We arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona at the end of May. We drove here from California in a rental car to minimize our exposure to other people along the way. Alison’s sister and brother in law offered to let us rent their VRBO in Flagstaff for a few months so we could stay near them and have Alison’s Mom stay with us. They even set the house up for us with our spare luggage which they store for us, and some cookware from their kitchen since they know how much we love to cook and eat at home.
After we arrived in Flagstaff we quarantined ourselves for two weeks in our new rental since we had just spent a month near my family in California who are pretty much all working in healthcare. We wanted to have a clean slate before we picked up Alison’s Mom from her retirement place in Tempe! Our plan way back then, less than two months ago but a million years in “Covid time,” was to spend June and July in isolation together and then to take Alison’s Mom back to her retirement place around August 1. After that Alison and I thought we would travel to Scotland where we still had a month-long booking that we had originally planned to enjoy with Mom this summer. We loved staying in that same house on the Isle of Skye last year with Mom and we know how to stay in isolation there, so it seemed like a good option to keep after we had canceled everything else from this year’s travel plans.
But while we were hanging around our rental house here in Flagstaff, cooking and working on projects and having a great time, COVID-19 got much worse in Arizona and across the USA. Back in Mom’s retirement place case numbers were also increasing. We heard there were 22 staff plus two residents who tested positive, including one of Mom’s friends. We assume more residents have had COVID-19 since they aren’t in a real quarantine there. But since they aren’t testing residents unless they end up in a hospital bed there’s no way to know how much community spread is happening back at the retirement place right now.
Bottom line – we decided we are NOT comfortable taking Mom back there right now. We know Mom has to go home someday. But community spread seems out of control in Arizona right now (and in lots of other places in the USA). So we decided to change our plans again.
So now what are we gonna do?
The real answer is, we have no idea! Since we both love planning it’s frustrating to be in limbo. But thanks to COVID-19 and the lack of a national strategy in the USA to cope with this deadly virus, we Americans are all in this thing that feels like a dirty swimming pool together now.
Alison and I can’t plan out our entire lives in this moment, but we have to have some idea of what our life will look like over the next year so we don’t fall into a mess of anxiety and uncertainty! Alison and I have talked through about a million different options over the past two months. Multiple times. The big topics all seem to fall under two basic categories: whether we can keep traveling full time, or whether it’s time to find a permanent home base in the USA.
As we struggled with these options I decided to read through the details of our existing international health insurance policy again. I verified that our current international health plan limits us to only 180 days in the USA each year. With that 180 day timeline as a critical part of eligibility for our existing health insurance, the pressure is on to come up with a plan.
How can we even think of traveling right now?
It’s ok. Feel free to ask the big question. You won’t be the first…
We arrived back in the USA from Mexico on May 3. Which means if we want to keep our existing health insurance plan we have to leave our home country by October 28 at the very latest and stay out of the USA for the rest of the year.
Can’t we just scrap our plans and our existing health insurance now, and get health insurance in the USA? Yes we can do that. We have been researching what our ACA premiums would be every year since 2018 just to stay aware of what that would cost. In the last two months we have researched ACA costs for various cities within multiple states, because ACA pricing is different from place to place. The locations we researched include Arizona where we are now, California where we were both born, and Washington State where we lived together until we quit our jobs and started traveling. Now that we don’t have a home of our own it’s kind of hard to pick one location and commit to it. We honestly don’t feel ready for that kind of decision today. We have also considered the alternative of getting what is commonly referred to as “RV health insurance” for people who live a nomad life within the USA. I haven’t fully priced those options at this point but I will look into them further if we don’t travel in October.
Why do we love travel?
The truth is, Alison and I both still have our hopes set on continuing our international nomad lifestyle. For us travel is about staying connected to a diverse group of people, and contributing to different communities all over the world. Of course the world has changed tremendously over the last six months due to COVID-19, and we have changed too. No doubt it will be much harder to continue meeting people and building friendships in other countries (that is the change that will be the hardest for us). But full time travel is more than a lifestyle, it’s like a religion for us. There’s something really meaningful about choosing a lifestyle where we are always guests, and where we stay in a constant state of gratitude and learning.
We know if travel is at all possible now we will have to make a lot of changes. We are more than willing to adapt! When we travel again we will wear masks, and we don’t mind being in quarantine after we move to a new place. We are comfortable staying more isolated. And we are happy to give people extra space if we are around others. We want to continue traveling when it’s safe to do so, while being thoughtful and respectful of the communities we visit.
We have learned that tourism is essential for many economies around the world, and it’s also essential for many of the individuals and families we have met during our travels. That’s not just my opinion, any thoughtful international traveler can describe some examples of how tourism can be damaging. Tourists, travelers, and expats sometimes behave badly in the countries they are lucky enough to be guests in. Tourism can exploit and commercialize local cultures, disrespect traditional customs and codes of conduct, and direct wealth and development into spots where foreigners benefit while neglecting the local people who need it most. And now there’s a new form of disrespectful tourism, where travelers from the USA arrive in other countries and ignore COVID-19 precautions, restrictions, and requirements.
Our previous travel philosophy was that we don’t want to stay in expat wealth pockets where foreigners live in luxury gated communities, excluding local people and pricing them out of their own towns. And now we add to that the promise that we won’t show up in other people’s communities and disrespect their right to health and safety by disregarding COVID-19 precautions. Tourism definitely needs to continue evolving to be more safe and respectful of local communities, especially in this COVID-19 world.
Where will we go next?
It’s amazing to do travel research right now. Reading various national management plans for COVID-19 is reassuring because so many countries are responsibly managing this deadly virus. I have found great examples of national action plans for managing the COVID-19 outbreak and protecting their citizens. With our surging numbers here in the USA, lack of any consistent plan, and huge numbers of people who refuse to do the simplest thing and wear a mask – it’s disappointing to be a citizen of the USA right now. It’s also disappointing to hear stories about travelers from the USA behaving badly in other countries. This headline is just one example: Ireland Has a New Coronavirus Fear: Americans Who Flout Quarantine.
In order to continue with our existing international health insurance plan, we are talking about traveling again in October. We will keep an eye on the progress of COVID-19 here in the USA, and in each of the countries we are considering visiting. If we do travel out of the USA in October, we will know the rules and follow the rules. Our plan would be to return in May of 2021 when two of our nieces are set to graduate, one from high school and another from college. So that means we have seven months to spend outside of the USA.
In order to plan this trip, we first need to identify the governments that will allow us to enter their countries. And then we also want to find local housesit or Airbnb hosts that are comfortable inviting us into their homes and their communities.
We will wear face masks and stay isolated when we resume travel, and be respectful of the communities we visit. Our own personal version of traveling respectfully is going to get an upgrade when we hit the road again.
Plan A: England Housesit + Ireland
The first plan is to travel to England and then hopefully to Ireland after that. We are currently allowed to enter both of those countries. We are allowed to spend six months in the UK, and we are allowed to spend three months in Ireland, so between those two islands in that one region we can make a plan to stay for seven months.
The anchor in this plan is that we still have a housesit booked in southern England in December. We committed to it way back on February 5, and since then we have been in regular contact with our housesit host to check on each other. As of this week it sounds like there’s still a really good chance that will happen as planned. Our host is inviting us into her community, and asking us to help her out by taking care of her dog and home so she can take care of some responsibilities in another location that have been neglected due to COVID-19. We want to keep our commitment to help this person if we can. And keeping our commitment to her will help us keep our health insurance!
Travelers from the USA are currently required to go into a 14 day quarantine upon arrival in the UK. It’s certainly possible that requirement will be lifted by the time we travel to England in October, and if that’s the case we would still do a voluntary 14 day quarantine upon arrival, just like we did when we arrived in the USA on May 3. That’s the plan for us from now on. We would fly to England and get a rental home close to the airport for our quarantine period. A few weeks later we would move to southern England and stay in isolation in that area our housesit starts. And then in mid December we would move to our housesit and stay isolated there until January. We love the idea of taking care of Poppy and the owner’s house during wintery December. And we would also be able to have some social distance visits with our friends in the area. Our fingers are crossed that this housesit happens!
Since we can’t spend more than six months in the UK we plan to travel to Ireland next. Travelers from the USA are required to go into a 14 day quarantine in Ireland upon arrival. We would be traveling to Ireland from England instead of from the USA with this new plan, and it would be February by the time we arrive so things could be very different by that time. We would still go into quarantine upon arrival. And we would still stay in isolation during our stay, giving local people space to protect them and us.
Since we were planning to be in Ireland this summer with Mom we had five different bookings there and canceled all of them due to COVID-19. I had been talking to those people on a fairly regular basis for many months in advance of our planned trip and was really looking forward to meeting each of them. I was sorry to have to cancel and would like to give some of them new bookings when we do travel to Ireland in the future, so I have followed up with them again over the last few weeks to see how they are doing, and to ask for their thoughts on travel these days. Specifically, I asked how they personally feel about inviting travelers from the USA into their homes and their communities right now.
Not surprisingly, at this moment they each said they are nervous about having people from the USA in their communities at this point. These people are spread across Ireland in different regions, with an age range from 34 years old to 72 years old, and living in lots of different circumstances. And they all said they don’t feel comfortable having any visitors from the USA in their communities right now. I don’t blame them! We will not plan to travel to Ireland until there are people who feel comfortable inviting us into their communities. Our fingers are crossed that by next February things will improve enough in the USA to begin to repair the American reputation around the world. And since we will have been living safely outside of the USA for months, hopefully some of these people I have been in contact with will feel safe inviting us into their communities then.
Plan B: England + Scotland + Ireland
If our housesit in England does get canceled, maybe we would keep a similar plan. But instead of spending so much time in southern England we would spend most or even all of those four months north in Scotland since that’s one of our very favorite countries in the world. We have friends and contacts in both England and Scotland who know us and trust us enough to invite us into their communities already, so that makes those places seem more accessible to us.
With this plan we would still have the six month limit in the UK to deal with, so after Scotland we would plan to hop next door to spend some time in Ireland just like we plan to do if our housesit does happen.
Plan C: The Americas
Traveling to England, Scotland, and Ireland might be unreasonable in October, and if that’s the case we will stay closer to home. Staying on our own island, the American continental chain, is a good backup plan for keeping our existing health insurance. We can’t travel into Canada right now, but we are allowed to head south into Mexico. And honestly Mexico feels like home after staying there for more than four months earlier this year.
Upon arrival in Mexico, travelers need to go through health screenings like temperature checks, and fill out documents confirming lack of known exposure or any symptoms. We faced those same health screenings in Mexico earlier this year, and appreciated the effort from their officials to do something. Especially since we had zero health screenings or any form of guidance or restrictions when we arrived in Texas and then California when we traveled back to the USA in May. If travelers into Mexico are symptomatic the guidelines clarify that you would be asked to either return to the USA or quarantine in Mexico.
We like the idea of returning to Mexico this year since we have good friends there. I reached out to our friends, and our previous housesit and Airbnb hosts in Mexico, to ask how they would feel about having people from the USA visit their communities right now. They all said they are comfortable with having us return now. These folks are all used to comingling with people from the USA and feel comfortable having people from the USA in their communities, as long as we wear masks and respect local guidelines. We share the same land mass and all live in North America, plus we also share a lot of history and customs, and government issues as well. Basically, we are already in the same swimming pool to some degree.
We are allowed to stay in Mexico for six months so we need to add at least one more country to this trip. Argentina is at the top of our list for new destinations in the Americas so I’ve added that as a good option for our next stop after Mexico. Today we are not allowed to travel into Argentina, but commercial flights are set to resume after September 1, as of the day I’m writing this post. Nationals and residents of Argentina returning from high-risk COVID-19 countries (like the USA) have to self-isolate for 14 days right now. When travel is open to foreigners like us I assume we would have to quarantine upon arrival, but if not we still would quarantine, and then observe social distancing and self isolate after that.
Since we like having multiple options, we could also skip Argentina, and instead return to Panama or Ecuador since we have friends in those countries asking us to return when we can. All three of these options would give us a three month stay allowance, and all three of these options are essentially closed to us right now. In Argentina and Panama the borders are closed. In Ecuador some flights are resuming now but they require a negative test result from no more than 7 days prior to arrival, and here in the USA that’s damn near impossible to do. Many or all of these restrictions could be removed by February of 2021 when we would be arriving, so we are comfortable leaving this plan up in the air for now. We’ll wait and see how all of these countries are doing with COVID-19 when it’s time to travel and decide at that point if they are open to us and safe to visit.
Plan D – Stay in the USA
Our “Pre COVID-19 Plan” was to travel internationally for at least 10 or 11 months each year, for the next five years or so. After that we figured we would find a new home base in the USA and then travel for shorter periods of about three months at a time. The “travel as a religion thing” that we have experienced is real for us, and it isn’t going away! But, if we can’t or don’t leave the USA in October, that is going to motivate us to completely change our routine and our plans.
First, Health Insurance
If we decide not to leave the USA in October we will immediately get serious about selecting a new insurance plan that covers us in the USA. We would also have to decide whether to keep our residency location as Washington State, which is where we used to live and where we still vote and pay taxes. We have always imagined we will make our future home base somewhere in Washington State again in the future, and maybe that future is now. Or maybe we would switch our residency state to another location, temporarily or maybe for longer. We could pick Arizona since that’s where we are now, and it’s the home state for Alison’s Mom, Alison’s little sister and her husband, and one of our nieces. Or we could use California as our residency state since my little sister, Alison’s older sister, three of our nieces, one of our nephews, and a bunch of other family members live there. Or maybe we’d pick another state? No matter which location we use as our home base, we would continue with high deductible health insurance and make sure there’s no gap in our coverage.
When we did this latest round of research on ACA health insurance costs we wanted to get real numbers to give ourselves a reality check. We were focused on getting quotes that all had a $5,000 family deductible, but as we ran the numbers in each of our location options we realized that was impossible. We knew that premiums would be based in large part on our ages, and that they could vary between different locations, even within one state. But we didn’t realize deductible options would be so different in each location.
So instead of focusing on getting comparisons all based on a $5,000 deductible we switched gears and focused on getting comparisons of the second lowest cost Silver plan (SLCSP) premiums as an anchor point, since Healthcare.gov recommends using that plan level to figure out final premium tax credits. The most alarming thing about that comparison, as shown in the table below, is that the deductibles are vastly different between the quotes. Which makes it clear that even in a situation where premiums are designed to match as closely as possible within this one plan category, that absolutely does not mean these plans have the same costs. And for sure, these plans are not necessarily what we would choose for ourselves. When it’s time to choose a plan we’ll focus on finding the plan, premium, and deductible that are right for us.
Second, Coliving Plans
Spending most of this year and next year in the USA would also motivate us to change our timeline for the next phase of our lives – which is to have a home base somewhere again. That means making our coliving dreams a reality, which would have a major influence over the location and what kind of housing we would choose. And if we’re doing that sooner than later, our budget will be smaller than we would have hoped. But we are confident that we can find something that works for all of us!
Summers with Mom
Our first coliving requirement is spending summers with Alison’s Mom. She used to join us in Seattle during summers when Alison and I lived there. And last year was life changing since we traveled in Europe together for three months. We would have had an amazing time in Europe again this year, but spending the summer here in Flagstaff instead has been a lot of fun. Even without our usual excursions to enjoy tourist activities, we are having a great time. It doesn’t matter where we are, we really enjoy spending time together.
Mom is 81 years old this year so traveling together has to be both safe as well as comfortable in the future. Mom has expressed her concerns about taking more long flights, so this year we were going to make sure she had a first class type of seat on the long flights to Europe. And we could do the same thing next year, but we’re all pretty confident that it’s not going to be safe to travel with Mom internationally next summer either because of COVID-19. And Mom is not at all confident that she will want to travel internationally after age 83. So we are ready to switch gears again.
It seems much more reasonable to spend future summers together in the USA. So we’re already working on our plan for next summer. Mom really only has two requirements for our locations – it has to be pretty and it can’t be hot. There are lots of great options for where we might spend future summers together in the USA!
Our Chosen Family
The second thing to factor in is our dream of creating some kind of coliving situation with one of our close friends, someone who has been like a sibling to Alison for decades. In order to make this happen, we have decided we want to purchase something that would allow us to make a home for ourselves and our chosen family where we could spend time with the people we love.
With this idea in mind we have been looking into as many ideas as we can come up with. Everything from tiny homes on property, to a bigger home with a mother in law space, to a duplex. We are also thinking we might be able to rent our space out to others when we are away from home since that type of arrangement has been so wonderful for us as travelers.
This idea has been something we’ve thought about for years. Even though we didn’t originally plan to make it happen right away, everything we have experienced this year has made us feel like it’s time to start planning right now. So we are talking about our budget, researching different areas, looking at places online, and watching the housing markets. Perhaps we will find a new home base in 2021?
No Idea What Happens Next!
Having all of these options on the table does not change the fact that – we have no idea what will happen next.
We might travel out of the USA in October and stay gone for seven months. We would be grateful to continue with our existing international health insurance. But either way we are sure we will also continue planning our new summer travels in the USA with Mom, and we will also keep working on the idea of making our coliving dreams a reality in the near future.
And if we can’t make those international travel plans happen in October, we are now officially comfortable with that. We’ll stay in the USA for the rest of the year, get new health insurance, and carry on!