Live Like a Local When Traveling Abroad
There are multiple ways to live like you belong there, depending on your budget and how much responsibility you want to shoulder.
Many retirees dream of living like a local in a distant country: speaking a foreign language; living in a cozy house or apartment rather than out of a suitcase, and hanging out with neighbors at local cafes and restaurants.
There are multiple ways to live like a local, depending on your budget and how much responsibility you want to shoulder. The cheapest alternative (no rent) is to house-sit. Or you can find your own budget-friendly lodgings through Airbnb or other listings, and seek out language classes. The most expensive option is to pay thousands to a travel company such as Smithsonian Journeys or Road Scholar, for the convenience of being set up in an apartment, enrolled in language school, and taken on group excursions led by an English-speaking guide, along with other perks. Here are some real-life examples:
Cheryl Higgins, 65, and her husband Mike, 69, retired from the North Las Vegas Police Department in 2007. They didn’t want to stay in the desert, and were interested in Costa Rica, so they answered a housesitting ad in The Caretaker Gazette, a newsletter that lists rent-free living opportunities.
Over 100 people applied, but the Higginses got the call in 2009, inviting them to live for three months on a six-acre property in a small town near Tilaran, about 115 miles northwest of the capital, San Jose. Their responsibilities included feeding and walking the owners’ black Labrador Rottweiler mix, taking the dog for weekly treatments at the vet, feeding farmed tilapia in several ponds around the property and sleeping every night at the house to prevent break-ins. “It wasn’t hard to meet locals and ex-pats,” Cheryl says. “We hiked the hills, went into town, explored on foot and by bus, and went out to dinner with neighbors. We could get a great meal for $3. And we took advantage of inexpensive dental and medical costs.”
They didn’t have a car, which was a drawback. “It was a miserable one-mile walk to the bus stop, straight up a hill on a dirt road,” Higgins said. However, when they were able to use the owner’s truck once a week to take the dog to the vet, they shopped and ran errands. All in all, it was a valuable learning experience, and they hardly spent any money, just airfare and food. But they decided against settling there. “Costa Rica has horrible infrastructure, too many potholes and power outages, and weak internet connections,” says Higgins. “Plus, lots of bugs and poisonous snakes, and a high property crime rate, especially against expats.”
After Costa Rica, the couple explored southern Chile and Ireland through other house-sitting gigs.
“I still look at ads in The Caretaker Gazette, but we’ve been in Vancouver, Wash., for 10 years now and it’s hard to find a better place,” Higgins says. “Our goal was to find out what it was like to live in these destinations and do it on the cheap.”
Gary Dunn, The Caretaker Gazette’s publisher, said people looking for the perfect place to retire have been his main audience since he started the publication 38 years and 100,000 subscribers ago. Each year, subscribers receive over 1,000 property caretaking and house-sitting opportunities, such as a house in Devon, England, and a small coral island in Belize. Most listings don’t offer transportation or compensation, and duties range from watering plants and caring for pets to acting as a full-time property manager. “Every situation is unique,” Dunn says.
To avoid misunderstandings, he advises house-sitters and owners to put all duties in writing, with both parties signing. And homeowners should leave contact information for themselves, as well as a list of repair people to call if anything breaks.
For the past 10 winters, Paula Eiblum, 81, of Bethesda, Md., has traveled to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she keeps a year-round rental apartment to use for three months. “I used to look for a new place every year, but it’s hard to find a short-term rental,” she says.
A retired business owner who has been widowed for 15 years, she returns every year. “I came here to study Spanish, but my prime interests are painting and cultural opportunities,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone at first, but my classmates at Spanish school became my lifelong friends. Everyone in my circle is a retiree in their 70s.”
San Miguel de Allende has a thriving ex-pat community, which complicates her quest to befriend locals. “There is so much to do here—lectures, movies, concerts, poetry readings. I have to discipline myself to paint at certain hours every day,” Eiblum says.
She lives in the center of town and walks everywhere, and buys groceries at the local supermarket. She takes art workshops and volunteers regularly to encourage literacy in nearby villages.
Health care is not a worry. Doctors and dentists there are well-trained and charge less than in the U.S. The winter weather is mild. She carries evacuation insurance in case of a major illness or accident. “Life is more spontaneous here, with more access to culture. It’s greatly expanded my horizons. People here who have very little can live with joy,” she says.
Eiblum adheres to some of the recommendations travel experts make about living like a local, such as staying in a central location and not needing a car. She also eats out at local haunts, joining a group of 30 to 40 women every week for a ladies night at a restaurant that offers bargain margaritas. She shops locally and engages with shopkeepers and neighbors.
Use a Travel Company
When Donna Seifert, 70, a retired archeologist, wanted to improve her Spanish by a total immersion, she chose two six-week Road Scholar Living and Learning Programs. She went to Seville, Spain, in 2017, and Cuenca, Ecuador, in 2019. In both places she was part of a group of eight people who lived in apartments near one another, attended language school in the mornings, and had the afternoons for wandering, doing homework, attending lectures, or pursuing their own interests. On weekends, there were optional field trips organized by the group leader. “It worked,” Seifert says. “In Spain I was matched with a local speaking partner who wanted to practice his English. We switched off speaking in both languages, visited old churches, had coffee together and walked around for a few hours twice a week. In Cuenca, I befriended a little old lady who sold baskets in the town market three times a week.”
Seifert said both experiences were “more like living than vacationing. I never spent so much money to work so hard. It was a real luxury to focus on learning a language.” Back home in Santa Fe, she uses her Spanish to support court advocates who assist clients of a local domestic violence shelter, which was her goal.
Road Scholar’s six-week Living and Learning Programs are in seven destinations, such as Paris, Florence and Verona. The program will expand to 12 destinations, including Japan, in September. Current programs are modeled after college semester abroad programs with fees ranging from about $7,000 to $11,000, plus airfare and living costs, says Joann Bell, senior vice president for program development. For example, a 45-day, $8,599 (plus airfare and expenses) Bordeaux program includes 18 group meals, and two nights on a field trip to the Basque country. For $9,499, you can enroll in a culinary and cultural track.
Smithsonian Journeys offers 23-day independent living programs to Florence (starting at $5,390, plus airfare and expenses such as course fees, some meals and incidentals), and Aix–en–Provence (starting at $4,790, plus airfare and expenses). The Provence stay includes day trips to Avignon and the Pont du Gard, Marseille and the Luberon Valley, as well as Cezanne’s studio and home.
Both Smithsonian and Road Scholar programs require participants to be fit enough to walk a few miles a day and get around on public transportation. “I love to learn, and feel like I’m part of a city. But as a single traveler, as I get older, I like the security of having a person to go to on-site,” says Linda Linderman, 74, a retired librarian from Dallas who was part of the 15-person Aix-en-Provence group in the fall of 2019.
Bell of Road Scholar says Living and Learning combines traveling and immersion in a destination with others and having a group leader, who serves as an in-house concierge while living like a local: “We create camaraderie. We show you around. You live in safe areas. We vet the education. You will meet like-minded people.”
Karen Ledwin, vice president of program management of Smithsonian Journeys, says many of their travelers have always wanted to live in Provence or Florence. “They can immerse in one place for three weeks, but with support, comraderie and structure.” To travelers like Seifert and Linderman, who want to live like locals but with a safety net, these programs are well worth the cost.