Time for a new edition of our Traveler Interview series! This week, we’ve got Gigi Griffis on board to talk about her experiences traveling and living across the globe.
While we’ve known of and read Gigi’s work for a while now, we originally met her back in 2015 when she swung by Seville for a few days. We were fortunate enough to have a chance to hang out and have lunch during her short stay here. As she’s been doing this solo – along with her little dog, Luna – for quite some time, we think she has an interesting and unique viewpoint, and a lot of great info to share with all of you.
She also runs a really great, eponymous blog, writes freelance, and authors very informative and practical travel guides that use suggestions from locals to help you on your travel mission. We’ll let her get into that on her own, down below…let’s do this!
1. How long ago did you begin traveling, and what made you start?
I spent a month in Australia when I was 14 years old. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but the driving force in my first international trip was a deep desire to hold a kangaroo. And, so I boarded my first-ever plane and flew halfway around the world with that goal in mind. And I’ve been hooked on traveling every since.
Since then, with only a couple exceptions, I’ve left the US every single year, even if only for a short stretch. No matter how poor, or time-poor, or busy, or [insert other excuse here] I was, I always made travel a priority. As for full-time travel…I am celebrating my fourth anniversary of leaving my permanent address in the dust this May.
The reasons I left are complex, but the bottom line is that I was really unhappy — and I mean, diagnosed depression-level unhappy. And I needed a change in a big way. So, I decided that I’d go big or go home in the change department and I sold my stuff, left my little rental house in Denver behind, and took to the road with my small dog, an enormous hiking backpack (which has since been downsized), and my fledgling freelance business.
2. Do you consider yourself a traveler, an expat, an explorer, or something else, and why?
I’ve been a little of all of the above.
When I first started traveling in my teens, it was on volunteer trips. Every summer, you could find me in some exotic destination — Botswana, Africa; the Australian Outback; Lima, Peru; etc. — volunteering for a month or two. Then, I probably would have called myself a volunteer and also thought of myself a little as an explorer.
Later, as an adult, I started traveling solo, wandering clumsily along the backpacker trails through places like Italy, and I was proud to call myself a traveler. When I first left the US for good in 2012, I was still a traveler — planting myself in a new city or country for a month or two at a time before moving onto the next.
And finally, after about a year and a half of that, tired and needing a place to call home, I became an official expat by applying for (and getting) residency in Switzerland, where I spent the majority of 2014 and 2015.
This year, I’m getting back into full-time travel after making the transition from expat back to wanderer or nomad or traveler — whatever title you want to give it.
3. Where are you from, where are you now, and where are you going next?
The place I lived longest as an adult in the states was Denver, Colorado; though, I was always restless and have lived a number of places. The vast majority of my four years of full-time travel have been spent in Europe — a continent I adore. I’m currently writing to you from Flagstaff, Arizona (near the Grand Canyon), where I’ve just spent a leisurely winter taking a break from faster-paced travel.
I’m gearing up to get back on the road in a couple weeks — this time with a travel partner (my boyfriend), which I’ve never really done before. And my next adventures are a cross-the-USA road trip in May, a back-across-Canada road trip in June and July, then a longer stay in Vancouver, Canada, and then Hawaii this coming fall and winter. We don’t have it all planned yet, but after that we’re hoping to get back to Europe, since I love it there so much.
4. How do you find living expenses to be, compared to your home country?
In Switzerland, they’re pretty darn high, even if you’re trying to live on a budget. But, the rest of Europe has been surprisingly affordable. Last winter, in Spain, I spent less than $1,500 per month. In Croatia, I spent about $1,300 for a month. And, even in more “expensive” places like Biarritz, France, I only spent just over $2,000 for the month. And that was eating at crêperies almost every day and renting a really nice apartment just a few blocks from the beach (so, you could easily spend less than I did).
5. Where was your first big travel stop? How and why did you choose that to be the first one? How long did you stay?
My first-ever trip at 14 was to Australia for the aforementioned kangaroo-holding quest, after which I traveled to Africa, mostly because I wanted to see a giraffe in person.
When I started traveling full-time in 2012, though, my first stop was Edinburgh, Scotland, where I planted myself in a sunny room on the top floor of a guesthouse for a month. I knew I wanted to start in Europe — a continent that’s constantly charming me — and I also knew that, as an American, I could only be in the Schengen Zone (the borderless zone that encompasses most of mainland Europe) for three months at a time. The rule is that once your three months are up, you have to leave for three months, unless you secure residency somewhere.
I was tentatively planning to spend four months in Europe, which meant one of those months needed to be outside the Schengen Zone (which the UK is). And logistically, it just made sense to start with Scotland. After all, it’s a shorter plane ride from the states, and in June it would be just starting to have some nice, warm days.
6. What’s the average amount of time you spend in one place?
It varies to a crazy degree. The shortest I’ve stayed is just a few hours (stopping in-transit to see Zagreb, Croatia), and the longest is Switzerland, where I spent almost all of 2014 and at least half of 2015. That said, in general, I try to shoot for a month or two in each place. It gives me enough time to settle in a little, really see the place, and still get my work done.
7. Are you a planner, or do you tend to fly by the seat of your pants?
I’ve really done both, but I find that I’ve been getting less spontaneous over time. In part, this is because I travel with a dog and that takes a little more advance planning, mostly for import paperwork and finding dog-friendly rentals.
In part, it’s because Europe has been getting more and more popular, and if you want to get a great rental, it’s smart to book ahead (especially in the recent summers, when Eurozone countries have been expecting record numbers of Americans, since the dollar is up and euro down).
And in part, it’s because I have anxiety, and I’ve learned over time that planning only a month in advance creates a lot of stress that can be easily avoided if I have things mapped out.
8. What do you do for a living, and is travel an integral part of it?
When I first started traveling, I was a copywriter and content strategist (which means that I worked with the words and images on websites, billboards, flyers, videos, etc.), so traveling was not directly connected to the work I was doing. But, my clients were all over the US and UK, so it wasn’t important for me to be with them in person very often.
About a year and a half into my full-time travels, though, I made a big switch. So, now I’m a travel writer — writing travel guides, magazine stories, and blog posts — and, thus, travel has become essential, not only for my soul, but also for my business.
I also dabble in HTML and fixing up WordPress sites from time to time, another thing I can do from anywhere, but one that doesn’t require me to travel. And, I just started a custom-curated, quarterly travel box program, so that will require me to keep on traveling while I’m running it.
9. Do you think you made the right choice overall by leaving behind the typical life in your homeland?
Absolutely. I’ve definitely had some low points on the road — landing in the hospital on Malta, and getting detained by British Immigration on my way to London are two of the worst — but I wouldn’t trade this life for anything. I have no interest in returning to the US permanently or living a conventional life ever again.
10. How do you think your life has changed for better or worse since you left for your adventure?
I think the biggest change is that I’ve learned just how much is really possible. When you first start toying with the idea of leaving everything behind, it seems like an impossible dream. It’s overwhelming. And when you actually do it…when you walk out of your house with nothing but a backpack and your dog, board a plane with no return ticket, and then step off onto new soil, you realize that most of the things that hold us back in life aren’t real.
Our worries, our fears, our inadequacies — they’re all things that can be conquered. I mean, holy hell, I have diagnosed depression and anxiety. I was planning to travel with my dog, a thing many said would be impossible. And, I wasn’t in shape or happy, or really believing in myself much at all. So, if I can climb over all that baggage and take to the road, it’s really not as impossible as it seems.
11. Do you still feel a connection to your old home, or did you really leave it all behind?
I didn’t actually feel that connected to the US even when I lived there, so I don’t really miss it — with the exception, of course, of a handful of people scattered across the continent (one of which is the reason I just spent my winter here). But, since my closest friends live extremely far from each other (Arizona, Pennsylvania, Colorado…), even when I was living in the US, I had to travel in order to see everyone. So, now I actually see them almost as much as I would if I lived in the States.
12. Do you go back often, and do people come visit you while you’re on the road?
I think on average, I go back once every year and a half. So far, two friends who live in the US have visited me on the road.
13. Is there anything you miss from your home country that you can’t find when you’re traveling? If so, what is it, and how do you manage to get your hands on it while you’re on the road?
Tex-Mex! The US version of Mexican food is still one of my favorite things in the world. I’ve tried to find good Mexican fare in Europe, but with dismal results. It just doesn’t exist there. So, I live without it for the most part.
The other thing in Switzerland is ChapStick. The lip balm there completely sucks. I actually had my mom send a package last year, and I told her “fill whatever cracks are left in the package with ChapStick.”
And finally, dental floss! I’m sure Europe has a good brand or two, but the ones I’ve bought are terrible. It’s like flossing with a razor blade. So, I’ve been stocking up on floss (and ChapStick and sunscreen) while I’m in the States.
14. How is the language barrier for you when you go somewhere new, and do you make an effort to learn the local tongue?
When I’m in Spain, Mexico, etc., I do try to practice my Spanish as much as possible. I talk like a two-year-old, but I love being able to figure things out, learning new words, and finding a way to get by.
That said, I find that English is really easy to get by with in the world. I don’t have any data on this, but I think it has to be the most common second language. When a Spanish woman, a Croatian woman, and a Japanese woman meet on the street and need to communicate, English is the go-to. Even the Swiss often speak to each other in English because there are four official languages there and not everyone speaks the other.
So, English is widely understood and I find it fairly simple to get by. That said, if you’re moving to another country permanently, I think it’s vital to learn the language. And so, if I ever become a long-term expat, I’ll be studying the language of my new home, for sure.
15. What has been the biggest challenge for you? Bureaucracy? Finding new friends? Something else?
You know, my first instinct was to say traveling solo, especially because last winter, I ended up seriously ill and in the hospital in the tiny island country of Malta, and that was a horrible situation in which to find yourself alone. But, you know what? I felt alone in Denver, too. And, wherever I’ve been in the world, I’ve always found kind strangers there to help. Like the woman who brought me soup when I couldn’t make it down the stairs in Malta. Or the Airbnb hosts who have offered to watch Luna for an afternoon. Or my friend in Switzerland, who drove me to the doctor when I was too weak to make it.
So, I guess a better answer is that it’s challenging to figure out the rules in a new country. I’ve been massively fined for trying to buy a train ticket on a train — something I’d done a year prior, but the rule had been changed since then. I’ve been fined again for not realizing I have to register my dog twice in Switzerland. And, I actually got cheated out of $500 by my old building manager because he verbally told me all utilities were included, and only later did I find out that I’m legally obligated to pay directly for electric unless I have his statement about them in writing.
16. How hard is it to make friends and have a social life? Do you ever feel alone?
Actually, it’s easier to meet people on the road than it is when I’m standing still. Because I’m always moving, I’m also always putting myself out there — a thing I don’t always do at home, as an introvert with a history of depression. I reach out to people online and ask if anyone wants to meet up for coffee. I talk to strangers on the train. I hang out with my Airbnb hosts and roommates. I set up meet-ups in new places. I meet new people all the time.
In fact, I met my boyfriend at a meet-up I organized while I was in Colombia this winter. We hit it off and he — also a full-time traveler — followed me to Arizona. After a few months of getting to know each other in a non-traveling context, we’re hitting the road together this summer.
And, have I ever felt alone in four years of solo travel? Absolutely. But, I felt even more alone when I was living in the States. And, my feeling is that, if you have to feel lonely, why not do it somewhere interesting, beautiful, and new?
17. If you could change something about how and when you became a traveler, what would it be?
I really can’t think of a thing I’d change. I gave myself an appropriate amount of time — six months or so — to sell my things, make sure the business was steady and well set-up for travel, and make some initial travel plans. And, starting at the end of May was perfect, as that’s when Europe starts to get really wonderful weather-wise.
18. Do you think it’s easier or harder to become a hardcore world traveler today, versus when you started?
Oh, it’s definitely easier. The more people who pave the way before you, the more it seems possible to live an unconventional life. Plus, now we’ve got all sorts of tools — online and otherwise — designed to help you. The first few people who do anything almost always have it the toughest.
19. What crazy story can you tell us about a terrible travel experience, and what, if anything, did you learn from it?
Well, on my second visit to the UK, I was detained and interrogated by British Immigration, who thought that I was trying to move there illegally (with no proof or reason of me doing that).
I was ushered in and out of a small room, where the chairs were bolted to the floor. It was winter; there was no heat, and the train station where we were was freezing — both the dog and I were shivering the whole time. They kept telling me I was trying to move to the UK, and I kept telling them I’d never even been to London (which is where I was headed), so why would I be trying to move there?
Overall, I was treated like a criminal and eventually turned back into Paris, where I had to scramble for accommodations and figure out what to do about being denied entry. It was, hands down, the worst experience of my life.
I can’t say I learned anything from it — except maybe that with immigration officers, it’s not a good idea to try and be nice or helpful and show that you have nothing to hide; they can and will misinterpret what you say and use it against you — but I will say that I won’t be going back to the UK for a good long time.
20. What about a good experience you had that makes it all worthwhile?
Really, it’s worthwhile in and of itself. Because this is the life that I want. I love being in new places, having to navigate new grocery stores, finding tucked away corners with no other foreigners in them. Even more, I love the freedom. I love that I can go or stay. I can travel. Or I can be an expat. I can hang out for two days or two years. Not having a car or a house or a home base in the States has left me incredibly free.
But, as for a wonderful story, one of my favorite things that has happened in the last three years was meeting my friend Ivan in Split, Croatia. I met him on Couchsurfing.org, and we had a coffee and a nice chat. After that, he invited me out for my first ever motorcycle ride, and then we spent the rest of the month exploring the coast by motorcycle whenever he was off work. I saw fortresses on the top of mountains without another soul in sight. We explored an inland island. And we zipped down the coast to Brela — a place sometimes lauded as one of the best beaches in the world. That string of motorcycle adventures was a highlight for me.
21. Do you have any favorite places that will always bring you back, or that hold special memories for you?
Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, where I lived those two years, was really that place for me. I’d been back there three times before I decided to apply for a visa. There’s just something special about the landscape—in the middle of the Swiss Alps with 72 waterfalls in the valley around it. The town was the inspiration for Tolkein’s Rivendell. If you haven’t been, you should go.
Other than that, there are many places that hold special memories, even if I never make it back.
Botswana, Africa, where I went long before I was fully nomadic, is magic — with its wildlife, its marshy Okavongo Delta, its lack of light pollution. I’ve never seen the stars like that anywhere else…even in the high Alps.
Ghent, Belgium, is special to me because of the wonderful friends I made there.
Freiburg, Germany, always makes me smile, both because of its mystical Black Forest, and because I met several of my dearest friends there.
Paris is everything everyone says, and more.
Slovenia is this gorgeous, lush hidden gem full of clear blue lakes and fairy tale castles and towering mountains. It was love at first sight.
And the first time I made it to Männlichen — a mountaintop ski area in the Swiss Alps — I literally cried, it was that beautiful.
22. What about places that are nothing but a turn-off, regardless of whether you have visited them before or not?
I’m really sorry to say it, but I have no love for Barcelona. Lots of people love it there, and the book I wrote about it is my bestselling city guide, but every experience I’ve had with the city has been disappointing. It’s one of the least dog-friendly European cities I’ve been to, and it’s the only place in the world where I’ve actually been physically shoved (by a security officer I was trying to ask a question to, no less). And so, I would be really happy to never return.
I also have low-to-no interest in traveling in the Muslim world as a solo female with a dog. I hope the cultural tides change someday, but I don’t really want to be anywhere where I or Luna are second-class citizens.
23. What dos and don’ts can you offer a burgeoning traveler?
Don’t worry about checklists. And don’t schedule everything back to back to back. Give yourself the gift of freedom.
If there’s an interesting side street, walk down it. If there’s a tasty-looking café window, stop in for a treat. Linger and people-watch. If you’re anxious, lost, or upset, stop for a moment and give yourself some breathing room. There’s no need to rush.
Travel is much nicer when you leave room for the unexpected — both bad and good.
24. Would you recommend people follow your path?
I don’t think there’s any path that’s right for every person, but for me this was the absolute right one. And the beauty of minimizing your things and living a nomadic life is that you are free to create it around what you like. If you like having a home base, have a home base. If you love Italian food, hang out in Italy. If you want to make sure to see family and friends a lot, make time for them in your schedule. If you hate cities, stay in small towns.
Full-time travel isn’t for everyone. But, I’m always pro-freedom. And that means the freedom to do what you want. If what you want is to live on an organic farm in the States, or to run children’s camps in Croatia, or to travel the world with just a backpack — no matter what your dream looks like, I’ll be cheering you on.
25. Do you think you’ll ever stop traveling and settle down somewhere?
One thing I’ve learned about myself in the past few years is that I’m at my best when I’m not making five-year and 10-year plans. Yes, I still plan ahead in important ways, like making sure I have a financial buffer for emergencies, and growing my savings for retirement. But, I don’t really have a plan for if or when I’ll settle somewhere.
26. In a parallel universe, what would be your ideal lifestyle, and why?
If I couldn’t travel full-time, you mean? I think I’d want to live in rural Europe someplace, and grow my own vegetables and cook, and write a lot of fiction. I could also see myself running a B&B, meeting people from all over the world even while I stay put.
27. If you could be a beverage, what would you be, and why?
Wine. I’m complex, a product of my environments, and mellow with time.
28. Any last words of wisdom or warning?
If you have something unconventional you’ve been aching to do — be it travel or starting a business or making art or whatever — go ahead and take the first step. Seriously, right now. What’s the first step? What can you do today toward that dream? Now, go do that thing. And, don’t worry about step 10 so much while you’re on step one. You’ll figure it out as you go. And, if you start the business or leave to travel or whatever, and you learn it’s not for you? You can always go back. There’s no such thing as failure. Just shifting course.
And that’s it! Thanks so much to Gigi for giving us her time and answering our questions. Hopefully, she’s been a source of information and inspiration for you as you follow your own path. You can visit and follow her at the following locations:
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