Images of people sitting in the sun with their laptop, sipping on a cocktail. Or lounging in a hammock while making a work call. This is what comes to mind for many when they hear “digital nomad”.
This “location independent” lifestyle is getting more and more attention. As an alternative to the classic 9-5 office grind, as a way to make money while traveling full-time. From remote software developers to online teachers and travel influencers, being a digital nomad is more accessible than ever. Especially now that many companies are going remote because of COVID-19. Even the corona crisis has an upside.
By definition a digital nomad is someone who travels and works remotely. That can be as a freelancer or a remote employee and it can be done while backpacking or by living in different countries for longer periods of time. Sounds like a dream right?
That’s why I decided to give it a go and try the digital nomad lifestyle for myself. After backpacking for 4 months, I realized that I did not want to go back to a 9-5 office life. During my trip, I met several people who were working remotely and it seemed like a great way to travel and make money. I knew I had the required skills as a translator and writer and if it didn’t work out, I could always move back home.
So in April 2018, I registered as a freelance translator and content writer. After building a bit of a portfolio and client base, I set off on my first trip: backpacking around Central and Southern Europe. For two years, I traveled the world with my laptop, working from wherever I could get Wi-Fi.
It was an amazing but challenging adventure. It wasn’t always easy, but it was absolutely worth the trouble and stress. I was broke for two years, but richer in experiences than I ever imagined possible. I learned a lot of valuable skills and life lessons that will help me in any future job.
If you want to hear more about my life as a digital nomad and expat, listen to my interview on The Expat Experience Podcast.
Do you want to work and travel at the same time? Are you considering transitioning to a remote lifestyle? Let me tell you everything you need to know about being a digital nomad.
It’s not easy to be a digital nomad
I always find it hard to answer when people ask me what it is like being a digital nomad. I know what they want to hear: “it’s amazing”, “best decision I ever made”, “there is no better way to live”. And while that is mostly true, it is not all rainbows and sunshine. I know that it sounds like a dream, working whenever and wherever you want. It’s exactly that freedom and flexibility that attracted me to a remote lifestyle in the first place.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all rainbows and butterflies. You’re working remotely, the operative word being “working”. Being a digital nomad is not a constant vacation, it’s just a job without an office.
This lifestyle presents its own set of challenges, depending on the kind of work you do. You may have to manage your own time (which can be very hard), you may be your own boss (with all the responsibility that comes with that title) or you may have to adjust to working across different time zones.
It’s also quite tiring to move around all the time, getting used to new places, cultures and people. So before you go and quit your job, take off those rose colored glasses and carefully consider if you have what it takes to be a digital nomad.
As a digital nomad, it’s even more important to practice self-care while traveling
Build up good work habits
Traveling and working at the same time can be hard. It’s not easy staying in to finish before a deadline when all you really want is to go out and explore. Being a digital nomad requires a huge amount of self-discipline. You may not have regular office hours and free time and work time bleed into one another.
Learn time management and find a community
So to be successful, you need to build good work habits. Plan your week carefully and carve out time for work and play. If there’s a tour or excursion you really want to do or you know you’ll be spending a day in transit, you have to plan accordingly and make sure you get everything done on time.
Find good spots to work with dependable Wi-Fi and few distractions. I would often go to public libraries or cafés to work. Hostel common rooms are surprisingly quiet during the day as well. I also always made use of “lost time” at airports and on buses and trains to get a bit of work done. This post is sprinkled with pictures of different places that were my “office of the day”. More and more coworking spaces open up, allowing digital nomads to rent a desk and connecting with fellow remote workers. I never used them, but they’re a great option if you’re staying in one place and don’t mind spending a bit of money.
Trains and buses make surprisingly adequate offices, another good reason to travel over land
I found the digital nomad community to be very welcoming and supportive. It was always such a joy to meet another remote worker and share stories of our work and travels. We bonded over the joys and challenges of our lifestyle in a way I couldn’t with other backpackers.
Remote employee vs freelancing
In a way, having a remote position for a company is the easiest way to be a digital nomad. You have a clear cut work day and dependable income. You don’t have the freedom of a freelancer, but you have more stability.
Setting your own hours is great, but it comes at a price. Because if you’re a freelancer, you have the added stress of not having a stable income and being solely responsible for your work. If you don’t work, you won’t have any money. You need to put in the hours and meet deadlines in order to get paid and keep clients happy.
As a freelance translator and content writer, as a lot of my time and energy was spent on unpaid work. Admin, taxes, invoices, client communication, pitching, blogging etc. All things that were completely necessary, but weren’t billable hours. And if I didn’t apply to projects or pitch for a week, I likely wouldn’t have any work the next week. You always have to be one step ahead of it and my workload fluctuated from week to week.
My first trip as a digital nomad was a real learning experience. It took me a while to get into the groove and build those good working habits. I was new to freelancing and to the remote lifestyle. But after a while, I managed to work out the kinks and fell into a rhythm of working 10-20 hours a week.
Pick the right remote job for you
When thinking of remote jobs, some immediately come to mind: translation, writing, web design, software engineering. The classic jobs that require nothing but a laptop and an internet connection.
But these days, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, almost any job can be done remotely. Even ones you probably never thought of. While traveling, I’ve met online teachers, therapists, yoga instructors and even tarot card readers. As long as it does not require an immediate physical presence, you can do it remotely.
If you’re serious about becoming a digital nomad, you’re going to need the right remote job. Nor just one that can be done remotely, but one that you are actually good at and enjoy. Look at your career so far, what skills and experience do you have? Can that be turned into a remote job? Is there a market for it?
And don’t be afraid to try new things or pivot. Many people end up doing different things than what they started out with, following their natural interests and opportunities. Just because you start out as a writer, does not mean you have to stay a writer. You can also become a teacher or a podcaster. And it’s always good idea to diversify your income streams. No one gets by from blogging alone, and it helps create a more stable income.
Be smart about money
For me, being a digital nomad was never about getting rich. And being a translator and content writer wasn’t something I wanted to make a career out of. I suppose I was more a backpacker with a side job than anything else. I don’t know if others would even consider me a “real” digital nomad.
The problem with freelancing is the inconsistency of income. Some months I would make 200 EUR, others I would make 800 EUR. That doesn’t sound like much and it wasn’t. But I was also working no more than 20 hours a week. It was all about the travel, the work was just there to facilitate that dream.
I started traveling with 5000 EUR in savings and I managed to make that last 2.5 years. Working remotely allowed me to stretch those savings as long as I could. I was also traveling super low budget: hostels, Couchsurfing, public transport, budget flights and street food.
One of the main ways I saved money was by volunteering through Workaway. I would work around 20 hours a week in exchange for room and board. With plenty of time to do freelance work on the side. This also allowed me to stay in one place for longer and experience the local life and culture.
Here are some great budget travel tips for Southeast Asia and Europe
Don’t be too nomadic
One of the things that makes working and traveling hard is the traveling part. Which is of course the whole point of the lifestyle, but also the biggest challenge. It’s in the name: nomad. But moving around all the time makes it difficult to carve out time for work, form connections, build a routine. So, you want to be nomadic, but not too much.
Whenever I travel, I get a serious case of FOMO. There are just so many beautiful places in the world and I want to see them all. So, I try to cram as much as possible into every trip. When I first started out, I fell right back into my regular backpacking travel style: 2-3 nights in one place, then move on to the next.
However, I quickly realized that this does not work as a digital nomad. Even though I would try to get a few hours of work in on the bus or train, I couldn’t find enough time to both work and sight see. I was stressed about work and not able to enjoy the trip.
I didn’t get any work done during my 10-day motorbike trip in Vietnam
So I started to embrace slow travel. Instead of 2-3 nights, I would spend 5-7 nights in each destination. That allowed me enough time to explore and enjoy the place, but also to get my work done. I recommend taking at least a week and sometimes staying for even longer. Moving around too much will burn you out.
Other digital nomads often slow down much further, spending months in one place before moving on to the next. This is great if your goal is a long-term remote lifestyle and you work full-time. They’ll rent a place and really live there instead of just visiting. It all depends on what you want to do, there’s no right or wrong way to be a digital nomad.
It’s not for everyone and it might not be forever
After 2 years of being a digital nomad, I was ready to go back to a “conventional job”. I was over being location independent. I missed chatting with colleagues and having face-to-face meetings. I was tired of having to manage my own admin, taxes etc., I was done with working round the clock instead of having designated free time.
Becoming a digital nomad was the perfect decision for that moment in my life. I was 27, no relationship, no kids, no job and no house. Nothing tying me to a specific place, no responsibility except to myself. I had a serious case of wanderlust and was hungry for adventure, being a digital nomad fit those desires perfectly.
Now, 2 years later, I wanted different things. Instead of adventure, I was craving stability. A home instead of hostels. Lasting relationships over constantly making new friends. A fulfilling career rather than a job.
However, I wasn’t ready to give it all up completely. I didn’t want to move back to the Netherlands. Not when I have an EU passport and a wealth of cool cities to choose from that I could live and work in. I also wanted to keep working with travel. So I started applying for jobs in the travel industry all around Europe. Until I got hired by Travelcircus as a Content Manager in Berlin.
I look back fondly on my time as a digital nomad. And it’s possible I’ll go back to full time travel and being self-employed again someday. But for now, I’m happily living in Berlin as an expat and I get to explore this amazing city in my free time.
I hope I was able to provide some insight into being a digital nomad. If you have any questions about it, feel free to email me or comment below. I’m always happy to share my experiences and knowledge with other (aspiring) digital nomads!
If you enjoyed this post and found it useful, please share it with friends or on social media. Don’t forget to like, comment, pin and follow my blog to keep updated on any new posts.
5 thoughts on “Things to Know About Being a Digital Nomad”
Thank you for another most helpful post. Your blog is one my my faves, perhaps because I love traveling so much myself ^
Thank you Phil, I really appreciate that! It was actually your questions on the subject that inspired me to finally finish this post
I am doubly grateful then 🙂