At the end of January, I celebrated my two-year nomadiversary – for the past two years I’ve been travelling slowly around Europe, running my business on my Mac while exploring different places, experiencing other cultures, and trying lots of delicious local food and wine!
Life as a digital nomad and solo female traveller has been as exciting and fulfilling as it has challenging and, at times, downright testing. I’ve had incredible highs and some fairly low points too.
If you’re curious about digital nomad life or thinking of giving it a shot, here are some nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned from my first two years on the road.
First, a quick note on why I choose this lifestyle as it’s something I’m often asked.
It boils down to a love of travel and a curiosity about the world, a desire to improve my travel writing and photography skills, and an intense dislike of ‘routine’ jobs and the corporate world – working long hours to afford a few weeks each year in an exotic location or saving up to explore the world in early retirement has never interested me. I’m not driven by money or possessions; experiences are what make me tick.
I set up a business as a freelance writer and proofreader so I could work on the road, giving me the opportunity to pursue my love of travel writing and photography as I go. Ideally, I’d like a home base to spend about six months a year, but I can’t afford that right now and my love of travel outweighs my desire for a home. Although where that home base would be is another matter…
For me, getting my accommodation right goes a long way towards my overall enjoyment of a location.
It feels somewhat of a contradiction to say I’m a homely soul when I spend most of my year moving from apartment to apartment, yet I am. However, I’m lucky in that half an hour in a new place – enough time to make a cuppa and unpack – and I feel right at home. If I’ve chosen well.
In that respect Airbnb has been a lifesaver. I prefer to rent an entire apartment and I love that I can get home from a day’s exploring and chill on the sofa, cook my own meals whenever I want, and have a table, chair and wifi for my work. (If you’ve never used Airbnb, sign up from my link and receive a discount off your first stay.)
It’s not perfect though. It’s getting more expensive especially with the growing trend of people buying property just to rent it on the platform, which is pricing locals out of their hometowns. Their 3% currency conversion fee also irritates me, as my cards are free to use in any currency.
Renting locally is cheaper though usually requires an initial stay of six months to a year, and coworking & coliving places are popular but expensive.
I’m currently housesitting with Trusted Housesitters and I find this an excellent alternative – I’m looking after a warm, comfortable house and two delightful little dogs in return for free accommodation. I hope to do more of this throughout the year (though snagging a good housesit in a warm, sunny place is a battle of the quickest!).
There’s a trend amongst many nomads to be super minimalist, travelling with only carry-on luggage. For the last two years, I’ve done pretty well. I have a carry-on-sized rucksack, which I check in, and a smaller pack that I use to carry my tech.
I’ve enough clothes to comfortably last a week and can travel with my hair products (I love my naturally curly hair, but damn it needs good quality products to tame it!). But my main rucksack is full – the sort of full that leaves me wondering if it’s going to pop when thrown about in an airport because it’s not built to be checked in – and it can be a pain juggling two rucksacks. So for the last few months I’ve been looking for alternatives.
I eventually settled on a 60l wheeled rucksack, the Osprey Sojourn 60. It’s larger than I wanted (what I wanted doesn’t exist, typically) but it compresses well so I don’t have to fill it. I resisted for a while because of the size, then I realised I was just comparing myself to all those ‘I travel carry-on only’ posts, but fuck it, there’s no right and wrong way to travel. There’s only what’s right for you. And I’m comfortable with what I’m carrying when I’m living permanently on the road. The only extra thing I’ll be taking is a travel yoga mat, but my stuff will be better protected, I have extra space should I need it, and it’ll be easier to manage.
With the exception of Valencia where I stayed for just over three months, I only stayed in each place for a maximum of a month in 2015. And my business suffered. I did client work – I worked damn hard at times – but once my work was complete I was itching to head out and explore. As a result, I did nothing to grow my business that year and my exploring time was a little frantic – I felt as though I was running around trying to see as much as possible in my spare time, rather than giving myself the time to wander and really get to know a place. Oh, and did I mention how long it can take to organise your next move…
Life as a digital nomad is different to life as a traveller (I hate these kind of labels, but it’s the best way to explain it). I soon learned that if I want to do my client work, work on my business, explore my new surroundings, and chill out and enjoy being there, I need to spend longer in a place. Last year I mixed things up, choosing longer stays combined with shorter trips, and that was ideal for me.
It’s not a holiday; it’s a lifestyle. And finding that tricky balance between work and play is just as hard as it was back home, perhaps more so as there are more distractions.
The digital nomad lifestyle is often made out to be one big glamorous whirlwind of parties, adventures and exploring, when the truth is often rather more mundane. While I make it a rule to get dressed rather than sitting around all day in my PJs, there’ve been plenty of days when I haven’t left my apartment because I’ve been working all day. I ended up putting a habit tracker on my phone to make myself go out every day, even if just for a blast of fresh air and quick walk around the block.
Finding that elusive balance got even trickier when I added travel blogging into the mix. While I aim to make money from my blog, at the moment it’s a labour of love and I need to maintain my regular client work as well as explore and take photos so I have something to write about. So yeah, finding the balance is a bit of an art. I’m not sure I’ve mastered that one yet, but I’m working on it…
I’m not a fan of routine – in fact, I try to avoid it where possible – but having a daily routine is essential to conquering the balance conundrum.
I’m never going to be one of those people who jumps out of bed at 6am for a daily workout before work and I never will be. And that’s OK, but I like to start my days off the right way.
I begin with yoga, meditation and some journaling, and aim for two blocks of work during the day – one for client work and one for working on my business, be it my blog, marketing for work, or accounts and admin. I find I work well mid-morning, drop off in the afternoon so this is when I aim to go for a walk and have a late lunch, and then I perk up and often work late into the evening. I set my goals the evening before, so I know what I’m doing when I fire up my Mac.
In reality, I often find myself rebelling against my routine because I dislike structure. Sigh! So I mix things up to keep it fresh.
Travelling alone, working alone, and living alone is a killer for some people. I was used to it before I started my nomad adventures, as I moved around so much in the UK that my friends are spread far and wide and I didn’t have a close-knit community where I was last living. But it can be tough knowing you’re away from friends and family for long periods.
I enjoy travelling alone, though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dream of finding a partner who wanted to share this lifestyle with me. But praise be for Skype and FaceTime, which allow me to keep in regular contact with loved ones, and wave and blow kisses over the web!
However, it’s essential to build your own community of fellow travellers, nomads, and entrepreneurs, people who understand the daily challenges you face – your tribe, in other words. I belong to several digital nomad, travel blogger and general travel groups, as well as a women’s entrepreneur group, and I often give a shout out before arriving in a destination to see who’s around. I also find ways to meet and mix with locals, generally via meetup.com, couchsurfing and coworking spaces – I’m not a huge fan of working in coworking offices as I concentrate better alone, but they’re excellent for meeting people.
Finally, there are going to be some really shitty days, so you have to learn how to pick yourself up. Male misadventures and a crappy Airbnb aside, most of my difficult times have been work-related, rather than travel problems: clients not paying me because they need to pay their tax first or deciding mid-job to hire in-house as they’re spending too much outsourcing, work falling through, etc.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is to down tools and get outside, walk in the sunshine, along a beach or through some woodland, then you can look at your problem with a fresh set of eyes the following day. Again your tribe can help you here, as chances are they’ve been there, done that. I’ve always had a tendency to beat myself up even when it’s not my fault, but I’m learning to toughen up. You have to if you want to make a go of this lifestyle.
I’ve loved my first two years as a digital nomad and I’m super excited about what my third year has in store. I’m looking forward to growing and improving my business, exploring new countries and cultures, and expanding my nomad tribe.
If you’re thinking of setting out as a digital nomad or just curious about this lifestyle and want to ask me something, pop your questions in the comments below – I’d love to help you get started on your nomad journey.