Ever Wondered If You Could Be a Digital Nomad?

Carolyn V. Murray

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Image by Matthias Zeitler from Pixabay

Travel is on the vast majority of most of our bucket lists

With the proliferation of travel bloggers on YouTube and Instagram, your list of the places to see before you die probably grows by a few new destinations every time you look it over.

Of course, you can travel on your vacation – the two or three paid weeks your employer allots to you. Unless it was mixed with your sick time and it’s already used up. Or if you were able to take that vacation (granted, probably not this past year) and it left you very unenthused about returning home and wanting more than anything to stay on the road awhile.

Maybe you’re in the mood for a radical life adventure – or at least want to consider the option.

Have you wondered about the whole digital nomad thing?

It’s essentially someone who is capable of working remotely from their laptop, creating a lifestyle of working and traveling and getting a chance to live in a foreign city for weeks or months at a time. You select the cities that have always fascinated you or the ones that have a reputation as being a good environment for digital nomads.

Or you choose places because you want to rendezvous with an old friend, or with someone you met while traveling. Or you just spotted an unbelievable plane fare to Berlin or Madrid or Bangkok or Athens. And you quickly check out the housing options for affordability. And you book your next destination.

You probably won’t stay in one spot for longer than three to twelve months, because of visa restrictions. However, a lot more options have just opened up in that regard. Almost every country in the world has lost tourist dollars because of the pandemic. That has been particularly problematic for countries that were most heavily dependent on tourism. They want to inject some life back into their economies as quickly as possible.

So, many are creating a digital nomad visa. Whereas previously, there was a three-month limit to the amount of time you could spend in many countries, you can apply for a one-year visa, often renewable, to stay in these countries and do your laptop work without worrying about having to hurry off to the next destination. There is often an application fee, and you have to fulfill income and health requirements, and proof of health insurance. Take a look at this helpful, recently compiled list (February 2020) of countries offering a digital nomad visa.

Right now, there have been COVID negative test results and quarantine periods required. In the near future, that might expand to vaccine requirements (which they can’t ask for yet because not a lot of people have had access to them.)

So, who am I – some 23-year old, Instagram-famous, trust fund baby?

Despite the public image of the digital nomad life as being primarily for twenty- and thirty-somethings, I am in fact, fifty-eight, and it has been two and a half years since my digital nomad journey began, with a departure from Cleveland in July of 2018.

My goal was perhaps a bit different than other nomads. Honestly, I really didn’t want to be a nomad. Living a few months here, a few months there – it sounded a bit exhausting. No, I was in search of a permanent home. I’ve wanted to live abroad for over fifteen years now, though short of a giant, magical windfall of money, I’d had no idea how I was going to accomplish it.

I eventually found an answer of sorts when I started publishing genre fiction on Amazon under a couple of different pen names. I wrote thirteen books in three years (while living unemployed back in my mother’s house) and finally got to an income level that would allow for a life on the road. My goal was to find a home and to see a bit of the world along the way.

Where I’ve Been

I spent eight months in Chiang Mai, Thailand (a big nomad hot spot), two months in Penang, Malaysia, seven weeks in Portugal, about six weeks in Hamburg, Germany, five weeks in Valencia, Spain, and three weeks in London (it was about my seventh trip there in fifteen years – I love London – but it’s way too expensive to consider as a home.)

One nice bonus of this travel was providing an opportunity for my (now 81-year-old) mother to travel, which she absolutely loves. She got to spend two weeks apiece in Lisbon and Valencia. In the past eight years, she’s also been to London (four times) Paris (twice) Barcelona, Rome, Nice, and Prague. If you do go on extended travels, a lot of it will be spent away from family and friends. But it will also provide them with an opportunity to join you and see the world when they wouldn’t have gone by themselves.

Currently, I’m in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where I only intended to stay for six months. But because I got bronchitis last year, I really wasn’t willing to risk getting COVID-19 on the way home. (Good decision – after I canceled my flight, it was announced that 100 flight attendants and 41 pilots from my scheduled airline had tested positive.)

My original plan had been to go home April 2020, apply for a teaching assistant in Spain (which is only a 16-hour-a-week commitment and provides 700 euro monthly income (1000 if you’re placed in Madrid), a one-year visa, and plenty of time to work on my online income.

The pandemic has set everything back for a year. Now departure for the U.S. will come in late spring of 2021 (after I’m eligible for a local vaccination) and hopefully, I’ll make it to Spain by fall of 2021.

Yeah, but I’m not a remote worker

But maybe you could be. Not tomorrow, but perhaps in six to nine months’ time. This is a lifestyle that requires some serious planning. As luck would have it, the pandemic and closed global borders mean that you were going to have to wait about nine months anyway before doing any extensive traveling.

If being a digital nomad for a year or two or three is something you’d love to give a try, use the next several months wisely to set yourself up. You may have a service job or an office job right now. It’s a good time to research location-independent side hustles that can turn into a solid source of income on the road.

Consider getting a certificate in teaching English as a second language – that’s a reliable source of income for a significant portion of the digital nomad crowd. Investigate e-commerce. Freelance writing. Join a few side hustle groups on Facebook and see what kinds of work people are living on.

It’s very important to start these services or businesses or side hustles while you’re still at home and have a stash of savings before you set out. Give yourself every chance of success. Have the plane fare, your first month of housing expenses set aside, plus the monthly income established, plus a few thousand in savings. Five thousand dollars would be nice.

I left with a decent income, but it dried up, and five grand in savings would have been sweet. Instead, I racked up some unfortunate debt before I got back on my feet. Yeah, don’t do that - too stressful.

The upside of being a digital nomad is that it is almost always cheaper than life in the States. My rent in a Chiang Mai residence hotel was $218 a month, which included weekly cleaning. I paid separately for air conditioning - about $30 a month. Incidentally, there’s a group of retirees in Chiang Mai from Australia who can’t afford life in Sydney or Melbourne. But their pension checks allow for a great comfortable life in Thailand.

I stayed in a private room with a very sociable host in Penang for $200 a month. My current one-bedroom apartment in Puerto Vallarta is $250 a month, including utilities.

In other words, you’ll probably be able to afford this – no trust fund required.

If I didn’t have my mother’s place to crash in, I honestly couldn’t afford to live back in the States. Rents are insane in the big cities and I’m not really suited for small-town life.

Don’t you get tired of traveling?

Absolutely. I think that almost everyone does. I watched a conversation online this past week between two long-term digital nomads, who had built businesses around travel blogging. They had both just hung up their traveling shoes after ten and eleven years of nomading. The timing of pandemic lockdowns helped to cement their decisions.

One chose to go back to her home country and her hometown – Toronto. The other went back to her country, the U.S., but she still craved the excitement of exploring a new place, so she chose to settle in a city that she had never lived in – Denver.

The journey of other nomads will end overseas and home will be established in a new country. This actually happens all the time when people retire. Although I know that I have a solid ten years or more of steady earning in front of me, I’m also aware that my ex-pat relocation could also be looked upon as a pre-retirement scouting expedition.

Wherever you end up, I can all but promise you’ll never regret the journey.

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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