I like to think of travelers on a spectrum from ‘homebody’ to ‘digital nomad.’ I’ve only met a small handful of complete homebodies who don’t enjoy exploring past their backyard.
Out of those who do enjoy it, most really look forward to vacations that punctuate their careers and their cozy, reliable lifestyles. This is the common midzone.
And then there’s the smaller subset of travel lovers.
We’re the ones who just can’t get enough. Who giggle when others suggest that maybe our last trip ‘finally got the travel bug out of your system.’ Who start planning our next trip on the return flight home from our current trip.
For us, travel is more like a way of being. We don’t prefer our personal spaces and steadfast daily routines to keep us grounded. (Though there’s nothing wrong with that!)
We’re explorers who actually enjoy being out of our comfort zone. We’re not satisfied with taking a vacation a couple of times a year – it should be an ongoing affair.
If you feel this on a soul level, you just might be a digital nomad in the making.
But before we get into the good stuff, let me introduce myself:
I’m Amanda. I’ve been living the nomad life for the past five years, with about three months as the longest period I’ve managed to sit still in between flights.
When the little travel light first turned on in my head, I was in New York City, living in what might equate to a $1,000 shoebox. I escaped to a Costa Rican beach just in time to give winter the middle finger, and life never went back to ‘normal.’
More than 40 countries later, I’ve road tripped around Kyrgyzstan, gotten food poisoning in the Philippines, made best friends in Turkey, and jumped off a cliff in Colombia.
And I’m typing this sentence from Mexico.
I believe that becoming a digital nomad can be tough, but it’s way more attainable than it might feel to you right now. That’s why this guide maps it all out to help you on your way.
In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at:
- A definition of digital nomad and whether you’re really cut out for it
- The pros and cons of living the digital nomad lifestyle
- 5 skills and traits all digital nomads share
Let’s do this.
What is a Digital Nomad?
While there’s no explicit definition of digital nomad, they all generally share two main qualities. You can categorize these qualities by splitting up the term.
- [Digital] They have location-independent jobs. They earn most or all of their income online, so they’re not tied to a specific location in order to work.
- [Nomad] Because they don’t have to stay in any single place, many are constantly on-the-move – to anywhere with a wifi connection and a place to plug in their laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
Some digital nomads take these work and travel benefits to the extreme, hopping to a new location every few weeks or even days. Others like to stay in one spot for longer periods of time so they can get to know the city and the local culture.
It’s common to see a digital nomad who rents an apartment for a few months or a year, but still takes several short trips to nearby destinations. For example, say your first destination is Prague for six months. From there, you can easily take week-long trips to cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam.
Pro tip: Choosing an affordable ‘home base’ like this is a great technique for beginners. It gives you some time to figure out your personal preferences and processes without diving head first into the deep end of the location-independent lifestyle.
Digital Nomad vs. Expat
As you’re doing research and making preparations for your journey, you’ll come across the term ‘expat.’
This is short for ‘expatriate,’ and it refers to people who live outside of their home country.
Generally speaking, the main difference between an expat and a digital nomad is that a digital nomad is constantly moving, while an expat stays in one place for a while – often years, or even the rest of their lives.
I bring this up because articles, blogs, videos, and other resources about expat life can be just as helpful as similar resources labeled for digital nomads.
So as you’re researching, don’t rule out any resources just because they say ‘expat’ instead of ‘digital nomad.’
Plus, you’ll probably make some expat friends as you work and travel!
Now, let’s take a look at some of the biggest pros and cons of the digital nomad lifestyle.
Digital Nomad Pros and Cons
Travel, travel, travel
How long is your bucket list? Do you ever feel like it’s getting so long that it’s becoming unattainable? Gone are the days where your desk job and home responsibilities hold you back from taking the trips you’ve been dreaming of!
With the right planning and discipline, there are very few places that are truly off-limits. And when you land in the right places, your next adventure is right at your doorstep.
Work on your own terms
While you might still have a 9-to-5 on the road, many digital nomads have the opportunity to make their own schedules and be their own boss, making it easier to work and travel simultaneously. This is especially true for those who take the freelancing or entrepreneurship route of starting their own business.
Want to start work at noon? Want to put in a couple of hours at a seaside cafe? Want to take Wednesday off and make up for it on Sunday? No one’s stopping you.
Greater freedom and independence
It’s incredible how your perspective about life can shift once you have a location-independent lifestyle. Have you ever felt trapped or at a dead-end with work or life in general?
You’ll find that being a digital nomad comes with so much freedom, like structuring your ideal days and choosing your most comfortable living environment.
There are few opportunities to learn so much about yourself and others in such a small amount of time. The digital nomad experience often pushes all your boundaries, challenges your ideas and beliefs, and thrusts you into the unknown.
You’ll discover many of your own hidden needs, wants, and preferences while learning more about the people and lifestyles of faraway lands. To say it’s humbling is an understatement.
More bang for your buck
There are several regions of the world where your money will take you much farther than it does back home. For example, your monthly living costs might be $2,000 in the U.S., but they’re only about $1,000 in Canggu, Bali – which, by the way, is one of the top digital nomad cities in the world.
Choosing places with lower costs can be a great way to give yourself some financial leeway, especially if you’re on a budget.
Unless you’ve mastered the art of residual income, you probably won’t be able to make money without physically sitting at your laptop for hours on end. This can be a difficult adjustment if you’re used to a job that keeps you on your feet all day, and some new digital nomads get stir crazy.
Try to combat this by taking regular breaks to stretch, take a walk, or exercise. You can also occasionally stand while you work.
Digital nomad loneliness is a very real struggle. This generally worsens based on how often you move from place to place. The shorter the time you spend in a location, the fewer opportunities you’ll have to build meaningful connections with other people.
You can combat this by going to events hosted by co-working spaces and other groups, and taking time to nurture budding relationships.
Need for strict discipline
It’s imperative that digital nomads keep themselves accountable on a daily basis.
It can be painfully tempting to ditch your workday for a spontaneous day trip to the beach or the mountains with your new friends, but it’s simply not sustainable for most people – this is especially true for those on a budget. Those little trips and missed work days will add up quick.
Potential for burnout
If you’re not careful, location-independent living can swiftly exhaust you. This can happen for a variety of reasons, like moving from place to place too quickly, trying to be a full-time traveler and a full-time worker at the same time, or neglecting your own self-care in the frenzy of constant movement and distractions.
Avoid this by keeping a steady pace and taking care of yourself daily.
Lack of work-life balance
It’s common for digital nomads to become tightly entwined with their work, especially when they’re freelancing or running their own businesses. This type-A work mentality can hinder your opportunities and your ability to really enjoy all the new experiences you’re having.
Remember to set times where you can completely unplug and detach from work.
Long-term feelings of isolation
The truth is: most people can’t keep up with the digital nomad lifestyle forever. Many will end up settling down in a single spot for longer periods of time so they can have somewhere that feels like home.
After all, it’s human nature to need security, safety (in the direct and indirect sense), and the feeling that you ‘belong’ somewhere. After years of traveling, these lines can become blurred.
When you tie all these pros and cons together, you’ll discover that digital nomads share certain skills and personality traits.
5 Digital Nomad Skills and Traits
- An open mind and risk-taking attitude
If you’re not open to the thought of stepping outside of your comfort zone, I hate to break it to you, but the digital nomad lifestyle just isn’t for you. This is a million times truer if you decide to travel to other countries with radically different lifestyles, cultures, and attitudes than the ones you grew up around.
The truth is, it’s a risk in itself to venture into unknown places on your own. But that’s where all the fun is!
- Planning and decision-making skills
When you’re in your hometown with a 9-to-5 job, things can get really routine. Eventually, most of your daily decisions are made for you. But when you’re living the digital nomad lifestyle, you’re practically bombarded with the constant need to make plans and decisions.
Where will you go next? Did you buy your flights, get a rental, figure out where you can work, which sites you’d like to visit, and where you’ll do your shopping and get your meals? These few questions just scratch the surface of what it means to lead a location-independent lifestyle.
- Ability to ‘roll with the punches’ when things go wrong
On the flip side of being able to make plans, I can personally guarantee that some things – if not many things – won’t go according to those plans. On a small scale, you’ll probably have internet problems, miss an important flight, or find that you hate one of the apartments or hostels you booked. On a bigger scale, disaster could strike, leaving you in a bind financially or otherwise.
This is why work and travel experts are some of the most resilient people you’ll ever meet. Things will go wrong – it’s all about how you bounce back that really matters.
- General tech savvy
You don’t need to be an IT expert, but you’ll definitely need a solid understanding of technology and the internet. For example, what will you do if your rental has poor wifi, or you start having computer problems? (Sure, you can have someone else help you fix those issues, but the stronger your understanding, the easier it all will be.)
Outside of hardware issues, you’ll likely find yourself doing ‘digital detective work’ to research and solve problems you encounter. And you’ll benefit from knowing how to use basic tools and apps like maps, booking sites, and transportation apps.
- Problem-solving skills
This is something of a mix between #3 and #4. Some things won’t go according to plan, so you’ll need to have the resourcefulness to rework your plans smoothly and cleverly, both online and offline.
Say that you book an Airbnb rental for Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, six months in advance, because you know that all the good accommodations will be booked solid. But two days before your trip, your host cancels unexpectedly.
What do you do? There are many potential solutions, all of which involve some resourceful problem-solving skills.
Now, you have an introduction to the location-independent lifestyle and an answer to the question, ‘What is a digital nomad?’ You also have a general idea of what the lifestyle is like, as well as what kinds of people thrive in this environment.
In the next part, we’ll explore all the different ways you can fund your travels.
Keep Reading: Work Anywhere With These Digital Nomad Jobs →
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Is a Digital Nomad Lifestyle Right for You?
Chapter 2: Work Anywhere With These Digital Nomad Jobs
Chapter 3: How to Become a Digital Nomad: 4 Tips To Prepare
Chapter 4: How to Choose Your First Destination
Chapter 5: Travel Budget Tips for the Aspiring Digital Nomad
Chapter 6: Tapping Into the Digital Nomad Community