‘They want out': This company helps Americans experiment with expat living

Courtesy of Ikiah McGowan

For some people, the goal of traveling abroad is to go somewhere entirely different from home. For Ikiah McGowan, much of her international travel is fueled by the desire to find a place that feels like home — but outside the U.S.

That's how McGowan, 39, recently found herself flying from Austin to Portugal for a 10-day scouting trip with dozens of other Americans dreaming of moving abroad.

McGowan was part of the inaugural trip from Expatsi, a company that helps Americans move abroad through community groups and weeks-long guided scouting tours.

For the March trip, travelers paid a discounted rate of $1,000 to spend 10 days in Portugal followed by $1,200 for 12 days in Spain. (Some chose to attend one leg of the trip while others stayed for the entire 22-day excursion.)

These curated trips are more than a typical vacation. In each city, travelers partake in a half-day seminar led by experts to discuss the logistical ins and outs of immigrating, covering financial planning, visas, health care, real estate and other legal matters.

On the remaining days, a local tour guide shows travelers around neighborhoods with a growing American expat community, or other locations where the group has expressed interest, and a realtor shows them properties for sale or for rent.

More Americans could soon be exploring their options abroad.

A CNBC analysis of U.S. Google search data shows a spike in users searching for terms related to "how to move to X country" beginning in mid-June. Interest swelled following the first 2024 presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump on June 27.

It's been "a crazy week" for Jen Barnett, co-founder of Expatsi, who says traffic to the site is up 800% since the debate.

Americans' interest in visa applications to move and work abroad tend to pick up after big political moments, Masha Sutherlin, head of immigration at the global HR and payroll company Deel, previously told CNBC Make It.

"You're seeing some folks in the U.S. saying, 'I don't want to be in this environment, and I have choices to go to other places,'" she says. "Pair that with the digital nomad lifestyle and the abundance of digital nomad visas, and that opens up an entirely new scheme of working for Americans."

A 'cheat sheet' for finding a new home abroad

McGowan has been fascinated by digital nomad living since 2019. She searched for and landed a remote job in the nonprofit world — a rarity just five years ago — and began solo traveling for long stretches while working.

So far, she's traveled for extensive time in the U.K., Malta, Guatemala and Colombia.

Americans who dream of moving abroad are getting help from travel companies like Expatsi, which offers scouting trips to international cities.
Courtesy of Expatsi
Americans who dream of moving abroad are getting help from travel companies like Expatsi, which offers scouting trips to international cities.

"As I've seen the way this country is developing, along with my intense interest in cultures that are different than my own, and a deep desire for for exploring the world, my interest in actually moving abroad grew," she says.

McGowan wants to move abroad within the next two years, but so far hasn't found a place that really feels like home.

She'd never considered Portugal until she learned about Expatsi from Tiktok. She started off with their online test, which identifies your top international cities based on preferences around your budget, ideal weather, whether you plan to work or retire abroad, what laws and policies are important to you, and other cultural factors.

The test determined Portugal was among her top matches, and so McGowan booked her ticket to join the group tour in the spring. She says the price was well worth having the travel planning taken care of, plus access to local experts on everything ranging from financial planning to restaurants and attractions.

"It was like a cheat sheet to get to know Portugal quickly, and having someone else to plan the logistics was super helpful," she says. "I didn't have to research the cool places to hang out in Portugal or what the cool neighborhoods are. That was already taken care of. I just had to get there."

Plus, "Portugal is a very hot spot among Black Americans, so that's also appealing to me."

Both Portugal and Spain have been recognized as being good destinations for digital nomads and expats in general, and they're the top two countries where Americans are applying for visas to live and work, according to data from Deel.

Expatsi fees cover the seminars, tours and one group meal and don't include travel or accommodations, though they're happy to give suggestions or facilitate people teaming up to book a place together.

The flexibility means people can find accommodations that suit their budget, whether it's a hostel or a 5-star hotel, Barnett says, though she advises looking into longer-term stays.

"You really need to stay in an Airbnb or VRBO if you can," she says, "because you want to stay in a neighborhood you might want to live in and walk to the grocery store and cook a meal and imagine what your life would be like."

McGowan estimates she spent roughly $2,300 on her trip including airfare and accommodations.

The choose-your-own-stay model can help foster a stronger sense of community among the travel group.

McGowan shared accommodations with four other women ranging in age from 22 to 65. She felt inspired by the conversations surrounding their desire to leave the U.S., which often involved "family dynamics, health matters, politics — a lot about politics," McGowan says. "To have that intergenerational time with other people with similar goals was really amazing."

'They want out' for 'adventure and personal growth'

The inaugural trip-goers were mostly women ranging in age from 22 to 80 with a cluster around 40 to 65, Barnett says. Solo travelers made up the bulk of the group, though there were also a handful of men and couples in the mix. Most were either people who can work remotely as digital nomads, or are scoping out their options to retire abroad.

Many of the travelers were more alike than not: "They want out," Barnett says, and "overwhelmingly it's not negative reasons; it's for adventure and personal growth. They know that they want something more out of life."

Plus, finding a place with a high quality of life with a low cost of living is crucial for many travelers, especially retirees.

"Beyond that, they're really looking for a way of life," Barnett adds. "It's walkable cities. It's a glass of wine. It's music in the park. They're seeking something special."

"It's not to say you can't find those things in the U.S., but a lot of times they're reserved for the wealthiest or people of a certain leisure class," she says.

Meanwhile, in a place like Lisbon, "you can't avoid it. Every building is beautiful and there are viewpoints everywhere and a glass of wine is $3. And this quality of life is available to everyone."

Expatsi hosted 30 Americans for a 10-day trip to Portugal and 12-day trip to Spain in May.
Courtesy of Expatsi
Expatsi hosted 30 Americans for a 10-day trip to Portugal and 12-day trip to Spain in May.

For having little background on the country before visiting, McGowan enjoyed her experience in Portugal.

"I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the locals and residents," she says. "They were very willing to share their personal political views (we went days before a big election), their opinion on immigrants, and snippets about their personal lives."

She says she's still friends with some of the people she met while on the scouting trip while exploring on her own and thrift shopping — her hobby and side hustle.

Plus, "the fact that English was widely spoken and provided on official signs, instructions, etc., is a testament to the welcoming spirit of the Portuguese."

Ultimately, the trip helped McGowan figure out what she's looking for in a new home. "Basically, I want Austin but outside of the U.S.," she says. "I would like a small, non-pretentious, friendly, walkable city" with "great thrift stores."

More trips on the horizon

Expatsi will lead its second tour, also to Portugal and Spain, in September. Barnett says the company hopes to host eight trips in 2025 and expand to new markets such as Mexico, France and Italy.

Barnett says the travel company tends to attract "people who are interested in being thoughtful immigrants, who want to be really respectful of the place they're moving to, and not just create little America in some other country."

As for McGowan, her first trip to Portugal wasn't perfect, and she's not entirely sold on moving there just yet. It rained for most of her trip, but it wasn't a total wash: "I still liked Portugal even being doused with rain daily, which is a good sign."

She hasn't ruled out the country yet and plans to go back as soon as October, she says: "I still have some exploring to do on my own."

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