This Couple Has Lived 1,000 Nights in Airbnbs
Some brands have their fans—and then they have their superfans. Apple has legions of fanboys (and fangirls). Harry Potter has Potterheads. T.J. Maxx has Maxxionistas. Beyoncé has the Beyhive. And home-sharing platform Airbnb has Debbie and Michael Campbell.
Four years ago, the Seattle couple—at the time ages 58 and 68, respectively—retired, cleared out their home and put their belongings in storage, and set off to “live” their retirement in Airbnb listings all around the world. They didn’t stop. This month marks the fourth straight year of their life as “Senior Nomads,” and tomorrow night they will hit another milestone, spending their 1,000th night in someone else’s home procured through Airbnb. They’ll mark the occasion in a one-bedroom apartment done up in minimalist, Scandinavian decor in the heart of Strasbourg, France (“Calme et spacieux au centre ville,” reads the listing’s headline).
“We’ve always said as long as we’re having fun, we’re learning, we’re within our budget and in love, we’re going to keep going,” says Michael, adding they still meet all four conditions. All told, the couple has been traveling for almost 1,500 days; the balance of those nights has been spent with family or friends, in one-night hotel stays, on a few weeks of safari, and one overnight train in South Africa. Otherwise, it’s been in Airbnbs—148 of them in 67 countries, to be exact.
The idea took root in late 2012, when Mary, one of the Campbells’ four adult children, was visiting with her husband and daughter from France. The topic of retirement naturally came up: Michael had a successful career in sports and events marketing, while Debbie had her own graphic design firm. Retirement was still on the horizon, but they didn’t have any specific ideas for it. “We didn’t have a clear lifetime goal of retiring in Palm Springs or Sarasota, Florida,” says Michael. Their daughter spotted a travel “wish list” of 37 countries they had going on the refrigerator, and made a suggestion: Why didn’t they just travel full time, using Airbnb?
Her parents had never heard of the company. But the seed of an idea was planted, and after three months crunching the numbers (“I’m married to a walking spreadsheet,” Debbie says) they determined that if they stuck to a budget of $90 per night and kept their expenses contained, they could indeed actually “live” on Airbnb for about the same amount they would spend retired in Seattle. They rented out their townhouse, sold their car and their boat, wound down their businesses, procured health insurance and visas, took care of the mail, and in July 2013 bought six-month round trip tickets to Paris, where they would set out after a visit with their daughter and her family. They had decided to concentrate their initial travels in Europe, since they were familiar with it, and the return ticket was a hedge in case they didn’t like it. But they did—a lot. They headed back out after Christmas that year; came back for their son’s wedding nine months later; and set back out again. Two years in, they sold their home.
At first they were nervous to send messages to strangers on the website. “It was like the end of the diving board, outside our comfort zone,” Michael says. They were also self-conscious that they were older. “It’s like, oh my god, are people going to want to have these old people?”
But the nerves dissipated with use, and in the time since, they’ve been all over the world. After traveling all over Western Europe, they turned to the far reaches of Eastern Europe, including 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics. Then it was onward to the Baltics, the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Africa, Cuba and, recently, Central Asia, with stops in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. All told, they’ve visited 200 cities. (They have returned to the U.S. four times, usually extended trips to see family.) They pick where to go based on their interests: 20th Century European history, the birth and collapse of the USSR, and sports; Michael has been to more than two dozen European football matches—including a World Cup qualifying match in Athens to which their host, Vasely, sped him to the stadium on the back of his motorcycle. They also closely follow current events; they spent two weeks in London last year to experience the Brexit vote and its aftermath in person (making the Campbells perhaps the first but not the last Brexit tourists). While in Kiev, they took a day tour of Chernobyl that required them to carry personal Geiger counters. For all their love of the far-flung, their most-visited country is Italy, where they’ve stayed in 30 different cities, followed closely by France. They shy away from naming a favorite destination, though if you press them they may admit to Croatia.
The Campbells have their systems down to a science: They book six to eight weeks in advance and adhere strictly to a budget of $90 per night. When you’re on vacation for two weeks, Michael points out, you can go over budget, but doing so every night for 365 nights would be out of the question. “We are fortunate to have a nest egg,” says Debbie. “It is not an ostrich egg, but it is not a robin’s egg either, so we need to stick to our budget.” They try to conserve in places they visit where cost of living is cheaper to reserve the ability to go over budget in cities that are more expensive (“We need the Yerevans to pay for the Parises,” as Michael puts it, referring to the capital of Armenia, where they stayed for $40 per night). They almost always ask if the host is flexible on price (their host in Strasbourg, they say, “fell in love with our story of 1,000 nights” and offered a discount, plus they decided to splurge for the occasion, so they spent $123 per night). They stay for an average of 7 to 10 days per listing. Travel days are typically on Saturdays, when they push ‘play’ on Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” on the compact Bluetooth speakers they travel with and begin the ritual of the “pack ‘n clean,” a two-hour process. “It’s like the circus—knock it down, pack it up,” says Michael.
It’s not lost on the Campbells that they could not do any of this without technology: not just Airbnb or the Web itself, but tools like Google translate, online banking, their Kindles, Skype, Facetime and the flight apps they have become reliant on, like Rome2Rio and Skyscanner. They also keep meticulous analog journals, having sent 15 or 20 of them back to the U.S. to avoid the extra weight.
One thing they are adamant about: They are not on vacation. As they see it, they are simply living their daily life in retirement in other people’s homes. So while they see the sights, they are also homebodies: They cook almost all of their meals (their budget doesn’t allow for much dining out), read books, and play Scrabble, cribbage, backgammon and dominos (there is a spreadsheet with their results). And they work, writing countless blog posts or researching and booking future accommodations. For these reasons, when they look for Airbnb listings, they look closely for a good kitchen, a big dining room table, a washing machine, and a location close to the center of the city. (They rent out the entire space rather than staying in shared situations.) They save by taking public transportation whenever possible and taking flights at odd hours. The don’t buy souvenirs (Debbie’s rule of thumb: “if you can’t eat it, drink it, attend it, or get somewhere on it, then don’t buy it”). For the first year, they spent 15 percent more than what they calculated they would have spent had they stayed in Seattle; the second year they came a little closer; and last year, Michael calculated, they were even.
Mostly, they have been very happy with their listings, delighting in places like the apartment in Hvar that was on the water and “gorgeous,” with new furnishings and appliances, for around $70 per night, or the sailboat they stayed on in the Cinque Terre, or the house dug into the side of a cliff in Salzburg. Even the rustic listing in Kigali, Rwanda, where the kitchen and bathroom were outside the living quarters, had its charms.
Out of 148 listings, they’ve had one negative experience, a listing in Amsterdam where they discovered that the beautiful photo they’d seen of the quaint home with picturesque windowboxes turned out to be a photo of the house on the other side of the street—and the host was generally “unpleasant.” They occasionally make mistakes, like recently booking a place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, without a table. “We pick some duds sometimes,” says Michael. A recent stay in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, was the “best of a bad selection” and had little charm.
But one thing they’ve also learned is that a good host can make up for a subpar listing. Their host in Kazakhstan, for example, secured them tickets to a sold-out performance of Cirque du Soleil. “One of the things we’ve always said is that a good host can make a mediocre place fine because they’re so engaging and helpful and so proud of their city, and they’ll just do anything for you,” says Debbie. Another lesson: especially in developing countries, if the outside of the building looks run-down, withhold your judgment until you get inside the actual space you’ve rented. “In some of these countries, people are just coming out of financial challenges but they have no control over the exterior of the building or the common area,” Debbie says. “We have really come to be brave in that we will go into just about any building.”
Other tips: read the reviews closely—and adjust for those written by Americans, who “don’t like to write negative reviews,” says Michael. Engage in some back-and-forth with your host a few times before you get there so there’s an existing relationship by the time you show up. Don’t be afraid to make minor fixes when need be, whether replacing a bulb or oiling a squeaky door. And know that wherever you are in the world, it will still take three remote controls to operate the television.
The Campbells have become quasi-celebrities in the Airbnb universe, speaking to employees in various locations around the world and at the annual Airbnb Open events. They have a robust website, seniornomads.com, that has more than 120 detailed blog posts, photos, an array of media coverage, and an index of every Airbnb where they’ve stayed. They were the subject of a New York Times article a few years back that became the most-read article on the publication’s home page for a week. Last year, they published a book about their experience, Your Keys, Our Home. That early nervousness they felt back in the summer of 2013 has given way to a confidence, almost a swagger, now that they have a “body of work” behind them and some notoriety.
They also feel they have learned how to be more patient and to be more open to taking risks. And they don’t feel they sacrificed anything by not staying home. They say they’re as in touch if not more with their children and grandchildren: They see their daughter Mary and her family in France regularly; the others are back in the U.S. so they see them less often, but they feel as “busy” grandparents they are serving as good role models. They don’t feel lonely—“instead of our world shrinking, our world has grown”—and their relationship, they say, has deepened. “We’re swimming in the same direction all the time,” says Debbie.
And yet with all that, they feel that their time as nomads may soon be coming to an end. They’re scheduled to return to Seattle at the end of August and stay through Christmas, after which point they will need to decide whether to set back out on the road again, or to think about finally settling down and unpacking their storage unit somewhere. It’s a tough call: Last year, they abandoned plans to go to Australia and New Zealand in favor of taking a “sharp turn” to Africa; the region is still really calling to them. Besides, last year during one extended return trip to Seattle, they house sat for six weeks and found they weren’t quite ready to be in one place for that long. “We loved the house, but I have to say I was a little antsy,” says Michael. By the time it came for them to leave, he says, “we were ready to go.”