By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/13/2009 1:17:19 PM ET 2009-04-13T17:17:19

Gary Arndt didn’t want to wait until he was old to see the world. So two years ago, at the ripe age of age of 37, he sold his house, put everything he owned in storage, and hit the road.

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Arndt, a consultant-turned-photographer, never looked back. He’s visited some of the prettiest destinations on the planet since, including French Polynesia, Easter Island, the Cook Islands, Fiji and Samoa. (You can see photos on his blog) “I don’t regret it in the slightest,” he says.

He’s at the forefront of the latest travel trend: the permanent tourist.

As many as a million Americans now live nomadic lifestyles, and their numbers appear to be growing because of the ailing economy and the aging population. Richard Grant, author of the book “American Nomads: Travels with Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers, and Bullriders” says the influx is being fueled from two sides of the income spectrum. At the top end, “it’s people taking early retirement and living on boats, folks with money finding ways to stay on permanent vacation, that sort of thing,” he says. And at the bottom, travelers who have lost their homes and jobs and don’t want to wait around to find out what’s next.

“For now, it is early in this trend and there is no reliable data,” says Clark University history professor Deborah Dwork, who is an authority on the subject. “All you have to do, however, is look at the lines of people snaking around city blocks, hoping to get a minute of a recruiters’ time for the few jobs that are in the area. You can ascertain what the future holds for many of them.”

Woodrow Landfair is among them. When he graduated from the University of Texas in 2006, his career prospects were iffy. “That was enough of an excuse for me,” he recalls. He’s worked a string of odd jobs across the country since them, including walling barns in Vermont, running a refugee shelter in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, lifeguarding in Virginia, and cutting trees in Northern California. Landfair, whose ambition is to become a storyteller in the tradition of dust bowl balladeers like Woody Guthrie and writers like John Steinbeck and Louis L'Amour, has chronicled his adventures on his blog, iWoodrow.

If the thought of living on the road seems appealing, you’ve got company. Who wouldn’t want to spend a few weeks in an exotic place, discovering a new culture, seeing the sights, living like a native, and then moving on to the next destination? There’s even an online magazine, Janera, devoted to the movement. Gotta admit, I have a latent nomad gene, too. But more on that in a minute.

So what’s the secret to becoming a modern-day nomad? I asked people who were already doing it, and here’s what they said:

1.  Find a reason. Most transients have a portable career that allows them to travel freely. They’re consultants, freelancers or teachers, for example. But there are other ways to make money when you’re nomadic. In 2006, Tiffany Owens and her husband became full-time property caretakers. Both had been frustrated with their former careers — she was a magazine editor and he was a cable installer — and needed a break. “Now, I garden instead of sitting in boardroom meetings,” she says. “I couldn't be happier.” Check out the newsletter Caretaker Gazette for caretaking opportunities.

2. Travel extra light. That’s the advice of Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia.org. He became what he calls “unstuck” about two years ago, spending a month in Tokyo, San Francisco, New York, and Buenos Aires. “Pack less, and become unattached to possessions,” he says. “And then … pack less.” You’ll be living out of a suitcase for months — literally.

3. But don’t forget your patience. “And your sense of humor,” says life coach and blogger Lisa Haisha, who has been on the road since the age of 22. When dealing with new cultures and languages, both are essential.

4. Choose your destinations carefully. There are two kinds of places you’ll visit, says Lea Woodward, who is traveling with her husband, Jonathan, and, like almost everyone else in this story, is chronicling her experiences online. “The first is ideal for also running your business,” she says. “There’s stable Internet, plenty to see and do, but not culturally different enough to what you're used to. And second, the kind of destination where you do want to spend time as a tourist and not focus on the business side so much.” Balancing the two is important, if for no other reason than getting enough work done to pay the bills.

It’s A Snap: Travel Photo of the Week5. Remember the basics. When you whittle your personal belongings down to just one or two bags, you tend to simplify other parts of your life, too. That’s what happened to Jill and Steve Kaufmann when they turned a Chevy cargo van into a camper, complete with full sized bed and kitchen, and set out on an open-ended road trip. Jill is a marriage therapist and Steve is a news photographer, and you can follow their trip online, of course. “Know what you need to stay sane,” says Jill Kaufmann. “For us, that is a good night’s sleep and a good meal. We designed the van with those two things in mind.”

6. Hop, don’t jump. Jeanne Dee, who has been on an around-the-world trip with her husband, Vince, and daughter, says the key to saving money and savoring the experience is to take the slow boat. “Avoid taking too many long flights as that really adds to the costs,” she told me. Dee, who blogs about her family’s adventures on her site, says that in the first 2 ½ years of their travels, they’ve only taken one long flight. Not only does that save money, but it also lets you see the world from a more meaningful perspective —from the ground.

7. Don’t raise the bar too high. If you expect your life to be a vacation, think again. “Sometimes your experiences will live up to the proverbial picture postcard,” says Melissa Grossman, a life coach who is living the nomadic lifestyle with her partner, Tim and dog Rufus. “Sometimes it won’t.”  Their blog, which describes the ups and downs of a life lived on the road, is a case-in-point. It doesn’t help that thousands of people back in the States are following their trip and “living vicariously” through each post, she adds. These fans can add pressure to make each picture and each post seem like the endless vacation it sometimes isn’t.

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8. Keep a physical address. That’s the advice of J. Kim Wright, an attorney and global traveler currently wintering in Key West, Fla. “Unless you’re completely dropping out, you need to have your car registered, vote, and have a cell phone number attached to some place,” she says. Also, if you’re on prescription medications, you’ll need an address — a post office box won’t cut it. For most travelers, a friend or family member’s home is a workable address, not to mention a free place to store some of their belongings.

9. Don’t spend all your time together. If you’re traveling with a partner or as a family, carve out some alone-time. “It is extremely important to make time to be alone and have solo experiences,” says Leigh Shulman, a writer and blogger, who is traveling around the world with partner Noah Edelblum and their four-year-old daughter, Lila. “That can mean one of you takes an afternoon and explores whatever city you’re in alone. Or it can mean you connect with other travelers and go off for a journey sans partner and child.” Taking it solo, she says, helps you remember who you are and allows you to appreciate the other people you’re traveling with.

I met my first global nomad, Lisa Lubin, about two years ago. A TV producer by profession, she was on a round-the-world tour that would eventually take her to some pretty far-flung places, including Argentina, Cambodia, Egypt and Spain. What impressed me the most about her, apart from her boundless energy, was the way she managed to capture many of those places on video, allowing her readers to experience her adventure vicariously.

There’s that word again: vicarious. I think it’s the blogs and videocasts made by these nomads that adds to their numbers, maybe as much as the soft economy or shifting demographics. We see — and we want to experience.

It inspired me to create my own site, Souvenirist. I’ve posted photos and videos of my family’s local travels in Central Florida. And next year, we plan to take off and see the world. We don’t know where we’re going yet or how long we’ll be gone.

That’s half the fun, isn’t it?

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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