Seattle Couple Packs Up, Lives Full-Time In Airbnb Rentals Around The World

Dec 15, 2016

About four years ago, Debbie and Michael Campbell were sitting around the house with their daughter, Mary, who lives in Paris and was visiting Seattle for the holidays.

They were talking about what Debbie and Michael might do in their retirement. Travel was at the top of the list.

“She asked us if we had ever heard of Airbnb, which we had not,” Michael Campbell said. “So she promptly opened up her laptop and gave us a little tour.”

Airbnb is a website that lets private citizens rent out their homes. And after giving it a shot, the Campbells ended up selling their house in Seattle and much of what they own, and taking to the road full-time. They now call themselves "The Senior Nomads."

“We have just stayed in our 126th Airbnb, and we’ve been to 56 countries and 170 cities,” Debbie Campbell said.

Most of their travels have been in Europe, but they’ve also gone to Cuba, Israel, Morocco and Turkey. They’re hoping to add more of Asia and Africa to the list soon. They’ve chronicled their journeys in a book called “Your Keys, Our Home,” and are invited to speak at Airbnb events – but they’re not spokespeople for the company, nor are they paid to promote it.

Being Together

The Campbells have been married for 38 years. But travel can put a strain on even the longest relationships. So, has it changed theirs?

“Today is day 1,257,” Debbie Campbell said, laughing. “But so far so good. It’s different than living day-to-day in a relationship at home, when you’re both working and doing all the different things and you might not see each other until after dinner. We see each other all the time.”

There are some tricks: They always ask for two sets of keys to wherever they’re staying, and they’re sure to do different things from time to time. Michael will tour City Hall while Debbie goes to the market, for example.

Living Locally

The idea was to travel, but also to just live life. So wherever they go, they’re doing the things they would still do in Seattle – making dinner at home and paying bills for housing and other needs.

They try to live locally – and also want to point out that doing so is very different than being a local, Michael Campbell said.

“Let’s be realistic; we’re not from Bulgaria,” he said. “We’re never going to know Sofia, the capital city where we visited, like a local. But for the week or two we were there we tried to be as local as possible. We were living in someone’s apartment. We went grocery shopping in the neighborhood. We take the garbage out. We take the Metro. We take the bus.”

They budget on a spreadsheet. They communicate via Skype and other methods with family and friends. They plan carefully where they’re going next and what it will take to get there.

But they also visit big museums and historical sites. They talk to locals. And they take walking tours.

“We try to see the city from ground level,” Debbie Campbell said. “Of course, you wouldn’t miss the most important sites in Rome and Oslo and Paris, and places that we go, the big cities. … We’ve traded souvenirs for memories.”

Can Anyone Do This?

Yes, but let’s define “this.”

The particular form of travel the Campbells are doing – full time, with no home base – requires a big change. They sold their house, their car, their boat, and most of their things. They keep a small storage unit in Seattle with some items and an 11-year-old car they use when they’re in town. But otherwise, everything is in two suitcases.

The Campbells spend about $85 per night for their stay – but that average is based on a variety of stays in places both expensive and not.

Becoming a full-time traveler might not be the right call for you. But Debbie Campbell said the overall goal of going somewhere and blending into the local scene is certainly attainable.

“You can scale this,” she said. Go for a week. Go for 10 days. “Try this living local lifestyle, because meeting people in other countries is the biggest reward we’ve taken from this.”

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"Going Places" is 88.5's weekly exploration of travel. Michael and Debbie Campbell are our special guests this week. Our usual travel expert, Matthew Brumley of Earthbound Expeditions, will be back soon.