Is the Digital Nomad Lifestyle for You?

Laptop in the middle of a highway

Live, work, travel. The motto of modern nomads – professionals who, carrying a laptop and a mobile, are able to do their work from almost any place in the world.

Breathtaking nature sceneries… Tropical beaches… Hikes into the unknown… Exotic local cuisine… Strange cultures, people and languages… Huge vibrant cities…

Places the others only dream about are suddenly and practically within reach of mobile professionals. Most nomads use a computer for their work: graphic and web designers, developers, copywriters, translators, etc. So thanks to globalization, cheap flights and the internet they can move from one country to another and yet continue working for their clients at home.

Independent professionals tend to have a different attitude to business than other entrepreneurs. A travelling professional may not get rich, but sees quite a bit of the world and all kinds of people out there. They are enriched by experience and new friendships. Freelancing may become the unique accelerator of one’s own personal growth.

Teleworking from distant parts of the world was precisely predicted 50 years ago by technological visionary Arthur C. Clarke. During the last decade it has grown into a worldwide phenomenon. To become a digital nomad is both dangerously attractive and easy.

Type 1: Casual Nomads

Basically, all you need to do is to pack up your stuff, set out for a journey and work for a few weeks from abroad. This is the best and the easiest way to begin. It suits even those who otherwise can’t leave their country for too long.

These sojourns can be perfectly merged with holidays, thus working less and have more leisure time than at home. Some people prefer to drive from place to place, but the danger is you’ll get tired sooner, spend more money and befriend fewer locals. It pays to stay on one place.

Afternoon couch siesta, 4 laptops & 2 mobiles (Barcelona, summer 2011)

Example: Last holidays we rented a neat summer apartment in the centre of Barcelona for €2,300. The four of us stayed for a whole month as digital nomads and 7 other people came for shorter visits. We did a chunk of work, had a lot of fun with new friends, enjoyed the city unlike any tourist, but also blogged, resisted pickpockets, shopped and admired Gaudi’s buildings.

Type 2: Perpetual Nomads

To become a nomad for several months or even years constitutes a much greater challenge. It’s not a holiday, it’s not work-and-travel, it’s a completely different way of life. To undertake such a project you need to exert much effort and overcome a number of obstacles.

You may run into diverse complications. Although nomads are not immigrants nor do they sell services on the local market, there is no legislation that covers this kind of work. Not to mention the challenges of travelling with kids!

Example: In 2010 Belgian nomads Ine Dehandschutter and Catherine Van Holder travelled to South Africa, Thailand and Argentina, setting foot in 10 countries. They have created an excellent slide presentation about their trip called Don’t Be Rich, Live Rich, including drawbacks and practical advice for future nomads:

The Pitfalls of Nomadic Life

The problems being faced by most nomads could be divided into three main categories:

  1. Organizing your work – If you procrastinate and fail at time management at home, you won’t find it easier when abroad; in fact, it’s quite the contrary. Despite many temptations of seeing new places and meeting new people, above all you must concentrate on your work, e.g. keeping in touch with clients, taking phone calls. You’re working abroad and although it may seem to some like a holiday, it’s not. The fun must wait, maybe until the weekend. The great challenge is also to create optimal working conditions in a foreign environment.
  2. Finance and budget – If you travel to a more expensive country than yours, it may lower your quality of life. On the other hand, cheaper countries are favourable. Nomadic life is not about money, but you must be in credit. You will also need a larger money reserve in proportion to the higher exposure to unpredictable risks.
  3. Risk prevention – Even problems that are pretty easy to solve at home (i.e. losing your passport, ID or credit card) might give you a pretty big headache abroad. You need to pay extra attention to the prevention of risks related to your health, family, possessions or business in general. Sometimes the only solution is to get back home as quickly as possible – the retreat strategy.

It is safer to begin close to home and venture to more distant destinations later after collecting some experience. Nomading into less developed and culturally different countries, across language barriers, is harder to plan, but not impossible!

Practical Advice

Surprisingly, the hardest challenge in becoming a digital nomad is to take a mental leap and start thinking about it as a real project within your business.

The next step is to evaluate the present state of your business and start removing the remaining obstacles. The good news is that nomads almost never lose their clients because of their departure, especially if they inform them in advance and remain reliable during the journey.

The next phase is preparation and planning. For a longer stay, it may take weeks or months depending on the itinerary. Critically, the importance of preparation should not be underestimated – setting off without considering pitfalls may seriously threaten the continuity of your business.

A few more tips:

  • Language – Travelling to countries with few English-speakers without knowing the local language is very hard and is a limitation for meeting people. If possible, begin studying at home.
  • Accommodation – Experienced nomads use CouchSurfing or other short-time options to look for cheap accommodation on the spot. Nevertheless, beginners and larger groups are much better off booking in advance with HomeAway, Airbnb, Craigslist or local agencies.
  • Insurance – Health and travel insurance covering your damage liability is indispensable. If you are leaving for long time, check out if you can save some money on your insurance at home.
  • Laptop – Be practical and get ready for the higher risk of damage and theft (encryption, backup, extra drive). Buy quality earphones to cut off the surrounding noise (possibly also some minispeaker to hold a party).
  • Cellular and internet – The costs of roaming international phone calls and data transfers may be very high, especially in some countries. Ask your provider for special rates and get Skype and/or VoIP.
  • Cheap flights – Every country has different options to get really cheap tickets, so ask your friends who fly often for tips. You may also check the Skyscanner search engine or software like Azuon.
  • Budget planning – It’s challenging to organize and plan your stay in a foreign country. To keep your expenses under control, record your outgoings and refrain from spending too much. And avoid tourist-traps, as these are notoriously expensive.

The Journey Starts Right under Your Feet

Sharing more of my own experience, I am becoming a nomad twice a year – during summer holidays and at the end of the winter, when I have less work to do. I stay in a beautiful spot in the mountains and although I am not tempted to stay abroad too long, I’m pleased for others who do it.

The future will show whether the digital nomads are the pioneers of an upcoming global trend which could eventually transform most IT professions and help to fight poverty. No matter what, it has already turned the freelancing life into an exotic adventure. All you need is to stop dreaming and start doing it…

So What Do You Say?

Have you ever lived as a digital nomad, even for a short while?

If not – do you like the idea?

If you’re an experienced digital nomad – any tips for the rest of us?

About the Author: Robert Vlach is an independent business advisor and the founder of Na volné noze, the first web portal for Czech freelancers.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Robert:

    Love how you say this: “Critically, the importance of preparation should not be underestimated.”

    Starting in November, I will be something of a digital nomad in reverse. I’m having major foot surgery whose recovery period is a year. I’m in the process of getting ready.. As I read your post, I thought of how many similarities there are between preparing for an extended stay away and preparing for along period of immobility.

    I’ve realized that the way I prepare now, pre-procedure, will determine of how productive the time will be. I’ve bookmarked your post, because I’m quite sure that when I’m fully mobile again, that a digital nomad experience will be just what I’ll want.

    Well done – great post!
    Susan

    • Thank you Susan for that insight!

      I have been always interested in business risk prevention and I like the way you put it. Solo careers are often considered to be more risky than company business, but it all depends on the prevention. And complexity. The more complex the business, the more is vulnerable to unexpected risks or black swans. Have you read the famous Taleb’s book?
      http://www.amazon.com/Black-Swan-Improbable-Robustness-Fragility/dp/081297381X/

      • I haven’t read The Black Swan, Robert, but it looks like a great book to add to my reading list. The theme reminds me a bit of what novelist Ian McEwan often centers his stories around – highly improbable events that change everything. Thanks again for the recommendation, and for a great post. Susan

  2. Hey Robert,

    Loved reading this. I think most people assume this kind of lifestyle is difficult/expensive/a pipedream. However, all it takes is to calculate the risks and assess whether you can live with them – all in the preparation.

    It helps if you have a few people along with you – a la your trip to Barca.

    Psychologically, I guess not having home comforts can take its toll. It’s very different to a holiday – something to consider in preparation I guess.

    – Razwana

    • Hey Razwana, thank you for stopping by with your comment!

      There is definitely a toll or price one has to pay for a nomadic experience. But it may just become freelancer’s investment of a lifetime. Independent professionals (such as you) are needed to think outside the box. And nomadic experience is not merely an instant spark for new ideas, but also a profound way how to re-shape your business matrix, to get back to the source of inspiration and creativity. Being a nomad is a real-life story, you get to the hard core.

  3. I’m planning on heading overseas for about a year next March (after my lease is up.) Plan is to just go country to country, wherever I feel like going. Problem with that is preparation sort of goes out the window. I’m just going to have to play it by ear. Probably a bad idea from that perspective, but we’ll see what happens! I’m both nervous and excited.

    • Preparation and planning are two different processes. You can go along pretty well without planning, but not without preparation. Nomadic period definitely makes the business more fragile. Thus the enforcements through preparation and risk prevention are highly recommended.

      • Thanks for the reply, Robert.

        What exactly would you suggest in terms of preparation? It’s coming up soon, and I still don’t have much in terms of anything except “I’m going here and here and here…I’ll bring my toothbrush and deodorant.”

        I guess since (most) everything can be done from my laptop, I’m counting on an internet connection being available to take care of most of my affairs.

        I’m worried that there’s something I’m missing!

  4. My partner and I pride ourselves on having been amongst the first digital nomads when we left the UK for Spain 15 years ago in a Peugeot 205 with a Hewlett Packard laptop, a hand-scanner (remember those?) and a compact printer. We did self-published travel writing on the hoof and I continued to work at a distance for some of my graphic design clients in the UK.

    Technology was our biggest challenge back then for whilst business people in the UK increasingly had email, mobile phones were still the size of small bricks and the Internet was accessed by dial-up connection. Plus Spain was technologically behind and finding an internet spot was like looking for gold.

    Still, we produced two guides, lived in lots of parts of Spain and eventually got so hooked into Spanish life that here we still are, no longer nomadic but still technologically obsessed ;)

    My recommendations? Be open (despite ‘globalization’ things are done very differently in each country), flexible (i.e. Take that bar job if funds are short!) and have a working knowledge of another major language – preferably Spanish or standard Chinese. Oh, and don’t underestimate the power of culture shock!

  5. The nomad lifestyle is definitely on the rise. I’m currently a full time nomad living mostly in Ukraine & elsewhere in Europe. I work for an web-based business software company called Yottaflow that is located in the US.

    The two major hurdles I’ve found being a nomad in Europe are:

    1) the lack of a reliable internet connection (either public or private). I have both cable & cellular modems, but there have been numerous times when neither will work. (The other day we had a bad rain here in Lviv and the internet was out for hours.) This isn’t limited to Ukraine. I spent the summer traveling in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, etc. and had similar problems in those countries.

    2) the time differential — doing business in the US when you’re anywhere from 6-10 hours ahead definitely poses some challenges. I have developed several workarounds that have simplified it somewhat, but still there are middle of the night phone calls to be made & received, etc.

    Despite the occasional headaches & hassles, I’m fortunate to be able to enjoy this nomadic experience! Again, thanks for the article.

  6. Probably the biggest pitfall I’ve seen people fall in (while pursuing this lifestyle) is that they figure, “they’ll just figure out the money side of things on the road”. They start their nomadic adventure with the help of their life savings and end up struggling with money when the business side of things doesn’t really kick off.

    Before leaving to a longer journey, I highly recommend everyone to really take a serious look into the way their business works. Does your business keep running smoothly even if you’d drop “off the grid” for a few days, maybe a whole week? Do you have alternative income sources if your main source doesn’t bring enough food to the table this month?

    Everyone can (and should) field test their business before heading on the road. Just try to run your business from local coffee stores and such for a month or two. If you can pull that of, chances are, you have a heck of a better chance at “making it” abroad aswell.

    Robert, what an excellent article. My first time reading your blog and already loving it. Cheers!

    – Juha

    • Thank you for great insightful comment, Juha!

      The problem is, I believe, that most freelancers manage their business trial-and-error style. They rarely create advanced future scenarios and fail in predicting even the obvious. The good and the bad about freelancing is the attention to the work itself, without thinking too much about the surrounding context.

  7. Great article. You describe it well.

  8. A couple of things to think about as well:

    – if you run your business as a company, don’t forget that stuff like tax returns, VAT submissions & other admin stuff needs to be done in your home country. Get a good accountant.

    – if your business involves a lot of travel anyway (eg visiting clients, attending conferences etc) then there’s a third style of nomadicity, blending your own work/leisure time and locations around your “official” trips. Get stuck into how to “hack” flights, using side-trips, round-the-world fares & other tricks to extend your travel opportunities.

    (I’m writing this in a Moscow airport lounge, in transit from Azerbaijan to Jordan – using up some spare sectors of a RTW I needed for business trips to Singapore & Atlanta!)