Being a digital nomad almost sounds like too good to be true. Being able to travel the world while taking your work with you in a backpack. If it really is as phenomenal as it sounds, why doesn’t everyone do it?
Well, the technology for reliable remote work has really only been ready for about a decade. Thanks to the pandemic, more of more us learned to work online, but traveling was problematic. But now, with more and more countries lifting their entry restrictions, digital nomadism is once again on the rise.
Globally, there were already about 35 million digital nomads in 2021. This is expected to multiply drastically in the coming years. That’s why I’ve listed some of the pros and cons of being a digital nomad, so you can decide if it’s something for you too.
What is a digital nomad?
Being a digital nomad means two things. One, that you can work online. And two, that you can choose where to work.
In other words, digital nomads are remote workers who travel and work in different countries. They often live a nomadic lifestyle and use technology to complete their work responsibilities.
Some move from hostel to hostel in Southeast Asia, others alternate between London, Lisbon and Budapest, and then there are the adventurers who buy an RV and cruise across the United States. During their travel escapades, they fulfill their work obligations in coffee shops, public libraries, or the comfort of their home.
Pros of being a digital nomad
Most people with regular office jobs save up for their vacations and squander thousands of dollars during their short getaway. While on vacation, they still have to pay fixed expenses such as rent, insurance and car payments. This while the house is empty and the car is parked in the driveway. Therefore, the holiday period is the most expensive time of the year for most people.
How different it is for digital nomads.
Their fixed monthly expenses are low and they own less. A trip doesn’t imply that they are on vacation; they can just keep working, after all. So they don’t have to cram everything into a two-week vacation, but rather take the time to travel and earn money while doing so.
For many Western travelers, including myself, digital nomadism is actually a way to save money. The cost of accommodation and living is lower in my travel destinations than my home country, the Netherlands. Besides, I get much more for the same money.
In the Netherlands I can barely make ends meet for 1500 dollars a month with a small room with a shared bathroom, cooking for myself and keeping an eye on everything I spend. In Southeast Asia, that same $1,500 gives me a villa with a pool and maids, while eating out for every meal and enjoying the occasional massage, getaway to a tropical island or 9-course dinner. A luxurious lifestyle that would only be feasible in the Netherlands when you earn 7,000 to 10,000 dollars a month.
This difference is mainly caused by currency disparities and can be used to your advantage. The golden rule: earn money in a stable Western currency and spend it in a local currency.
I admit, this is obviously much easier done by someone with a Western background and we are immensely privileged in that regard. But also for ambitious workers in second or third world countries, this strategy can offer a way out of poverty and make visiting developed countries affordable.
Create your optimal work environment
As a digital nomad you can choose to work environment that fits you best.
You can either work from home and create your perfect personal office space. Setup multiple monitors, play some lo-fi background music and buy the most comfortable chair that your butt cheeks have ever come across.
But you can also work in other places like coffee shops, flex-offices, libraries or on the train. Work is no longer tied to the office building.
You can also choose the climate that suits you well. Are the Californian summers too hot for you and does it affect your productivity? Head for the south of Argentina. Are the short, dark, freezing days in Scandinavia causing winter depression? Escape the cold and enjoy your cocktail on the beach in Bali.
Most digital nomads carry a suitcase or backpack, and a smaller rucksack. This obviously means that you can’t take all your possessions with you, so you’ll have to choose what’s really important to you. Every additional pound, you’ll have to carry with you for months. As a result, they live a more minimalistic lifestyle with only the bare essentials.
True digital nomads don’t own houses, cars, furniture or appliances, but utilize whatever is available on location. As a result, their use is better tailored to need, and they buy less stuff for the sake of buying it.
Smaller ecological footprint
“Wait what? You’re telling me that flying across the world is better for the environment? I call bullshit.”
Hear me out though.
A regular office job requires you to commute. The average American spends 52 minutes in commute per day, for which they predominantly use their private cars (72%). In doing so, they pump out tons of carbon dioxide. My five-step walk to my laptop is free of emission, as long as I don’t fart along the way.
Digital nomads tend to stay in smaller buildings with lower energy usage than people who own or rent homes. The most popular nomad destinations have warm climates all year-round, reducing the need for heating. Sure, hot countries make use of A/Cs instead, but it generally requires more energy to heat a home than to cool one.
As mentioned before, digital nomads consume less. There’s only so much you can bring with you. There’s no need to decorate your house and stuff it with energy-guzzling appliances, if you don’t have one. Travelling lightly reduces overall consumption and its associated pollution.
Digital nomads travel at a slower pace than backpackers and holiday goers. Because they need time for work, they visit less places in longer stretches of time, and are therefore more likely to consider slower modes of transport like trains and buses.
Besides ordinary suburban life becomes so boring at one point that the only thing left to do is impregnation. A travelling lifestyle keeps the mind entertained, as digital nomads have less children.
Of course, your personal environmental impact depends on how frequently you fly, whether you use public transport, which other conscious decisions you make when abroad. But it is certainly possible to be a digital nomad with a low environmental cost.
As a digital nomad, you don’t have to clock in at a certain time and there is no boss looking over your shoulder.
You can decide where to work, how to organize your time and whether to work next to someone else. You can structure your work hours around the hours when you have the most focus and close the laptop as soon as you’re done. The buffer that remote working creates is a relief to many.
Especially if there is a time zone difference between you and your employer or clients, then each day has a few hours where you know they are still snoring. You can use this time for going for a morning surf, sleeping in or whatever you want to do.
This great autonomy does demand some discipline. It’s tempting to take too much time off, but you really will have to prioritize work every now and then. Some, on the other hand, work too much because there’s no boss to tell them to stop. The solution? Block off clear work and leisure times.
Less government control
Think what would happen if your country gets into a war conflict. Being able to pick up your stuff and pick a safe country far away from the warzone; you will be less impacted by sanctions, shortages, and missile strikes. This notion may seem farfetched, since most of us were lucky enough to live throughout the most peaceful period in history.
But the invasion of Ukraine has made it painfully clear how quickly things can escalate.
Currently I’m in Bali and there’s a huge community of Russians here. All of them are happy they are here right now. My Russian friends disagree with Putin’s invasion (and over here they are able to say so without being put in jail for 15 years). They are nevertheless victims of the political decisions of the dictatorial power-hungry lunatic in charge.
The sanctions imposed upon the Russian government hit the Russian people hard, but it’s way less for Russian people abroad. They can still use Instagram, YouTube and access Western media. They are still able to use Western products and services. And those earning their wages in dollars, are not impacted by the dramatic devaluation of hard-earned Rubles.
Most of these arguments also hold for Ukrainian refugees that had to flee their country. Those able to work online will find it much easier to work from a new location. They do not have to compete for jobs with the local population of their host country.
Less exposure to news
In my home country, I already got rid of my TV so that I won’t be continually exposed to tragic news and updates on what Dutch celebrities are up to.
But nonetheless, in conversations with my parents, friends or neighbors, I would still frequently hear about irrelevant local news or issues that had been discussed on the talk shows the night before. It’s nearly impossible to escape the pressing issues that the mainstream media shoves down our throats on a daily basis.
The pandemic is one of the best examples of that. It was truly shocking for me to come back to my home country and see what it had become. Literally E-VE-RY conversation mentioned COVID-19 and people could precisely tell me how many people had been infected and died the day before. Everyone was under the spell of a virus, but particularly the information virus.
That is until I crossed the border into another country. It made it a lot less likely that you’ll get into small talk about local issues. You get a lot less of the latest world news and that gives you enormous peace of mind.
(btw a must-read book that addresses this topic is Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman)
Downsides of being a digital nomad
Let’s face it, being a digital nomad is not for everyone. You have to be good at being on your own and you constantly have to adapt to new cultures. In addition, you need to be travel hungry and not be afraid to take a leap of faith. Especially if you have already settled down (with a loved one), it is a huge step.
Oh, the number of times I’ve been told, ‘I think it’s so cool what you’re doing, but I wouldn’t be able to do it.’ I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but there are definitely downsides to living as a digital nomad.
Life away from loved ones
As a digital nomad, you are often far away from your friends and family for long periods of time. This can be quite challenging and for some even be the cause of immense homesickness. You will not always be there on important occasions, such as birthdays, the birth of their child, or when they need you for a hug.
Of course, nowadays we have countless ways to stay in touch, with messages and video calls, but nothing beats being together in-person. Only when you are physically around can you experience things together.
There is some consolation in that you will meet countless people during your adventure as a digital nomad, and some of them will become your best friends. You’ll build a global network of friends that will always offer you a couch to crash on. But it won’t replace the unique friendships you have with the chums you’ve known since childhood.
It is difficult to estimate in advance what you will spend during your digital nomad journey. Most people choose cheaper countries, but even then it can vary enormously from month to month what you spend.
In your home country you know exactly what everything should cost, but abroad this can be tricky. As you spend more time in a country, you will be able to make better estimates of your spending and find the cheaper options for accommodation and food.
In a country with a different currency, you are exposed to exchange rate fluctuations. In addition, travel involves the risk of unexpected expenses, for example if you lose your passport, have an accident or have to rebook tickets.
For those digital nomads who give up their apartments and go fully nomadic, a sense of homelessness can occur.
You travel from hostel to hostel, or villa to villa, but is it ever going to feel like home? The furnishings of rentals are often basic and not very homey. In any case, it is not how you would decorate it yourself and it does not contain any of your personal touches. Yet. You can make it more homely by putting up photo frames or buying plants (something that is often lacking in hotels). This is particularly worthwhile if you stay for longer periods.
But even with these adjustments, you may still feel like you’re not quite at home. This could also be because you are living in a different culture, with a different language, different customs and are less up to date with all that is happening in your motherland.
Also when returning to your home country, you probably end up in a bedroom in your parents’ house, on the couch at friends’ house or in a temporary apartment. This can make you feel trapped or like a stranger in your own country.
Dating can be a huge challenge as a digital nomad and can wreak havoc on your plans.
I would say that a relationship has the greatest chance of success when the other person can also work remotely. You can then decide together where you will live and work.
However, the vast majority of the world does not yet work remotely. The chance of running into someone who is location-dependent is therefore very high and that simply doesn’t match a digital nomad lifestyle very well.
Moreover, some potential partners will be hesitant when they hear that you travel from here to there. Even though most will be fascinated by your lifestyle, they may have a hard time imagining a serious relationship with a nomad.
If you do get serious about someone and want a long-term relationship, you need to make it very clear that it’s not a summer romance. And that inevitably means sacrificing some freedom. After all, long-distance relationships don’t have that great of a success rate, and will probably result in more hassle than pleasure.
Digital nomadism can be lonely at times, especially if you move around a lot. And if you don’t leave yourself, then every so often someone else will say goodbye. Forming relationships can be difficult because people are always coming and going.
Also, the work itself is more lonely. Compared to a regular office job, you will not have colleagues on your side and you will even start to miss the water cooler talks.
But no worries, there are more people like you out there, here’s how to find them:
- Don’t stay at hotels
Hotel rooms usually come with more amenities, but at the same time may reinforce loneliness. I’d advice you to stay in hostels, home stays or shared apartments instead. This is the easiest way to meet more travellers and make spontaneous plans together.
- Work outside
You may have an entire office set-up that maximizes your productivity in the place you’re staying, but you should get out of the house every once in a while. Work from cafés or libraries instead, or sign up for a coworking space in your area. Anyone with a laptop out there might be a digital nomad as well. A simple “hey, what are you working on?” could break the ice and get the conversation going.
- Join a sports association or gym
Maybe a commitment to an association or membership doesn’t seem like something that fits with the liberal life of a digital nomad, but it’s one of the easiest ways to get to know people. Popular nomad destinations often have monthly memberships to accommodate travelers, or offer a single day pass. Or drop by the neighborhood football field or basketball court, and one of the players will surely add you to their WhatsApp or Facebook group.
- Follow Instagram accounts that post about local events
- Use Bumble’s BFF feature
- Join NomadList’s community of digital nomads
Becoming a digital nomad has become extremely popular. In this first part of the series, we explain why the interest in digital nomadism has skyrocketed.