We’re winding down our 2023 travels and will be back in the USA in early October. That’s nine months of being on the road. We’ve had a tremendous time in Iceland, the UK, and France. Even took a detour into Germany and Switzerland.
We will have completed eight pet/house-sitting assignments, all while working remotely as digital nomads. So this post is about the things we learned along the way, things we might do differently going forward, and general helpful tips for anyone following in our footsteps.
1. Applying for and getting sitting assignments
When we decided on the UK for our destination for 2023, we started applying for sitting assignments through Trusted Housesitters (trustedhousesitters.com) in summer of 2022 for Winter/Spring 2023. I have a separate post on getting your fist assignments and questions to ask. So far, all of our hosts have been very friendly and up-front about what the sitting assignment required. From reading others’ posts on forums and Reddit, we have been fortunate in that regard.
We started getting sitting assignments and putting a map and calendar together. Coming from the US, the distances don’t seem that onerous, but I assure you that a five hour drive in the UK is nothing like a five hour drive in the US Our original plan had us doing some long drives and back-tracking. Here’s a post on our original plan and map: 2023-Planning Our Year in the UK &Europe
TIP: Have a map handy and use an app like Google maps to see the travel time required, not just the distance when selecting sits to apply for.
A Note about Trusted Housesitters
We upgraded to the Premium membership at THS in part for the sit cancellation insurance and the airport lounge passes. The cancellation insurance wasn’t needed and we found out that the airport lounge passes are a bit more complicated than one might think. We had a long layover at JFK between our Atlanta flight and the IcelandAir flight and I reserved the airport lounge passes. However, the lounges are only on specific concourses and unless you have a boarding pass for that concourse, you can’t get to the lounge. Rather disappointing. It might have worked better for a smaller airport, I don’t know. We won’t renew at the Premium level next year unless there are substantially more benefits than the Standard plan. Currently Premium is $259/year and Standard is $169/year.
2. Be flexible in your schedule
Life happens. Sometimes the owners’ schedules change. Sometimes a sit will be canceled — in our case, the pet passed away before the sit started. We generally plan to arrive the day before the owners depart so that we can get a tour of the house, meet the pets, and get to know each other a bit. All of our owners were happy to have us come a day (or more) before they departed. I think it helps them feel a little more confident in us and able to relax on their vacations.
We’ve had several sits where the end of the sit was extended by a day or two. We generally planned at least two days between sits, so that wasn’t a problem for us.
TIP: Best not to schedule the sits too close together in case there's a change of plans. I make sure to have at least two full days --better to have three-- between sits even if that means we need to find a night or two of accommodations on our own.
3. Getting Prescriptions in the UK
In Belize, getting prescriptions was super easy. For just about any maintenance medication (not controlled substances, obviously) you just go to the pharmacy and ask for the medications and tell them how many doses you want. I take four medications and Mark takes two, all were cheaper in Belize with no insurance than our co-pay with insurance in the US.
Getting prescription meds in the UK was slightly more complicated, but once you know how, it’s pretty easy. We arrived with a three-month supply of everything as that was the maximum our insurance would allow in the US. But we knew we would need to get refills before heading home. We were able to make appointments for an online consultation with a doctor through I-GP, an online service. We told them the medications we needed refills for and they emailed to our local pharmacy. It was £60/per person/per online visit.
Getting the prescriptions filled was a bit of a hassle as electronic prescribing is evidently not common in the UK. The pharmacy gets the prescription via email, plus it’s private pay vs. NHS, so that took some extra work. Two trips to the pharmacy later and we had a new four-month supply — again CHEAPER than our insurance co-pays in the US. When we needed another round of refills, we were able to submit a request online and even though we were in another part of the UK, there was no problem getting our medications.
TIP: Make sure you have a list of all your medications with packaging and dosages.
We did not need to get anything refilled during our time in the EU. I’m not sure it would have been so easy. Many OTC items in the US and UK are only available in France at the pharmacy (think aspirin, ibuprofen, antihistamines).
4. Cellphones and Data Coverage
Mark will fill this in.
Wise, debit cards, Chase
Mark also fill this in.
6. Safety – Beware Pickpockets!
I can’t recall anytime in the UK, Switzerland, or Germany when I felt unsafe. We did have an unfortunate experience in France with Mark getting his wallet stolen on the Paris Metro. Hindsight being 20/20 we were just not careful enough and needed to be more vigilant in crowded places. Luckily, he wasn’t carrying much cash, and had only three credit cards on him that day. They did try to use the cards right away, but the transactions were flagged as fraud immediately and we had the cards cancelled before we returned to the place we were staying. The biggest loss was the wallet itself that Mark had bought in Inveraray, Scotland.
TIP: Wear clothing with zippers! Keep your bag under your control at all times. Be alert in crowds. Read Rick Steves' article on deterring pickpockets.
We didn’t let that episode deter us from visiting Paris or riding the Metro again. We were just much more alert and careful. Of course, it helps that we do NOT go into sketchy areas and I’ve usually got my 6′ 4″ husband at my side.
7. Learn the Language
Mark speaks much better French than I do. The French I took in high school and college mostly concentrated on grammar, not conversation. I did try using Rosetta Stone, and that did refresh my memory to a point, but I was nowhere close to holding a conversation in French. That said, we were able to communicate fairly well in most situations. In the tourist areas, most of the people you interact with speak fairly good English, menus come in English and French, and many automated systems like the train ticket kiosk and ATMs have a language option.
When you get outside of Paris and the touristy areas, you will encounter people who do not speak English. Again, we managed with our mangled French, pointing, and using Google Translate. Always, always greet the person with a smile and “Bon Jour,” it goes a long way in making the transactions successful and friendly.
Lesson Learned: If our travels take us to another place that speaks a different language, I want to invest in some one-on-one tutoring in conversing in that language.
We knew we would be traveling from one end of the UK to another and that, while the public transportation is very good, it would be much easier with a car. Rental cars are ridiculously expensive, so we decided to buy a car in the UK and then sell it when we were ready to leave. USAA insurance said they would cover us in the UK, but if you decide to go this route be sure you check with your insurance company first.
We determined a budget that would allow us to have a reliable, comfortable car and would have a decent re-sale value after the nine months. With the help of our friend, Didier, we had a list of possible candidates and started shopping. The process went very smoothly, we got a 2015 Toyota Avensis and were on our way. The difficulty came up several months later when the DVLA (UK version of the DMV) decided that our UK mailing address wasn’t sufficient for us to register the car. We were able to get the “logbook” (same as the US Registration) on September 30 and sold the car on October 7 (we were leaving the UK on October 10, so cutting that too close for me!)
With exchange rates at sale time helping out, we ended up paying about $2,400 for the use of the car for 9 months — $266/month. MUCH cheaper than renting. (This doesn’t include insurance or fuel, just the difference between purchase price and sale price.) We covered almost 7,000 miles in 9 months!
Driving in the UK and Europe
I’m going to write another post about the roads and driving, but suffice to say, it’s not simple for an American to immediately start driving on the left. Mark managed very well, but I struggled. I did try to take a driving lesson in the early days when we were in Oxford. I arranged for the appointment and a 2-hour driving lesson and the instructor never showed up. The service I booked through was basically, “Oh well” and I never made another attempt. I should have tried harder, I think it would have helped me be a better passenger and give me more freedom to do things like short errands without having to rely on Mark to drive everywhere.
This was a bit of a contentious subject between Mark and myself. I think we have way too much stuff, he disagrees. The advantage of having our own car meant that we were not really restricted on how much stuff we could drag around with us. I think the hassle factor of having to unpack the entire car nearly every time we change locations was annoying. Funnily, it wasn’t clothes that took up the majority of the space.
We started out with three large suitcases (<50 lbs each), a backpack each for our laptops and gear and small bag as our “personal item” that fit the Iceland Air requirements. We sent back two large boxes of the heavy winter clothes and souvenirs and extra things in July.
Even with sending home those things, when it came time to pack for the final flights (London to Paris, then Paris to NY) we had to rearrange things to get the three suitcases <50 lbs. each. You ABSOLUTELY need a travel suitcase scale (and bring an extra battery)!
I plan on updating the packing list for nomading technology post now that we’ve used our set-up for several months.
When feasible, buy your tickets for excursions and tours in advance. This applies especially to Iceland and Paris. You don’t want to miss out on a “must see” experience, or end up paying extra to go through third-party vendors (like we did with the Paris Catacombs).
I will also say that we regret not buying the UK National Trust Membership when we first arrived. A joint membership for two adults is £139.20 for the entire year. We spent quite a bit more paying at each location, but the money is going to a good cause, so <shrug>. If you’re going to be in the UK for several months and visit multiple locations, it will likely save you a good bit of money.