Taking Your Career on the Road as an Expat and Nomad with Al Elliott

Al Elliott

In this episode of the Expat Empire Podcast, we will be hearing from Al Elliott. Al and his wife Leanne were living comfortably in Manchester, England but couldn’t shake the feeling that they wanted to see more of the world. Al’s work could be done all online while Leanne’s employer ultimately agreed to let her continue to do her job remotely, so they set off for Spain in 2013. Once they knew Brexit was coming in 2021, they decided to leave Spain in 2017 to become digital nomads with the goal of visiting every country in the European Union before Brexit happened. 

After a few years of incredible travels across Asia and Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Al and Leanne were stopped in their tracks, forcing them to reevaluate their plans. They eventually applied for the brand new Digital Nomad Visas in Croatia in May 2021. With the end of the residence permit’s 12-month duration approaching, they are currently in the middle of planning their next move to Portugal!

Listen to this great conversation with Al to hear how he and his wife took their careers on the road, lived and traveled to some amazing places, and made their ambitious international dreams a reality!

LEARN in this episode:

✔ How you can approach your employer to get permission to work remotely

✔ What the difficult process of applying for Croatia’s Digital Nomad Visa was like

✔ Tips for remote working, staying productive while on the road, traveling with your partner, and much more

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Welcome to the Expat Empire Podcast, the podcast where you can hear from expats around the world and learn how you can join them.

Hey guys, before we get to the interview, I want to remind you that we’re offering free 30-min consulting calls to anyone interested in moving abroad. 

Whether you’re thinking about retiring somewhere warm, starting an international career, or becoming a digital nomad, we’re ready to help you think through the next steps in your journey. 

Send us a message at https://expatempire.com to schedule your call today!

With that said, let’s start the conversation.


David: [0:00:46] Hey Al, thanks so much for joining us today on the Expat Empire Podcast.

Al Elliott: [0:00:49] Thank you for inviting me, and we had you on our podcast a few months ago and we really enjoyed the conversation. So, I’m looking forward to it, really am.

David: [0:00:56] Yeah, I am too and it’s great to reconnect. I had a great conversation with you there and I always wanted to dive more into your background situation, it’s super interesting. You’ve gone all over the world and you’ve gotten a Digital Nomad visa, you’ve had some expat experiences, so you really kind of embody the idea behind this show and I’m excited to share your story with our listeners.

Al Elliott: [0:01:15] Cool. Yeah, I think we tick all the boxes of all those things, so yeah. Cool. Crack on.

David: [0:01:20] Perfect. In that case, if you could just give us a bit of a sense of your background, so where around the world that you’ve lived so far and of course, where you’re originally from and where you’re living today, then I think that would help set up our discussion.

Al Elliott: [0:01:32] Cool. Okay. Well originally from the UK from near Manchester, although actually, I’m not, I was born near London but lived near Manchester. I met my wife and we both enjoyed a bit of travel and then just decided in 2012 that we were going to go and live in Spain, just because we were relatively young and both our jobs we were able to move them around. So, that’s what we decided to do.

We started off in Spain in 2013. We went out in May and we were there for about three years. What’s funny is that we probably still would be there. I’ll talk more about that, about where we were, if there’s interest, but probably we still would be there had something not happened along the way which nudged us into the nomad life. This last year we’re probably classed as expats now because we’re on a residency visa for 12 months in Croatia, which is where I’m talking to you from right now.

David: [0:02:25] Amazing. Yeah, lots of stuff in there as I had mentioned and alluded to, so excited to jump into it. It’d be good to get a sense for why was it that you decided to originally make that move to Spain back in, I think you said 2013. What was it that was going through your head? What was the process of figuring out, of course, maybe leaving your home country, but more importantly then where to go to next?

Al Elliott: [0:02:49] Yeah, I think what we’ve always said is that we didn’t hate our life in Manchester. We loved our life in Manchester. It just felt that there was a little bit more available to us. We both, my wife and I, of course, both my wife and I got married. We got married together abroad in the previous year in Spain and it was almost like a little tester to see, did we like it, we were there for about four weeks around the wedding. Did we like it? Of course, we did.

There wasn’t really one sort of, I wish there was an inciting event, but there wasn’t really, we just decided, nope, that’s enough. We’ve had a great life in Manchester, but it’s time for a new chapter in our lives. So, we chose a place. We were originally going to go live in Gibraltar mainly because they speak English. Although, I have my own business and I have a property company as well, so I have a little bit of income coming in without having to necessarily rely on an employer. Leanne was still working for an employer. So, she was looking for someone who she could potentially work with. Of course, our Spanish was very, very small and poquito before we first went to Spain. So, we certainly weren’t able to go and get jobs in Spanish-speaking companies.

So, that’s why we decided on Gibraltar. It turns out after being there that actually Gibraltar is very small, it’s very expensive, a one-bed apartment will probably cost you about €1,000 a month, whereas if you just went up the coast a little bit, we went to a place called Puerto de la Duquesa which is very close to Estepona. A lot of people have heard of Estepona, maybe about 20-30 kilometers east or south of Málaga. For €400 which at the time was about £320, we had like a three-bedroom apartment with a pool and looked out over the sea and it was just brilliant.

Now we compared that to the UK and we were paying about £600 for a one-bed, 400 square apartment in the center of town in Manchester. At the time the Euro was 1.4 to the pound, God, those were the days. We actually ended up, I think it was so much cheaper to live. It was probably half as cheap to live in Málaga or near Málaga in Spain as it was to live in Manchester.

We were like, well let’s try it, and worst-case scenario, it’s a two-and-a-half-day drive back to the UK. So, if it all goes wrong we just get in the car. So that’s what we did. We sold everything around about sort of January-February time, moved in with our parents for a couple of weeks, and then at the time, we had a Citroen C3, which is a tiny little sort of four-door car. We packed everything, including our 50-kilo rottweiler who came with us who sat on top of two suitcases and just drove for three days down to Málaga to our new life. That’s how we kicked off in Málaga.

David: [0:05:30] Yeah, that sounds incredible. It sounds like, of course very different from your home country, but you gave it that first chance in terms of the wedding and got that experience there and then adjusted accordingly. What I’m curious about then is, what did you end up doing as far as your businesses and careers? Naturally, it sounds like you were able to manage yours remotely to some extent, and maybe you had to make some adjustments there, but how about your wife?

Al Elliott: [0:05:55] That’s one of the key questions I think that we always get is people saying, how do you do this? Now, it’s interesting because we’ve both come at it from different angles. I’ve always, not always, but for the last 10 -15 years been a marketing consultant. That’s how I built up my property company by doing marketing with my business partner, who’s great at properties. We built a load of properties in a short period of time, which is great.

Now, by no means am I a millionaire. It covers my outgoings for the month, but we’re not sitting on a beach drinking Pina Coladas. What was interesting was from Leanne’s point of view, she came from a very much employed. She was working for the department of working pensions in the UK, like a governmental agency.

She couldn’t very well just say, right I’m off. She spoke to her boss and she basically was really open and said, look, this is what we’re planning on doing. My husband and I are planning on going here. Here’s my notice and a couple of days later, her boss came back to her and said, how much of this could you do abroad remotely? I mean, we are talking 2013, so this is almost nine years ago. Well, before the WFH movement. She said, I reckon I could probably do about 85% remotely and he said, well, it’s going to be cheaper for you to fly from Málaga to Manchester than it is for you to get a train from Manchester to London so let’s try it. 

Basically, she was like, okay. She went across and she worked for about three weeks in Málaga in the sun at our house and then for a month, she’d fly back to the UK, hire a car, which is all paid for by the company and go and do her work down there. That went on for almost two years, I think. 

Of course, there are some downsides and I don’t want anyone thinking, Oh, she was lucky. Because she wasn’t lucky. She handed her notice in, she was prepared to walk away. We are lucky in so much as the boss said, yes, you can do it. At the same time, there are always some difficulties because if you’re away from your partner for a week, a month, that’s not great. She was on her own in the UK eating at restaurants on her own in the UK, which obviously isn’t great. She kind of felt a little bit like she got a foot in both camps, if that makes any sense.

I think it is quite interesting to look at people who say, I could never do this. Well, have you actually asked whoever you work for? Is there a way in which you can try it? I mean, there’s a great book called The Four-Hour Work Week. I’m sure you’ve read of Tim Ferriss and he talks about a way to exit out of your job. I’m not going to go over that because it’s his work and his strategy, but it’s a great strategy to basically exit over, sit over a period of six months and then just knob off abroad or something. So that’s the way that came about with the work.

David: [0:08:27] Nice. Yeah, that’s amazing. As you said, it’s essentially taking that framework or that step-by-step plan that you can find in those books like Tim Ferriss’ The Four-Hour Work Week and making it actually happen. It’s amazing to hear that she was able to do that. I guess it’s important to note as well that back in 2013 you had an opportunity just to move in terms of immigration and visas and things like that, just as part of being part of the EU, ultimately with your British passport. I think that’ll probably come into play a little bit later, as we talk about how things have evolved for you. It must have just been so empowering just to be able to put everything in the car, manage it with your careers as well and businesses and just to start that new life in such a beautiful place that you had been, I guess, dreaming about, and also, of course, living in a much lower cost of living. I think it’s super exciting and inspiring to hear those stories.

Al Elliott: [0:09:22] Yeah, absolutely. Our own podcast is all about the honest guide to living and working abroad. It is exactly that. We tell everyone, look, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. There are a lot of difficulties which I’m sure we’ll get into later on in the call.

But the fact is that no one is going to knock on your door and say, I’ve got an apartment for you we found in Spain, do you fancy coming and living there? And by the way, will give you all the money you need to…you have to take some risks, you have to get your big boy pants or your big girl pants on and you have to take these risks and go and do it. As long as you’re not cutting all ties or disappearing to a remote kind of Pacific Island where you can’t get back, almost anything’s reversible, isn’t it?

David: [0:10:06] Yes. Well said. I think people forget that, it’s often what I say as well, worst-case scenario, you can head back to your home country. Some people obviously don’t want to do that. It’s maybe not the preferred route or maybe, in difficult situations, that’s not an option either, but for most folks, it’s not that bad to sort of unwind the situation. At least, you had some experience and maybe you can try again and perhaps find a country that better fits your needs. 

To that end, I’m curious how those first couple of months, if even first year was there in Spain. Of course, you have your wife who’s going back and forth for the job. You are trying to run your businesses from there. It sounds like you have this great setup, but what were some of the challenges that you might have faced especially maybe in a more Spanish-speaking environment at that time?

Al Elliott: [0:10:55] That’s a great question. We always talk about the sort of three cornerstones of a happy expat life, which is your accommodation or where you live. How you work or earn money. Then, it’s how you socialize or how you make friends. I think that in most cases, it’s more of a logistical thing to sort out where you live. I’ll talk about that in a second because specifically, we did choose a sort of an expat starter place, which I’ll talk about in a second. In terms of working out how you earn, hopefully, you’ll sort it out before you’re going, because that’s going to add extra pressure if you don’t know how to make money.

So, it leaves the biggest challenge, which I think we’ve discussed before is, finding friends and having a social circle. What happens is that you end up being everything to your partner. You’ve got to be your drinking buddy. You’ve got to be the person you go exercise with. You’ve got to be the person who you spend 24 hours a day with, and they also happen to be your partner as well. That puts an enormous strain on a relationship.

I think you can go one of two ways. We were looking we went the way that now, we’re quite happy spending the entire seven days just seeing each other, nobody else and that’s absolutely fine. But there are certain things you have to put in place. We call it ‘quiet time’ where one of us will go into a different room, maybe two or three hours. We talk about independent stories sorry, stories sound pretty stupid, but like TV, we call it “our stories.” After the woman in scrubs, as we call it our stories. So, you need independent stories. You need to, let’s go and sit, you go and watch Breaking Bad. She goes and watch RuPaul Drag Queen and never the two shall meet, if that makes sense. So, I think there are lots of things you put in place and lots of things that we learned.

However, in terms of the social aspect, we moved to a place called Puerto de la Duquesa. That’s not easy for me to say after eight years of being away. It’s very expat-y, there’s not that many Spanish people there. You go into the bars along the port and English is not only widely spoken, but it’s natively spoken by probably about 60% of the people sitting there. A little bit like a mini-Marbella. Now, the advantage of that is that you kind of have this sort of soft opening, this ability to move into a different culture, knowing that even though your Spanish isn’t great, you don’t have to use it because you’ve got this fall back of English.

So that was the good part of it. It allowed us to learn a bit of Spanish, like quietly over a period of time. The bad side of it is, there’s not really an authentic feeling of Spain. So, about two years after living in that area, we moved into rural Málaga. It was about 40 kilometers in the mountains outside of Málaga where we were maybe one of six expat families in the village. That was much, much harder.

What was interesting is that I thought that the locals wouldn’t be interested in talking to us because we don’t speak native Spanish, but we could speak enough to talk to them. Most people are interested in you and then most people will happily sit there and talk and have a beer with you or something even with your sort of ridiculous GCSE Spanish you can still get by.

Although I say that the social aspect is one of the more difficult aspects, I think if you just go out there, work at it, make an idiot of yourself, pronounce things wrong. I talked about making a deal with someone and apparently, that was colloquial for a child sex ring. So basically, I suggested that I made, you know, and it’s stuff like that. You just learn that you’re going to get it wrong a lot more than you’re going to get it right. But it really is important to get yourself out there and start to make friends because you can’t live abroad and not speak to people who live there.

David: [0:14:34] Right. Absolutely. I can imagine that there was quite a stark contrast, right, as you’re saying, between the first place that you lived and the second place up in the mountains. So how did you come to make that decision? I can imagine at first, it’s probably very comfortable to be around these different expats and build relationships and build community amongst those people with similar backgrounds to yourself, but then to decide to go from that straight into a situation where you’re really kind of more uncomfortable. It’s maybe not as easy, but ultimately more satisfying. I think it’s an interesting choice.

I’ve heard of people going, maybe even in the opposite direction. They try to throw themselves first into the deep end and then going into the more local environments and then ultimately, maybe trying to find places where they’re able to connect with people with similar backgrounds. I think even though you can maybe learn something from, of course, trying to speak the language and being able to understand someone’s different culture there are those cultural differences as well that I would imagine you encountered more in the second location. How would you kind of think about that and also decide which of those cities to move to at those different times?

Al Elliott: [0:15:45] Well, I kind of alluded to an event which turned us into nomads and that was in our second house, not the one in the countryside. That was still in this sort of this safety, this playgroup area of Spain, where we went to pay our rent one day in May and the landlord said, “I’m sorry, he sold the house.” We were like, “Well, when do we leave?” He says, “Well, he wants you out tomorrow.” We were a bit like, well, this isn’t good. The other thing is if anyone’s ever been, you’ll know from Porto and your travels, is that looking for accommodation over summer in an area that’s touristy is a nightmare. A rough rule of thumb is that what you pay monthly during the winter is what people charge weekly in the summer. You’re talking about four times rent hike just of a summer. 

So, Leanne came up with an idea. She said, look, well, let’s just leave this house, but let’s just travel around. We’ll go to Jaén we’ll go to Granada, we’ll go to Sevilla, we’ll go to Madrid, we’ll go to all the sort of major cities around Spain we’ve not been to yet.

We went and did that till sort of autumn, September. Had a really, really great time moving around on Airbnbs, every sort of three or four weeks seeing different cities. Because we were particularly here and we were out in the countryside and we were still getting by we’re like, this is really nice. Just sitting out, looking at the stars. You can see every, well not every star, but it feels like you can see every star as you look up at night.

You can get far more for your money out there, and then, there’s lots of little, they call them Campo bars, countryside bars in Spain. I’m sure you have the same in Portugal where you’ll walk in and you might be the only English person there and they’ll do tapas for 50 cents and then, they’ll do sort of beers for a Euro and you just got so many great characters. Then we thought we really fancy this. We looked into the areas and then we just looked at the top sort of five villages per population and went to every single one of them and stayed over. Some of them just drove through, just went and had like a couple of tapas, a couple of beers, whatever, a coffee just see what we felt about it.

Colmenar, if anyone was listening who knows the Axarquia region, Colmenar was the number one winner for us and that’s where we ended up going. In fact, it was a stroke of luck when we got there because we got there and we looked down the road and the first thing we looked for is a bar, because although that’s because we want a beer, but also because you get to find that’s the center, obviously in most villages.

We saw a Guinness sign outside one of these bars, we were like, well, that’s a good sign. We went down there, had a beer, spoke to the guys who were from Grenada. They said, the woman who owns this is actually English and she has a letting agency here. We were like, fantastic. So the next day we met her, two days later signed our lease in our new village. So, it was very serendipitous.

David: [0:18:31] Wow. Yeah, those are amazing signs to be able to get along the way to show that you’re going in the right direction. It sounds like that was ultimately a good fit for you. Did you find it to be exactly kind of what you expected and what you were looking for and hoping for, or did you find that going so deep on the other side of the expat communities more on the local side brought its own challenges that maybe you didn’t expect or weren’t prepared for?

Al Elliott: [0:18:54] Now, that is a good question I’ve not thought about yet, but you are right. The work, the obvious challenges of being in a village, a small village, 6,000 people of which 5,996 are Spanish so, there is that downside. The advantage of that is it pushes you to learn Spanish. We got us an in-house Spanish teacher who’d come in and make us do our homework and stuff. We were like kids, we used to do our homework an hour before she came and we were like, oh, shit. We should have done this last week. But then we got the opportunity to practice our Spanish. Our landlord was Spanish, our neighbors were Spanish. So that was good.

On the slight downside of that is that because there are fewer expats in the area per density, then you will have to go further afield to find more people if you want to find English-speaking people or expats. Secondly, because there are fewer, it’s more difficult to forge relationships. If you are meeting sort of 10 new people a week then odds are once a month, you’ll meet someone who you actually quite like and you want to spend time with, but if you’re meeting one person a week, then it might be only one person a year you meet and you go, actually, I quite like them.

I hope this doesn’t come across as wrong, but a lot of people, a lot of expats, particularly someone who’ve been there for a while, they might have left for different reasons. They’re not always, I hate to say this, but not always the happiest of people, even though they’re living a different life. That can be a little bit difficult. I think you and I quite sort of, we have an outlook of very much like everything’s good. Glass is half full and, it’s quite difficult when you meet people like that and you have to adapt to that.

David: [0:20:25] Yeah, that’s a great point. It’s not probably something that we’ve talked about in enough depth on this podcast, but certainly, people might move for one reason or another, or perhaps by staying somewhere in a different country, you could argue perhaps for too long maybe in the same place. I think that can lead to some long-term frustrations on behalf of some folks. I think we’ve all been there at different points, but hopefully don’t get too stuck in that mode without making a change and that can definitely impact those relationships or a possibility of building a friendship and nurturing that over time.

I can imagine, yeah, with less opportunities to meet people from abroad, you’d have to be a bit more perhaps picky about who you’re really building those long-term friendships with. Did you find it difficult to be in such a small town as well, as far as maybe sounds like you could take your car and go and visit around the country, but I imagine you were some distance from an airport, for example, or were you able to do the travel that you wanted to do as well?

Al Elliott: [0:21:25] Yes and no. To get into Málaga was about 45 kilometers and it’s about an hour and 10 on the bus and the bus ran like 10 o’clock on a Tuesday and then again came back on a Thursday or something. It was one of those sort of country bus routes. It meant that you couldn’t really go into Málaga for a night out. We are both quite, living and growing up in Manchester, we’re both very city people, so that did grate a little bit and I think that is something we definitely got used to, and helped by the fact that we had about five bars in the village, but we had two or three, which were really, really quite good. So that was good.

In terms of the actual adapting to the life, it’s interesting. We found, again, one of the camper bars, we loved this bar and you’d walk in there and the lights would be off because he didn’t want to spend any money. Then, if you asked for a tapas in the winter, he’d put it on top of the fire to cook it. It was just like the most rustic place. In fact, the toilet at the back, the men’s toilet was one of those, just a hole in the ground with a little bit of ceramic around it.

But it’s just got such a charm about it. We’d sit there and you’d go in there and you’d be hard-pressed to spend five euros in an afternoon and then in the afternoon, you’d have your landlord would come in and say, hey, how are you doing? And then, and a man would come in a box of puppies and then someone else would tie their donkey outside and then come in. I sound like I’m making this up. But it was experiences like that, you’re not going to get by going to Wetherspoons in the UK or a bar in Chicago.

I think what’s really cool is just the experiences you’re going to get and there will be challenges. It will take your time to adapt. Whatever you choose, if you’re going to live in central Madrid or Berlin or something, or you’re going to live in the paddy fields of Bali, there’s going to be an adaptation, but you just got to roll with it and just take all of these experiences as just the most amazing experiences, another anecdote, another chapter for the book.

David: [0:23:22] Yes, of which we certainly both have many and hopefully our listeners will, if they don’t already as well. It sounds like everything was kind of coming together. You found a place that you really identified with. People were interested in what you, and what you were doing. You were making those relationships there with locals and some expats as well. You had the in-house someone coming to your house to teach Spanish and you were doing your homework and all that and keeping the businesses and career going. So, what was it that made you decide to leave Spain then and travel more broadly for a longer-term?

Al Elliott: [0:23:55] I think it was just curiosity. We went to a friend’s wedding in Ko Samui in Thailand. We decided we were going to go for four weeks and go make a bit of a thing of it. The first time we’d ever been, either of us had ever been that way on the east. We went to this place and we were just like blown away by how different the world was. Ko Samui’s quite touristy, but we went to a couple of other little islands that, it was just like, Oh my God, this is just paradise. Is there a shop? No, of course, there’s not a shop. All this sort of mayhem and we just thought we need more adventure. Have we become a little bit more comfortable living where we are?

Our lease was up on the 1st of September, which was our wedding anniversary as well and we just said, you know what, let’s not renew it. Let’s just go on an adventure. We packed up on the 1st of September, 2015, I think it would be, maybe 16 and just decided to drive around. No, actually you know what, that’s completely wrong. I remember what it was. It was the year that the UK voted to leave the EU.

As people might have guessed, I was gutted, my wife was gutted. We are definitely big, big, big European fans. We were like, this is awful. Can’t believe this happened and then, that was in June and then Trump got in as well. Again, I’m not going into that because people have their own opinions, but we were just like, do you know, what? Should we try and visit every single country in Europe before we leave in January 2021? Wasn’t it? When we actually left in early 2020 and 31st? Should we try and visit every country? We’re like, yes, let’s do it. There was an inciting moment. 

The first place we drove was to Lisbon and we were there for about a week, and then we drove onto the Balkans. We started our journey down in Slovenia and then went down to Croatia and blah, blah, blah, blah. We did, well, plot twist, and we didn’t do every single country for a reason, and for the pandemic, which I’m sure we’ll come on to, because that’s probably what you’re asking. 

But yes, overall, up to date, we’ve done 44 countries, 158 stops I think and over 105 Airbnbs and I don’t regret a single one of them. It’s just such an exciting adventure. If anyone’s listening and you’re thinking, should I go travel? Yes, you should. I feel like I’m on a soapbox now, I’ve got to step down. Did I answer your question? I feel like I might have gone on a different tangent there.

David: [0:26:25] No, no. There’s a lot to dive into. I think that’s the best part. There were obviously some different inciting factors or aspects that led to your decision to keep it going and start looking even more internationally. You mentioned also outside of the Brexit point. You mentioned going to Thailand on this trip related to a wedding. I’m curious also about then how did you decide where to go? You also wanted to see a lot of the EU. Did you go end up making it back to Asia and travel throughout Southeast Asia as well? How did you kind of figure out where was next and like the overall plan? When you have the entire world at your disposal, it can almost be, hard to make a decision as to what to do. We’re curious to hear about your thoughts.

Al Elliott: [0:27:12] Do you know what, the last thing you’ve said, we call it the “empty car park syndrome?” Have you ever driven into a car park where there’s only three cars in there? You never park in the first space you go to, you’re like, oh, maybe I’ll go to this one or that one. Like you said, you are almost like, you’re overwhelmed. That’s exactly what you do feel. When you can live anywhere, you start to think, Where the hell am I going to live?.

Now, to answer your question sort of sequentially we still did go back to, that was our first year of spending four weeks in the far east and then the second year we spent three months from January, February, March. Someone looked after our dog and we did that. In the third year, we went and spent four months, which also included India and Indonesia. They were incredible. That was the last year before the pandemic. That’d be 2019. 

It was almost like we were doing summer in Europe, and then we went back to the UK at Christmas because we had a UK car and it needs to be taxed and stuff. Back to the UK Christmas and then, in January, we’d leave our dog with someone and then just disappear off to go and find the sun on the other side of the world, and then, come back when the sun was back in Europe. So that was kind of like the structure.

In between those times of going to Asia, we just planned a route and our route, we started off from saying, well, okay, we go back to the UK at Christmas so, let’s come back down through Germany and then go to Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and then come back up through Albania. Then, we’ll work our way back up through Albania, Montenegro, Serbia Bosnia and Herzegovina and then into Croatia. We’re like, all right, we’ll stay in Croatia for a little bit. This is obviously for any third-party nationals, which include, unfortunately, us British now, you can’t do that. You can only spend three months in a Schengen zone, then you have to leave for three months. But this is back in the days when you could do anything you wanted, which was only, oh God, it was only a year ago. 

We just kept doing these kinds of like concentric circles around Europe. It was all going really well until Christmas 2020; I think it was. We came back from the UK; we went to Copenhagen for New Year. Then we spent February in Poland. Then we went to Lithuania, which was one of our last ones, where Lithuania Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova. We’re the last sort of four and they’re all on the east.

We’re like, Great, we’ll go and do Lithuania, and then, we’re off to Belarus. We were supposed to be in Lithuania for four weeks, we were in there for about four months because of the lockdown. Then that lifted and we were like, things have got a bit testy with Belarus at that time. It got a little bit worse as well. Things now currently are a bit weird with Ukraine. I’m kind of glad we didn’t go any further than that. But so just drove down to Croatia and then we spent the next lockdown in Slovenia from sort of September that year through to March the year just gone 2020.

David: [0:29:58] Wow. Clearly as probably people would expect the pandemic has had an impact on your travels and your plans. I can imagine that’s been a huge change for you. How did you adjust to that? I mean, mentally, emotionally, you’d been having this freedom and just crossing Europe, crossing Asia seeing the world, and then suddenly COVID 19 sort of stops you in your tracks literally. How’d you adjust to that? Did you think it was just going to be a few weeks or a few months and get surprised or did you know, kind of straight away that this would put such a hamper or hinder your travel plans so significantly?

Al Elliott: [0:30:42] To answer your second question. No, I had absolutely no idea was going to be like it is. We thought, oh, maybe four weeks quarantine, then maybe four weeks let everyone shake out, and then we’re back on the road. I mean, we all know absolutely, that’s not the way and that’s probably not going to be the way for quite a few years now.

So yes, it had a massive effect. Although, I think what I said at the top of the interview was that if you can be comfortable with both your own company and whoever you are living with, assuming you are traveling with someone else or expating with someone else, then it doesn’t make that much of a difference. I think there are little bits like when we used to go to the Campo bar in Spain it was nice because you’d get out of the house for a Saturday afternoon or something. Whereas obvious you couldn’t do that anymore. In Slovenia, it was quite strict and in Lithuania, it was quite strict. Not even dog walking, unless like dog walking once a day, but only one person kind of thing. So, it definitely took its toll. I think what’s interesting is that, and we do talk about this quite a lot, quite openly is that this has affected a lot more people’s mental health than they’re actually letting on or possibly even realizing. I think that particularly if you are a traveler, like we were, and then to go from, you can go anywhere to saying you can’t even go to the supermarket is such a big change and something that can quite honestly knock you on your ass.

I think it did for us too. We were putting up with the first few weeks going, oh, it’s okay. It’s a bit of adventure, but exciting isn’t it, not being able to go out? Then it got very quickly got like, oh, this is rubbish. This is rubbish. I think, yeah, when it got to particularly second lockdown, we were in Slovenia. We got to Slovenia in September sort of let’s say September the first for argument’s sake and then September the third, they closed all the bars for about four months. We were like this, oh my God.

David McNeill: [0:32:40] Yeah, no chance for an outdoor beer or meeting your local new friends. So, that changes things a bit.

Al Elliott: [0:32:49] Massively, massively. I think that we had been to Slovenia three or four times before. So, we did know a couple of people there who we were able to meet up with fully within the guidelines, but we were able to meet up within their houses. If you were a traveler and you just turned up in this new city and suddenly you weren’t allowed out. I mean, that’s got to be really tough, particularly if you’re on your own, that’s going to be really tough.

David McNeill: [0:33:14] Yeah. I think that’s a great point is that, it’s that much more difficult if you’re doing this on your own. That’s what I’ve seen among people here in Portugal. Friends that I’ve made here through our meetups and different things like that. Just of course, yeah talking to other folks that are travelers is just that realization that it was, all good and all fun when you could go out and meet somebody at the hostels or do this or that, and go to the local bar, go to a pub crawl. Suddenly when you’re really locked down, I think as a lot of people realized, not even travelers necessarily, just people realized that the home feels a lot smaller when you’re there by yourself all day, or even with somebody else, it can feel a lot smaller. I think that’s probably changed some of the renting planning or property purchasing plans for people as they’ve thought about, okay, if we get stuck here again, maybe we want a two or three-bedroom instead of that one-bedroom right.

Al Elliott: [0:34:11] A hundred percent. We have been lucky in that most of the places we got stuck/locked down in were a three-bed. Which it’s just a couple of us, but we obviously work from home so we tend to try and have separate offices. That is a big key, I think, or at least like, I mean, we like you have a podcast. We have a different room to do our podcast studio, a different room to work in. It feels like you can just leave, but if it’s a one-bed apartment and you have to work at your worktop and then I don’t know, I think that’ll be really tough.

David McNeill: [0:34:37] Yeah, absolutely. As far as kind of figuring out then your next steps, and obviously now you’re in Croatia, so it’d be great just to hear about how you made that happen in the midst of being locked down in some different countries. Obviously, you’ve had now Brexit happen and so as you kind of came out of that and thinking about what to do next in the situation, while still maintaining your expat or your travel life now, how did that break down? What was the process there and how’d you get to Croatia?

Al Elliott: [0:35:07] Again, I think it’s one of those things that you can look at Brexit as like the worst thing that happened, or you can look at it and go, well, it’s happened. I can’t do anything about it. So, let’s make the best of it. What’s interesting is that because Slovenia is in Schengen, which those people who are perhaps listening in America if you don’t know Europe, there’s like a number of countries that are Schengen and that you’re allowed freedom of movement if you are from one of those countries. If you’re not from one of those countries, you’re only allowed three months in six. Now don’t take for gospel what I’m saying, do your research before. Generally, now us Brits are only allowed three months in six in Schengen and after 90 days we have to go, we have to leave Schengen. Now Slovenia, we’re in Slovenia for six months, but the countdown started on the 1st of January for Brexit. Brexit happened on the 1st of January. So, we had 30, it was like 90 days from then, which was mid-March we had that time. We had to get out. Now then the country next door to us is Croatia. So, it made so much sense. Three-hour drive, we would be in Croatia. So that’s where we decided to go. Our original plan was to come to Croatia for…you’re allowed another 90 days in here under tourist visa and then we go back into Schengen having hit out and we can go into another 90 days. We got to Croatia and were like we love this. We’ve been to couple of times before, but never Istria, which is the place next to Italy. We got there and we’re like, this is amazing. This is beautiful and they’ve just introduced the Digital Nomad visa.

Now, what that basically is, I’m sure people know what it is, listening to your podcast, but for Croatia, it was a 12-month residency plan where you didn’t pay any income tax on any income you derived outside of Croatia, and you could apply for it pretty much straight away and they weren’t too onerous. We didn’t think it was too onerous, the actual sort of stipulations to get the visa. So, we just thought sort it, let’s do it. We were here for 90 days on a tourist visa and that was in March. Then, after about 35 days, we just said, Right, let’s just apply for the visa, so we did. We applied for the Nomad visa. We looked at the regulations we were like, okay, this doesn’t sound too bad. We started it, we were like, this is bad, this is awful. Didn’t understand what they were asking. Didn’t even understand, like the forms, half the forms were in Croatian, half were in English. We were like, this is no good. We have a little saying my wife and I, is like, throw some money at the problem. We decided to go and find an agency to come and do all this for us. They quoted us, I can’t remember exactly how much it was. It wasn’t like thousands, but it wasn’t like 200 quid. It was a hefty amount, but it was all right. We were more than willing to pay that to not to have a look at these things again, they were fabulous. If anyone’s listening who’s thinking of going for some kind of residency visa or import your car, which we did in Spain. Don’t try and do it yourself. Do not is my advice because it will make you cry and you’ll probably end up splitting it with your partner or having ferocious arguments about it. So, we found this company, they were great. They did it all for us. We went to the police station, picked up our visas and there we are. So that was May 2021. We are now due to leave here in May 2022, which is, we are recording in January, so, in about 90 days’ time.

David McNeill: [0:38:15] Then, I guess it begs the question, what do you have planned next? Is it just to go back to some tourist visas or to try for another Digital Nomad Visa somewhere else, or head back to the UK, or what are your thoughts?

Al Elliott: [0:38:28] I think the one thing we are not doing is going back to the UK. As I said, it’s not because we hate the UK. It’s just, because we’ve now had this taste of European life. We’re like, this is us, I think for the foreseeable future. For the short term, we are going back to the UK. We were due to go back for Christmas this year and we couldn’t, we are glad we didn’t, because Omicron came in and they closed the borders over Christmas. We would’ve been really, really stuck. Under the visa, we’re only allowed 30 days outside Croatia. If we’d been stuck and been quarantined for another two weeks, we could have lost our residency visa. So that was not good. Yes, it was quite serious. So, we ended up postponing. 

We are going back to have a Christmas with our families in May for about four weeks. Then our provisional plan is to head to Portugal, to your neck of the woods, and go for the D7 Visa in Portugal which we’re still learning a lot about it. I’m sure that when we finish recording, you can school us a bit more in what’s good and bad about it. That’s kind of our provisional plan is to get a Portuguese visa, which will give us essentially, we’ll become Schengen citizens again. That we are able to travel with no Schengen restrictions, that’s our understanding. Of course, if you’re listening, then speak to David because he will tell you exactly what that means. That’s kind of our provisional plan. So, it’s kind of weird. We thought we didn’t know where we’re going to go six weeks ago and now we’re pretty sure it’s going to be Portugal.

David McNeill: [0:39:46] Oh, awesome. Was there anything about the opportunity in Portugal, for example, that just made it more clear over the last six weeks? Or was it just the country itself? Obviously, the visa is a huge component of that decision, but what was it that came together for you in helping to make that decision?

Al Elliott: [0:40:05] There’s kind of two or three things and some of those are what weren’t good for us. Like, for example, there is a visa, I’m aware there’s one in Germany, obviously, Croatia’s got one, but you can’t extend it, and then Greece has got one, I think there’s one coming in Montenegro. There’s all these kind of different ones. 

None of them, they didn’t really appeal to us and they just seemed quite, I don’t know. Getting residency in Greece is a four-day drive to the UK, if not maybe five. Whereas in Portugal, it’s probably two days. There’s the visa part and the Portuguese visa in our research is the most attractive visa to people who are freelancers in Europe. That’s our opinion, based on our research. In terms of the actual country itself, we lived in Spain and loved it. We wouldn’t have left. We would’ve gone back to Spain, if it had not been for a very difficult tax situation. With the properties it’s difficult because they try and tax you on your properties in the UK, on the capital rather than the income as well. That was tough.

Portugal seems like, it’s on the Iberian Peninsula, we’re planning to live in Portugal in a place called Evora, but that’s very close to Salamanca and you can just dip over the border, a similar kind of weather, but then it’s just a different experience again. We’re going to have to start again with the language and I think I’m really looking forward to it and I think it’s half challenge. It’s half emotional, like this is going to be great, such a great adventure and half logical in that this is the most logical place, even if we set ourselves as residents here and travel for three, four months of the year, we still, that seems a good base to have.

David McNeill: [0:41:47] Yeah. I think a lot of people come to a lot of the same conclusions. Good to hear it from your perspective and it definitely doesn’t always work for everyone but I think those are a lot of the same things that we’re having conversations about with our clients as well. 

One thing that I didn’t ask earlier, but it’s kind of been on my mind throughout our conversation is, so you were living more, let’s say the expat life there in Spain, and then you became more nomadic in terms of your travels. Then you also had these longer lockdowns followed by Croatia and now probably Portugal coming up. You’ve been running your businesses the whole time in these different scenarios. I’m just curious how it changed from being located in one place where you have your setup and everything else to really moving from city to city, country to country, and of course, then moving back into these longer-term situations. I can imagine maybe that has some impact on your motivation around your business or what you’re able to achieve or productivity or perhaps not. It would just be good to hear about how you adjusted to those different scenarios and maybe if you found any pros and cons of those different types of lifestyles relative to your business.

Al Elliott: [0:42:57] Interesting. I think there’s a few strands to think about this. The actual practical logistic of, we were talking before you hit record that you’re setting up your office at the moment and it’s all exciting because you’re setting your gear up and stuff and I was telling you that I have about 40 kilograms of gear including lights, microphones, there’s three microphones just on this desk alone, plus two more upstairs. The actual logistics of moving everything around is a pain in the backside. I think that’s one thing I’m not looking forward to jumping around in summer, which we will be until we find where we want to be, is that I can’t set up all my desk and I can’t have my monitor on it, stand and all that kind of stuff, working back to a laptop. There is a logistical side of it. In terms of the actual sort of business and client side of it, we have addresses in the UK. We don’t pretend, if someone asks directly, no, we don’t live in the UK. If a client comes to us, they go to a website, they see an address, they have a UK phone number using Skype numbers. They don’t know that we are not in the UK. From that point of view, that’s not an issue for us.

There’s another aspect in terms of tax. I mean, there’s so much online about this whole thing of, do you pay tax if you’re in somewhere for 90 days, but then if you carry on, move it, flip every 90 days, then where do you pay tax? Now I know for Americans unfortunately, there’s got no choice in it, but for us, if you don’t live in the UK for a certain period of time, you’re not eligible for tax there. There’s that aspect as well.

I think overall the biggest impact is motivation. I think you are absolutely right. If you’ve got your laptops propped up in some books and you’re sitting there at your worktop working on a stool, and you’re trying to do that for eight hours a day, and then you flip round and you start cooking your dinner and then you go and sit two meters away from where your office is and watch TV or something that can get you down. Flipping around, you tend, we always try and get a couple, like we said before, two- or three-bedroom places, just so you can have that separation.

Also, the other aspect of it is, if you are going to a new place and it’s exciting, you’re like, this is cool. Then you’ve arrived on Sunday and it comes Monday and you go, well, I don’t want to sit there and write these emails. I want to go out there and see things. It is quite difficult to motivate yourself, particularly in a new place. I don’t know whether you feel the same, David, but when it comes to summer, particularly for us Brits, when the sun comes out we go to the beer gardens and we sit and drink beer. When it’s sunny, 360 odd days of the year, it’s tough to get motivated sometimes on a Friday afternoon, when you know you’re going to do something and you can just smell the beer calling you from the fridge.

David McNeill: [0:45:31] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, certainly feel that way as welcoming, at least more recently from Berlin to Portugal. Even though I’m in Porto, which maybe doesn’t have quite as many sunny days as down south, it’s still got plenty, including right now. In the middle of January, we’ve had quite a nice run here. I can feel that and understand that from your perspective, feel the same on my side.

I also think it’s interesting to be able to be in one place and to be able to feel that office or that obviously the place that you live and feel like that’s your own, as opposed to, feeling like you’ve got to explore each new place that you go to. Of course, travel’s amazing, but it feels like that would just have a bigger impact if you were to be traveling long term and always looking at, where’s the next country that we haven’t been to, to mark off the list or the next city relative to, okay, I’ve got to sit down here and work for the next eight hours or whatever.

Yeah as you said, Monday morning’s coming, and have to get back to work on your setup in an Airbnb that might not be properly designed for coworking or for setting up that workspace. Is it now that you’re thinking, of course with your experience in Croatia more recently and maybe moving then to Portugal, to become a resident in a certain place, as opposed to just nomad all the time. Is that kind of something that you think about longer-term anyway? Whether Portugal or elsewhere, but just to have that home base where you’re spending maybe perhaps more than six months a year. I don’t know if that’s your plan, but just to have a base as opposed to just always be the move.

Al Elliott: [0:47:10] Yeah. It’s weird because this is exactly what we were talking about, my wife and I were talking about over summer. We were both saying that we are now at the point where we would like a base. Somewhere where we’ve got somewhere for six months, like you said, and then we can go traveling  far east for three months and then around Europe for another three months. So definitely, definitely I think that’s on the cards, but something else, which has happened, which is quite weird is that we now value work much less than we used to. I know in the UK, the status is if you’ve got a brand-new BMW, then you’re like, oh, look, he’s doing well. You know, even that costs you £650 a month on a lease. Whereas you moved to Europe and I don’t know whether you’ve found this, but you moved to Europe and no one really gives a flying crap about your car.

Your status is totally defined in a totally different way. We’ve found that now, we don’t really, we just bought a new car. We bought a Skoda and my wife was devastated because she want an Audi. I’m like, does it really matter? Now we’ve had it a few months we’re like, actually it doesn’t matter because nobody’s going to say, oh wow, look. Your priorities start to change a little bit. I guess to the point where I think that you no longer think…someone rings you up and says, how’s things? Are you busy? I always ask, I’m honest now and go, no, not really. Whereas five, maybe even 10 years ago, I’d be like, oh yes, I’m busy and important. Yeah look at me how important I am. I did have a BMW 600 about a month that I couldn’t afford and look at me and yeah, I’m flying off to do this. It’s like now, I am like no. Work just becomes, what’s the minimum amount of work we can do to keep the lifestyle we want and also reduce down your costs? Well, I think I’m flogging a horse here with my point.

David McNeill: [0:49:00] No, totally. Yeah. It makes perfect sense. I think that’s the way we’ve adjusted as well, or maybe in a sense, debatably kind of have always been, but it’s become more clear by who you surround yourself with and, the culture and the people around you and that country, certainly maybe a bit at odds with the average American or British mentality. I think that’s a great point and I think it’s great to be honest about that as well, and to lean into those freedoms because, in a sense, you’ve spent this time developing that location, freedom and business freedom, financial independence as well. It’s good to be able to enjoy reaping the rewards of the hard work that you’ve put in and the lifestyle design that you’ve, created over the last handful of years then. So, I think that’s just a great place to be.

Al Elliott: [0:49:54] Yeah. I think that what’s really interesting is that people think, oh, millionaires live abroad. We were speaking to one person who said, I have a millionaire lifestyle, but I’m nowhere near a millionaire because abroad you can generally get stuff for much cheaper. When you stop worrying about, do I have the latest phone? Have I got sky TV and all the other cable channels, have I got this, have I got that? When you start going, you know, sod all that, simplify, simplify, simplify to the point where if you can live on €1500 a month, including your rent, including everything, you have basically achieved financial independence because between the two of you, you can’t earn €1500 online gigging or something, then there’s something seriously wrong with you.

David McNeill: [0:50:41] Well said.

Al Elliott: [0:50:42] Yes. It’s not about being this amazing, oh, you earn loads of money from X, it’s just, reduce down, simplify, just get yourself to €1500 a month, you’re golden.

David McNeill: [0:50:53] Yeah. That’s basically, then you can sort of do what you want from there. Yeah, there’s a lot of beauty in that and I think it’s just changing that mentality of the retirement at 65 or whatever the age is to kind of enjoying life as long as we have it. That’s a big part of The Four-Hour Work Week, like you talked about as well. That’s the part that really stayed with me is, this changing mentality around when to retire and how to do it and how you can enjoy the path and the journey along the way as best as we can, especially given such a crazy environment that we’re in now and just making the most of what we have as we come out of this.

Al Elliott: [0:51:32] Absolutely, well said.

David McNeill: [0:51:34] So, with that, I think that probably is a good place for us to wrap up the conversation. I definitely want to give you a chance to talk a bit more about your podcast, about other projects that you’re working on, and definitely think that the audience here, if they like this conversation should definitely tune in. Please tell us a bit about your podcast at Sideways Life and how our listeners can find out more about you and what you’re up to.

Al Elliott: [0:51:55] Cool. Well, thank you for the opportunity to talk about it. We’ve been going about three years now, only done seriously for about a year now. You are one of our first guests and we started to relaunch you, you were great. 

We bill ourselves as the honest guide to living and working abroad. If you look back at some of our episodes, we’re at about 65 now, 66 and you look back at some of the episodes and we talk about how exactly how much it costs to live in the house we live in. We talk about what it’s like to have mental health issues, by working and living abroad. I think the key thing, which is interesting, is that we started last week a three-part sequence on ‘the three questions you need to ask in order to move abroad.’ Most people say, where am I going to live? We talk about the why first, why do you want to live abroad? Are you running away from anything? Then we talk about how, how are you going to make money? Then we talk about the where. That’s usually the first question people ask, we recommend being the last. If that sort of thing, tickles your pickle, then just look for us Sideways Life we’re on pretty much, I think everything, Spotify, Amazon Music, you name it, Deezer whatever that is. I never listen to it, but I think we’re on that. Yeah, go and find us and have a little listen, and if nothing else, you’ll hear the two of us having a couple of gins and tonic and being a bit daft at five o’clock on a Thursday.

David McNeill: [0:53:07] Sounds good to me. Well, I definitely recommend it, definitely recommend the podcast. Please check it out. I’ll put all the links in the show notes. Thank you so much Al for your time. It’s been a pleasure having this conversation, hearing about your story, and sharing it with our audience. I look forward to keeping up with you and maybe seeing you here in Portugal.

Al Elliott: [0:53:23] Definitely. We’ll definitely have to touch base sometime soon. All right. Thanks, mate.


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As the founder of Expat Empire, David McNeill is focused on inspiring people to move abroad and showing them how to do it. David started Expat Empire because he has a genuine passion for living abroad. He left the United States in 2014 and has since lived in Tokyo, Berlin, and Porto.