Hello from Cannaregio, the northernmost sestieri of Venice. We're on the legit, real, away-message-on portion of our summer trip.
After sharing a bit about how we navigate time and space and talk to clients, I'm back with a few specifics on tools we use and how we answer the question most people are afraid to ask but most curious about: how we pay for five weeks away.
You Asked: What tools are necessary to make it work?
Our first summer we brought a Magic Jack with us and a Google phone number. A Magic Jack, y'all. It still cracks me up. We've updated and improved since we headed off to Iceland in 2010.
Now we travel as light as we can. Until the ban laptops and god knows what else, here's a breakdown of some of the hardware and software that keeps us up and running.
Hardware & Software THAT's Goodware
I work on a Macbook Air. It is all I need to be super productive. I keep most stuff on Google Drive at home and while abroad.
Before we leave, we make sure BackBlaze is all caught up and drop as much essential family treasures and info into an external hard drive, which is also set to BackBlaze. That not only ensure a disaster isn't a legacy-eraser but clears up storage for the eleven billion photos I take.
We bring extra travel adapters and ensure some are surge protector quality. I tend to charge my phone through my laptop to save on an adapter and because I'm lazy. One year we had an adapter strip and it was awesome!
PS: Keep all your adapters in a bag and put them right back in the minute you get home, hell keep all your travel/work stuff in one place. I've bought Western Europe adapters in 1998, 2003, 2009, 2012. Didn't have to this year because I finally put them in ONE place.
Phones & Accessories
Data plans. Beyond looking into a travel credit card, a cell phone is the other fast place you get dinged. We add the 100 plan on Verizon and immediately get into a fight about data. Next year we intend to look more aggressive about T-Mobile which has a plan that doesn't impact our stress levels and bottom line so dang much. (I started this draft our first week in Vienna. I have done a crap job managing my data.)
I also recommend a supplemental phone charger. I use this subtle orange Jackery. I charge it (also on my laptop) and it keeps me feeling secure when I need my German translation app (all the time). I don't know what the light is for, but it's there too.
For next year I'm flirting with the idea of some kind of waterproof case. There are times I want to take my phone out for pictures but there's too much risk of me hurling it off the side of a boat.
I will not and cannot carry a selfie stick. They make me want to scream.
PS: I also carry a Nikon D70 with a couple lenses and a Domke bag that's probably 100 years old at this point. It holds infinite amount of stuff. At the end of the night tonight mine contained: a scarf to enter churches, a half a bottle of white wine, two small glasses, a change of clothes + water bottle for the kid, my wallet, my camera, endless loose change + ephemera and may phone and extra charger. At least.
Apps & Software
I don't have a huge arsenal of apps that get me through the day. Skype, Google Drive and Instagram, but yea, you know that.
Slack. Amirite? You probably know that one too. Beyond how useful it is at home, it's the best way to be in real time (or not) with teams. It keeps me in touch with my Forth gals and the larger teams I work with. I can also post and if folks have sleepy notifications set not worry that I'm waking them up.
Pocket has been a lifesaver. If you are used to pulling up an article and reading it on your phone out in the world, you will blow through your data in one good think piece on the crap state of things. Instead, I save a billion articles at home and read my face off (leveraging the Jackery) while Lo plays at playgrounds (or you are reading at a café you sophisticated beast).
Harvest is my go-to for time tracking, all the time forever. Not really travel related, but just wanted to share. I do like that I can track invoices due dates to make sure we can pay ourselves on time.
I recently started leveraging the free version of Calendly to try to schedule calls without totally screwing up time zones. I'll let you know how it goes!
Google Maps. We make a color coded map for each city we are headed to (I'm writing up a post on that on our family blog). BUT! Beyond that dorkiness, you can download a local map with your saved places onto your phone. It's a great way to create your dream day and it's a great way to navigate offline. Here's how to do it!
Mac's Messenger app connected to my cell number is a simple one but in terms of not chewing up data, I try to do my not-necessary-but-necessary texting to my girlfriends about things I think are ridiculous when I'm on Wifi and on my laptop. What about What's App? I know, I should know. I don't. Sorry, guys.
You Asked: How do you deal with connectivity and network stuff?
We complain about our Comcast Internet on the regular. It feels archaic. For all those complaints, we've yet to have better Wifi in any place we've stayed, ever. (Update. Our apartment in Budapest had CRAZY good wifi). It might be that like Americans with their giant closets and 10 bathroom houses, we think BIG and FAST is normal and everyone here is cool with shops being closed on Sundays and totally passable internet.
Our most recent Uber driver shared a tool that gives pretty great Wifi for 20 euro per month and costs 100 to start. Sounds super appealing but who know what great Wifi means for someone not uploading cuckoo big files or whatever it is that Brett does. I will report back if we purchase one! We're totes buying a Wifi/laptop antenna booster. Why we haven't yet? I dunno.
So, yes, we deal with connectivity issues. A lot. We make sure we both don't have major things scheduled at the same time (and if we do, one goes phone and the other Skype) and make sure non-imperative devices are turned to airplane more, including Bluetooth stuff like a wireless mouse. We're like stewardesses, trolling the house looking for offenders.
We also find the house's sweet spot. How? Get ready for dorkdom. If you are on a Mac, Opt click on your wireless network then while holding down Opt again click the wifi signal again and that reveals this hidden set of info about the network and adds new options to your menu. One is <Open Wireless Diagnostics> Click that and it opens and at the top is a menu. Under Windows, select <Performance>.
Then wander the space with your laptop like it's a divinging rod and you get information on the quality of the connection and data rate (speed). This house? It flips between 35 mbs to 350 kbs which is like resurrecting a dial up modem and your dot matrix printer. (PS: Once you do the Opt Click thing once it stays active so you have it as an feature without holding down Option.)
No joke, you can also figure out the orientation of your computer's antenna and the Wifi router it can make a huge difference.
No joke, no joke. You can also build a sun-tan worthy tin foil extender to surround the back of your antenna to boost it.
In rural France with at one point five adults each with at least two devices things got hairy. Most of the time, these lil' tricks help enough that I stop complaining and Brett's content enough.
You asked: How do we plan for these trips as independents?
There's two pieces of this to me. First there's the straight up time to work, which I talked about here.
We structure the trips mentally as weeks of working with weekends of good stuff. Over the course of the month, those weekends become a week or so of tourist goodness in a new place. Add in all the other stuff we do during the week when we work at night and we get a great sense of a place while still keeping the work lamps lit.
It is not for everyone. If you will be lured into sleeping in or spending more, you will come out behind. I've claimed it before but I swear having a kid who has to be home and sleeping is a good thing for our bottom line. There are hours we simply are not out doing stuff and we can work.
We even talk with the kid about the choices we make so we can make choices. She knows we stayed a bit out of the central area in Hallstatt because, welp, that way we could go to Hallstatt. We don't do every tour, go into every museum, go to all three caves if there are three caves. We pick and choose the same way we would on a shorter vacation.
The second piece is how manage work and money the rest of the time. It probably varies greatly for every person and it's changed just in the time we've been together and making it work. Just know that if you try it and reflect and document and plan, you can begin to find the trends and problem spots and ways to save and do it.
One piece is planning our income to make these trips possible, before we go. We work with a financial planner, Brian Plain. We do even though it is also an added expense. He's awesome and is focused specifically on Gen-X and younger families. Instead of being product based, selling us the next batch of life insurance, he understands and champions the lifestyle families want now and in the future and guides conversations about what changes we can make or need to make or don't need to make. He has rolled with us through us having incredible months of work but no money coming in (we called it Cash Crunch 2016) and patiently sat through my post-election let's buy gold and stash it under the mattress freak outs. We really appreciate Brian and his blend of realistic support, you can learn more about him here.
He helps us make sure we're meeting our other obligations (retirement, taxes, cash flow on the daily) while helping us map out trips as an integral part of our life.
You Probably Want to Ask: Yea, but how do we really afford the trips? For real.
How rude! I kid.
The thing folks really want to know is about how many dollars it takes and how we get those dollars. I get it. I really do. Especially once folks realize we aren't trust funders or independently wealthy. Oh, how I wish we were! I'd be an awesome independently wealthy person. We do put a ton of it on credit cards while we are here as we got that international card, but we don't spend more than we have. I'm married to someone who physically cannot do that or he implodes.
Instead, we pay for it by prioritizing the trips. Whenever we make any financial decisions down to how much clothes shopping we do or how often we GrubHub the trip is in the back of our minds. I'd order in all the time if I could. But I'd rather travel. We plan in small ways all year, setting aside for taxes and other expenses throughout the year so we aren't slammed.
If you want to do this as a whim, it's not easy. If you build it into your choices about work and life along the way, it's still not easy. Or fun. But it makes it doable. And that's worth it to all of us.
It impacts everything from the size house we have (big enough but no bigger) to our gifts to one another during the year. We drive a million year old car and, despite my deep desire, have not redone our downstairs bathroom. We don't take other big vacations during the year minus weddings and visiting family.
We took one year off as it didn't seem like a financially smart decision and have worked since then to make it feasible and responsible.
Take housing. We rent our house out (I'll share more about that on our family blog soon). That helps us set a rough budget for housing for the month. We find an Airbnb that offers a monthly discount. If you search hard and carefully, many spaces offer discounts for a week or a month. So we leverage the time away to our benefit. If we went for just a week or so, we wouldn't get that discount and we'd be inclined to spend more time out and less time working. So the longer time actually works better for us.
We pick places that might not be super central but, because we're there for a month, we don't feel stressed about fitting everything into two days.
And then there's eating. We eat at home more than you probably want to on a vacation. Because it's not a vacation. We eat out on weekends and maybe once a week, much like we do at home but even during the vacation portion of the trip, we're shopping and cooking.
The kid and I ate a picnic lunch nearly every day we were out together. We even bring a jar of peanut butter with us because we've been burned before. A giant, giant jar.
We also aren't huge shoppers-for-souvenirs on trips. We pick up a Christmas tree ornament and a few things for the kid and that's about it. Not only do we not want a lot of crap in our house, we can't afford the crap and we want our kid to see what travel is about for us. Which is, for us, not crap. She's picked out a couple small things over five weeks. Not bad considering she asks for everything everywhere.
And, you know, we work.
While I might not crank at 100% of my full earning power, I might have an off month in November, too. So I don't look at it as closely as "how much did I make this month" vs looking at whether we are meeting our monthly and quarterly and yearly goals each month.
We are fortunate to earn enough to make these kinds of adventures possible, even if they aren't easy. A benefit is we are protective of our rates and our schedules and the kinds of partners and projects we take because it's a thing we're thinking about when we plan our work lives.
WRAP IT UP ALREADY
You Asked: What's the biggest challenge we've had to face on a trip?
Honest to goodness, we're a good team. We have one fight each trip which ranges on a variety of things, is generally short lived and leads to a real good conversation.
Our kid is easy, extroverted, healthy and flexible.
We've had hiccups. Projects go off the rails and that means long, long nights for one of us. But we do at home, too.
We've had kid fevers and some epic puking (and this year less epic puking) and even a case of Lyme's Disease pop up.
I am mindful of, but not deterred by, global security and terrorism.
The hardest part about these trips? How vulnerable they feel like right now. Sure, having a kid start school last year limited our flexibility and ISIS is a total pain in the ass. And the threatened laptop ban was a real doozy to work though. But even that we had a plan for. The biggest risk, to be crazy frank, is the rising cost/insecurity around health insurance. We pay so much working for ourselves to make these trips possible. It's entirely possible we won't be able to afford the flux in costs and the trips. The alternative is one of us taking a full-time position for benefits, which would invariably make things more challenging. It's a hard pill to think about swallowing.
It feels especially pressing as we watched the Senate from afar, aware that next year's trip could be in the balance as much as our crazy high deductible plan.
I'll get off my healthcare soapbox (for now) and leave you with an invitation to ask questions here, follow along on Instagram (I'm trying to post regular stories on our trips) and our blog.
Travel like this, to me and to us, is a priority. We don't do a week beach vacation. We drive a '99 Civic. We make intentional choices and have intentional conversations, heck intentional careers even!, to see if we can keep this going. Hopefully I'll be back next year telling you what tools and tricks saved our butts on our next adventure.