I always used to envy those who could travel while working remotely, but as a lawyer, I never thought it was a realistic option for me. That all changed during the pandemic when remote work became more widespread, and for the first time, conventional jobs like lawyers could be done remotely.
In 2022, I spent about a quarter of the year working outside of my home city of Toronto. I worked in Colombia to escape winter and COVID restrictions, visited Ireland, explored Colorado as a potential place to live, went to New Zealand for hiking, and to escape winter again, and more locally, worked from a cottage near home for relaxation. These trips also gave me the opportunity to travel to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Korea, and Australia for vacation along the way.
A lot of friends hear about my experiences and tell me they wish they could do something similar. I’m writing this to share my candid experiences as a part-time digital nomad, in the hopes that it will inspire others considering it to plan their first remote work trip.
I want to advocate for the specific idea of being a part-time digital nomad — whether it’s going away for 2 weeks or 2 months per year, I think working remotely overseas for part of the year is more accessible and rewarding than most people think.
Most of the digital nomads I met were doing it full-time and fell into one of two categories: those who worked for themselves or did contract work and could largely work asynchronously, and those who were living as digital nomads with their partners. Those working asynchronously have a lot more flexibility to work in cheaper locations without any internet or time zone related stress, while those in relationships save a lot of money by splitting things like Airbnbs, car rentals, and food and also have someone to share the experience with.
There aren’t many part-time digital nomads because it’s expensive to rent or own accommodation in your home location and pay for everything you need to work remotely.
In the past, most digital nomads were typically self-employed workers living in Southeast Asia, usually Thailand or Bali. During the pandemic, South America became the new hub for digital nomads as more American tech workers started working remotely and Southeast Asian countries restricted entry. In 2022, the most popular destinations for digital nomads were Colombia (Medellin) and Mexico (Mexico City, Yucatán Peninsula, Oaxaca). Lisbon is popular among European nomads, and Georgia was also a hot spot, but after the invasion of Ukraine and an influx of Russians, costs rose and it’s no longer as attractive as it used to be.
Being a digital nomad isn’t much different from working remotely from home. Some people worry that they’ll be less productive while working abroad because they’ll be distracted by all the adventures they could be having in a new country. But in my experience, I was more productive while working abroad because I didn’t have as many other things going on in my life to distract me. Always being on the move can get tiring, and if you stay in one city for a longer time, there may not always be that much more to explore.
Nowadays, there is fast internet available almost everywhere in the world. There are also apartments and hostels with built-in co-working spaces in nearly all touristic cities in the Americas. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the planning involved in your first digital nomad experience, you can book a Selina, which provides a co-working space, a hostel, and a built-in community of nomads nearly everywhere.
To my surprise, most nomads I met had minimal travel experience and for the most part were not driven by a grand sense of adventure or a love of culture. Instead, they were motivated by the opportunity to be somewhere warm, cheap, and to escape their lives at home. In particular, in Medellin, Colombia, the most popular nomading destination, most nomads I met never left the central tourist area, eating exclusively at Western restaurants, and only interacting with other nomads.
The digital nomad lifestyle certainly has its challenges and moments of chaos. I often find myself needing to participate in unannounced video calls that require a stable internet connection and a quiet environment, as well as tackling long stretches of intense, focused work. It takes careful planning and a willingness to make sacrifices in order to ensure that you have the necessary slack to deal with all types of work situations.
There are also limitations on where one can travel as a digital nomad. While I would love to visit Pakistan or Nigeria, time zone differences and infrastructure reliability issues make these destinations impractical. American nomads are often limited to traveling within the Americas, and possibly New Zealand or the western parts of Europe and Africa.
Even in popular tourist countries that generally have reliable internet, venturing into more rural or off-the-beaten-path areas can be stressful, requiring a lot of planning and preparation to ensure there is good wifi and quiet spaces available for focussed work and video calls.
The biggest challenge is the cost of accommodation. Before the pandemic, Airbnb rental costs were more manageable, but with the rise of remote work and the corresponding appreciation of real estate, Airbnb fees have skyrocketed and made it much harder for digital nomads to afford a private place to stay.
To save money, I personally prefer staying in hostels over Airbnb rentals; It’s something I don’t often share with others because I feel embarrassed about it. The high cost of accommodation is the primary reason most people don’t work remotely. The United States, in particular, can be a difficult place to work remotely. In addition to paying for accommodation, renting a car is often necessary, making the overall cost of the trip much higher than in other destinations.
One of the biggest challenges for me was the psychological and personal toll of spending so much time away from home. It made me feel disconnected from normal life and less invested in building my future. Every time I was feeling bored or dissatisfied at home, rather than trying to improve the situation, I started thinking about planning a new trip to escape my ordinary life. I’ve come to the conclusion that, unless I find a partner to share the experience with, it’s too much for me to be away from home for more than 1-2 months per year without feeling detached.
Another challenge of being a digital nomad is the loneliness that comes with constantly being on the move by yourself. All the amazing experiences can feel deflated when you don’t have someone to share them with, and being in a new place for just a few weeks can be disorienting, without a routine. And then there are the times when you’re working in less-than-ideal conditions, like when I had to edit and send out a document while on a shaky bus passing through a winding mountain road, with intermittent WiFi and a child playing loud video games behind me.
I believe that digital nomading will become easier as more people try it out and new infrastructure develops.
One thing that really illustrates how undeveloped the digital nomad community is my personal discovery of New Zealand as a great destination for remote work. Despite reading a lot of digital nomad content and meeting many experienced nomads, I had never heard anyone mention how easy it is to work remotely from New Zealand. Most people think of the 21 hour time difference between the U.S. and New Zealand as a major obstacle, but as a digital nomad, a 3 hour time difference is no different from a 21 hour one. I believe I was the first digital nomad to “discover” this. This may seem like a small realization, but it demonstrates just how few people are trying to optimize the digital nomad experience.
One of the biggest obstacles to remote work is the cost of accommodation. I believe there are easy to build home-exchange platforms that will mitigate this in the coming years. For instance, the Effective Altruism community has a platform where remote workers and travelers can stay with other Effective Altruists around the world for extended trips. Home exchange programs offer a win-win solution to this issue, and I believe that more high trust communities will create platforms like the Effective Altruism community, and in the near future, there will be successful businesses offering such platforms.
Overall, I had a fantastic experience last year as a part-time digital nomad, even though there were certainly challenges along the way. For those that can work remotely, whether you’re hoping to escape winter or just explore a new place, even if it’s just for two weeks, I highly recommend you plan your first trip and see what it’s like for yourself.