It's been a bit more than a year now since I started working and traveling at the same time, living the Digital Nomad life. I recently wrote a post about it on LinkedIn, explaining why I believe there is no such thing as a "one-size-fits-all" job.
When I tell my story to people, including friends and family, reactions range from "how awesome it must be to be on permanent holidays" to "so, you decided to run away?".
No, it's not vacations and the only thing I ran away from - as most travelers making the decision of undertaking a digital nomad way of life - is a 9 to 5 job in the same office all year long. I did flee from a regular wake up-subway-office-subway-sleep day. Simply because it wasn't meant for me, not for the near future at least.
In this post, I'm going to give you my feedback on what it's like to combine work and travel and digital nomad tips to actually make it.
My life has drastically changed in just a year. For the better. I finally decided to question what I thought was the…https://t.co/uQ2pfRqW3H— Thomas Busson (@ThomasBusson2) July 20, 2017
One Year as a Digital Nomad
If you're here for the tips on how to make it as a digital nomad, feel free to scroll down. You'll just miss on the first-hand feedback of why I consider myself a digital nomad ;)
Up until last summer, the further away from my home in France I had been was Italy and Wales. Since then, I traveled across 4 continents, to countries I only hoped to visit one day, like China, Tanzania, the United States and Bulgaria.
What made it all possible was joining ClaimCompass. I started as an intern in the beautiful Sofia, capital city of Bulgaria. The team itself is very international, with members spread throughout the globe and a total of more than 10 languages spoken.
That's when I had an epiphany (at least that): "I don't want to be stuck in the same office forever, in a 9 to 5 job in France: I want to travel, see the world!". Acknowledging the problem is the first step to fighting it, right?
Realizing this and understanding that ClaimCompass could give me the means to live the life I was craving for was the beginning of the digital nomad lifestyle for me.
First Stop: China
After Bulgaria, I left for China. For some reason, the link between travel and China has been in mind for as long as I can remember. It seemed only right that I went there to start my new life. I was based in Beijing but traveled across the country, walking on the Great Wall (first box ticked on my bucket list!), exploring Inner Mongolia, hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge in the south, and so much more.
All of this while working at the same time. Remember when I told you that being a digital nomad has nothing to do with being on holidays? I meant it. I kept working remotely for ClaimCompass. I wouldn't qualify Beijing as an ideal location for digital nomads, but it could have been worse.
Next up: Tanzania
Now THIS was a real challenge. It was super hard to find good working conditions in Tanzania, mostly because the internet sucks. But when I was invited to spend New Year's Eve in Zanzibar, could I really say no to a new opportunity cross another item off my bucket list?
I visited the most beautiful beaches of the island while being based in Cape Town. I couchsurfed in Dar Es Salam, rented an Airbnb in Moshi and was welcome like family in a small village near Arusha. I really mean that: when they learned that I was going to come, they actually postponed a wedding just so that I could attend, because I had never been to a wedding before. True story. Some of the friendliest people I ever met.
Visiting the US
The ClaimCompass team temporarily moved to Mountain View, in the United States' Silicon Valley, where I was invited to join the party. I hopped on a plane and started living another completely different experience. That's when I discovered how great co-working and co-living spaces can be for digital nomads.
I lived and worked among people sharing the same lifestyle as I did, with much more experience in most cases. I learned a lot of productivity tips I will share below as well as the joy of networking with like-minded people.
Being low on cash, I wasn't able to travel as much as I hoped, but I did see the Grand Canyon (bucket list: check), play (=lost money) in a casino in Las Vegas (check), and ride across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (check). I can't really complain.
Settling down in Turkey
"Why there?!" asked my family and pretty much everyone I told I was going to stay in Istanbul for the next 4 months. "Because it's such an amazing city!" was my reply. People have a bad image of Turkey because of the news. It doesn't mean that the country is much more dangerous than any other place. That's why I think everyone NEEDS to travel: to see with their own eyes, open their mind and stop accepting whatever nonsense they are fed by the media. Yes, bad things have happened and are still happening, but I never once felt threatened, insecure or unwelcome.
On the contrary, I found in Istanbul a dynamic city rich not only for its past but also by its people now. Not to mention the amazing sights the city provides. It was a perfect hub for me to work from, with plenty of cafés with great internet connection. I know I'll come back for another bite of Turkey.
Summer in Bulgaria
Here I am again, back where my nomadic travels started. I did stop by to visit my family in France (make no mistake: you WILL be homesick). From there, I undertook my first road trip across Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia, before finally arriving in Sofia. I'll be there until the end of the summer, contact me on Twitter if you're passing by!
For a couple of month, I'm joining the ClaimCompass family again, helping you explorers get compensation for your delayed or canceled flight and providing you with my best travel hacks on the blog!
Now let's into the digital nomad life.
What is a Digital Nomad?
I think every traveler has their own definition of digital nomadism. Yet, some elements are recurring in almost all of them:
- Being "digital", they don't need much more than a laptop and a decent internet connection to work.
- As "nomads", digital travelers are often on the move - which doesn't mean they change places every other day either, as I'll explain below.
That's for the practical part. I would add that digital nomads are averse to brick-and-mortar offices and unsatisfied with the general representation of work-life balance. Life as a digital nomad is full of new experiences, places and people!
But the nomad lifestyle also has quite a bunch of inconvenients that debunk the myth of "permanent holidays". It's not all rainbows, unicorns and butterflies and you need to know the risks before making that life-changing decision.
Where to Work as a Digital Nomad?
That's the beauty of it: it's all up to you! Don't think of it in terms of "where should I go" but rather "where do I want to go"? Remote work lets you pick your destination yourself. Ever fancied visiting Bali? Book your cheap flight and head there! Dreamed about the dynamic Berlin? Hop on a plane!
Where to Live: How to Pick your Next Destination
Everyone has their own way of deciding where to go next. I usually use Skyscanner's "Everywhere" search feature to find cheap flights to destinations I may not have thought of otherwise. If one the results seems interesting, I head to Nomad List: type the city you're considering traveling to and get detailed information from cost of living, quality of life, internet quality and weather to foreigner-friendliness, places to work from and tolerance.
I know that the cost of living is a major deciding factor for me - yet I won't go to a place I am not genuinely interested in just because it's cheap. I also make sure that the transportation system will allow me to move around and out of the city easily. Again, it's up to you!
Popular Digital Nomad Destinations
Asia, Europe and North and South America gather the favorite destinations for remote and independent workers.
Digital Nomad Cities in Asia
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Undoubtedly the most popular destination for digital nomads in South-East Asia, Chiang Mail offers travelers an unbeatable value for money. With the beach, temples, and forest close by, it fueled the belief that remote workers are on permanent vacations. The top favorite destination offers many coffee shops and co-working spaces to work from, with good Wi-Fi. It's also favored for its fresh fruit markets and vegan scene that make it not only a pioneer in digital nomad locations, but also a trending one.
Ubud still is a top favorite destination in Bali, but the inland city is progressively losing the spot to Canggu. While Ubud can easily get distracting with the party goers, the small village of Canggu is much calmer, with a beach praised by surfers. As in the rest of Bali, yoga is a very popular activity there.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
With its affordable cost of living (less than $700 per month according to Nomad List, and decent internet, the old Saigon is a hub for entrepreneurs and nomads in Vietnam. The city is vibrant both for the waves of scooters buzzing in the city and its café culture.
Not yet a real hub for the growing digital nomad community, the city boasts a community of expats and entrepreneurs. The low cost of living, friendly English-speaking locals and beautiful sandy beaches attract more nomads every year, turning Davao in a perfect alternative for the otherwise busy Asian digital nomad cities.
Seoul, South Korea
To compensate for its more expensive cost of living ($1,764 per month of Nomad List), Seoul offers 24-hour cafés with great Wi-Fi. A massive freelance and startup community keeps growing there. The city is full of activities, ensuring you won't get bored when you need to take a break. You can go anywhere very easily with the top-notch transportation system.
Digital Nomad Cities in Europe
Dubbed the "hipster digital nomad capital of the world", Berlin is the most popular destination for remote workers in Europe. The great startup ecosystem participates a lot to the attraction of young entrepreneurs. It's also the place to be for night-life activities. I will be going there myself by the end of the summer: Berlin has the highest nomad score on Nomad List!
Slightly less expensive than Lisbon and relatively cheap for Europe overall, Porto is a fantastic destination for surf-addict budget-minded digital nomads. The city is praised as one of the top trending destination in 2017 and is quickly gaining popularity, including for working nomads. The welcoming locals make it very easy to connect as well.
Eastern Europe counts many popular attractive cities for digital nomads searching where to to live. Fast and reliable Wi-Fi, cheap cost of living for Europe and many co-working spaces make Budapest perfect for nomad work. The city is also well-known for its not-so-underground-anymore ruin pubs in the old district.
One of the cheapest places in Europe with an all-time low in rent, Kiev has become very trendy in the digital nomad scene. With very good internet and amazing landscapes, it's a good alternative to the more expensive Berlin.
You can find free Wi-Fi about everywhere in Sofia, even in the street. On top of that, it's one of the fastest internets in all of Europe. Combined with its co-working spaces, startup scene, great value for money and amazing location at the feet of Vitosha Mountain, Sofia is bound to attract an increasing number of digital nomads.
Digital Nomad Cities in North and South America
The "city of Eternal Spring" is digital nomads' top location in South America. With its modern infrastructure and growing startup scene, Medellin can still boast prices close to Southeast Asia ($972 per month according to Nomad List. The city's location make it easy to work with US clients sharing a similar time zone.
Mexico City, Mexico
It's secret that the food in Mexico is both delicious and affordable. In addition to the city's cheap cost, the culture is sure to fascinate you. With many Wi-Fi enabled places to work, the capital is a perfect destination for a nomad life. Urban Station and Impact Hub being the main ones
Sao Paulo, Brazil
The internet quality is a bit better than in the popular Buenos Aires. The startup scene has been growing over recent years, connecting lots of expats and entrepreneurs in the business capital of South America. Although rarely good English-speakers, the locals are super friendly and welcoming. It's not the cheapest destination in Latin America however.
San Diego, USA
For Silicon Valley dreamers who can't afford San Francisco, San Diego is the perfect alternative. What's more, it's the ideal destination for the most surf enthusiast nomads. Packed with places to work from with great internet connection, it shouldn't be overlooked for pursuers of what's left of the American Dream.
How to Work as a Digital Nomad
There are tons of work from anywhere jobs out there. Plenty of options are available based on your skills and what you're looking for exactly. You can learn more skills or teach yours on Skillshare.
Platforms referencing remote jobs are beyond counting now, and job offers do not only include copywriting. Many programmers and even lawyers are asked to use their skills to solve business issues remotely. Freelance digital nomad jobs are on the rise and you can find a way to promote your skills on the internet. Upwork is a great place to start searching for freelance job.
You can also learn new skills online that are perfect for freelancers; for example web design, graphic design or digital marketing.
Start your own business
Whether you want to create a blog or website that you can monetize to keep traveling or build your own company, being your own boss is an excellent way to find your balance between travel and work. Making a digital nomad career is hard, but you can put it at the center of your business: the community and demand is growing, consider launching a company targeting fellow international workers!
Work for a company hiring location-independent workers
It's still far from being the norm, but several companies are starting to seriously listen to the new generation's need for more freedom. The great team at Buffer is a great example. Here's what their page says:
"You will work in the place that makes you happy, that inspires you daily, and helps you to become the person that you wish to be. You will work daily with team members scattered around the world and across time zones to build a better culture and product."
It's also what I'm doing at ClaimCompass, providing you with travel tips and helping you get your compensation when airlines screwed up your flight!
Work in a travel-related company
Flight attendant will maybe not make you a "digital" traveler so-to-speak, but you will travel and see the world! Join a travel-agency and visit the world in search of the best deals and prices! You can be trained for any jobs now, why not one of these if that's what you want?
The Nomad Life: risks and disadvantages
The picture seems great so far, right? Explore the world, connect with interesting traveling nomads, live your dreams... If you think that's all that lies ahead, I'm afraid you're in for a very bad surprise. I warned you: it's not all rainbows and butterflies. Both the nomad and digital life have consequences.
The Never-Ending Search for Internet
Without a decent internet connection, you will be nothing. Right now, you might take it for granted, but some of the most heavenly places on earth may not have Wi-Fi access, nor power sockets, for that matter. Don't believe the cliché that you'll be able to work from the prettiest beach all day long.
The Drop in Productivity
Searching for a place to work, switching from a co-working space to an internet café, changing country altogether: it takes time, time you're not spending focused on your work. Even if you're settled down, there's always the risk of noise around you, the call of the beach... There will always be something to distract you, trying to turn you to the dark side (100% fun, 0% work).
The Blurred Line between Work and Leisure
But on the other hand, you do need to take some time off, and you might just as easily be tempted to work all the time. It just isn't healthy, but guilt can catch up pretty quick. Especially if you're working with clients across multiple time zones and have to stay up late or wake up early.
The Constant Uncertainty
Depending on what job you're opting for, revenue streams can be pretty chaotic: one day you live like a king, the next you're begging for your old office job to take you back. Psychologically as well, it can be exhausting having to wonder what's going to happen next. There is no real answer to how much money digital nomads make, but it might be very hard, especially at the beginning.
You're not in Kansas anymore
What if you get sick or injured in the middle of nowhere, will you get access to a good doctor? You might have to take the strangest transportation systems to get to where you want and struggle to get where you want. Don't expect the same high-level of service everywhere.
You will get homesick
No matter how happy about your lifestyle change, you will eventually come to miss what and mostly who you left behind, be it your friends, family and even your dates. Yes, you will meet new people, but it's not as easy to build lasting relationships when you're on the road.
That's only a handful of the challenges you might face during your life as a digital nomad. But then...
Why Become a Digital Nomad?
That why. You're free. You want to take a break, do it. Feel like surfing this afternoon? Do it. Got a feeling you can work enough today to finish your work? Just. Do. It.
I chose this way of life because I have the feeling that being able to travel and learn more about different places across the globe is the most fantastic opportunity of our age. And I don't want to miss it. I know that I'll struggle sometimes and that it may not last forever, but I'll do it as long as I can or want to.
Being a digital nomad opens you doors that will remain close forever to someone who stays all his life at the same place doing the same job. These people may not need adventure and in that case it's fine. But I dream about connecting with people in Thailand and going surfing in Porto while doing a job I like. Digital nomadism seems the most obvious way to do this not during holidays but all year long, not as a tourist but as a "local of the world".
Tips on How to Start as a Digital Nomad
By now you've probably understood that the reward of nomad living comes at the condition of strict self-discipline. So here is your digital nomad survival guide. I compiled tips from Digital Nomads around the world, from travel blogs to Facebook groups and direct conversation with the people I met over the past year.
1. Just do it
You will never be completely ready, something will always come up, you will find another excuse. Think very hard about how you want to live your life. Do what you want to do, not what you have been led to believe you have to do. Knowing what you don't want is just as critical as realizing what you want to do. If it turns out that travel needs to be a part of your journey, think once more about what you will lose, remember that it won't be holidays... You're still in?
Then just do it.
2. Be organized and plan ahead
Actually wait just a sec: make sure you have the proper visa, that your insurance provider covers you in case of problem, discuss cash withdrawal and payment options with your bank, go for a full check-up at the doctor. Reduce your expenses before leaving, you won't need that cable and internet subscription. Make sure you buy the cheapest flight for your departure.
Done? Good, now go.
3. Pack smart and light
Damn it, wait a moment! Are you sure you packed exactly what you need? Depending on what your plans are (keeping your home as a base or being on the road for a while, leaving for trips of a few days or several months) will significantly impact your digital nomad packing list. In any case, some items have to be in your suitcase or backpack. Laptop, phone, noise-cancelling headphones, USB key, international plug adapter, travel clothing and shoes, travel documents and much more depending on you're comfort needs. Just keep in mind that there is a lot that you can buy on the road. Check how to pack a carry-on if you need help.
Now I swear, you can go.
4. Travel slow
It might be tempting to cross a new border every week, with this newly acquired freedom. But I recommend that you rather take the time to stay at one place, maybe make it your base for a couple of months. It's the best productivity tip for digital nomads. Experienced one often describe their main mistake as too much traveling and not enough working. Do make some time for exploration and adventure (that's probably what you're in it for in the first place!) but don't forget that you have to get work done too.
5. Find your productivity spot
I can't get anything done between 1pm and 3pm. That's just how it is. But I can get a lot done early in the morning. That's why I go to bed not long after midnight and wake up around 7am. I do need a good night sleep to be productive. Figure out your own work schedule. Finding a good place to work is also critical to your productivity. A trick is to plan tomorrow before the day is over: when you wake up, you know what you have to do and where to go. Some nomads need the same routine, others go with the flow: you know what's best for you.
For me, there isn't a typical digital nomad's day: some habits are part of my routine but I'm mostly spontaneous. I can work over 12h one day and barely open my emails the next. Something that might seem stupid but is actually effective is Freedom, which lets you block the apps and websites that could distract you.
Check out Workfrom to find a place to work based on your criteria.
6. Get ready to work hard
I don't know how many times I've said it so far bust these are not holidays. You will spend a lot of time working to earn your digital nomad lifestyle of adventure and travel. Remember what motivates you and do something you love.
I don't mind working at all because I'm doing a job I love. It's easy to find the motivation when you can't think of it as a constraint.
7. Connect with the community
Meet people, network, ask for advice: you're not alone, make the most of the amazing digital nomad community! I think socializing, be it with fellow explorers or locals, is one of the best part of being a digital nomad. Use services like Meetup or Couchsurfing to meet locals and like-minded people. Ask for recommendations in digital nomad groups on Facebook or Nomad List. Try working at a co-working space.
8. Accept that things will go wrong
It will, sooner or later. If you're freelancing, expect less work during the off-peak period. Be prepared to earn little, maybe even nothing at the beginning: you may need to get references first. Try to save money as much as you can and have a plan B (and C) ready in case you're going through a rough patch. A nifty trick if you can manage it is to combine freelancing with your job before leaving, to get some some credibility before your leap of faith. You may get sick or injured: you will overcome it and it will eventually make you stronger.
9. Give yourself a break
It might not work out right away but don't give up! It's maybe your dream to be an independent worker: even if it's hard and doesn't seem like you'll make it, give yourself at least a few months and try harder. The learning curve may be steep at the beginning but once you get some traction, everything will work out fine.
Don't just think of your digital nomad salary that may be lower than what you had before: focus on what makes you happy in your new life.
10. Keep in touch
Whether it's with the people you will meet along the way or your close ones back where you lived, staying in contact is essential. You might wake up one day and realize you finally want to settle down: you'll be glad to still have your family and friends then. And you're probably not running away from them anyway, so why would you break off all ties when tools like Whatsapp make it so easy to communicate across borders? Nothing replaces a hug but that's still something.
Managing your loneliness will help you keep your feet on the ground, don't neglect it. Even if you consider yourself a lone wolf, wolves are stronger in packs.
Final Words on the Digital Nomad life
My life as a digital nomad has been great so far. I've ran into trouble a few times but I know this lifestyle is more fulfilling for me than any 9 to 5 office job could be. All it took me was the courage to make this decision. It was maybe easier for me at the end of my studies, but it might not be too late to change your lifestyle for a digital nomad life if that's what you really want!
I'd love to hear more about your projects and feedback so let's get in touch on Twitter.
Remember that ClaimCompass can help you get compensated for your disturbed flight during your adventures!
See you around, traveler!