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A couple in retirement. (iStockphoto)
A couple in retirement. (iStockphoto)

Book Excerpt

Choosing the right place to retire overseas Add to ...

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from The International Living Guide to Retiring Overseas on a Budget: How to Live Well on $25,000 a Year by Suzan Haskins and Dan Prescher. Copyright (c) 2014 by International Living Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

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You can study all the collected data, analyze real estate statistics, crunch the cost-of-living numbers, study weather patterns and more, but nothing surpasses your gut instinct when it comes to choosing a place to live.

And believe us, your gut can change — especially as you get older.

Your needs and interests expand right along with your waistline.

For instance, back in 1997, when we were just married and first started thinking about living overseas, we pored over every International Living e-mail and magazine. We compared and contrasted, planned and dreamed... Certain we would live in an exotic tropical destination, we wanted it to be relatively close to family and friends back home in the States, who promised to visit often.

Cost of living was important, of course, as it still is. But far more important to us today is convenient access to quality (and yes, affordable) medical care. Over a decade ago — when we were in our mid-forties — we didn't think much about that.

Instead, we were all about sunshine, warm weather, and beach bars where we could while away the hours watching the sun set over the surf, digging our toes in the sand and hoisting a cold one. This is how we spent our vacations, after all.

But as the old adage goes, life is what happens when you're busy making plans. And life isn't a constant vacation. So except for half a year spent high on a hill above San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, which came with a forever view of the Pacific Ocean, we never have lived at the beach. And we probably never will.

Why? For one thing, while those little beach bars can be perfectly charming for a day to two, they'd never keep us mentally engaged much longer than that. And no matter how tasty those cold ones are, can you imagine how much more our waistlines might expand if downing them were our only pastime?

And then there's the sand that gets in every crevice. And mosquitoes. And neither of us can tolerate heat and humidity for long stretches of time. A week of fun in the sun is one thing — and we still love our beach vacations, for sure — but we've grown to love the warm days and cool nights of equatorial mountain climates.

Long-term happiness for us means living in a city or town where there is plenty to keep us busy and where the climate is more suitable to our maturing lifestyle. (It helps our self-esteem, of course, that in the mountains we can eschew skimpy bathing togs for jeans and T-shirts that better hide those ever-growing waistlines.)

In hindsight, too, we've learned that once you get settled in, many of the things that you thought would matter greatly don't matter nearly as much as you thought they would. Sure, it's a great bonus that in Ecuador, where we live, our monthly utility bills — water, gas, and electric — rarely amount to much more than $30 total. And that's spring, summer, fall, or winter. And we love that for little more than $2 each we can take the bus two hours south to Quito or buy a hearty, full meal… including beverage.

We've settled in with good medical service providers. We now have doctors, dentists, pharmacists — and one excellent health insurance advisor — who know all about our physical status, issues, and quirks.

And that brings us to the single issue that matters the most when choosing a place to put down roots: community.

Having lived in seven different communities in four foreign countries, we have some expertise in this. More than scenery or weather or cost of living or anything else, the game changer that most affects the success of your move overseas is the friendships you make.

Fortunately, it's easy to make friends when you're an expat. You can't help but stand out, after all. The locals will be curious about you and ask you all sorts of questions. (Show them photos and explain why you're there. A photo of your U.S. home buried under an avalanche of snow is a great icebreaker . . . pun intended.)

And you'll have loads in common with your kindred fellow expats — despite your apparent differences.

Would-be political foes back home become fast friends over- seas. Same for those of different age groups or economic statuses. In an expat community, you're all in the same boat. You learn from one another, depend on one another, and more than anything, you tolerate uniqueness and respect one another for the decision you made to try out expat life.

So here's our best advice: Once you've weighed all the factors that are most important to you — beach versus mountains, city versus village, cost of living, health care, and so on — go one step further. Stand in the town plaza and check your gut. If you get a warm little tingle about the people who live there — both local and expat — you've probably found your spot.

We’ll say it again: Profile yourself ruthlessly

In Chapter 3, we mentioned eight factors to consider as you're searching for your perfect overseas retirement destination: afford- ability, health care, ease of transition, accessibility, community, housing prospects, climate, and things to do.

Your single most important step, though, is deciding on the com- munity that's right for you. Now's the time to dig in a bit deeper.

Beach versus mountain living: Many people are lured by the sun, sea, and sand. Others prefer mountain vistas and the more temperate climates found at higher elevations. But if you can't handle full-time heat or can't tolerate high altitudes, consider your options and make your decision based on your best interests.

Our Advice: If you want it all and aren't willing to compromise, don't despair. There is such a thing as a temperate-climate beach destination. But you'll need to look beyond the tropics (23 degrees north or south of the equator) to find it. If this is what you're after, we'd suggest you look at Mexico's northern Baja region, the beaches of Europe, and coastal Uruguay.

Small town versus the big city: The benefits of living in either a rural or city environment are pretty obvious, and only you can decide which appeals to you more. Small towns are peaceful, and easy to get around, with little traffic and pollution. And they're typically more affordable than urban environments. But if you're a culture vulture, you won't want to be without big-city amenities such as shopping malls, art galleries, theater, and musical events. And don't forget that your very best health care options will be found in larger cities.

Our advice: If your desire is to live in a city like Paris, and you can afford to do so, then by all means, follow that dream. For more affordable city living, we'd suggest Quito, Ecuador; Panama City, Panama; Mérida or Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; Bilbao, Spain; and in Asia, Bangkok,Thailand and Penang, Malaysia.

Our personal favorite small-town destinations include Cotacachi and Vilcabamba, Ecuador; San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua; Boquete, Panama; Tulúm, Mexico; Placencia, Belize; and in Costa Rica, Arenal, Nosara, Sámara, and Ojochal.

Prefer a mid-sized city where the cost of living is low but with plenty of cultural activities to keep you busy? We'd suggest San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; Granada, Nicaragua; Cuenca, Ecuador; Chang Mai, Thailand; and Malacca, Malaysia.

The small but critically important details: As you're trying to decide where to retire overseas, think about those amenities you simply must have at your fingertips as well as those things you can't live without. For instance, consider your access to quality medical care. If you'll be taking children, you'll want good schools. If you're a golfer or a tennis player, you like to fish, or have other special hobbies you enjoy, make sure you can continue those in your new home. If a religious community is important or you have special dietary needs, or you're concerned about language issues, be sure to do your homework about the destinations you may be considering.

Our advice: The easiest places to retire — in our opinion — are close to home, just a few hours by plane from the United States or Canada (although we can't deny the appeal of Uruguay, despite its long distance from the States). Costa Rica, Mexico, and Panama are well-developed countries where you'll find all the amenities of home, including well-organized expat communities and a good num- ber of local English speakers.

If it's both ease of transition and affordability you're after, we'd suggest you look at Lake Chapala and San Miguel de Allende in Mexico; Costa Rica's Central Valley (specifically the communities of San Ramón, Atenas, Grecia and Escazú); and Panama's Boquete or Coronado.

Getting there — and once you do, then what?

We'll say it again: Before you decide to pick up everything and move somewhere, you have to visit. So here are some travel tips.

Go during the worst season: Whether it's rainy season, windy season, or the hottest season, plan a trip to your proposed destination during the worst time of year weather-wise — normally referred to as "low season." If you like what you find, you can be pretty certain you'll like it even more during its high (or fair-weather) season.

As a general rule of thumb, high season (also often referred to as dry season) in the tropics is roughly November 15 to April 15. Generally during high season you'll pay more for your airfare and accommodation, with spring break, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's being the most expensive times to travel. (You may have a difficult time finding accommodation at beach resorts in Latin America during Semana Santa, the week before Easter, when practically everyone takes a beach holiday.)

While you may encounter wet weather from June to September (low season), it rarely rains all day. The fringe seasons in most destinations (April to June and September to November) can be quite pleasant weather-wise and more affordable, too.

It probably goes without saying, but if you're set on traveling to Europe, high season will be in the summer, same as in the United States and Canada. And if you're traveling to southern South America or New Zealand, high season will be during North America's winter. High season in Uruguay, for example, is during January and February, when everyone goes to the beach and it can be nearly impossible to find last-minute accommodation.

Find the best airfares: As we said, you'll pay more overall to travel to a destination during its high season. You'll also find generally higher airfares and hotel costs from mid-June to mid-August when many people from the United States and Canada take vacations. (This is the most expensive time to travel to Europe.) That's another reason fringe-season travel can be a wise choice.

Traditionally, the earlier you can book your travel, the better chance you'll have of picking up the lowest fares. Keep in mind that airlines change fares constantly, often multiple times a week. So sign up for airfare alerts from your favorite travel websites and start checking fares as soon as you've decided on your travel dates. Then check continuously — at least once a week — to get a sense of pricing. When you find a deal you like, be ready to pull the trigger.

Also understand that, in general, traveling on some days may be cheaper than on others. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are generally the least expensive days for domestic flights and Friday and Sunday are the most expensive. Monday, Thursday and Saturday are in the middle.

And don't forget to check alternate airports. Costa Rica and Ecuador both have two international airports, for instance, and Mexico has many. As an example, if you want to save on travel to Mérida, Mexico, you may find lower fares flying in and out of Cancún. If you're going to Mexico's San Miguel de Allende, you may find discount fares to Mexico City, rather than the closer airports of León or Querétaro. (Buses in Mexico are safe, reliable, comfortable, and very affordable. You'll pay about $25 to reach Mérida from Cancún or San Miguel de Allende from Mexico City.)

Some of our favorite online resources for researching low-cost airfares include Farecompare.com, Kayak.com, and Mobissimo .com. We've also had good luck buying through Expedia.com and Orbitz.com.

Find the best accommodations: You can use the websites we mentioned above to search for accommodations, too. But if you're looking for good recommendations, you might want to check out reviews from travelers who have gone before you. Ask questions on expat forums or check out websites like Tripadvisor.com and Airbnb.com. The latter site is a particularly good one if you're looking to rent a home or apartment and get a true feel for what living in a particular destination may be like.

Other good sites to find vacation property rentals are VRBO .com and HomeAway.com. Keep in mind, though, that these are short-term vacation rentals and will not reflect the prices you'd pay for a long-term stay of six months to a year or more. (Read more about how to find long-term rentals in Chapter 17.)

Our advice: We'd suggest you rent a home or apartment in your intended destination. Not only will you save money by making your own meals, but you can explore local markets and grocery stores and see if local products meet your needs. And budget travelers, don't overlook hostel stays. They're not just for backpackers. Research your options at a site like Hostels.com.

In-country transportation: Unless you are going to be on the road a good distance in a particular destination, you may not need to rent a car. And keep in mind that fees to pick up a car in one city and drop it off in another can be painfully high. You may not want to drive in some countries if you are unfamiliar with the rules of the road or unsure how to get from point A to point B. In some countries like Ecuador, where gasoline averages less than $1.50 a gallon, it may be more cost-effective and far less stressful to hire a private driver or taxi to ferry you about.

Most of the countries we recommend as retirement destinations offer far more advanced public transportation systems than most of us from the States are used to. In our opinion, you'd be well advised to give them a try. Buses in Latin America and Asia and trains in Europe offer a low-cost, low-stress way to see the local scenery.

Our advice: Always carry the address and telephone number of your hotel or any other place you may be traveling to, as taxi drivers don't always know every location by name, and if you don't speak the same language, they may have difficulty understanding you.

What about trip cancelation and traveler's health insurance? If you are at all concerned that you may need to cancel your trip, then buying travel insurance is a wise idea. You'll often be offered the option to purchase a trip cancelation policy when you book your airfare or a package tour. Before you do that, be sure to read all the fine print to be sure you understand what's covered and what's not. And note that some credit card companies provide this type of coverage, so be sure to check with your card provider about its policies.

And while we don't recommend traveling with expensive jewelry, you may want to contact your homeowners or home rental insurance policy provider to see if it covers you or offers a rider for overseas travel to cover your electronics and/or expensive sporting equipment.

As for health insurance, your regular health plan probably won't cover you while abroad, so check into purchasing a policy that offers coverage for treatment at any licensed medical or emergency facility, rather than a complex web of preselected affiliated hospitals.

Experts suggest purchasing a policy from a company that's licensed in your home state and unaffiliated with any tour opera- tor or other travel-related business. Two comparison sites to check out are InsureMyTrip.com and SquareMouth.com. Both offer several different types of coverage, including trip cancelation, medical insurance, and evacuation policies.

The soloist: retiring overseas as a single

The expat lifestyle is not for couples only. We know many single expats living overseas — and truth be told, many of them are women. They've fearlessly decided to move forward with their retirement dreams, partner or not.

Going solo has special challenges, though, that couples don't face. After all, singles have no life partner close at hand for companionship, conversation, or commiserating. You'll need to make friends and a new social circle in your new community for that.

But with a little strategizing — and soul-searching — you can make an easy transition to life as a single expat. Here are some tips that can help.

Be honest with yourself: Again, it's about ruthless self-profiling. If you prefer having lots of social engagements, you probably shouldn't move full-time to a remote beach village with no cable TV and a bunch of fishermen. Instead, recognize that you need a city that offers plenty of people and distractions. On the other hand, if you're okay with just a few good friends, a smaller location where you can easily meet people may suit you fine.

Go where the expats are: Realistically, as a single you're better off moving to an expat haven than to a destination with few or no expats. After all, you've made a life-changing move, and your best bet for finding kindred spirits is among others who have done the same.

Rent before you buy: This advice is especially important for singles. Renting for even a few months allows you to see if the destination you've chosen is really right for you. If it's not, you can move on with no regrets.

Have a strategy for meeting people: The biggest pitfalls for single expats are loneliness and boredom. If you've picked an expat haven, you'll have expats around you. But how do you meet them? It's important to have a proactive strategy; don't depend on any- one seeking you out. Take the initiative.

Start a project before you leave home: Maybe it's a hobby you've never had time to pursue, or taking up a sport you enjoy. It can even be a business you plan to ramp up. Ideally, it should be some- thing that gets you out of the house and meeting people. Your project not only will keep you busy; it can also help you make friends and integrate into the community.

Learn the language: Learning the local language is one of the best investments you can make as a single expat. (It can even be that initial project to keep you busy while you settle in.) As a single person, you're the one who will have to deal with the plumber, the carpenter, and the telephone repairman, all of whom rarely speak English. Don't depend (for long, at least) on more language-savvy expat friends to translate for you — or you'll quickly outlast your welcome among them.

And finally, enjoy the adventure: Living overseas is fun. And, with just a little planning, your new life can exceed your expectations.

 

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