2022 was our third full year of early retirement and we spent it exploring Europe. We managed to visit 8 different countries and 13 cities without setting foot in an airport. Our cheese consumption increased astronomically and we frequented numerous delicious bakeries. We saw a ton of great art and pet so many cats. Katie broke her wrist and we had a couple of transit adventures, but otherwise it was a great success. We didn’t even gain weight.
Maybe the best part about 2022 was that we were able to travel without major pandemic-related restrictions for the first time in a long time. The year started off a little dicey, but entry requirements relaxed very quickly so that a few months into the year, there were none remaining among European countries. Free movement allowed us to become reacquainted with how our nomadic lifestyle was supposed to work. There was a time when I wondered if that would ever happen again.
This was our first trip to Europe as retirees. We had taken 3 vacations to The Continent during our working years, each spanning 2 weeks. A couple of those 2 week jaunts had us visiting 6 different locations. Looking back on those, I have no idea how we did it. We loved those vacations, and they cemented our love for Europe, but that hectic schedule seems kind of crazy to us now.
Our current perspective has shifted a lot and we now think of 2 weeks as a short time in a single location. It’s not even close to enough time to visit multiple places in multiple countries. As you can tell, we’ve experienced a drastic change in travel attitude since our working years, and it’s one that we’re thankful for. We’d never be able to keep up that kind of pace. But our love for visiting Europe hasn’t changed, and being able to do it slowly and for a whole year was a real treat.
Travel Planning And Schengen Zone Changes
The year started off for us completely up in the air. We flew into Budapest on December 30, 2021 with an apartment booked for one month and nothing past that. COVID was still hanging around the sidelines waiting to disrupt travel, so we didn’t want to make plans that needed to be canceled. Then Katie broke her wrist while ice skating and we decided to stay put in Budapest for the entire three months of our Schengen Zone allowance. We left Hungary for Novi Sad, Serbia on March 28th.
In April, policies reversed quickly as almost every country simultaneously dropped their COVID entry restrictions. This unleashed a wave of bottled up travel demand. People who had been forced to stay home for 2 years were yearning to finally go on vacation. We noticed that summer accommodations were being snatched up at a breakneck pace. Instead of waiting, we rushed to plan the rest of our summer. We reserved apartments in Zagreb, Vienna, Graz, and Trieste in rapid succession. In the span of about a week we went from not knowing where we’d be for the next month to having everything planned into September. Whew!
After Trieste we again needed to leave the Schengen Zone, but aside from that, there were a number of options. And since it was after the peak summer season, we didn’t need to decide months ahead of time to get our choice of apartments. The initial rough idea was to fly to Sarajevo and then probably move east or southeast from there.
Then over the summer multiple rumors started popping up that Croatia had a good chance of joining the Schengen Zone in 2023. There was no way to know for sure, as the official decision wasn’t going to be made until December. But we figured that this might be our last opportunity to explore the Croatian coast without burning through our limited Schengen time. So we pivoted in our planning and decided to return to Croatia.
It turned out to be a good decision as the Croatian coast is wonderful. Aside from the gorgeous views, it’s a great place to make some feline friends. We enjoyed Pula and Split immensely, although comparatively Zadar was disappointing. The rainy season had a delayed start this year, so we were welcomed with warm, sunny weather for almost our entire stay between mid-September and mid-November. And Croatia did end up joining the Schengen Zone starting in 2023, so our timing couldn’t have been better.
Transportation Costs And Lessons
We managed to go the whole calendar year without being in an airport. Our last flight arrived in Budapest on December 30, 2021 and then we spent the entirety of 2022 traveling by only bus or train. Keeping close to the ground also meant that our transportation spending stayed ridiculously low. We visited 13 cities in 8 countries and spent a total of only $830 in bus and train fees. Even adding in our public transit tickets and infrequent taxi fares only bumped our total cost up to $1023. It’s just incredible that we could see so many areas of the European continent for so little. (Our full 2022 spending is detailed below.)
Aside from the low cost of train and bus travel, we learned a few things. The main one is that buses in Europe are pretty great overall. They are usually cheaper than trains, stop for breaks every 1.5 to 2 hours, and many have a toilet on board in case of emergency. Bus stations are frequently in the same spot as the train station, and if not, they are still connected by public transit. So getting to and from the departure and arrival point is generally convenient. It’s much more common for Europeans to not own a car, which means routes are plentiful and schedules are frequent.
We ended up traveling via bus 9 times compared to 3 trips by train. We tried to keep our bus rides to 5 hours or less, although we went over that limit once or twice. Traffic unpredictability makes the bus schedules subject to greater variance in arrival times than trains, but we’re never on a strict timeline so that’s not an issue for us. One trip we even arrived an hour early, although that was probably a fluke.
We enjoyed the train for short trips, but our one long trip was less than great. From Novi Sad to Belgrade the train was super fast, brand new, and cost $3. From Vienna to Graz, the train was also speedy and new, albeit about 8x more expensive. Of course the trip was 5x longer (2.5 hours vs .5 hours), so a higher price is to be expected. But our longest trip of 7 hours from Graz to Trieste was on an older train and it was not great. The air conditioning barely worked, there was no WiFi, and they sold so many tickets that people were standing throughout the aisles making the train cars feel quite cramped. I think we’d have preferred the bus on that route.
But even a cramped and hot train car is a walk in the park compared to a minibus. As much as we enjoyed coach bus travel, minibuses are the polar opposite. We only encountered them in the Balkans, where there isn’t always enough travel demand for some routes, especially in the off season. These minibuses are often old, with seats that are much smaller, offering less leg room, less ass room, and limited space for luggage compared to the coach buses. It’s also not clear when booking the ticket whether it’s going to be a coach bus or a minibus, so it can be a challenge to avoid them.
Our first minibus experience was from Split to Mostar and it was pretty unpleasant. It was raining and all the windows fogged up, including the one in front of the driver. Not only was there no defroster in this thing, there was no air circulation at all. Leg room was almost non-existent and my knees were jammed into the seat back in front of me without a millimeter of space. It was crowded with people filling every seat and luggage filling most of the aisle. And of course the route went through the mountains, as all routes through the Balkans do. It curved back and forth and up and down over and over again. Due to the evening departure and fogged up windows, we couldn’t see anything, which made it very hard to stave off motion sickness.
And then every moderately steep incline that we went up, our minibus engine sputtered and struggled as it involuntarily slowed to 30 mph (48 km/h) or less. It seemed like at any moment the motor would give up the ghost and leave us stranded by the side of the road, in the middle of rural Bosnia, in the rain. At least we’d get to puke in peace. In the end we made it to Mostar in only 4.5 hours for a 3.5 hour scheduled trip.
While that trip to Mostar kind of sucked, compared to the minibus trip we took to get from Budva to Tirana, it was an absolute joy. While I’d love to relay that horror story to you right now, this post is already going to be too long. So I’ll just leave that as a teaser to my Tirana post, which should be ready in a couple of weeks. (Now might be a good time to sign up for my email list from the very bottom of this page if you haven’t already.)
Visitors And Meetups
Speaking of horror stories, Katie’s mom and sister came to visit us for a few weeks. I’m kidding! We had fun. They arrived when we were in Graz and then we all traveled to Trieste together. This reunion went much better than the first time they visited us. That trip was back in early 2020 when COVID was just starting to spin out of control. They had to cut their trip short and leave Hoi An sooner than originally planned to ensure they’d be able to get back to the US.
We also made fast friends with another American nomadic couple we met in Zagreb, Jimmy and Mack. We even met up with them twice while we were there, gabbing over a couple of beers for multiple hours each time, which is a lot for Katie and I as we’re normally not all that social. There are very few people we know in real life who are crazy enough to live like us. As such, it was nice to be able to skip all of the “so where are you from” pleasantries and just dive right into the quirks and challenges relatable only to fellow nomads.
Broken Bones And Other Healthcare Spending
We spent $2221 for the services of doctors and dentists in 2022. The year started off with a crack when Katie fell and broke her wrist while we were ice skating in Budapest. It took me a while to make that up to her, as she didn’t really want to go but I used my birthday as an excuse to cajole her into joining me. Whoops! The silver lining was that her treatment was an absolute bargain at $831. Included in that total are 5 doctor’s visits, 4 x-rays, and 3 casts at a top notch private clinic. That was the cash price not discounted by insurance. Can you imagine what that would’ve cost in the US, even with gold-plated insurance? I shudder to think about it. She also had a couple of visits with a dermatology specialist and had a couple moles removed while we were in Graz for another $630.
We spent the remaining $760 at the dentist. We tend to choose the fanciest English speaking dental clinics, as going to the dentist is unpleasant enough already. A standard cleaning with an exam and x-rays set us back about $80 each at these clinics. These are much higher prices than SE Asia, but it still felt like a good deal compared to the US. We also both had the honor of receiving multiple fillings this year, so that’s how we ran up such a large bill.
What About Insurance?
This is the most common question that we get. We do carry international health insurance, but we opt for a high deductible to keep our fixed costs down. We had previously used a policy from Tokio Marine and I wrote about why I chose that here. But due to the pandemic, we switched to a policy from IMG Global for 2022 that had specific verbiage that COVID was covered, something the other policy lacked. The IMG deductible is $2500 each, which reduced our premiums to just under $1100 for the year. Yes, that’s per year, not per month, and for both of us combined. As you tell from above, the cost of care is decidedly inexpensive compared to the US, so policies with “high” deductibles like ours can be had for very little. So even though we had a marked uptick in healthcare spending, it wasn’t enough for our insurance policy to kick in and reimburse us.
That was probably for the best, as the IMG claims process is unimaginably slow. Glaciers move faster than they do. Out of the 4 visits Katie had to the doctor for her broken wrist between the end of January and mid-March, only 2 of the 4 bills have been settled as of today. I’ve just been waiting patiently as it’s not going to result in any financial gain for us, but it’s still pretty ridiculous that it’s going to take 10+ months for them to fully process a claim. And a pretty simple claim at that. It’s not like this was major surgery involving multiple specialists. It was a non-displaced fracture. It’s almost laughable at this point. I wouldn’t expect them to be our long term insurer because of this ridiculousness. We’ll be looking at a third company for our next plan.
Our Financial Year
There’s not really any way to sugar coat it. 2022 was one of the worst years for stock and bond investors on record. According to financial writer Ben Carlson, a balanced 60/40 stock/bond portfolio had its 3rd worst year in history with a -17% total return. Our portfolio asset allocation is close to that (70/30) and performed similarly.
The only two years that were worse than 2022 were both way back in the 1930s. So it’s been more than 8 decades since the stock and bond markets combined to turn in a yearly result at least as bad as this one. While this downturn was happening, we simultaneously posted our highest spending year by almost 33%. That would seem to be a problem, but we have a couple of things going for us.
First, despite our higher spending, we’re still a good bit below the initial budget of $36k/yr that we set when we quit in 2019. And that spending number would normally be adjusted for inflation each year, so we’ve done quite a good job of keeping our costs low while still enjoying our travels. It just comes natural to us at this point.
Second, we had a pretty decent cushion built up from the last couple of years before this one. We didn’t allow our spending to creep up as our portfolio did. Our low spending while in Asia coupled with solid stock market returns in 2020 and 2021 means that we’re still feeling pretty good about our early retirement finances. If you’re a FIRE nerd, our current withdrawal rate is still under 3%. If things continue to get worse we might consider making minor adjustments, but for now we’re not planning on any changes.
My favorite stop this year was Budapest. I loved the varied landscape between the Buda and Pest sides, cool bridges, great museums, creative street art, and of course the many amazing bakeries. Seeing the humongous and ornately detailed parliament building never got old either. It’s a really cool city. It also held my favorite apartment that we stayed in this year, a top floor apartment on the Buda side of the city with amazing views and lots of charm.
Katie didn’t get to enjoy that Buda apartment quite as much as I did, as she was down to one functional arm during that stay. Her favorite apartment was in Split, where we had a well-stocked apartment in a great part of town. Our rental was located right next to the Park-Forest Marjan, which *easily* wins the favorite park of the year award from us. We loved that park soooooo much.
What We Spent
Our entire year in Europe cost us $31,100 or just under $85/day. For a while I thought we might come in a hair under $30,000, but a dead phone and a bunch of dental work proved that it wasn’t meant to be. Our cheapest stop this year was Belgrade, where we spent less than $54/day. We were both surprised at how much we enjoyed the city and the low cost made it even better. Our most expensive stay was in Trieste, where we spent $111/day. Summer on the sea is always going to be more expensive and we ate really, really well. Our first time back in Italy in a decade had us buying all of the fancy meats and cheeses. That’s also where Katie got a new phone, as her 7 year old iPhone finally died.
Note that I counted 367 days in 2022, as we arrived in Budapest on December 30th, 2021. For ease of calculation, I decided to lop off those last two days of 2021 and tack them onto 2022. This also proved to the accountant in me that I am truly retired, because the old me would never have been able to abide by that sloppy record keeping. In my working days, my boss would’ve laughed at the absurdity of the suggestion. (Sorry Jeff)
Our increase in spending compared to previous years was driven almost entirely by higher housing costs. We spent a total of $14,364 on apartment rentals for an average of just under $1200/mo. Next was food and drink at $6652, or about $554/mo. We ate almost all of our meals at home, but were liberal with our purchase of delicious baked goods as we found many great European bakeries with very reasonable prices. And as I mentioned earlier, we ate all of the cheese. Our third highest spending category this year was health and dental at $3313, which is the $2221 which I detailed above plus our $1092 in health insurance premiums. Here’s how it all shook out.
Out of the 13 cities we visited last year, 12 of them were new to us. Only our trip to Vienna was a repeat, as we had spent 3 nights there back in 2016 during one of those whirlwind 2 week vacations. This time we were able to slow down and enjoy 32 nights. That allowed us to explore and find the coolest incinerator in the world. It also meant that we got to see all of the museums. Even though we’d visited some of them before, this time it was at a relaxed pace. It was definitely art overload, but we very much enjoyed it.
As expected, we had a lot of fun during our year in Europe. We ate well, visited dozens of museums, made some cat friends, and took advantage of all of the pedestrian friendly areas. Our spending was higher than ever, but I still feel like we got a great bargain. We even managed to make it the entire year without stepping foot in an airport, which is something that will probably never happen again. Especially since we now know that minibuses will not be part of our future travel plans when we have a choice. Hopefully 2023 will have us spending less time at the doctor’s office and in the dentist chair. And if those financial markets want to rebound a little, I’d be okay with that too.