Confession time: we regularly ask ourselves if a nomadic lifestyle is worth it if we still have to work full-time.
From the outside, a traveling lifestyle looks pretty darn carefree, even if you have a job as you roam. This belief is perpetuated by travel bloggers (ourselves included!) posting jealousy-inducing photos of themselves working near the beach, in swanky urban locations, at adorable coffee shops, and in other idyllic conditions. Work shouldn’t be nearly as stressful if you’re always in new, exciting, beautiful places, right?
What we don’t post pictures of is an aspect that can be far less glamorous, and even downright miserable at the worst of times: staying online ~40 hours a week while moving about the world in a constant state of unfamiliarity and upheaval.
We’re among a fast-growing group of full- or part-time nomads who are young enough to need to work “normal jobs” to offset our basic survival needs, pay off student loans, plan for retirement, and cover other financial responsibilities. Most working-age nomads will debate from time to time whether it’s worth it to live this way, especially during a particularly stressful segment of travel.
Everyone’s answer to this question will be different of course, but here’s ours:
Most of the time it’s completely worth working and traveling simultaneously – but at times it can be ridiculously hard, and tempting to go back to a fixed location.
Here are some challenges we plan ahead for while working and traveling:
Connectivity’s a b!tch in a lot of places!
There are times when cellular data or wi-fi speed is so weak or non-existent that we find ourselves longing for a fast landline connection and can only dream of bingeing on Netflix and cat videos. We miss not having to think about things like whether we can handle video conference calls, download a large file, or access a VPN or proxy connection and regret that we completely took for granted the insanely fast (by comparison) internet speeds we had living in a fixed location. We think back to the “good old days” when we had no data cap and didn’t worry about cellular towers overloading from large crowds or bad weather affecting our reception.
This summer has been so tough for internet, in fact, that we’re considering doing multiple-month vacation home or apartment rentals pretty often when we get back to the lower 48, just to recover from the stress and cost of finding a usable signal in Alaska and Canada these past few months. There was nearly always an inverse relationship between the beautiful areas we wanted to spend our time in and those that had workable cellular data speeds. We spent far more nights in parking lots or crowded campgrounds in urban areas than we had hoped to. We currently have SIM cards activated on four different cellular carriers. Yes – FOUR!
We’ve often had to travel further than we’d like to get back into cell phone coverage areas, stay in a location that’s not at all glamorous but more practical for working, drop a bunch of money on drinks and food to hang out all day at a business with wi-fi, or reschedule work meetings or deadlines – which is our absolute last resort when we can’t make any of the other options work for us. We try to never let our travel negatively impact our work if we can help it. If it starts to interfere, we stop moving for a while or get ourselves to a place where we can find more consistent internet. The silver lining is that with every passing year, technology improves and connectivity gets easier. We have it so much better now than we did even a couple years ago, but we have a long way to go while keeping our fingers crossed that someday it won’t even be a consideration in planning where to go next.
If you need consistency while working, this may not be the lifestyle for you – at least not long-term, or without some pauses in there to establish a routine and rest. When you compare constantly adapting to new environments versus working in a steady home or commercial office environment with almost guaranteed internet speed and the ability to control your surroundings, a traveling office is far more disruptive, especially if you have an already-stressful job.
If you’ve ever worked in and around public places, you know that getting knocked out of a work rhythm by interruptions can make productivity difficult or downright impossible. We battle distractions a lot, whether it’s people dropping in on us during work hours, noises like car alarms, children playing, barking dogs (but not usually our own dogs – they know when we give them “the look” that they’d better quit!), planes/trains/trucks/boats, and sometimes even each other when we’re both trying to have calls at the same time.
Fortunately, there are some options for those times when good internet and peace and quiet are a requirement: co-working spaces are popping up everywhere, there’s libraries, book stores, coffee shops/restaurants/bars (noise canceling headphones help here), moving to a secluded spot that has good cellular reception, or renting a house/apartment/hotel room when you need a longer period of working without distraction. Regardless of our level of burnout after this big trip, we plan to do frequent multi-month vacation home rentals in the coming years, just to give ourselves some time to crank out some work and regroup amidst our wanderings, and to dive deeper into some locations we’ve found that we really like or want to visit for the first time. We do miss feeling like actual locals at times and having some familiarity with an area that only comes with staying there a while.
Avoiding the vacation/retiree mentality
While we have some freedoms that most office workers don’t, there are certain times that work still feels like a burden – just like it did when we were office workers and wanted to be elsewhere, enjoying a particularly nice day. Many of the places we travel to are also popular tourist spots, which means that we’re surrounded by people on vacation…while we’re very much not.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid comparing ourselves to people nearby who are on a holiday or retired, and to not feel like we’re missing out on lots of fun because real life is getting in the way. We’re constantly reminding ourselves that vacationers are going back to their “real lives” soon, while ours just travel along with us. We get to stay in some amazing places as long as we want, spending enough time to do more than a tourist could, just at a slower (and often more enjoyable) pace. Remembering that we’re at least thirty years younger than most of the retirees we meet helps put into perspective that working hard is worth the tradeoff of doing this earlier in our lives.
As a working nomad, it’s so important to prioritize what you want to do in an area you visit and be realistic about how much time and money you should spend to experience that place, especially knowing that work will be taking up a sizable chunk of your time. Allow yourself to miss out on some things so you’ll want to come back again, and if you don’t ever plan on being there again or are unsure if you’ll return, just allow more time to do everything you want to at a reasonable pace.
Unlike most of the people visiting that location, you’re not on a week- or two-week-long vacation that only happens a couple times a year, so take your time, be discerning, soak it in your own way, and don’t feel pressured to do it all. It’s never worth just seeing everything quickly, versus experiencing a few things you’re passionate about to a deeper degree. We can easily slide into that bad habit in a new-to-us place, like here in Alaska where we know we only have 3 months to “see all the things!” We often have to rein ourselves in and slow the heck down or we’ll leave exhausted, disappointed, and with a lot less money than when we arrived!
Finding your tribe
While it can be difficult at times when you’re new to an area and know no one, one of the best things we’ve done to combat feelings of isolation while working on the road is find and reach out to other working nomads, and meet up when possible. We tend to form a support group of sorts, sharing our struggles with work/travel balance.
There are days when it almost hurts to take a stroll around a beautiful place and see vacationing people enjoying their lazy days, knowing we have to get back to work. It helps to be around others who have similar work schedules and plan some fun group activities as a reward during mutual time off. We love to befriend people who don’t work too, but it can be hard to plan things together since we keep somewhat consistent weekday work hours and they tend to plan their activities during the day.
So what are the benefits then, if it often sucks to work and travel? Well, in our minds there are still far more positives than negatives..
Non-Work Time is Far More Adventurous
When your office view changes often, so do your leisure activities. While it’s still hard to get motivated some days to work when there’s so much we’d rather be doing elsewhere, not losing an hour or more a day to commute to work means that after we get a half a day’s work done, we reward ourselves with a break for a couple hours in a place that’s usually new and exciting to us – a micro-adventure in the middle of an otherwise typical work day! It’s amazing what a good stretch and change of pace mid-day, plus the novelty of a new location, can do for mental and physical health.
Our free time is also no longer limited to just nights and weekends. If a local farmer’s market is happening Wednesday afternoon, we’ll take a break then to visit it and then get back to work after. Going for a hike on a weekday is much more pleasant than on a crowded weekend. Having that kind of flexibility means we can make plans that allow us a buffer for weather too – we stay somewhere for a week and pick the nicest weather days to go out and do some things, then work or take care of personal errands and chores on the days that aren’t so nice. That’s been the best thing about not just the nomadic lifestyle, but working at home in general. Being a nomad takes it to a new level, though, and our recreation is often at National Parks or in exciting cities we’ve never explored, rather than just our neighborhood or local trails.
We can grow professionally by incorporating work into travel..and vice versa
As we roam about the world, we make an effort to meet up with a variety of people who can help us grow and stay sharp professionally: reuniting with former and current coworkers and clients, attending conferences to learn new skills or meet others in our fields, and arranging co-working sessions or just casual meet ups with other working nomads or people living in places we visit. The line between work and life is very blurred for us to begin with, so we don’t mind spending some of our free time “talking shop.” Being receptive to these opportunities while traveling has opened up countless doors professionally and personally, and any chance we can get to help someone or learn from them helps us avoid career complacency or burnout.
Living in the “now” instead of the “someday” makes us better workers
The biggest change we’ve seen in ourselves the past two years is that we have far more of a focus on living in the present, which stems from chasing some of our dreams now, instead of saving and hoping for the ability to travel someday. Time rushes by far more quickly than you’d like when you’re dwelling on the past or future.
When we worked traditional go-to-an-office-everyday jobs, we always daydreamed that we were on vacation. When we were on vacation, we worried about our work back home. Now these two sides of our lives are so closely joined that we can change from work to play as fast as we can close our laptop screens, which means that we can live more in the moment and dedicate ourselves fully to what we’re doing at the time. Sure, we still look forward to the end of our work day (who doesn’t?) but we don’t daydream the day away or waste time surfing the web, because when we finish our work and log off for the day a real-life adventure often awaits.
It makes sense that since we’re not the gambling types in a casino, we also don’t want to bet on what our future will bring. Someday we or our family members’ health may not allow for traveling, we might lack the money, or our careers could change and prohibit it. Not realizing this dream while we have the opportunity would always leave us wondering “what if?” Living and planning for happiness only in the future instead of in the moment isn’t truly living, and that goes for whatever it is that makes you happy – whether that’s travel, education, career, hobbies, family, or other areas of your life. As morbid as it sounds, none of us are guaranteed a life long enough to wait for retirement to do what we love.
We prefer to take the carpe diem approach around here. Whatever your “thing” is, why not start doing it now instead of waiting, even if it’s baby steps or a little bit of a compromise if you can’t jump in fully? The timing is never perfect. We’d obviously prefer not to work, or work a lot less, and just enjoy travel full-time, but this is a far better alternative than not doing what we love at all!
Looking for more information on what technology we use to stay online while we travel? Try this article!