A peek behind the digital nomad curtain

Behind the curtainWhen people discover I’m a digital nomad, I usually a get hit by a barrage of questions. I don’t blame them: it’s a lifestyle that’s not that common, and curiosity is a natural response. As a result I am always more than happy to share how I am managing different aspects of my life at the moment. On the assumption that others may have the same questions, I have put together a set of personal FAQs that outlines the strategies that are working for me given my own circumstances and preferences. Happy reading!

Do you have a base somewhere?

Since late 2014, no (although my parents’ place in the US serves as my “permanent” address and is home to my ten boxes of belongings). My plan is to continue being a nomad as long as it feels like it’s a good fit. If circumstances change or I wake up one day and suddenly feel the need to be domiciled somewhere, I’ll rethink things. Until that time, I’ll stay on the go.

What do you do for income?

I support myself through editing, writing, and interview coaching. All of my work is done remotely and can be completed using my laptop and the Internet.

Where do you stay?

I mostly use AirBnB to find short-term accommodation and like alternating between having my own apartment and sharing (always with my own room). I look for something in a central, safe, and interesting neighborhood that has easy access to transport and basic facilities (including grocery stores). This year I’ve stayed in everything from a villa designed by one of the fathers of modern Malaysian architecture to a 19th century prison cell (yes, really!). I’ve also had some wonderful hosts who have enriched my stays and now count as friends. My monthly rent has ranged from about $375 to $875.

Do you have insurance?

After much research and consideration, I opted for only travel health insurance (as opposed to full-blown international health insurance). My $60/month plan offers mostly catastrophic coverage; I usually refer to it as my “dengue-fever-or-hit-by-a-motorbike” insurance. It also covers medical evacuation and a few basic travel-related things (such as baggage loss). I decided to go this route as I don’t have any health issues that require regular medication or monitoring (touch wood) and most of the countries I have been in offer more affordable healthcare than my native US – which makes covering minor medical expenses that may arise a much more manageable prospect.

What about communication?

My unlocked Samsung serves me well. I buy SIM cards and basic prepaid voice/text/data plans in each country, the cost of which averages out to about $10/month. I use my phone mostly to communicate with people locally and access email and information while I’m out and about. For international communication I turn to Skype (calls to other Skype users are free, while calls to land-lines and cell phones generally have quite reasonable per-minute charges).

Isn’t it a really expensive lifestyle?

If you’ve been doing the math, you’ve seen that it’s actually not too bad. The only two major categories of expenditure that I haven’t covered so far are travel and daily living expenses, both of which will vary substantially from person to person. The former can climb if you do a lot of long-haul air travel, but having flexible travel dates helps. Daily costs include food, local transport, entertainment/recreation, and self-care, and if you spend a lot of money in any of these categories wherever you are now, you’ll probably do the same on the road. Of course, the other key factor is the cost of living where you are – I certainly found myself running through cash must faster in Berlin than in Kuala Lumpur, for instance.

Although I haven’t kept detailed records, my back-of-the-envelope calculations show that my total average expenditure in 2015 has been below $1,200/month (taking all of the above outlays into account). There are certainly ways one could do it for less (or a whole lot more!), but this amount has allowed me to lead an existence that is comfortable and meets my personal needs.

How much stuff do you travel with?

I have a larger backpack that converts to a suitcase and must be checked on flights. I also have a carryon. Some nomads limit themselves to just one small bag, but I’m not there yet (and may never be; I really hate doing laundry). My basic packing list is mentioned here.

How do you decide where to go?

This is a tough one. So far I have chosen a combination of places that I know to a varying degree (Malaysia, Thailand, Germany) and that are completely new (Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus) – and I suspect this pattern will continue. For many years I only wanted to visit new places, but I am now realizing how nice it can be to spend more time in places that I know I enjoy (and sometimes where I know some truly amazing people). However, I need to balance that with being able to experience the joy of exploring a completely new country and culture. Given that I am an urbanite at heart, I gravitate towards bigger cities.

I also take a number of practical issues into consideration: connectivity (the digital part of digital nomad is quite important!), visa and length-of-stay limits, climate/season (my preference is to eternally chase summer), cost of living (where my main goal has been to maintain some balance), and travel logistics (region hopping is fun but can be both discombobulating and expensive).

Do you know people in these places? Doesn’t it get lonely?

For the most part, I don’t know people where I go (with the exception of one city where I previously lived). However, there are many great ways to meet people if you put a little effort into it. So far I’ve had good luck tapping into online resources and communities such as Meetup, Couchsurfing, Find-a-Nomad, and LinkedIn. I haven’t tried any co-working spaces, which is a common way for nomads to connect socially – but at some point I will. There are certainly also always ways to interact and meet people the more old-fashioned way. For instance, there’s a collective here in Cyprus where I have gotten to know some wonderful people (thanks especially to their fabulous weekly vegan lunch). Meeting friends of friends is another good possibility. Of course, keeping in touch with people in other parts of the world via assorted electronic means also enables me to feel connected no matter what’s going on locally. That all being said, I also am someone who values having time to myself and I don’t mind being on my own. As an ambivert I just need to ensure that I honor both my extroverted and introverted tendencies.

So that’s a wrap, folks. If you have any questions or I can assist you in your own exploration of digital nomadism, please feel free to leave a comment or shoot me a message!

And for those of you marking holidays this week, including American Thanksgiving and Thai Loi Krathong: may your celebrations be full of joy and peace. I join you in having both much to be grateful for and much to release.