Working in Coffee Shops: A Bulletproof Guide

Auriane Alix
Should you leave your things when you visit the bathroom?
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Asa full-time traveler and digital nomad, I find it much more enjoyable to work in coffee shops than at home. But to keep the experience enjoyable — and productive — a few tips and tricks can help. I’ve put together everything I can think of so that you too can enjoy your experience of working in a different environment every day.

Whether you’re a new digital nomad or a freelancer who wants to get out of the house once in a while, here’s a handy guide designed just for you.

1. Criteria of utmost importance

When I hadn’t yet established my list of criteria, I ended up leaving after an hour because the place was not at all suitable for working. After visiting many different cafés, here are the criteria I gathered.

Reliable wifi

Without wifi, no work. Wifi shouldn’t make me wait a whole minute to load every Google page.

Of course, it depends on the country. In Playa del Carmen, where I am now, it is generally good. Not as fast as in Europe, but quite usable. In Costa Rica, where I’m going in 3 weeks, it will probably be another story. That’s why it’s important to look into these issues before choosing your next digital nomad base.

There are two ways to know if wifi is good enough for what you have to do. Search for the coffee in question on the Internet, and in the “reviews” section, press Ctrl+F and type “wifi”. This filters the results by keyword and allows you to get straight to the point.

The second way is to go there and see for yourself. That’s why I don’t change location every day. I have my favorite places and I try new ones perhaps once a week. This avoids too many unpleasant surprises.

Two tips: if you found the address on a digital nomad blog, chances are wifi is good. Same conclusion if you see people working on their laptops inside.

Good (and healthy) (and affordable) coffee and food

The other day I visited a new café. It was well rated and I felt like changing the setting a bit, so I tried it. The wifi was good, the prices affordable and the tables comfortable, but I won’t be coming back. Because the coffee and smoothie bowl I ordered were not very good.

Good coffee + good food = good day’s work. And if possible, let it all be healthy, we are talking about our physical and cerebral fuel!

Paying $20 a day for my breakfast is simply unthinkable. It’s another important criterion: the place must be affordable. Going to the café every day ends up being a budget, so it’s better to keep it as low as possible if I don’t want to pay more for work than I actually earn.

Comfortable seating and nice staff

Coffee tables, high tables, stools, or places that are too noisy are a big “no way”. I need comfortable seats and tables large enough to work. You’re going to be there for a few hours, so better be comfortable.

My preference goes to outdoor cafes. I like to be able to work outside, in the fresh air, it really fills me with positive vibes. And I especially like tropical destinations, so I might as well enjoy the good weather.

For beach people, I’ve tried working in beach clubs. Although it’s very pleasant to work barefoot in the sand with the ocean in sight, you have to keep in mind that the chances of being in the sun at some point are high. It’s not comfortable for working on a screen. Plus there are often no sockets to charge your devices. Sometimes it’s fun, but I don’t see it as a daily workplace. But that’s just my experience and my personal taste. The least we can say is that it’s quite dreamy!

Next point: staff. My favorite place in Playa, Mercado 30, has a very nice, attentive, and welcoming staff. I don’t feel like I’m disturbing them by working there for hours. Also, there are lots of fellow digital nomads, which is nice even if we don’t always connect with each other.

2. Finding the perfect spot

If you work in your hometown, chances are you already have a few places in mind. But whether I’m in my hometown or exploring a new city or country, I have two ways to find good coffee shops to work in.

First of all, I check the digital nomad blogs on the Internet. Just type “location” + “coffee shop” + “digital nomad” and you will find several lists of their personal favorites. It’s a good starting point because chances are that these places meet all the criteria I mentioned before or at least some of them.

Second way: explore the city! During my hours-long strolls, I always come across nice places that I list in Mapstr, which is a very useful, free app I recommend you try. When I feel like changing places, I just browse the map and pick a new one to try out — after checking the menu and the online reviews, of course!

3. A few rules to observe

I am a coffee shop person. I’ve never been attracted to co-working spaces, I don’t like the fixed price system for the number of hours you spend there. I prefer coffee shops: I can feed my body and brain while I work, and I can keep a reasonable budget.

But there’s a kind of unspoken rule. You sit in a coffee shop, probably for a few hours, using charge sockets and wifi. It would be good practice to order something every couple of hours or so. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive item on the menu: one drink may be enough. But make sure that the place you use is still a bit profitable for the team.

Also, choose a small table if you are alone. Don’t hog a large table when one for two people will do just fine.

4. How to pee

This may seem stupid at first glance, but when you’re on the spot, the question makes sense! After one or two teas, Mother Nature will knock on the door. Except that you’re alone and you have all your (expensive) stuff on the table, including your phone, laptop, backpack, money, and so on.

There are several different strategies, including asking someone close to you or a staff member to keep an eye on your things. I have another method. I take my valuables with me: phone and money in my pockets, laptop under my arm, and I leave a few things on the table to let the staff know that I haven’t run away without paying, or that the table is not free. This includes cables or anything I can find — like a cap or jacket.

But to be honest, I always rush a bit.

5. Where to sit

In the beginning, I would sit somewhere and always end up regretting my choice, envying that shady table or that armchair that seemed to have the most comfortable back, whereas I couldn’t find anything better than choosing a wooden chair.

It takes skills to walk into a new place, look around and choose your place in just a few seconds. First of all, I recommend arriving early so that the best seats are not all taken.

Second, here are my criteria:

  • No direct sunlight. Also, think about how the sun will move: you don’t want to get sunburned while working or to work with reflections on your laptop screen;
  • Isolated tables, so that my space doesn’t get cluttered — or my glass spilled on my laptop by someone with a big backpack;
  • Not too far from the bathroom;
  • A table at the right height and a chair with a back and armrest if possible.

6. How to focus

Earphones will probably be your best friends if you can’t concentrate in noisy environments. Even the quietest places will become busy at some point, or a family with a child will sit at the next table. When you stay for several hours, you will encounter different environments, but you will always have to stay focused.

I have found that working in noise is a skill that can be developed. I can now concentrate even without headphones, depending on the task at hand. But if you can only really concentrate in silence, I have nothing to suggest other than using earplugs.

7. How to maintain a reasonable budget

Hey, even in cheap countries, the daily coffee+breakfast ends up accumulating dollars. That’s why it’s important to find ways to keep the overall budget at a reasonable level while enjoying the atmosphere of the cafes.

First of all, I don’t work in coffee shops every day. There is always a day or two that I stay home because I feel like it. Second, I choose places that aren’t too expensive, and I keep the fancy ones to treat myself every once in a while (like that special place on the beach I told you about).

Then, I don’t work all day long in cafés. I only work there in the mornings, from 8 am to 12 or 1 pm. If I need to work a little more, I go home in the afternoon.

Finally, I always start with a coffee or tea — since I am experimenting with intermittent fasting at the moment — and I often mix breakfast with lunch, having it around 11 o’clock. This way, I don’t have to pay for breakfast and lunch, which would quickly become unaffordable even in Mexico. Or, if I’m hungry when I get up, I take breakfast at home, like I did this morning.

To give you an idea, each visit to the café here, with a drink and a food item, costs between 8 and 12$.

Final thoughts

Yes, it’s a budget. Yes, you have to get used to some of its aspects. But working in coffee shops is honestly my favorite way of working. Staying at home always makes me feel like I’m locked in. I need sun and fresh air and to feel the vibrations around me. Otherwise, I quickly feel dead inside.

And I feel like I’m missing out on the places that I have at hand. Of course, I often stay in each place for several weeks, but staying at home for half of the stay doesn’t make sense to me. Even if I don’t explore while I’m working, I still feel the vibrations around me and enjoy the good weather — and food.

Try it, and see if it’s for you! Who knows, it might trigger some inspiration?

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