COVID-19: Geographic Arbitrage on Hard Mode

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A 1 AM call is never followed by good news.

This was the case five years ago. We’d just fallen asleep, but were jolted awake by the urgent ringing of Wanderer’s phone. As it turns out, Wanderer’s grandmother was in the ICU, and we had to fly home ASAP.

When you live a nomadic lifestyle, you have to be prepared to fly home at the drop of a hat. When you live everywhere and nowhere, flexibility is key. Which is why we live out of two backpacks so we can pack everything in 15 mins and be out the door. 

This time, it was 9 PM at night in Bali, Indonesia, when we, once again, got bad news. One of our immediate family members were seriously ill (not COVID-19 related) and emergency surgery was scheduled in 2 weeks. We needed to get our butts home ASAP.

In the midst of all this, COVID-19 was beginning to rampage all over the world. We already had a flight and an AirBnb booked in Australia on March 19, so we thought we would fly back to Canada from there.

But as our time in Bali ticked down, I got more and more nervous reading headline after headline about travel restrictions and border closures. Even though we were only 3 hours from Perth, Australia, I didn’t want to take the chance of Bali closing the borders on us or Australia not letting us in.

We quickly cancelled our JetStar flight (luckily they gave us a flight credit) and AirBnb gave us a full refund for compassionate reasons (love AirBnb!).

We used our frequent flyer miles to book a flight back to Toronto, going through Taiwan and Vancouver on March 18th (we wanted to avoid going to through US, to avoid border closures).

Then Taiwan announced it would soon be closing its borders to all travellers.

I have to say, in all our 5 years of travel, this is definitely geo-arbitrage on hard mode.

We got back to Toronto on the 2nd-to-last flight, before the travel restrictions took effect and we would have been stranded in Asia.

Now, as per the Canadian government’s instructions, we are holed-up in a Toronto AirBnb, self-isolating for the next 2 weeks to keep our family and fellow Canadians safe.

So now that we’ve had all this time to reflect, what happens to this nomadic life in the time of COVID? Is this it? It this the end of nomadic life as we know it?

Here’s what we’ve learned when you need to do geo-arbitrage on hard mode:

Frequent Flyer Miles are Gold

With so many travel restrictions and border closures being announced every hour, travellers are scrambling to change their flights to get home. This means flights from Asia to North America can spike from $700 USD to $1500 USD in less than 24 hours.

Luckily, we’ve saved enough Frequent Flyer Miles from Travel Hacking to fly both of us home. And the best thing about miles is that they don’t get more expensive even for last minute tickets.

As a nomad, it’s always a good idea to keep enough miles in your account to get you home in an emergency. That way you can avoid this catastrophe where a family paid $20,000 for last minute tickets to get home.

Practice Local Geo-arbitrage

Our motto “if shit hits the fan, we’re going to Thailand” doesn’t quite work when Thailand is locking down their borders to keep COVID-19 out, so for the time being, we’re revising our plan to use local geo-arbitrage instead.

This means staying close to family, and afterwards living in inexpensive places in Canada until the travel restrictions are lifted.

For nomadic travellers who flew back to your home countries, get an AirBnb for 2 weeks to self-isolate, then use local geo-arbitrage to keep your costs low.

Take Advantage of Low AirBnb Prices

One strange phenomenon I’ve noticed in the time of coronavirus is that AirBnbs in the downtown core of major metropolitan cities, like Toronto, are now cheaper than smaller, more remote areas like Sudbury or Hamilton.

I can find a fancy condo in downtown Toronto, with pool and gym, from April 2-9 for $49 – $83/night, whereas a similar quality one-bedroom apartment in Sudbury is $71-$120 for the same period.

 

Toronto: $49/night

Sudbury: $120/night

Weird huh?

I guess people are fleeing from the crowded city centers and into smaller towns get away from the virus? A cabin in the middle of the woods, away from people, seems pretty safe right now if you’re worried about getting sick.

So as long as you aren’t in a high-risk group, you might get a super good deal as people cancel their vacations and leave all these AirBnbs empty.

Pick a Country to Ride Out The Pandemic

If it weren’t for the family emergency, we would’ve picked a country in Asia to stay in while we rode out the pandemic.

Our criteria for picking a country as a temporary home would’ve had to meet the following checklist:

1) Must have a strong healthcare system
2) Must be taking this pandemic seriously and have a plan in place to prevent the spread of the virus.
3) Must be willing to grant visitors 90 days visa or more, with extensions if needed as a result of the virus.

The countries meeting these criteria at the time were Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia.

Compared to the rest of the world, Taiwan did a great job keeping the virus at bay. If you don’t believe me, just read this article.

However, at the time of writing, all have since closed their borders to travellers, so we would’ve had to get in right before the gates closed.

This is exactly what our friends, Mr & Mrs. NomadNumbers, are doing. If you recall, we did a guest interview with them after their quit their jobs to travel the world

Here’s the latest update from NomadNumbers on what it’s like to stay in Taiwan under quarantine:

Nomad life during COVID-19: exiting Bali and home quarantining in Taiwan

 

Self-Isolate. Save Lives

My friend Archie, who’s under voluntary self-isolation, recently joked “how often does one get to watch Netflix and save lives? Haha.”

And that’s why we’ve been binge-watching Silicon Valley and Fresh Off the Boat for the past fews days, not leaving the Airbnb.

If you’ve been travelling the world like we have, be considerate to others and go into isolation for 2 weeks. To order in, If you’re American or Canadian, use apps like

  • Doordash (use this referral link to get $20 off: $5 for your first 4 orders)
  • Foodora (use this referral link on your mobile device to get a $10 off your first order), or
  • Uber-eats (enter this discount code “eats-brycel43p2ui” on your mobile device to get $20 off your first order)

If you are Canadian, use Food Share for groceries and HomeDeliveryCanada for booze.

If you have friends or family offering to help you with grocery/care package drop offs, take them up on their generous offer.

DO NOT leave your house or AirBnb. Even if you are young and have a strong immune system, think about your parents, your grandparents, friends, and community. Keep them safe by keeping to yourself. Don’t be like these idiots.

And for those of us who are introverts (I’m an Ambivert, so I can go either way), guess what? You don’t have to see anyone or talk to anyone for 2 weeks! You’ve trained for this for your whole life!

If you’re a nomad and are worried about how the COVID-19 restrictions are going to affect your lifestyle going forward, know that this will pass. Just like everything in life. Nothing good lasts forever, but the same goes for bad situations. We will get through this together.

A Huge Thank You To Our Heroes

And finally, I want to thank all the doctors, nurses, healthcare workers on the front lines fighting this virus. We owe you our lives.

I also want to thank the flight attendants (shout out to my friend Clover), airport workers, and pilots for bringing us home safe and sound. Thank you all for your service.

We are in uncertain times, but if we band together (well not literally–stay physically as far part from each other as possible. SOCIAL DISTANCING, PEOPLE, SOCIAL DISTANCING!), we will get through this.

If you’re self-quarantined at home, reading blogs and watching Netflix, think of all the lives you’re saving. Kudos!


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64 thoughts on “COVID-19: Geographic Arbitrage on Hard Mode”

  1. I’m really glad you guys are safe! I made it home after several months on the road, right before things started to get out of hand. Since home is in rural America, social distancing is pretty easy – there’s no place to go, except a trip to the grocery store every couple of weeks.

    Now that you’re back in Canada, what’s your health insurance situation??

    1. I’m assuming that they will be covered under the Ontario government system (OHIP). There normally is a 3 month wait period for establishing residency in Ontario but the government recently waived that in light of the pandemic.

    2. Glad you made it home, Brian! And yeah, it’s a good time to be in rural areas right now. That’s why Airbnb are most expensive the more remote you are.

      As for health insurance, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Canadian government is waiving the 90 day lock out period for returning expats, so we’ll be able to get back our health insurance for any covid-19 related expenses. After that everything calms down again and if our family is ok, we will go back to our nomadic life and continue using expat medical insurance.

  2. Glad to hear you made it back to Canada safely. Hope the surgery for your family member goes well.

    We’ve pretty much been self-isolating for the last week plus. We just go outside for walks and make sure to keep our distance from others we may see out walking.

    Impressive response by Taiwan. Those protective screens for students and workers are smart. We were supposed to go to Korea and Taiwan in April but family members in Taiwan told us in February not to come; that no one was going outside any more.

    Stay safe and thanks for keeping us updated on what you all are doing!

    1. Thanks, DragonGuy! Good advice from your family in Taiwan not to travel in April. Things are still pretty crazy right now, but hopefully it’ll be back to normal in a few month (or worst case maybe in a year). *fingers crossed for a cure or vaccine soon*

  3. It’s good to see your experience and plans served you well when it hit the fan. Good luck with the self-quarantine and everything. Here’s hoping your family comes through alright!

    I was supposed to serve on a grand jury, eating up every Tuesday of my life for a period of months. The orientation session was ten days ago. They told me not to show up, since my wife and I had just been on a plane coming home from the previous weekend in Indianapolis. A few days later they completely closed the court system. Strange days.

    On the bright side, some overdue societal change might out of this — at least here in the US. Take care of y’selves!

    1. Thanks, Adam! And yes, you are right about this “some overdue societal change might out of this — at least here in the US.” That’s a silver lining to everything, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment. This too shall pass.

      As for your jury duty, yeah, I guess it’ll be postponed just like everything else. Strange days indeed. Nature invented a whole new way to get out of jury duty.

  4. Are you finding that with your Asian features you are being targeted negatively? There has been so many people in the US randomly assaulting asians. I hope this hasn’t been your experience.

    1. Can you provide some examples or links to stories? I have not seen or heard of anything close to what you describe.

    2. This is why I was nervous about going to Australia and felt safer in Asia. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced it in Canada so far (but it’s only been 5 days). It did happened last time during SARS, and people were actively avoiding Chinatown and Chinese restaurants, so definitely something I’m concerned about. For Americans, it’s even scarier. Have you phone camera ready at all times to record any incidents.

      1. To my knowledge, we Americans are a lot crazier than you guys when it comes to race. Maybe Canadians are just more polite about it, I dunno, but we love scapegoating minorities for everything from global pandemics to unemployment.

        There are actually idiots in this country trying to call this thing the “Chinese Virus” when we already have a commonly accepted name for it. And the justifications for it that they make up are emptier than the pork menu of a kosher deli.

        Glad you guys are safe and back. Enjoy living out my dream of sitting on the couch and watching Netflix and Hulu all day. I’m living that dream due to unemployment right now.

        Sincerely,
        ARB–Angry Retail Banker

  5. I am a health care worker. Thus far, I have been managing 90% of my work by phone. That may change as the numbers of affected in our local population increase. My thanks go to those people working in the grocery stores. They are currently way more exposed than I am. Most of these people are not well paid and never signed up for the sort of exposure they face right now.
    Thank you for the advice about retuning home in a catastrophe. I may need it when I retire. I recommend your book to EVERYONE.

    1. Thank you for your service, Teresa and I’m glad you are able to stay safe by working the phone lines. I agree that the grocery store workers deserves our thanks and appreciation too.

      Aww and you rock for recommending our book. You totally made our day! YAY! 🙂 If you enjoyed it, would you consider leaving us an amazon review? Thank you!

  6. When you become trully nomadic there tends to be no such thing as “home.” My (British) brother and his (German) wife are riding out the pandemic in Portugal, and neither the UK nor Germany was considered.

    1. Yes, that’s true, Nick. Home can be anywhere for nomads. I guess, technically it’s more like “coming back to the country of my citizenship to take care of family” .

      Stay safe in Portugal! Did they lock anything down or is everyone still out and about?

      1. I am in Jamaica, my brother in Portugal, my son is in Germany and my parents are in Spain. We are all well and in different phases of lock down. As I have no family in my country of citizenship (UK) so that is probably why I don’t relate to the term “home” in the same way

  7. So glad you guys are back safe and sound! Great tips on how you can order booze! Lol! Thanks for the shout-out you guys are the best! I hope the surgery goes well. Fingers crossed. You guys stay safe!

    1. Even before we got on the plane, Wanderer was like “how am I going to get booze?” That was first priority. Not health insurance, not a place to stay, not groceries…just “where ma liquor at?”

      Thanks again for all that you do and can’t wait to see you online! Stay safe!

  8. You should take this time of isolation to compare Questrade (Questwealth) with Wealthsimple for both their robo-adviser and self-directed trading. Free trading sounds tempting, but the experience is a bit too simplified for my tastes. I cannot even make lists!

    I am hiding out in a cabin in the Yukon – social distancing win!

    1. That’s a good suggestion 🙂 Nerding it up with finances is always fun when you’re isolated for 2 weeks.

      Good call on the cabin in Yukon! You definitely win the social distancing competition.

  9. I flicked over and read your personality test post and we’re almost the same – I’m ENTP.

    In Australia, our state is entering its first day of stage 1 lockdown. I’m a teacher and I’m so relieved the schools are finally closed. At work I’m a huge extrovert, particularly when I’m teaching, but at home I’m a hermit, happy to puddle around doing little things around the place, pleased if I have a free calendar with nothing on it.
    I’m interested to see how weeks of being at home being forced to stay isolated will affect me.
    You should keep an eye on the blog 44 Blue Doors. They’re US nomads who are staying in place in Western Australia. It could be like a ‘Sliding Doors’ thing for you two, seeing what might have been…

    1. *ENT high-five!*

      Yeah, I’m seeing that introverted side of myself come out too during this whole lockdown. Let’s see how long it takes to break me 😀

      And thanks for the tip on 44 Blue Doors. Will check them out!

  10. “And the best thing about miles is that they don’t get more expensive even for last minute tickets”

    How did you manage that???

    If you are buying tickets last minute, they are extremely expensive regardless whether you are paying with cash or miles.

    How much did you end up paying for two tickets?

    1. Hey Crescent Moon, those “frequent flyer miles” are reward points that you can redeem for travel on various airlines if you go through a loyalty program like AAdvantage, Aeroplan, etc.

      Using miles, a trip is worth a fixed number of points for a given distance, regardless of the actual cost of the ticket on the day you book. A reward seat available on a last minute flight won’t cost you any more points than if you had booked it 12 months prior, and would be a pretty sweet deal!

      Have a read at MR’s article on travel hacking, it’s a pretty good intro to the subject.

    2. Login to Aeroplan and go to ‘Use Your Miles”. It takes 45,000 points per person to fly from Asia to North America. We used 90K points for the 2 of us, flying from Bali to Taiwan to Vancouver to Toronto and only paid $54 in taxes.

      You do have a do a bit of work though scanning through the different options and days. We originally wanted March 19 but that flight wasn’t available so left one day early on the 18th. You gotta be flexible.

      1. Very happy to hear you guys got home safe and sound. Welcome home!!!
        My mom came back from the Philippines with some major layovers but she got home (back to Canada) in good health. Now she’s on day 6 of her 14 day quarantine.
        Just wanted to say that after booking her airmiles ticket on March 22nd from Vancouver to Alberta. A few days after booking, Airmiles notified me that her flights were cancelled. That the airlines were cancelling their flights. Hopefully they’re letting folks use it again.

        Love your site!!! I always look forward to reading your articles. Now to reread some.
        All the best to you both and your families,
        Melissa

  11. Seems to be a rule that crises come at an intersection of other crises! Glad you’re doing well so far and hope the surgery goes as well as possible.

    BTW I like your choice of comedies to stream. The first seasons of Silicon Valley (calamitous ridiculosity on steroids – could it really be just an exaggeration?) and Fresh Off the Boat (very human touches – we loved it!) were great fun.

    1. The characters on Silicon Valley reminds me so much of engineering school. It’s not an exaggeration 😀 And I’m basically Jessica Huang on FOTB. Glad we have the same taste in comedy!

  12. Yeah, we’re staying in New Zealand for the foreseeable future, works well with being on sabbatical here anyway. Thought about going back to Canada but we’re homeless there. I figure that either the University of Waterloo will continue to be online through 2021 or that it’ll be possible to fly home.

    Family members: we do worry about that but I figure that if anything happens with COVID we would be unable to help anyway because of isolation.

    1. ” I figure that if anything happens with COVID we would be unable to help anyway because of isolation”

      True. That’s what we thought too. If it weren’t for the family emergency, we would stay in Asia.

      And NZ ain’t a bad place to ride out the pandemic. We were SO close to getting there! The plan was to spend 2 weeks there after Australia before everything went nuts. Oh well. One of these days we’ll make it there…

      1. NZ is great! It’s not low cost but it’s less expensive than Switzerland (ha, not saying much). Rent is kind of pricey. Still, highly recommended.

        Would I stay in Asia? Maybe. Depends on where I guess. My students decided to go back to Canada from Singapore (exchange) because they felt like Singapore only cared about citizens. Not sure how New Zealanders feel about us. One thing I can say is that I hear stories about anti-Asian racism in North America these days (not entirely inconsistent with my personal experience) and that doesn’t seem to be a thing in NZ.

  13. Glad you’re safely back in Canada! Do be careful here… I definitely get the sense that the “social distancing” here still has room for improvement, especially with the testing shortage.

    1. Yup. That’s why we’re not leaving the Airbnb except to go for walks. I was a bit worried that Canadian customs just asked “are you going to self-isolate”? Too lax. I would prefer they did the tracking thing like in Taiwan where they check up on people to make sure they don’t leave their Airbnb. Not that I’m a fan of authoritarian rule, but in times like these, better to overreact early than to run out of options later.

  14. You are 100% right about prices! We came back to Canada from Sri Lanka on the 17th. It’s been so hard to find and Airbnb in Hamilton. We have been rejected by many for having been overseas, and it is SO expensive!

    We considered going to Toronto, where the places are much nicer and cheaper, but our friends are in Hamilton and they are dropping off groceries and helping us out.

    1. Sorry to hear about the rejections in Hamilton. Too bad you can’t come to Toronto. I’m seeing listings that literally say “Use me to quarantine yourself” in the Airbnb titles so they desperately want travellers since they have so many cancellations. Plus it’s 50% off the regular price too! Oh well, hope you find a good place in Hamilton. It’s nice to have friends around to help.

      How was Sri Lanka?

  15. Glad you guys are back to relative safety and comfort for the time being. Lots of uncertainty out there. We’re basically hunkered down at home for the time being and voluntarily self-isolating as much as we can.

  16. I’m happy to be an American expatriate in Taipei, Taiwan. There’s a lot of checking going on–for example, my church has split the Sunday morning service into 2 services. When I enter, they check my temperature and issue me a mask if I don’t happen to have one. There are large decals on the seats and we’re supposed to sit between the decals.
    Plus medical care here is first-rate.
    Glad I’m here! I won’t be traveling back home to CONUS (US Army-Speak for the Continental United States) until the All-Clear sounds.
    Dan V
    Taipei

    1. Glad to know you are safe in Taiwan, Dan! Not a bad place to be at a time like this. They got their shit together.

  17. Unrelated to the immediate article I just wanted to say I love the book and you guys are an inspiration. I know the market is burning down right now but I feel you guys have given me the fortitude to finally see the potential upside and forge ahead. That magic number gives me hope. Keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks, P.J! I’m so glad the book has been helpful! It’s because of 2008 that we learned how to invest and got to where we are, so for those who see opportunity, they are the ones that will come out ahead. Thank you so much for this awesome message. Oh and if you enjoyed our book, would you consider leaving us an Amazon review? Thank you!

  18. Love the tips to get the essentials delivered to your door and thank you also for the shout-out.

    As I write this we are in the middle of Day 6 of our home quarantine here in Taipei and we aren’t showing any symptoms which is great. That being said, we are not out of it yet. It actually turns out that people show symptoms late in the second week like it might have been the case with our common friend Paula Pant (she got a pretty high fever after day 10 of her self quarantine – src: https://twitter.com/AffordAnything/status/1242304510942314496). She seems to be doing better now but it is a great reminder to properly self-quarantine yourself when you have been in area where the virus was known to be spreading.

    I hope the surgery goes well. Fingers crossed. You guys stay well, healthy & safe!

    1. Thanks, Mr.NN! Appreciate your writeup and I’m living vicariously through you to see what would’ve been if we didn’t have to deal with the family emergency.

      Scary to hear about what happened to Paula but I’m glad she’s okay now. That teaches us to be carefully maybe even extend our self-isolation by a few more days.

  19. Glad to hear you guys arrived safely back in Canada. Hope you didn’t pick up anything along the way and continue to stay healthy! Best wishes for your family member’s surgery.

    There are worse countries than our Home and Native Land to ride out a pandemic I suppose. At least the health care is free and our ICU’s are not swamped like a lot of places in the USA (yet). This is also a great chance to research undervalued / investment opportunities at home! I think decisions made during the times of great market turbulence and risk like this could define one’s returns for the next decade. Will be acting accordingly.

    1. Thanks, Gary! Yes, I agree, it’s shitty to have to cope with a family emergency but definitely a privilege to be Canadian at this time. And yes, those who are greedy when others are fearful in the markets will come out a head.

      Take care of yourself!

  20. I’m staying in Bogota Colombia and was scheduled to leave for the US at the end of April. We are locked down here, and just as well since I’m sick and it might be Covid-19. Food and grocery delivery online is easy, and I am catching up on Netflix and Hulu. And I might not leave for the US in May — just too risky to be able to get out. So, I wait to see how things play out the next few weeks. Stay safe!

    1. Oh no! Sorry to hear that you are sick 🙁 Please take good care of yourself and hope you get better soon! Sending lots of good thoughts your way.

  21. We had a flight booked to Taiwan but missed the border timing by one day. So close! Instead we’re riding it out in Danang Vietnam. While the healthcare situation might not be as great as Taipei, they are definitely taking it seriously, so that’s a plus. We just applied for a 3 month visa extension, so we plan to stay for a while assuming that goes through. (And it ought to, as we paid enough!)

    Good luck to you and your family.

    1. Oh no! So sorry to hear that you guys missed it by one day. Things were so crazy and changing every hour that we weren’t sure if we’d make it either.

      Stay safe in Vietnam! They got their shit together (I mean who else has an awesome coronavirus hand washing song? No one that’s who!)

      Stay safe and fingers crossed you get the visa extension!

  22. Typical Torontonians providing links for people in Canada to use for services that are only available to people living in Toronto ***commences eye-roll sequence*** 😉

    Interesting that you guys were considering Australia to hunker down in when one of your criteria was “Must be taking this pandemic seriously and have a plan in place to prevent the spread of the virus”. As an Aussie ex-pat myself I would say that is one thing the PM there is NOT doing. He’s about as bad as the crazy-guy the US have in charge!

  23. Hi Guys,

    Flew back to Canada on the same day! Managed to find a flight same day with good old Air Canada. Currently on day 7 of 14 self isolation at home.

    Like you, Jetstar gave me a credit and AirBnB a full refund (we had booked 3 days in Perth way back before things changed). Hope all goes well in the Big Smoke. And maybe a meet-up in Aussie down the road….

    Take care.

    Kent

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