With more people working remotely than ever before it is now possible for people to travel long term — no longer something just for the gap year students or barefoot hippies wandering the globe. So, if you’re thinking of taking the plunge and quitting the 9-5 pace for a life of travel, I advise you to read this first! It’s my honest take on the realities of long term travel when you are a Digital Nomad.
In this blog post, I am going to share my experience of the difficulties I have faced as a ‘digital nomad’ and long-term traveler to help you decide if it is the lifestyle choice for you.
What is a Digital Nomad?
Ok, first thing’s first — this isn’t a vacation and I’m not searching for myself or anyone else.
I have always been entrepreneurial and able to ‘create’ work opportunities for myself. So when I decided I wanted a lifestyle change I knew I would need to find a way of supporting myself from wherever I was in the world.
Like many others, I now consider myself a digital nomad. This is basically a term to describe someone who works online without a fixed location. DNs (as we like to call ourselves) normally fall into two categories: Freelancers and remote workers.
Freelancer – A self-employed person who sells their services to others or runs their own business.
Remote Worker – Someone who works for a business without having to physically be in an office.
I fit into the freelance category as I make money from my blog, as a freelance copywriter and an online English teacher.
Ok, now that we have cleared that up, here is my list of the difficulties of long-term travel which no one wants to talk about.
It’s a lifestyle — one that isn’t always easy
Long-term travel is a way of life. It’s unsettling, unnerving, uncertain and can at times be exhausting. Would I go back to my old life living in one place, not a chance! But that doesn’t mean this lifestyle is always easy. Especially when you first arrive in a new place, or when you have to leave a place you loved and where you made friends.
You have to learn to adapt, quickly!
Things change quickly and you have to learn to just adapt and move on. This can be positive or it can be negative but that’s irrelevant. You have to get used to these quick changes and learn to just take a breath and move on (or hold on)!
I planned to spend six months in Bogota, some of that time with a friend I met on the road but she was robbed in Honduras and had to change her plans, so I ended up there on my own. Then after two months of being an anxious twitchy mess who missed the sunshine, I booked a bus to Medellin, where I planned to spend a few weeks. I stayed for three months!
Plans change. People change their mind. You too can change your mind…
When you make ‘plans’ with other travelers the only thing you can be sure of is that those plans will likely change which can be disappointing. At the same time if you don’t like where you are you can just pack your bag and move on. It really is that simple.
If there is one thing I have learned on the road — being prepared is important but planning can be impossible…
Some people just don’t get it
If you choose to travel long term you are going to be judged. To lead an unsettled life is to break away from what is often considered ‘normal’.
Some of my favorites are:
So, when are you going to settle down then?
Isn’t it about time you got a proper job and put some roots down?
What are you running away from?
Or my personal favorite:
Haven’t you found yourself yet?
Look, I’m 36, I spent the best part of 15 years settled down and it’s not for me. I have a ‘proper job’ one that I LOVE doing. How many people can say that?
By becoming location independent you are opening yourself up for criticism of others who may not understand your choice. But many will be supportive and you may even inspire a few people to the same.
WiFi, WiFi, where for out thou WiFi…
In my world WiFi is King. It controls pretty much everything.
If you want to travel long-term and work remotely you are going to have to get used to WiFi ruling your world. Need to book an Airbnb, I make the host do a speed test and send me the screenshot. Before I book a hotel I run a speed test, if it doesn’t pass I find a different hotel.
That’s not to say I don’t go to places without WiFi, it just means I have to plan these times and take the time off work.
Breaking the need for routine is impossible
Humans are creatures of habit. Even those of us who vowed to break free from the confines of a 9-5 lifestyle often find ourselves back in the comfort and security of a routine from time to time.
I tend to work three weeks on, three weeks off. So I spend three weeks not seeing daylight, working as much as I can, then I will spend three weeks just working an hour or so a day and the rest of the time exploring my new surroundings. I will often use co-working spaces and I’ll be there at 9 am and back on the bus to go home by 6 pm.
The difference being of course that that routine is temporary and will change for a new one in a new place. The only way to avoid any routine is to be constantly traveling which leads me nicely onto my next point.
Feeling the burn(out)
“You can do ANYTHING but not EVERYTHING.”
When you do too much of anything you will eventually burn out. Travel is no different. Ask any long-term traveler for one piece of advice and they will say they wished someone had told them to ‘travel slow’. I made the mistake of trying to travel and work fast and I failed miserably! I was just too tired to enjoy the place I was in and my work productivity was pathetic!
You will find your own sweet spot — for me, I like to stay three to nine months in one place (often Visa dependent). I set up a base in a country and then I set aside times to travel leaving my big backpack at my base, or I will spend three to four weeks at the end of my time in a country traveling and doing very little work. This will normally follow a period of intense work so I have enough scheduled blog posts and other writing so I can take four weeks off from writing.
This is my way of working and everyone is different. Some people prefer to move every one to four weeks — there is no perfect speed to travel, it’s what works best for you.
Your life is not going to be a travel movie
If you think your life is going to be like a travel Instagram feed, you are going to be in for a shock.
Ok, let’s get real, I know my Instagram feed looks like I’m always exploring amazing new places. And I am. I do go to those places, I did take those pictures and I am always looking for an adventure. But, I’m also working really hard in between which you don’t always see reflected on my feed.
Your favorite bloggers and Instagrammers all have one thing in common. They work damn hard and many of the bigger ones have a whole team helping them.
That cool stuff you see me doing is just what I do on my days off. Plus, unless you are making great money and can afford fancy hotels and Airbnbs you are going to be living very simply.
I had a press trip to Costa Rica and stayed in a $300 a night hotel. My last night before flying to my next destination I booked myself into a $5 a night dorm room to save money. Not very glam I can assure you!
Most places I have lived have been basic which takes some getting used to. Things that would be so simple in your home country can become a nightmare because of language difficulties. But if you can deal with all of these things then being able to spend your weekends exploring a Caribbean island or trekking through the jungle is reward enough!
You will also travel to places you don’t like. Hopefully, you won’t have to stay there long but you aren’t going to love it everywhere you go. That’s life.
You are going to have to get really good at saying goodbye
Leaving home was hard but I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to leave.
I was ready.
I was prepared.
Leaving a country you feel you have only scratched the surface of, where you have made friends for life – to travel to a new country. One where you have never been, and know no one, is impossible.
I cried for days before leaving Guatemala. I was so sad about leaving my roommate I didn’t wake her up to say goodbye. Even if you plan to return, travelers continue to travel, so many of your friends will move on. When you return, the place may be the same, but the people won’t be and with each new country you will continue to change and grow.
It’s sad and it can be really hard but it’s a part of being a nomad and one you will have to get used to.
Now the good thing about this is that if you don’t like somewhere (or someone) you are free to leave!
“If you don’t like where you are, move. You are not a tree.”
You are going to lose close friends
Not all of them and it will likely be a slow fade away. But out of sight, out of mind. It’s a natural part of life, sadly. I have some amazing friends who I know I will always be in touch with, but others I just don’t bother with anymore.
I also have to censor myself a lot. As a rule, I only tell my friends about my adventures when they ask. There is nothing worse than being that friend who is always black-catting or talking about themselves and all of the cool things they have been doing especially to their friend who is six months pregnant, has swollen ankles and is desperate for a gin and tonic…don’t be that friend.
But it’s not just that, traveling changes you. Your friends are never really going to understand how incredible it was to stand on an erupting volcano, or how devastated you were after a week in the jungle to realize your fancy hotel didn’t have hot water. They just won’t get it.
You will meet plenty of other travelers when I do something cool and want to tell someone I tell it to them. They get it.
Sorry I can’t make it
This is my standard reply these days and another reason why being a full-time traveler means you will lose some old friends. You’re going to miss most, if not all, of the important weddings, meetings, and gatherings.
That annual girls night out, your old work colleagues’ wedding, your best friend from school’s baby’s Christening. Unless you have a nice saving account to pay for all of those flights home you are pretty much going to miss everything.
My first year away I committed to flying home for a friend’s wedding. It cost me over £1000, I had a car accident, my friend upset me and I didn’t even end up going to the wedding. A year on we no longer talk and I will NEVER commit to going to another friend’s wedding if it involves a transatlantic flight.
It sucks missing out on things. I hate that I’m not there when my friends need a hug or when their kids have a birthday. And it makes me sad that I miss out on family fun. But that’s the life of a nomad and the price of location freedom.
Dealing with homesickness
In those moments when I just want a decent English cup of tea or a Sunday roast, home can feel a million miles away. For the most part, you will be busy living your life and exploring your new surroundings.
Then you get sick, or something awful happens and all you want to do is go ‘home’ and be surrounded by the warm arms of familiarity. When you are traveling you are going to be constantly dealing with change, uncertainty and the unfamiliar.
Sometimes you are just going to wish things were easier and it’s those times when you are going to miss home.
Reverse culture shock is real
As much as you will have the moments of wanting to go home when that day finally comes you are most likely to feel utter dread. For me going home fills me with more anxiety than moving to a new city where I know no-one.
Traveling back to the USA from Latin America it isn’t just that everything costs so much more, it’s that everything is just so overwhelming.
I’m used to loud music, happy friendly people, crazy drivers, getting on and off moving buses and having a maid to change my bed and do my laundry. Life at home is quiet, the bus stops only at the designated stops, if I speak to strangers they think I’m crazy and my mum tells me it’s not a hotel and makes me do my own washing!
These may seem like small things but I just feel overwhelmed and overstimulated when I’m at ‘home’. It also takes me at least two weeks to stop speaking full-on Spanglish!
You are going to change – and not everyone is going to like it
You will have picked up some weird habits on your travels that will likely make your parents do that eye roll thing they do so well.
I stopped eating meat, taking milk in my coffee, I now put salt on most of my fruit, drink whiskey and every time I go to the bathroom I look for the bin to put my used toilet roll.
You will have changed and so it is going to take you and your family, and friends, time to adjust to those changes. If your family is anything like mine they won’t have a problem calling you out for it. I can’t even tell you how much anger my vegetarianism caused my mum. Not because she disagrees with it, just because she doesn’t know how to cook ‘vegetarian’ food. Honestly, after surviving on a 20-hour bus ride on nothing but a bottle of water and a packet of Oreos I’m happy with some carrots and hummus!
Finding balance feels impossible at times
If you thought finding a work-life balance while doing a 9-5 was hard, try doing it on the road. I spend my time flipping between fighting the urge to log off and go to the beach and not seeing daylight for days. Normally because I’m catching up on work due to having the breaking strain of a soggy KitKat (it’s a British thing) and I spent too much time at the beach.
I do my best to stay in balance as much as I can but it’s not easy especially during the times when I’m in one place for a while. Personally, I have a tendency to work way too much and forget to have fun.
I find meditating twice a day really helps keep me in balance. When you can feel yourself getting overwhelmed or annoyed just spend a minute or two focusing on your breathing. Take a watch of my video for some breathing exercises perfect for travelers.
It’s a balancing act
Like everything else in life.
It’s all about balance.
Explaining yourself to officials isn’t easy
People in authority don’t like people of no fixed abode.
Yes, you may have chosen to have no fixed address but you will still need one. I would also advise you to be very careful about what you say to immigration, bank managers and anyone else who might not quite understand what it is.
As more people are becoming location independent officials people will get used to this term, but some countries are not going to like it. Over the past few weeks, I’ve read stories of a co-working space in Thailand being raided by Thai Immigration and DNs being taken to the police station (they were all later released). And one about a girl from the USA who was refused entry to the UK even though she was just passing through on route to Ireland for telling the immigration officer she was a DN.
Even though you may not be doing anything illegal it is best to air on the side of caution and don’t mention being a ‘nomad’.
I hope reading this post has given you a better sense of what it is really like to travel full-time. Becoming a nomad is the best thing I have done, I have no regrets. But it isn’t always an easy lifestyle, so if you are going to make the leap you should do it with your eyes, and arms, wide open.
Got a question? Have something to add to this list? Leave me a comment below!