What it’s really like to be a digital nomad
We’ve all been there: Scrolling through Instagram, we find that person who seems to be traveling the world full-time and somehow affording it. “Do they ever work?” we think to ourselves. While it’s possible that person has a trust fund or some other endless cash flow; it’s perhaps more likely that they’re a digital nomad. These days, increasingly more people are taking their careers on the road, working remotely while they bounce around to different global destinations. In fact, it’s become so popular that there are now multiple companies, like Remote Year and Hacker Paradise that facilitate the digital nomad lifestyle for others. Yet, despite its popularity, the term “digital nomad” still in many ways feels shrouded in mystery. What is that life actually like? Get an inside look from three travelers in the midst of it.
Lots of jobs can be done by digital nomads
Sure, the term is “digital” nomad, but that doesn’t mean you have to work in a traditional technology career to be one. In fact, a huge range of jobs these days can be done remotely and digitally. “I think a common misconception is that you need to be some tech wizard to be a digital nomad which is so not at all true,” said Paige Brunton, an online business educator who teaches courses on how to start online businesses. “I was a web designer who had basic coding skills at best. I’ve met digital nomads who were social media managers, YouTube personalities, accountants, relationship therapists, photographers, virtual assistants, graphic designers, life coaches [and more]. ...Most jobs can be done online these days if you get a little creative and stop telling yourself it’s impossible.”
In fact, Katelyn Smith, founder of The Remote Nomad and WiFly Nomads said she’s “seen remote positions available where they were looking for a plumber to write blog posts because they needed someone with expertise,” and has also seen opportunities for doctors who can communicate with patients virtually. Many digital nomad jobs tend to be on a freelance or contract basis, which means a big part of finding work is selling yourself. “Create a business around what you’re already skilled at and enjoy doing,” Smith said.
It’s not just an extended vacation
A quick glance at a digital nomad’s Instagram account may give you the impression they’re somehow getting paid to travel the world and do nothing else; but the reality is many still work 40 hours a week or close to it (and sometimes more) — and doing so remotely comes with a unique set of challenges. “It takes a lot of dedication to maintain a 40-hour workload while traveling full-time,” said Charity de Souza, a travel writer and copy editor. “While you’re dealing with visa issues, language barriers, being scammed [and] getting lost, you also have to squeeze in a full day of work. Time zone changes mean that I have to stay up late for meetings, catch up on important emails at odd hours and skip sightseeing to finish a project. This is something I truly enjoy, but many digital nomads aren’t prepared for handling the stress of blending travel and work.”
She added that she also has to be available at unpredictable hours because of the time zone differences between herself and her clients, who are based all around the world; and sometimes has to cram several days of work into a short period of time. “If I know I have big travel days ahead of me or I won’t have access to reliable WiFi, I will often work a week or so ahead so that I don’t have to stress,” she said.
Smith, who works about 30 hours per week, gives herself structure to help ensure success. “I am strict about maintaining a certain routine that I can apply no matter where I am in the world,” she said.
But it does come with unique freedoms
Of course, the digital nomad lifestyle is hardly all work and no play. Similar to location-dependent freelancers, many nomads working in the gig economy have the freedom to make their own schedule — which they use to take full advantage of travel opportunities. While De Souza said she maintains a fairly consistent work schedule, that often includes sightseeing on her lunch breaks; and occasionally rearranging the days she works to accommodate mid-week trips. And even while working, her scenery is always changing. “I was able to work while I ate my way through Japan for a month, road tripped through Europe and put a substantial amount of money in my savings while living and traveling through Asia,” she said. “These experiences will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I could have never done them with the one-week vacation I was allotted in my previous job.”
Brunton said she takes about eight weeks of vacation per year, with flexibility to do so whenever she would like. Smith said she often decides on her travels at the last minute. “I typically book a week before I leave and usually just book one-way,” she said. “I just go with how I’m feeling. If I’m ready to go somewhere, I book when I feel ready — that way there is no pressure.”
Being a digital nomad requires hustle and grit
As with other people in the gig economy, digital nomads rarely have yearly salaries to rely on; so they have to hustle for every paycheck and be largely self-motivated — and do so in the face of challenges unique to nomad life. “Tech-wise, I struggle to find quiet spaces when I work from where we’re living, so noise-cancelling headphones are essential,” De Souza said. “WiFi can be non-existent in remote areas and getting equipment repaired in reputable shops around the world has been an issue.”
And then there are the complications of visas and other essential (but hardly glamorous) obligations. “Things like filing taxes, taking out health insurance or figuring out how to get a new bank card when an ATM in Bali eats yours is a lot more complicated than normal,” Brunton said. “Traditional companies (like tax advisors, banks and insurance companies) don’t know how to help you because what you do [and] the way you live is so unique, and so you’ve got to be the type of person who doesn’t give up when faced with a challenge but keeps working until you get the job done.”
The stress can even pour over into the traveling side of nomad life. “With so many projects going on simultaneously, it can be a challenge to organize priorities and ensure every client’s needs are all met while not knowing where you’re going to live the next month,” De Souza said. “Thankfully, my husband and I each have our own assigned tasks in the travel planning process to make it easier.” She also noted that they’ve slowed their travel down, spending at least three months in each destination rather than moving every month like they used to.
Brunton also noted how exhausting the travel can get. “One of the things you learn quickest when you start the digital nomad lifestyle is that it’s really tough to travel at a pace you might while on vacation and work at the same time,” she said. “For this reason, I generally pick a destination, go stay there for a month or two and work [and] travel from there. I explore the destination in the evenings and do a lot of weekend or long weekend trips.”
And it’s more affordable than it may seem
It’s natural to assume traveling constantly is expensive, but many nomads say they spend less (and, in some cases, make more) now than they did in their more “traditional” lifestyles. “When I started working online, I made the same as I did when I had an office job and eventually my salary increased, as most jobs do over the years,” Smith said. “I think people need to realize these are real, professional careers — not just random jobs.”
Digital nomads also tend to live in locations with low costs of living (like Bali, where Smith is primarily based, or Thailand, where De Souza started out). “Their money can go further and they can save a ton — and not to mention, live in a tropical paradise at the same time,” Smith said. She added that in Bali, the entirety of her monthly expenses is only slightly more than what she was paying in rent alone while living in Toronto.
“There are so many expenses that I’ve eliminated since becoming a digital nomad, like owning a car, household items [and] repairs, cable, gym and of course, we don’t pay extra for vacations,” De Souza said. “We’ve also done month-long housesitting gigs where we didn’t even have to pay rent. Also, since I live out of a suitcase, I don’t shop for clothes [and] beauty items very often.”
But it can get lonely
As exciting as the digital nomad life is; for many, the independence also comes with a dose of loneliness. “Loneliness becomes a real issue when you don’t have coworkers, old friends or family around and are often times in countries where you don’t speak the language, so it’s hard to communicate with locals,” Brunton said; while Smith noted that “it’s difficult to find other people that have the flexibility to live this lifestyle [and] it’s hard to have people come and go in your life.”
Smith said she likes to connect with people at local co-working spaces “because they have a good, strong and welcoming community” and “it’s a great way to meet like-minded people.”
De Souza pointed out that technology has helped with missing friends and family (“I even got to Skype my grandmother before she passed”), but there are some things that will always be difficult. “Family emergencies rip you back to reality and [that] is absolutely the worst thing about being on the road, because even if you want to be there you might be a two-day flight away,” she said. “I try to come back to the U.S. for a few weeks every year and catch up with everyone and we’ve even had friends come visit us on the road, but truly this is the hardest part of being a digital nomad and why most people return back home.”
There’s no question the digital nomad lifestyle is a unique one, and it may not be for everyone. “At the end of the day, it’s for people who want to do it,” Smith said. “Some people like the traditional lifestyle, and that’s fine. Working online is not better than working a traditional lifestyle, and a traditional lifestyle isn’t better than being a digital nomad. ...You just have to choose what’s most important to you, and you have to decide what you’re willing to give up and for what.”
And if you think it’s something that might be the right fit, but you’re nervous to take the leap? “Just do it,” Smith said. “Stop over researching and overthinking. You can change your mind as you go. And if all else fails, you just try again or go back to what you did before and get a traditional job. Too many people overthink it. It’s really not that scary.”