Working with a laptop and a margarita by the pool…
These are the kinds of things people picture when they fantasize about becoming a digital nomad. And while some of these things are a reality, that image is better suited for Instagram; it’s not quite as reflective of real life.
Sure, there are lots of perks to being a digital nomad. If there weren’t, I wouldn’t have made it my career plan.
But now that I’m entering my third year on the road, I’m well aware that it’s not all romantic escapes to far-flung destinations. Just like any career path, the digital nomad life comes with its own unique set of challenges.
It took some time to discover what those challenges were, and even longer to overcome them.
If you’re considering becoming a digital nomad, I want the journey to be easier for you. So I’ve put together this survival guide—a map to help you navigate this exciting lifestyle.
Part 1: How to earn money & travel
Before you start buying one-way plane tickets, you must be certain you have a way to keep the money flowing. Otherwise, you’ll end up heading home early with your tail between your legs.
As I’ve traveled the world the last few years, I’ve met dozens of other digital nomads, but not once have I come across two people who are earning their keep in exactly the same way.
Your path to becoming a digital nomad will be unique based on your skills and experience. But generally, people living this lifestyle earn money in one of four ways:
Freelance and entrepreneurial digital nomads
This is by far the most common type of digital nomad—and it’s my tribe as well. Since 2020, when so many people found themselves working remotely, it’s become much easier to work as a freelancer. There are more tools than ever for managing work and finances for freelancers, and companies are more open to hiring freelancers at good rates.
Some people also start their own non-freelance business and manage this while on the road. Building a viable product from the ground up takes time, but once it’s off and running, it’s possible to keep your cash flow coming while traveling.
The downside of this form of nomading is the uncertainty. Freelancers often struggle with feast or famine, and that can be very challenging when you’re living abroad.
If you’re thinking of starting your own business, here are some resources to check out:
Digital nomads in remote work programs
Remote jobs are very common these days, and some folks have used these as a launching pad for their digital nomad careers. However, there are a few hurdles you’ll need to cross if you’re pursuing this opportunity:
1. You must be absolutely certain your employer will allow you to live overseas. They may object for tax reasons or protest if you plan to be in a different time zone.
2. Not all countries welcome remote workers. You’ll need to research what countries have visas that would allow you to carry out your work within their borders.
Digital nomads with full-time travel jobs
There are some lucky folks who land jobs that require a lot of travel. For example, one of my digital nomad friends works for a large international non-profit organization, providing training for their various offices around the world.
While these roles are hard to come by, they may be the most secure type of digital nomad job. You’re guaranteed a steady income, and many of your travel expenses will be covered by your employer.
The type of work you do while on the road will greatly impact where and how you travel. So, think carefully about which path is right for you before mapping out any itineraries.
Part 2: Budgeting for travel
Once you have a good idea of how much money you’ll be earning as a nomad, the next step is to make sure you travel in a way that will keep your bank accounts well above $0.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Make a travel budget sheet
You need a spreadsheet to help you visualize exactly how much you can spend on the road. In addition to everyday living expenses like food, clothing, and entertainment, you also need to estimate how much you’ll spend on:
Flights and other forms of travel
Hotels, hostels, or AirBNBs
Gas and car maintenance/insurance if you plan to drive
Travel insurance (this is essential and not too expensive)
Souvenirs and other purchases
Emergency funds (I aim to have $2,000 tucked away just in case)
Use accounting software to stay on top of everything
If you’re freelancing as a digital nomad, it’s vital that you use accounting software to manage your income and expenses, and most importantly, file your taxes. Check out options like HelloBonsai or Quickbooks Self-Employed for starters.
Choose your destinations wisely
The places you travel will have a big impact on what sort of lifestyle you can live.
For example, the cost of living in Mexico or Indonesia is very low in most places—everything from flights around the country to the cost of food and hotels will be lower.
On the other hand, if you choose to spend time in Europe or parts of the US, you’ll have to spend a lot more money on pretty much everything.
Be sure to look at exchange rates as well. Your US dollars will go a long way in Vietnam, but you’ll lose money spending US dollars in Australia.
Consider what you need in accommodation
Though you may not have to pay rent as a digital nomad, you will spend a significant portion of your income on where you live and sleep while traveling.
Fortunately, you’ll have more options than you might in your hometown, where the cost of living is stagnant.
Hostels and home shares are likely the cheapest way to travel, but these come with consequences—many hostels don’t have good places for you to carry out work, and the parties that happen in these places can be distracting.
Hotels and AirBNBs may be more comfortable, but they typically come at a much higher cost.
Some people choose to take their accommodation with them on the road by investing in a van or RV. But for this to work, you’ll also need to ensure you have access to the internet wherever you go, and the opportunity to take a hot shower when you need it. Not to mention, fuel will become a big part of your expenditure.
Credit card points and travel miles
This tip is only for folks who feel confident they can manage their money wisely while using a credit card. If you think you may be tempted to rack up a big bill on a credit card without being able to pay it back, hold off on this tip until you’ve got a better cash flow.
But if you do have the financial discipline to pay off credit card bills regularly, you can save a lot of money by opening up a card that gives you points for travel.
For example, the credit card I use allows me to exchange points to reimburse myself for travel-related expenses like flights, Ubers, or hotels. Most of the major airlines also offer credit cards or frequent flyer programs that can get you discounted flights or increase your chances of getting upgraded.
Part 3: Finding a community on the road
Living as a digital nomad can be lonely, especially if you’re traveling solo. Sure, you’ll likely meet people along the way, and some of these folks may become good friends.
But unless you plan to stay in one place for several months at a time, you’ll struggle to make lasting relationships. This is compounded by language and cultural barriers that make it hard to connect with others.
Fortunately, a number of resources have opened up recently that can help you deal with this.
Virtually every major city that attracts digital nomads has a Facebook group dedicated to expats and travelers. You can scan these or websites like MeetUp.com to find activities that interest you and will introduce you to new people.
Check out places like Outsite and Selina—these are a new type of business that is one part hostel, one part hotel, and one-part co-working space. There are formal groups like Unsettled, which runs retreats for remote workers abroad.
You can also invite people you already know to join you on your travels, but a word of warning: If they aren’t also working while traveling, you’ll likely need to schedule yourself some vacation time. Otherwise, their distraction will cause you to fall behind on work, and that can be a big problem.
Part 4: Making travel easier on your mind, body, and soul
You might have seen digital nomad influencers who claim to just hop on a plane and go wherever the wind takes them. But if you’re serious about this lifestyle, you’ll want to be a lot more organized and intentional about your travel plans.
There are a few great resources for choosing destinations:
The TripIt App organizes all of your travel details, including flight times and booking references, check-in and check-out times for your accommodation, and even information about Covid restrictions.
Google Translate is an absolute must if you are going somewhere and don’t speak the language. It does a lot more than just translate what you type in—you can snap a photo of a sign or menu, and it will translate the words right there on your phone.
TSA Pre-check is worth looking into if you plan on doing lots of air travel. After applying (which is a bit of a process), you’ll be able to zip through security lines at a much faster pace.
Part 5: Respecting cultures and being a low-impact nomad
Don’t be surprised if you encounter some backlash from people you meet while traveling as a digital nomad. Many people tend to resent the influx of foreigners to their cities and towns, and for good reason.
A rise in digital nomads can cause housing prices to go up, forcing locals out of the most popular areas. Nomads can also cause gentrification—new businesses pop up to accommodate our needs for iced coffee and familiar food, and local businesses suffer as a result.
On top of that, some travelers can be very disrespectful when traveling. They may refuse to even try to speak the local language or disregard local customs and traditions.
To be a successful digital nomad, you have to be a thoughtful digital nomad and reduce your impact on local cultures as much as possible. Here’s how:
Thoroughly research your destinations
Before you travel anywhere, do your due diligence and research the local customs, traditions, and expectations of your destination. Look into the local politics of the region and find out what other digital nomads have to say about their visits there. Take all of this into account before you book a flight.
Learn the basics of the language
Make use of apps like Pimsleur, DuoLingo, or Drops to learn some of the language of the destinations you’re visiting. You don’t have to be fluent, but you should at least be able to give greetings, say “excuse me,” ask basic questions, and politely ask others if they speak English.
Support local businesses
It’s tempting to hit up a Starbucks when you’re craving a taste of home, but as a digital nomad, it’s your job to explore and enjoy the local culture. This means visiting local businesses as often as you can and putting your money back into the economy of the countries that host you.
As you begin your digital nomad journey, there’s lots of adventure and excitement awaiting you. Keep these survival tips in mind, and you’ll be able to make the most of living and working abroad.