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One Year as a Digital Nomad: Do you have what it takes?

Written by 14 December 2012 33 Comments

In October this year I celebrated one year of full-time travel, not as a backpacker (am too old), not as a gap year girlie (am far too old) or as someone who was lucky enough to take a sabbatical from work or be retired (am not old enough – phew!). Instead I took my work with me. For one year I have been working and travelling as a digital nomad – a new(ish) breed of travellers who are location independent and require only one constant to maintain their business – the internet.

While in digital nomad terms I’m actually a toddler, waddling around with the padding of training pants softening the unexpected falls – of which there are many – I have learnt more in the last twelve months than I thought possible. Because I get lots of questions about how, why and when I became a digital nomad, I wanted to take some time to share with you all that I’ve learnt and to give you some food for thought to consider if this lifestyle – one of perpetual travel and freedom – is for you.

The reasons why and how I became a digital nomad are many but the short version is I met and fell in love with another digital nomad and after only a little persuading I converted to his religion. Prior to this I was a single girl deeply in love with my city – London – I had a good job, a great social life and the perfect bachelorette pad with one of my best girls. I travelled often for both work and for pleasure but always came home. I assumed that this was as good as it would get for my wanderlust. This is my first piece of advice about life that I’ve learnt in the last year – never assume that this is as good as it gets!

It was at the end of the first holiday my boyfriend and I shared – a quick 10 day tour of Malaysia – as I folded clothes back into my suitcase, when my boyfriend turned to me and simply said: “You know it doesn’t have to be like this. We could both travel much more often. You could work for yourself,” And thus the seed was planted…

Almost exactly one year later we left London for good. The year that followed has taken me to 19 countries across three continents. We have travelled slowly staying in some places for a few months and this has enabled me to build my copywriting business as well as use my blog to get travel writing gigs. It’s not always plain sailing. There have been moments when we don’t know where we will be one week to the next and there have been weeks when jobs have fallen through or I’ve had to chase payments – it may sound strange but it’s the work problems that worry me more than the travel problems. Travel and all its unexpected turns and conundrums is a known unknown quantity but working for myself and all the fear that comes with that is still a little unpredictable.

So is this a life for you? Have you ever considered becoming a digital nomad? I found myself faced with innumerable questions before I left London but I now know these five questions are the most important ones that you should ask yourself to help you determine if it’s something you can and want to do:

1. Can I work remotely in my current job? This question could seem straightforward – I bet you’re thinking “No, of course I can’t, case closed, dream abandoned forever” –  but remote working is seeing a real surge in popularity at the moment and you’d be surprised how many companies are prepared to be flexible to keep hold of good staff. There’s only one way to find out if you can keep your job and travel and that’s to ask the right person.

2. To freelance or not to freelance? If you can’t work remotely for your current employer but could freelance in your current profession or if you have transferable skills then you’re already half way to being a digital nomad, all you need to do is focus on the service you can provide a client and build the client base. This was probably the biggest challenge for me as I’m not able to go to networking events or meetings very easily. However, a lot of companies and clients don’t need to see a face to give you a job. There’s a lot of work online and for creative industries the market is currently very competitive thanks to online job boards like Elance. At the beginning, focus on applying for jobs you are confident about working on so that you can deliver high quality work on time. In an ideal world you should also have at least 6 months of savings behind you to act as as a buffer so your drop in income isn’t so frightening. There are numerous websites out there offering practical advice about freelancing as well as industry specific job websites; a few Google searches and you’ll be enlightened and encouraged.

3. Warning: This is not a holiday! Do you really want to work and travel?  For every beautiful beach I’ve sunbathed on, for every mountain I’ve snowboarded down and for every delicious bite of Asian street food I’ve enjoyed, there have been at least ten emails I’ve had to handle, not to mention sitting and doing to do the writing work I’m tasked to do. People at home laugh when I tell them I need a holiday because they think our life is a constant holiday. It isn’t; I work harder than I ever did in my previous job in London. But I enjoy the work I do, especially as I get to do it against the ever-changing backdrop of all the places I never thought I’d see or enjoy. That’s worth a lot to me and if it is to you then read on…

4. What are you prepared to give up? So say you’re a freelancer with clients and you’re happy to take your work-life balance seriously so really all you need to do is pack your bags and go… Go on, go! What are you waiting for? Well, if you’re still hanging around and reading this you’ll know, like I do that travelling full time is not for everyone and as glamorous as it sounds, it’s not as dream-like as people think especially if you’re working too. There’s a lot you miss out on. I miss people – my Mum! – and when we are in places we don’t warm to quickly or if we have a problem (e.g. delayed flights, dead rats in our rental apartment, collapsed ceilings in our hotel – all true stories) then I am very quick to reassess our lifestyle. I also miss silly things like having a wardrobe I can fill to bursting with clothes I don’t wear, I miss my recipe books, I miss my sewing machine and I miss being in the same time zone as my friends and family. You have to be prepared to sacrifice and miss things.

5. What do you want to achieve? While many nomads are happy to take each day as it comes, for me it’s important to keep asking myself what I want to achieve by this lifestyle and in addition to ticking destinations off a bucket list, our lifestyle is all about a better quality of life for less money and a life of more freedom and flexibility. Being a digital nomad gives you a great opportunity to devote time to fulfilling personal goals because you have the freedom to change your environment to suit that. This year I wanted to write a novel so we found a comfortable house in Thailand for two months and I locked myself away and worked on that. Next year we want to snowboard for a few months and see the Northern Lights so Finland here we come! These are personal goals we’d really struggle to achieve if you had a full time job in a fixed location.

Being a digital nomad isn’t for everyone and it remains to be seen how long I’ll keep going; I may never make it out of my padded training pants! That said, I know that I’ve grown more, learnt more, laughed more, worked more, smiled more and loved so many more wonderful places in the least year than any other in my life and for that I’m incredibly grateful and proud to be a digital nomad.

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  • Katja said:

    awesome post! i need to look into this

  • Frankie (author) said:

    Thanks Katja :-)

  • Franzi said:

    I can understand being a digital nomad is not just holidays eventhough you spend more time in places other people spend their holidays at. the difference to a normal, settled life makes it also harder to be understood by family and friends at home, I guess. lucky you, that you always take your loved one with you :)

  • Colleen Eakins said:

    Great post! I’m working towards living a more nomadic life. I like reading about the stories of others from when they first started out and what they have learned up to now.

  • Frankie (author) said:

    @Franzi – thanks for your comment and I think you’re absolutely right, we do spend more time in holiday destinations just not necessarily while on holiday. And yes it has completely helped that my partner is with me on this journey – I’m very lucky!

    @Colleen – Thanks Colleen! I wish you well on your journey to a more nomadic life! :-)

  • Elena said:

    Frankie, thank you so much for sharing your valuable inputs & story with us. An avid traveller myself since my early childhood, I find myself forever tempted by what you are saying. I like how you share the “real” truth of what this lifestyle means, and questions one ought to consider. Do you think you would continue your nomad’s life as a family one day, or would both you and your partner like that? I know it is a personal question and I hope you forgive me for asking, still I’m very curious since definitely I would like to continue my travelling lifestyle with family one day :-)

  • Frankie (author) said:

    @Elena – thank you for your sweet comment. The family question is an interesting one as I think I’m pre-conditioned to say “No, once we decide to have a family then we will settle somewhere,” when really I should have learnt by now after going through so many life changes that I should be more open minded and there are many people who live this lifestyle with children. I suppose we will have to see!! Frankie

  • Forest Parks said:

    What a great well laid out post. I knew I wanted to work fully online but wasn’t sure that I would become a nomad. When I got the taste of living abroad it just happened! It’s been 6 years now and I love my life. The comment about being able to work against different backdrops is one that sums up how I feel… Of course some times get tough but it’s all worthwhile.

    I think if I started again I would probably try and make sure that I listed what I wanted to do before entering a country instead of just arriving, as you say goals are needed.

  • KimKaB said:

    Dear Frankie,

    You have just answered months of research, endless dreaming and a whole lot of questions that have been running through my mind for a while now. As I am addicted to traveling and spend every moment abroad + studying journalism, I’m currently trying to find my way into “digital nomading”. This blog and especially your post have been very inspiring so far. I love the fact, that you are traveling with your boyfriend, as leaving mine is one of the worries I have when thinking about this lifestyle. He is more than willing to travel the world with me, but we’re not sure about the job possibilities he’d have while traveling. I would love to hear some more about how you organized your trip and how you worked, if that is possible. Either way thank you for this great post and all the thoughts and ideas it started. :)


  • Frankie (author) said:

    I agree Forest – goals work really well to ensure you make the most of experiences and that goes for not travelling too!

    Hi Kim – thank you for your comment and I’m really touched that this post has helped you. With regard to job opportunities on the road, there’s so much you can do and I’ll be discussing this at a few conferences coming up soon if you’re heading to either (http://www.traverse-events.com/brighton/speakers/ in April and http://tbueurope.com/new-speakers-for-tbu-rotterdam/ in May) but if not why not send me an email frankie@travelettes.net and I’ll do my best to get back to you soon :-)


  • KimKaB said:

    Thank you very much! :)

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  • Stephanie said:

    Frankie, thank you so much for writing this post! I love how you were up-front about the realities of being a ‘digital nomad’–I have to admit, it sure does look glamourous as portrayed on some blogs out there, but I know that it must be tons of work and stress!

    I spontaneously moved from the US to Taipei, Taiwan this past year (an amazing city, you should visit if you haven’t already!) and studying at an extremely prestigious university, and I feel like I came abroad to be able to travel more, but I’m grinding my life away in the library over calculus! While I’m not in the place to become a digital nomad just yet, it’s a breath of fresh air (and relief!) to know that this option IS out there waiting for me, because it’s what I’ve always wanted to pursue.

    Again, thanks for sharing, and if you ever want to check out Taipei, welcome! (and if you want a wee taste of how awesome it is, I blog at gooddaytaipei.wordpress.com !)

    all the best,

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  • Pauline said:

    Nice recap, many imagine it is just the glamorous life, but if you want to make it sustainable there is a lot of work involved.

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  • Chelsea said:

    Great post! I’ve been thinking about living a similar lifestyle-maybe traveling once every month to a different place. Only thing is-my remote job would require phone calls with clients, so if traveling to a far off place in a much different time zone, I might end up being nocturnal! It all comes down to sacrifices though!

  • Frankie (author) said:

    Thanks Chelsea! Once a month travels sound perfect to me too… As you say, it’s mostly all about sacrifice but then isn’t that what life’s all about? But when you get to travel all the time or very often, they are worth it!

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  • Wanasita said:

    Wow very interesting job. You re lucky. I have been nomad for most of entire life but i’ve never been become a digital nomad and dont do that as a job. I really want to know about the web you work on as im very interesting to know how to get a job as freelancer and being a digital nomad. If you dont mind pls share with me. And yes you are very lucky as you travel with the loved one. Thanks for your information. Have a great day anywhere you are now :).

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  • Trinidy Patterson said:

    I’ve been traveling for two months now, and i’m finding that the more I travel and the more people I meet- the list of destinations and experiences grows and grows.
    I’m trying to find or brainstorm, ways to make money while traveling. I’m getting a TEFL certification here in a few weeks, and I know that i’ll use it.
    But ultimately, i’m choosing a life of travel because I want to be an entirely independent artist who doesn’t become trapped in the “regular 9-5″.
    I enjoy blogging, and since i’ve discovered my “Travel niche”, i’ve begun enjoying it even more.
    I don’t want to “go back home”, but I guess if i’m “going back home” with the intention of building myself up further- then maybe full time travel doesn’t have to feel so impossible.

    I really appreciate reading posts like this, they’re really helpful for the current murky “in between” i’m in!

  • Conor Mckeown said:

    This fills me with rage.

    A jealous, jealous rage.

    Way to just, like, live…

  • Kathi said:

    ha conor :D

  • Kirsten Smith said:

    YESS!! It makes me SO happy to hear about other freelance copywriters who are becoming digital world nomads. I will be leaving my beloved San Francisco to begin a year-long RTW journey in just under two months. Like you, I want to try my hand at travel writing (aside from my blog)—if you have any words of wisdom on how to approach that, I would be grateful!

    Congratulations on your successful adventure so far, keep on keeping’ on—you are an inspiration :)

  • Bharat said:

    Thank you so much for such an inspirational post.
    As long as there are inspirations like you in this world, aspiring travelers will never loose hope.

  • Brooke Vlasich said:

    Lots of things to consider in this line of work. I’m considering them all myself as I’m think about more freelance options. You do have to think beyond the supposed “glamorous” aspects of any career and know the possible negatives before diving in. A certain career not always easy and there will be hard times, but if you have a passion for it, you will be happier than constantly wondering, “What if?”

  • Liya said:

    Dear Frankie,

    Thank you for this lovely post! I’ve been working as a freelancer for almost a year now but don’t have the resources to travel full time yet. I am planning on it though and your article has been so inspirational! And the romantic in me just has to say how sweet it is that you’ve been led to this lifestyle by love – a modern, nomadic fairytale of sorts :)

    Best of luck to you both,

  • Frankie (author) said:

    Hi Liya – thanks so much for your comment and own experience. I’d never thought about how my boyfriend leading me to this lifestyle is quite romantic but you’re right – so thank you for highlighting that :-D

    Hi Brooke – I agree completely! Thanks for your comment.

    Hi Bharat – thanks for your comment :-D

    Kirsten Smith – good for you for taking the plunge! So excited for you. I do have some additional tips about freelancing in general (and a little bit about travel writing), here -> http://www.asthebirdfliesblog.com/resources-for-becoming-location-independent-freelancer Best of luck with your journey!

    Hi Conor – Sometimes I hate myself! ;-)

    Thanks everyone for your sweet comments and support – if I can do it, ANYONE can!

    Frankie x

  • Hithin said:

    Thanks for your great feedback!

    I’ve just a question out of many: if you do regular work, you have to have a permanent address and a imposition number somewhere. What did you choose?

  • Jacky said:

    Hi Frankie,
    at first, I want to say thank you for sharing this. It’s not only motivating people like me, who are really afraid of your kind of lifestyle, but also have enough wanderlust to not want to let go this idea..
    At the moment, I’m a student at a german university (studying german and music science), and in a few months I’ll be done with my B.A. (and, by the way, sorry for grammar mistakes). I’m planning to go further with studying (M.A.), but after that, I really wish I could start with freelancing to be a digital nomad, too.
    For me, it looks so hard and I don’t really see a point I can start with. I love to write (in german ;) ) too, but I never did for a job or anything, just for private and university.
    How did you start? How did you get your first freelance-jobs? And how is it possible to regularly get jobs?? I really have no idea. Except a few pages I find on google for freelance jobs I have no idea how one should start with this, and I hope you have some ideas to help and scare off some worries.

    I wish you lots of beautiful stations for your nomad life ;)

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