Although I don't address the ever-evolving world of digital nomads in the Hack Solo Travel guidebook, I believe it's a relevant topic of interest for solo / budget travelers as it takes one's desire for change, novelty and independence to a whole new level and it can be done on low costs.
Digital nomads aren't just travelers – they are people who combine existence, work and travel into a way of life. Having been a backpacker most of my life – and a freelance writer over the last few years – I've organically graduated into a digital nomad-ship myself (which could happen to you too!)
A digital nomad is a person who sustains a nomadic lifestyle with a “location independent” profession that allows them to submit work from anywhere with an internet connection. They may or may not maintain a “home” somewhere, but they are defined by the ability and desire to move around a lot, especially internationally. Many digital nomad hotspots spring up in “budget destinations” popular with backpackers as they, too, are trying to get more bang for their buck.
This new professional lifestyle has become so widespread that more and more countries are developing “digital nomad visas” to give this new category of visitors their own legal status that typically allows staying in the country for a significantly longer time than afforded by a tourist visa (here's a recent list of participating countries).
There are several things to love about being a digital nomad (the lame term “digital nomad” not being one of them imho...) Here's a few that matter most to me:
Freedom. That's probably the number one reason for most of us. Freedom to move, freedom to explore, to interact with nature, to keep learning new languages and ways of life, all the while doing whatever it is we do – freelance writing, remote IT work, online English teaching, running digital consulting agencies, etc., etc
Flexibility. A cousin of “freedom”, flexibility is another vital priority for people who don't respond well to rigidly set routines. Don't get me wrong, our lives are not without structure. We still have work deadlines and personal / cultural rituals and traditions we take with us wherever we go. But the nature of most of the gigs we take on is that we can shuffle things that need to get done around on our own schedules and that takes a lot of the edge off. At the very least, we can pick up and change our social environment / natural scenery at the drop of a hat, while still getting work done.
Climate of your own choosing. I don't know about you, but I'm two different people in cold and hot climates. In Northern climates, I'm sick and furious. All the time. No joke. In tropical climates, I have more energy, less chronic pain and am filled with a daily sense of gratitude and wonder. It follows that, despite being born in the frozen hell of Russia and raised in the temperamental climate of the American northeast, as a digital nomad, I get to choose to live in places that have nothing in common with those traumatic terrains. So far, I've lived in Colombia, Brazil and (currently) the Mexican Caribbean – and I feel like I owe much of my well-being and productivity to the favorable weather in those locales.
Cultural variety and immersion. An ever-changing panorama of diverse ways of life, beliefs, arts, music, foods and languages awaits those who dare to put themselves out of their own cultural comfort zones and embrace learning from the world. Since digital nomads tend to stick around the same area longer than your average leisure traveler, they get endless unique opportunities to actually pick up a bit of the local knowledge and language, to get to know the people who live there on a more personal basis and at least in some small, temporary way become a part of that community. Gotta love that!
Affordability leading to a higher quality of life. Whereas a $10 USD is barely enough for a coffee and bagel in NYC, in Bangkok, it will rent you a room for a night. Whereas $20 buys you a single cocktail in LA, in Medellin, you can drink all night and buy a round of booze for all your new buds for the same price.
I am currently in Mexico and I eat local and imported produce and drink freshly-squeezed juices on the daily without even having to ask “How much?”. My last year living in New York, most of my “step-away-from-the-home-office-meals” were a “tuna sandwich” and a “lemon pie” from the corner 7-11 (if you're familiar with the 7-11 offerings, you'll know why those words are in quotation marks...) When I felt depressed, my main respite was to walk around and take photos -- which I love because it's a healthy, fun and free thing to do. But at that time, I happened to live in a historical but dreary af neighborhood of Middle Village, Queens, which is completely surrounded by cemeteries. Certainly, it had its own beauty but, in the dead of overcast winter, you want something more uplifting and life-affirming than the countless silhouettes of crying angels and the constant stream of funerals whenever you decide to take a stroll to stretch your bones. It was not considered an expensive neighborhood and the rent was still a couple of grand for my partner and I.
Where I live now in Mexico, I pay under $500 USD for rent for a one-person apartment at the (loudly pulsating with music) heart of center-town. When I get a little stir-crazy at the home office, I walk about 5 minutes to the Caribbean beach and promenade around for a bit or treat myself to a drink or meal at a local beach bar, with live music, overlooking the ocean with ribbons of white light emanating from the island of Cozumel across the horizon.
See the difference in quality of life? My body and mind do. And despite the seeming distractions of living in a party town, I'm able to be quite productive. Because I'm not on vacation – this is my regular, normal life. So, I take all that endless tourist mania in the streets for granted and go on with my peaceful office day, content to hear the sounds of partying coming into my office from the outside (introvert life, amirite?)
^^ Sounds pretty awesome, no? And it is. Still, I would not dive into this lifestyle without having traveled a bunch and getting the feel of what it's like to be a stranger in a strange land – and get real-life experience getting around abroad.
If you're just starting out traveling, I'd also recommend that you explore the world without work obligations for a while. Because work obligations, even in spectacular settings – especially in spectacular settings – are a draaaaag. If you hate answering a zillion emails from your boring cubicle at the office, imagine how stressful and FOMO-inducing this task gets when you're getting to know new interesting places and people and trying to unwind. Once you master the leisure travel thing, bringing work into it may come as a logical next step and an intuitive adjustment. Until then, keep in mind that the digital nomad lifestyle comes with its own caveats:
Digital Nomads are not all financially well-off. Some are. There are plenty of digital nomads with steady remote jobs, time-tested successful personal businesses and / or family wealth. And then, there are nomadic freelancers who are the “feast or famine” crowd without a guaranteed gig stability or financial safety nets. Those are the freelancers who had a hard time making ends meet in their unreasonably expensive so-called "first-world countries” who figured that, if they are going to struggle to survive, they might as well do it in novel, interesting and more chilled-out environments where food and shelter cost much less and yet, life, on average, is more enjoyable. And learn new things. And find new ways to be useful. The endless lookout for new work and the frugal penny-pinching continues, however.
Being a digital nomad is not the glorified endless vacation people imagine. It's “normal life”, only without a fixed home. You are still working, you are still hustling. And you have to put up with sucky internet, loss / theft / breaking of your (hard / expensive to replace) technology and little-to-no-accountability for mishaps from the merry-go-round of random landlords, vendors and service providers.
The language barrier can make daily “no-brainer” interactions and chores cumbersome and time consuming. Personally, I love this aspect of traveling / living abroad: it gets my “survivalist” juices flowing. It brings me an odd sense of accomplishment to puzzle my way through the unfamiliar city's web of public transportation to get to where I want to go, to dispute a bill with the internet provider at their service center or to obtain a visa extension despite all the runaround and red tape involved. Successful outcomes of mundane / bureaucratic acts can feel almost heroic when you have to wing them in a foreign language and within an infrastructure you don't understand. I'll admit, though, that after a while of every small thing being a Herculean feat, the novelty wears off and it can get a little draining, providing an additional excuse to avoid doing the things you need to get done.
Getting sick can be a (bigger) challenge. I've gotten sick or injured abroad a lot as well as have sought out dental services in numerous countries. From getting the antibiotics prescribed by the city doctor to downing a mystery potion sold by the village healer; from feebly dragging myself to a medical facility to just riding out the mystery fever in some dingy hotel room, from splintering broken digits to performing self-dentistry, from needing an emergency pregnancy blood test to having a miscarriage – I've been there – and usually with no real budget for medical emergencies (there was a time when I knew the inside of the free clinics of Rio de Janeiro a bit too well).
My take-away is this. Getting sick / injured is never ideal. Doing it by yourself in a place where you neither speak the language nor understand the system might make for a gripping travel story to tell later (assuming you survive) but, in real time, is an additional predicament on top of the medical problem itself (you bet I'll be detailing a couple of my more dramatic medical emergencies in the Hack Solo Travel Guidebook).
Because when you're sick, you're at your weakest and most vulnerable. It can be really hard to think straight / make good judgment calls if you're in pain or in shock. If you're in an unfamiliar place, it's difficult to know where to turn for help, which treatment facility to go to. And if you're also on a tight budget, it's easy to panic because you have no idea what it could possibly cost.
Then, explaining your symptoms to the doctors or pharmacists in a foreign language is an ordeal that requires patience and superior Charades skills from all parties involved – something you might be short on at the moment. Under normal circumstances, hilariously epic fails at communication are a cherished part of the international travel experience. But when you're in pain or immediate need of a medical intervention, an inability to communicate with precision (or at all!) can massively add to the frustration of the situation, cause major delays in getting help and result in misunderstandings of a less “hilarious” variety.
Different time zones can mess with your mind and, hence, punctuality. This happened to me a couple of times when I started out freelancing from abroad: something didn't register right / just glitched out in my brain and I would miscalculate the time difference with the client. Mind you, it's not that I would forget about time difference, it's that I'd do something absurd like subtract the number of hours instead of add it to my local time, ending up being twice as many hours past the agreed-upon phone conference / work deadline. This has taught me to religiously check clocks when I schedule across-time-zone interactions / delivery times. And still, I goof up here and there.
Work opportunities are limited by legalities. As a foreigner with native English skills, you may be quite competitive for multiple jobs or gigs in the various countries you visit but, as someone drifting through on a tourist visa, you are not legally permitted to work outside of your country of citizenship without proper sponsorship and a mountain of paperwork. You can have a million contracts around the world doing different online gigs but don't go applying for a job at a local Starbucks. One, because tourists are ineligible and two, because digital nomads shouldn't poach local jobs that can be done by locals.
This is not a situation to be taken lightly. Being a nomadic freelancer means either having enough of a $$ buffer in the bank to fill in the gaps in the inconsistent gig influx – or having several steady (big company) clients most of whom ideally keep you on a monthly retainer. The truth is that poor countries can't (and won't) support travelers / nomads from more privileged nations showing up penniless and becoming a drain on an already hurting society.
The beach does not make for a good office! There is this romanticized idea that digital nomads are typing away on their laptops as they bask on a lovely beach in some exotic location (and I had no problem finding a stock photo illustrating this very misconception...) While it's true that we get to work from scenic restaurants, cool co-working spaces, hip bars and adorable cafes, for all my efforts to make the beach stereotype a reality, there are several distinct problems.
One is that you simply can't see diddly squat on your screen in bright sunlight (just look at the stock photo)! It's like staring at a blank screen, only it hurts your eyes. Secondly -- and again I refer you to the stock photo -- sitting on sand or a slab of rock, with zero spine or arm support is a great way to bring on back pain but not as great for productivity. Can you sit -- and type -- like this for more than a few minutes at a time? Not moi. Finally, the beach is a deadly place for electronics. Between the salt water, the humid air and the fine, fine sand that gets into everything, you're running a higher-than-necessary risk of murdering your work machine. To a digital nomad who is also a “broke babe”, having our tech die on us is a disaster of apocalyptic proportions, so we avoid it at all costs.
^^ As you can see, none of the above-listed caveats about digital nomadism are all that discouraging :))) Boo-hoo-hoo, I can't use a computer on a beach; woe's me, I don't know how to read a clock; call the authorities, I have to put up with crappy internet in paradise! It doesn't sound that bad 'cause it's not. Surely, these obstacles are surmountable (and even enjoyable) if freedom, flexibility, agreeable climates and authentic cultural experiences are higher on your priorities' list than all the rest.
The only serious hurdle is healthcare. And, if I was writing this for, say, a Western European readership, this is indeed a scary consideration for them. But for us, broke-ass US Americans, getting sick in our own country brings on as much anxiety as having it happen anywhere else. If you a lucky enough to have insurance, you still have to scour the most user-unfriendly websites in the world to figure out which doctor is in your “network” or whether an ambulance to the hospital is covered at all. If you don't have insurance, you're simply fucked. Your options are: ignore health problems or be served with astronomical bills that put the NASA annual budget to shame.
My point is: if you are a broke American, getting sick abroad will be as confusing and challenging – but more affordable and, hence, more accessible – than at home! A full-price routine visit to a medic in, say, Mexico, will cost the same or less than the $15 copay I still have to pay in the States, even if I'm all insurance-d up. Hell, the medic at my corner pharmacy will see you for free – though they definitely appreciate a tip. And if you're really freaked out about the language barrier, virtually every digital nomad hub attracts English-speaking medical services. They might cost a bit more but the situation may warrant it and, at any rate, it's good to have options.
Like I said, I wouldn't plunge into becoming a digital nomad without taking a bit of time to backpack around for enjoyment, just to get into the swing of it. At this point, most of my trips double as scouting expeditions for future places to temporarily relocate to. If being a digital nomad is your jam and once you're ready, it could be a sweet way to live. Just go into it with your eyes wide open and you'll be ok. You might be more than ok – you might be quite happy.