages caused by the pandemic contributed to delays and cancellations. Many airlines are still understaffed, which mean fewer flights, more delays, and higher prices.
  • Rising fuel costs have also meant an increase in the price of tickets. Airlines typically purchase fuel months to years in advance, and if they’ve had to buy fuel recently, ticket prices have to go up to cover those costs. An airline that bought fuel when prices were low can continue to offer lower prices. Southwest is an airline that consistently does very well buying large amounts of fuel at low prices, which is a big reason they’re able to keep ticket prices low.
  • Lack of competition has meant that many major airlines no longer have to compete with low cost airlines. Prior to the pandemic, airlines like Wow, Norwegian Air, and others offered bare-bones services at prices that major airlines were forced to compete with, creating lower fares overall. Many discount carriers went out of business during the pandemic, or had to cut itineraries way back. For example, we used Norwegian Air twice to return to the U.S. from Europe because their fares and itineraries could not be beat. Norwegian Air no longer flies to any U.S. airports, and operates only regionally within Europe, offering no price competition to U.S. carriers for cross-Atlantic flights.
  • Because of current situations occurring in the world, air routes have had to change. Route changes hike costs for airlines. Current changes don’t affect domestic flights within the U.S., but they can affect the cost of international journeys.

The news isn’t all bad, and there are still ways to save if you want or need to fly somewhere.

  • Think domestic travel versus international. It’s always going to be cheaper to go someplace in your own country.
  • Fly economy. Yes, the seats are narrower and closer together, but the price for that seat is going to be considerably less than first class or premium economy. Our rule of thumb is five hours: anything over that and we will pay the extra for more comfortable seating. Below that, we are fine with economy.
  • Choose a flight with stopovers versus nonstop. The more stops along the way, the lower the price (usually). Travelers can also sometimes work layovers to their advantage. At some airports it’s possible to leave and tour the city you’re in, or go for a meal outside the airport. We sometimes opt for flights that have a long overnight layover, and book a hotel room and get some sleep before the next leg of our journey. The cost of the room has always been less than the increased price for a nonstop flight.
  • Look for an alternative airport that’s nearby. Costs can sometimes be significantly lowered by flying out of a regional airport or one in a nearby city versus using only bigger airports in major cities. For example, we’ve saved by flying into and out of Love Field in Dallas versus choosing a flight that arrives at Dallas-Fort Worth International.
  • Consider budget airlines. These airlines usually have a low ticket price but charge for things like seat choice, luggage (even a carryon), food . . . just about everything. But, add up the cost of what add ons are really necessary and the price can still be much lower than a full-service airline. Almost all major airlines now offer “basic economy” seats these days, with no frills or seat choice, but with a lower cost than regular economy. Southwest Airlines has found its niche somewhere in the middle between a true budget airline and a major one and offer good value. Currently, a RT, non-stop ticket to Japan on a budget airline is only $689 (before any extras are added).
  • Find a ticket first, then the destination. Search for ticket prices that fit your budget and then choose a destination that fits that price. There are some amazingly low-priced tickets out there to wonderful places.
  • Use search tools to find the best prices. Skyscanner; Scott’s Cheap Air, Google Flights, and similar sites can help find the lowest prices around for tickets.
  • Use credit cards strategically. Travel credit cards can be used to earn points toward free tickets or upgrades. Opening a card usually brings a huge bonus along with it when a set amount is spent within a specific time period, and using the card for other purchases, like groceries, gas, or dining out, can offer double or triple points to quickly increase the point balance. **Only use a travel card if you can afford to pay it off every month.**

Airline fares are expected to remain high for the time being, but there are ways to work around those high prices. It requires some genuine effort these days to find the good deals, or a workable itinerary at an affordable price, but it can be done. Traveling is different these days, and higher airfares are just one part that will probably be around for a while.

Little Things = A Bigger Savings Balance

(Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash)

Brett and I are going to be mostly homebodies for the next couple of years with only local travel and trips planned. There’s one exception coming up though: a big family travel event is in the works for December 2023. We’ve already began to save for that.

While Brett and I have always maintained a separate travel account that we feed each month, we’re more inclined to save more when we have a specific goal and know how much we need to save to achieve that goal. We have a general idea right now of what next year’s Big Event will cost, and we have 15 months to pull together the funds to cover our expenses.

This time around we won’t have the option of selling any of our things to help plump up our savings. Instead, we will need to be steadfast in adding as much as possible, whenever possible, to our account each month in order to reach our goal, as well as look for new and different ways to save, even if they’re tiny. Just like small expenses here and there can quickly deplete the cash in your wallet, or the funds in your checkbook, small amounts of savings continually added to a balance can increase it rather quickly.

None of the little things we already do may seem like much, but they add up surprisingly quickly and have always helped us reach our travel goals:

  • We create a budget each month and stick to it! Many of our monthly spending amounts are set but with others we try whenever we can to spend less than what we budget, and put what’s left over into our travel savings. If we find a sustainable extra amount of leftover income in our budget over a few months we use it to increase the travel savings allotment. Brett and I practice zero balance budgeting; that is, every penny of our monthly income is “spent” each month which includes paying our savings. If we notice there’s money “left over” for a few months, we increase the regular allotment. Because the cost of living in Tennessee has been so much lower than it was in Hawaii, we’ve been able to increase our travel savings allotment by $100/month.
  • It’s almost like a game to us to find ways to spend less on groceries and less on our utilities. We food shop with a list and pay cash when we shop because the cash left over is always more than a credit card reward. We are near fanatical about saving energy and water. We do laundry only once a week (three loads), in cold water and using the precise fill level in the washer. We take five-minute showers. We cook with the air fryer or slow cooker whenever possible versus using the full oven or stovetop. We only use our A/C when absolutely necessary, and this winter our thermostat will be set at 60 degrees, like we did back in Portland, and we’ll bundle up.
  • We never spend any $1 bills or change we receive. Readers are probably sick of hearing about this by now, but we’ve been doing this for years and it really does add up. We’ve saved $53.67 in change and $1 bills just since we left Massachusetts on August 6, and hope to reach at least $100 by the end of the year. Next year we plan to start saving $5 bills as well to kick things up a bit. Any windfalls we receive, such as refunds or gifts, also go into our travel account. Annual cost-of-living increases, or at least most of them, go toward bumping up our travel savings allotment as well. The tiny income I receive from the blog goes directly to savings.
  • We aim for at least one no-drive day per week. This small effort provides at least 52 days in a year, more than seven weeks, that we’re not burning gasoline or putting wear and tear on our car. If regular gasoline expenses fall under what we budget each month, the difference goes into our travel savings.
  • We find ways not to spend. While we have budgeted a weekly treat for our granddaughter, Brett and I don’t stop for coffee; we make it at home. We eat out infrequently, and only if planned in advance. We buy clothing or shoes when necessary, the same for household goods. We don’t pay for streaming services – we share accounts with members of our family. We don’t buy books; we use the library. None of these things put money directly into our savings, but they do make a difference in our bottom line every month and what does go into our account. The items we do spend on are always included in our monthly budget.

Since we left Hawaii in early May, these little savings we’ve made have added and additional $890 to our travel account on top of the regular allotment (we were actually able to save while we were in Mexico, a change from our usual travel destinations). We’re ready to kick things up next year though, and know we can do better and save more. We’re already very motivated, especially whenever we think of the fabulous family travel event we’ll get to experience, financed in part by all these little ways we save.

The Best Trip I Ever took

One of the Bright Angel Lodge rim cabins at the Grand Canyon

Of all the trips I’ve taken in my life, one journey still stands out as the best ever: a family vacation to the Grand Canyon National Park in the summer of 1964, when I was 12 years old.

The Super Chief

Instead of one of our family’s typical road trips, we took the Santa Fe Super Chief from our hometown of Pasadena to Williams, Arizona where we changed to a local train to ride to Grand Canyon Village. We stayed in the park for five full days, in a cabin at the Bright Angel Lodge (The cabins are still there! It brought a rush of memories when I saw them when we visited in 2016). We hiked all over the park, together or in small groups, and went to many ranger talks and other presentations. I saw my first elk and my first skunk, which crossed right in front of me one night as we walked back to our cabin (and scared the living daylights out of me). The highlight of the trip for me was the one-day ride to the bottom of the canyon and back along with my mom and older brother – an awe-inspiring and amazing experience (painful too – can you say saddle sore?). We ate all our meals at the Bright Angel Lodge coffee shop or another cafeteria in the park, which was heaven for me and my siblings.

Mules head down the Bright Angel trail into the canyon (mule rides no longer use this trail)

Whenever I think about that vacation, these are the things that make it stand out, and why it continues to be the most memorable and my favorite:

  • The destination was a surprise. We knew we were going on a vacation, but my Mom and Dad kept the destination to themselves.
  • The train ride to the canyon and back was another surprise, and a very special treat for four kids who were used to (and sort of tired of) long road trips.
  • While our vacation was not what anyone would call “upscale,” it was very comfortable, and my parents made sure we never had to hear about meals, experiences, and even some souvenirs being too expensive (which we often heard on other trips).
The Bright Angel Lodge coffee shop in the 1960s
  • My parents made sure we each had unique experiences intrinsic to the Grand Canyon, like the mule ride for me and my brother, and a horseback riding trip for my younger sister and brother.
  • Unburdened from the constant need to organize us all, get us into the car, and get from here to there, etc. both my mom and dad were more relaxed than on other trips. One of my favorite memories is my mom, who had studied under an expert in Southwest Indian jewelry while she was in graduate school, spending one-on-one time with me showing and explaining how to identify techniques and styles used by different tribes in their jewelry. I still have a deep appreciation for the jewelry because of what she taught me on that trip.

That vacation to the Grand Canyon, a place our family had visited before and were to visit again, had a great influence on how I planned my own family’s travels. Besides making sure the funds were in place so we could have the experiences we wanted (like staying at the El Tovar on our trip to the Grand Canyon, or taking the mule ride with our girls), I loved to plan surprises and/or something unexpected for the family during each trip; find interesting and memorable activities for all of us; and make sure Brett and I had as few “administrative duties” as possible so we could concentrate on family and the place we were visiting. It’s those things that help make a trip great versus just good.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for that wonderful vacation – it’s still the best trip I’ve ever taken.

(updated from a 2017 post)

Travel In Our Future

Photo by Leonardo Yip on Unsplash

Brett and I are starting to like this being settled in one place with our own stuff. We like having a dog in our lives again. We’re currently no longer itching to travel, travel, travel other than visit sites or destinations in our area. Brett has already put his foot down that our move to Mazatlán will be our last, and I have agreed. We will not be selling our furniture or things this next time either. Going forward, where we go our stuff will go with us.

Beginning with our departure from Hawaii last May, we found travel experiences disappointing to downright miserable, and something of a deterrent to future travel. I shudder now when I think of the long waits we endured in airports, the expense of dining in airports, or of getting an hour or so of sleep between flights. With airline schedules constantly changing these days, flights being cancelled or placed on hold, and prices going up as well, going from one place to another is no longer the exciting process it was for us back in 2018. Since leaving Hawaii, our journeys from one location to another turned into everything from uninviting drudgery to pure misery versus being the thrilling start to a new adventure they were before.

So, what’s a couple who loves to travel and experience new locations to do? There are still so many things we want to experience, and places we want to see, but we dread the process of getting there.

Mazatlán gets especially hot mid-summer through early fall, and those months would be an ideal time for us to leave town for a while. Early fall is a wonderful in Japan, and mid-summer a great time for us to head up to the northeast to spend time with the girls. We can see ourselves renting a New England beach house or mountain cabin for a month, and spending a couple of autumn months in Japan each year. The “shoulder season” before the summer travel season begins would be for visiting other destinations. There are still plenty more places we’d love to see, including several in South America and others in Europe and Asia.

Travel is definitely going to have a place in our future, but it’s going to have to be done differently than in the past. We’re going to have to adjust our attitudes and expectations going forward and change how we think about and do travel, from possibly upgrading how we travel to the length of time we stay in a location to even possibly taking part in a tour now and again. The travel industry is not going to return to its pre-Covid heyday, and we’re not getting any younger either, nor have the energy we once had for full-time travel. We don’t want to sell all our stuff again, or put it into storage, and the thought of lugging around two big suitcases is no longer as exciting as it once was. We’re ready to have a home to come back to. And, time with our family is more important to us than ever. We know we can make that work for us when it comes to future travel, visiting family and some of our favorite places every year but making time for new locations as well.

The adventure isn’t over yet, and we intend to remain Occasional Nomads as long as possible, but travel in our future is going to happen in a different way.

Lessons Learned

Travel days are always exhausting, and occasionally things don’t always go as planned, but Brett still makes sure everything gets packed and we’re where we need to be on time.

During all our travels we’ve never lost a suitcase, or left one of our phones in a taxi, or made another major goof. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure how we kept those things from happening other than we had a good system for tracking things, and Brett proved to be a superb logistics manager, making sure everything was in place and keeping us moving.

Things still went wrong though. Often the problems we encountered were things outside of our control, and the biggest and best lessons learned throughout our travels were that no matter how well we planned or how well we tracked our stuff, things could and did go wrong, and an ability to pick our battles, adapt quickly, and stay calm determined whether there would be a successful outcome or not.

We counted late departures part of doing business when we traveled and something that was entirely out of our control, no matter how frustrating the situation. We knew the best way to deal with a late flight was go with the flow and hope for the best. A six-hour delay departing Philadelphia when we began our travels almost caused us to miss our flight to Buenos Aires, but we stayed calm as possible and eventually got to our flight on time (on only an hour’s sleep). All’s well that ends well – we ended up in the only row in the aircraft with empty seats which allowed us to stretch out and sleep! Our flight from Montevideo to Madrid was delayed by over an hour, which meant we would miss our connection to Paris – nothing we could do about that – but somehow we turned out to be “special passengers” and an Air France representative personally met us upon arrival with new boarding passes for our connecting flight to Paris and we arrived on time. Not all situations ended happily though – when we departed India, the airline determined our luggage was overweight (it wasn’t) and no amount of arguing would get them to budge. We finally paid the overage to get on our way. To add to our misery, we had to empty our carry-ons for security and then repack, and our departure. gate was the furthest one away – we thought we’d never get there.

The view from our balcony in Montevideo.

We also learned along the way not to judge a book, or rather an Airbnb, by its cover. Our apartment in Montevideo appeared to be in a rather seedy-looking neighborhood, and we were hesitant about it, but the interior was lovely and comfortable, and we had a balcony view into the city. The location turned out to be perfect for touring the city. Our Strasbourg apartment was tiny, less than 300 square feet, yet was also in a great location for exploring the city. The sofa bed we slept on there we count as one of our most comfortable beds and the apartment as one of our favorites. However, the apartment we rented in Bath looked great in the pictures, but turned out to be rather shabby with an uncomfortable bed. We won most of the time, but occasionally lost.

At the last minute we scored first class seats on our flight from London to San Francisco, and made it home on time.

Departing the UK in 2019 was our most trying experience, with just about everything that could go wrong going wrong, starting with our first train of the day being cancelled and the next one arriving nearly 45 minutes late. Rather than staying calm, we allowed ourselves to get flustered and ended up taking the wrong train into Reading Station from Oxford, arriving on the furthest track from the one we needed. We literally ran through Reading Station, up and down escalators and elevators, with Brett hauling our two big suitcases behind him, and we climbed onto the last car of the train to Gatwick airport with less than 30 seconds to spare. That train was still a long shot, our last chance to possibly catch our flight, but when we arrived at the airport the check-in lines were so long that we knew we’d never make it and resigned ourselves to rebooking for the next day. Lady Luck was apparently looking down on us though because there was suddenly an announcement that four remaining first class seats were available on our flight. Unusual for us, we made a quick decision and snapped up two seats, getting to the gate just as first class was boarding! Those first class seats ended up saving us hundreds of dollars over what it would have cost us to check our bags, pay for a hotel room for the night, and rebook our tickets. Lessons learned? Stay calm no matter what, be flexible, and recognize there are times to let go when it comes to your budget.

While we enjoy free walking tours, the paid tours we took allowed us to experience and learn things we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Other lessons we learned along the way? While we’re big fans of free walking tours offered in most cities, we learned that paying for a speciality tour now and again can give you a big bang for your bucks. We took an amazing small-group tour of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Forum in Rome that got us into places the free tours didn’t go. We took two different wine tours in Bordeaux offered through the city, and learned more than we ever could have on our own as well as got to taste come fabulous wines. We took three Airbnb Experience tours in Edinburgh and a tour of a local gin distillery, and again, went places and learned things we never would have otherwise.

Our farmhouse stay in Switzerland provided experiences we wouldn’t have had staying in our own Airbnb or in a hotel.

We also learned that staying as a guest in someone’s home offered cultural experiences and learning as part of the package. At the beginning of our travels we had been determined to always stay in our own place, but after spending two nights with a family in their 300+ year-old Swiss farmhouse, we changed our minds. We were treated to a traditional dinner (raclette) with the family on our second evening, enjoyed a massive farm breakfast in the mornings, baked bread with the host, and left with a big bag of apples picked from their trees. We departed New Zealand with a deeper understanding of that country because of the hospitality and knowledge offered by our hosts along the way.

The biggest lesson we learned? We discovered strengths and skills we didn’t know we had. We played to the strengths we did know, but adapted as new ones revealed themselves and evolved. My forte was and is planning, and Brett let(s) me handle almost all of that as well as entertainment, meals, and a daily or weekly schedule. Brett’s strength is logistics – he makes sure we get to where we need to be on time (well, except when trains get cancelled), makes sure everything gets packed, and is able to orient himself very quickly in a new location. Brett also keeps track of our finances – he tracked our spending every day so we knew whether we need to slow down or whether there was enough in the budget for something special.

Solid research and planning before departure made a world of difference in whether a change or problem felt doable or like the end of the world, and our knowledge worked for us almost all of the time. As we went along though we learned to open ourselves up a bit more and manage our reactions to what could potentially become a negative experience. We came very close to paying the penalties that come along from not staying calm and not being flexible with our budget when the time called for it. All these things have affected how we travel now – how we plan. how we spend, and how we react to and handle what gets thrown in our path.

Too Many Expats?

Our friend Denise posed a great question last week in a comment: I would be curious to hear your thoughts about expats, and specifically why you are opposed to a larger expat population where you settle. I attempted to answer the question in a reply to her comment, but realized that the answer required not only more room but quite a bit more thought on my part.

The number and presence of expats we encountered in San Miguel de Allende was a new experience for Brett and me. We have wracked our brains and memories trying to remember any other location we’ve visited where we encountered so many foreign residents. We know that large expat communities exist in cities like Florence, Bordeaux, or Lisbon but we never encountered any Americans or Canadians in any numbers other than on the wine tours we took in Bordeaux (one of my fondest memories there is the young American girl who sat next to us on the tour bus so, she said, she could hear American English spoken. She’d been in Bordeaux for almost a year and missed hearing and speaking English. We included her in our conversation both coming and going on the tour and had a great visit). We’ve visited Japan many, many times but rarely run into other expats during our stays, and certainly not in the concentrations we encountered in San Miguel de Allende. Expats seemed to be present everywhere there, in restaurants, shops, markets, walking down the streets, etc. We ate in restaurants where every customer was an expat or tourist, and the waiters spoke English to everyone. We walked down streets of Centro and other neighborhoods and heard nothing but English spoken. Other than the gardeners and other occasional workers, we heard only English in the condo complex where we stayed. Everyone we met or encountered was nice, and the easy availability of English certainly made our time in SMA easier, but it was a strange experience for us and in the end one of the things that put us off living there in the future.

San Miguel de Allende is not an especially big city although it is expanding and growing. It’s a charming place to visit, full of history, bright colors, colonial architecture, beautiful churches and parks, extensive shopping, and a lively and affordable restaurant scene. The cost of living, compared to the U.S., is enticingly low, but it’s actually one of the most expensive cities in Mexico. Americans have been coming to SMA since the post-WWII years, when GIs came to live in SMA and study art on their GI bill funds and Stirling Dickinson opened the Instituto Allende. The city is now a haven for artists, and after being named the Best City in the World in 2021 by Condé Nast Travel & Leisure, it’s a place tourists, both foreign and local, feel they need to see. So many had sung its praises that we felt we should experience it too. Many visitors, especially retirees, fall in love with the city while they are there and decide to relocate. There are real estate offices all over the place, and building going on everywhere as the city expands to fill the need for housing. Prices are climbing however – currently the median price of a colonial home in Centro has risen to over $500K.

The number of expats and tourists we encountered in SMA reminded us somewhat of our time on Kaua’i and the changes we saw happening. We had the unique experience of living there for around a year while the island was closed to tourists, and then witnessing how quickly things changed as visitors, mainland investors, and wealthy retirees returned when the island opened back up again. The explosion of the island housing market was one of most noticeable changes, with prices rising into the stratosphere as properties were snapped up at inflated prices. Young, local families became completely priced out of the market. Also, once-quiet venues and beaches became filled with visitors who didn’t want anyone, local or otherwise, messing with their “Kaua’i experience.”

Encountering so many American or Canadian expats in SMA, I often thought, Do you know you are changing things here? Like pebbles tossed into a stream, expats cause places to change in ways that might not be immediately recognizable or affect them. While the cost of living might be low for an expat, the prices that locals pay for housing, for food, for other necessities go up, sometimes rapidly. Local water sources and other infrastructure become more strained, and traffic in and out of cities, and in the city centers, becomes crowded and often stop and go. Expats do bring benefits to a city, including charitable efforts, but those benefits can be harder to see or not seen at all until after a long time has passed. We weren’t especially looking for it, but during our time in SMA we didn’t see a whole lot of exchange between expats and the local community other than on the surface. Expats tended to cluster with other expats, although we know it did go deeper than that in some cases.

Will we cause things to change by moving to Mazatlán and becoming expats? Of course. Will there be lots of other expats there? Probably. We look forward to meeting some of them, making friends, and learning from those who have lived there for a while. But we’re also hoping for numbers where expats are not to be found everywhere, every day, in every place we go. Our goal will be to find ways to make a positive impact on our new location, to add to it versus just reaping the benefits, and to get to know our neighbors.

The number of expats in San Miguel de Allende was uncomfortable for us. While we weren’t looking for some “authentic Mexican” experience while we were there, we were unprepared for the numbers and presence of Americans and Canadians we encountered. We are educating ourselves about Mazatlán now so we know what to expect, where we might want to live, and so forth and educating ourselves to fit into the culture rather than having the culture fit us.

That Didn’t Take Long

Brett told me the other day that he never wants to move again. It’s not that he’s fallen in love with Tennessee, but he said he’s tired of all the packing, unpacking, setting up, etc. that goes with moving. Our last few travel experiences didn’t help his mood: the long plane flights and schedules that were changed without notice, lugging the big suitcases around, driving a big van through all sorts of crazy weather and having to unload it every evening and load it again in the morning, and on and on. At age 72 he said he’s had enough.

While I still enjoy and look forward to traveling, our experiences since we left Hawaii have left their mark on me as well, and I admit to being somewhat relieved to be settled again with our own things, even if many of those things are actually new to us. I honestly did not enjoy the whole moving part of the past few months, but also know that I don’t want to stay in Tennessee for more than two years. I know that means we’re going to have to pack up and move once again.

I’ve promised Brett though that next move will be our last, and that someone else will move us and do all the work. One of the reasons I’m so fierce about saving once again is that if we are not going to do it ourselves, we are going to have to pay someone else to pack our things, load a truck, move our stuff, and unpack at our destination. I’m all done with that part of moving.

We are 100% decided at this point that when we leave Tennessee we will head to Mexico, to the city of Mazatlán on the Pacific coast. We enjoyed our time in San Miguel de Allende, but knew that while we could happily live in Mexico, SMA was not the right place for us for a variety of reasons.

Why did we choose Mazatlán?

  • It’s beach town on the same latitude as Hawaii but with a much, much, much lower cost of living. We can easily afford an oceanside modern condo or apartment, or a house with an ocean view and Pacific breezes as well as a housekeeper (and gardener if needed).
  • We thought the cost of living in San Miguel de Allende was fantastic, but Mazatlán’s COL is even lower. We can live very well there on half of our income. The other half can be used for travel, investment, and saving. And, I can continue to afford to live there if Brett predeceases me.
  • The city has an international airport with direct flights to several American cities (two hours from Phoenix, for example) as well as Mexico City. We can fly from Mazatlán to the U.S. and either up to the northeast to see the girls, or over to Japan. We could afford to visit Japan and the girls every year as well as travel to another destination in the world.
  • Although our health and dental insurance cover us worldwide, good health and dental care are available and extremely affordable in Mazatlán. As we age, we can also afford to hire home health assistance if needed.
  • There is a large expat community in Mazatlán, but not an overwhelmingly large one like there was in San Miguel de Allende. There is a tourist season, with an influx of snowbirds and visitors, but nothing approaching the numbers of SMA or cities further down the coast such as Puerto Vallarta or Acapulco.
  • The city has well-run public transportation, and we would not need a car there (two of our daughters are already interested in purchasing our car from us).
  • Mazatlán’s weather is hot and dry. It can be quite hot during the summer and into the early fall, but the rest of the year is pleasant and warm. There are numerous walking venues, and a long, accessible beach. The city is known for it seafood, shrimp especially.

Will we move all of our stuff to Mazatlán? Yes – it would be an affordable move. We like the stuff we’ve purchased here and if it holds up we plan to keep it.

Mazatlán has everything we want, from an oceanside location to a low cost of living that will allow us to continue to travel while still being settled somewhere. We will get everything we want at a cost we can afford. We’ve got two years to go here in Nashville, but we’re back in savings mode once again so that when the time comes we’ll be ready to make our move!