How to Survive Being a Digital Nomad

05/20/2015 12:47 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016


Nomadism is no longer just an ancient tribal way of life. These days, numerous freelancers and remote workers go nomadic, revealing an emerging radical shift in our perception of work and its role in our lives -- the shift that battles against our deep-rooted understanding of life, work and values influenced by greedy capitalism.

The life of comfort, material posessions and certainty seems no longer to translate into freedom for the millennial generation, though. Breaking out of the comfort zone and routine that the 9-to-5 life results in slowly becomes a widespread obsession.

The nomadic lifestyle is something most of us have probably considered at least once. It's a desire to live a different life, to explore the world without sacrificing the career we have worked so hard for. Even in thinking of that, however, we still find ourselves insecure.

How to overcome that? How to transition from a full-time snob living a comfortable life to an adventurous nomad whose life is packed in a backpack? What should you be prepared for?

So I reached out to Marina Janeiko, a friend of mine who has been a nomad UI/UX designer travelling around Europe, Asia and America for about 6 years now, to ask a few questions on what to prepare for before going nomadic. Here's a record of our conversation.

Hi Marina! To kick off, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and what brought you to where you are today?

Sure! I'm a UX designer, digital nomad and founder of What's It Like. I've been in UX and product design for about 6 years now and most of this time I've been moving around Europe, Asia, America.

Currently, I'm based in San Francisco. It's been a crazy ride doing my best to combine client work, traveling and building a startup, but I enjoyed every single moment of it.

What's your story? I mean, what led you to give up the 9-to-5 life and leap into this nomadic adventure?

First, it was a naive, almost rebellious desire to find an alternative life and work style. After realizing that it was actually possible to create a sustainable lifestyle without sacrificing the chance to get to know the world, the vision of location independence became my obsession.

Today, living a nomadic life translates into a direct and tangible manifestation of freedom for me. Nothing compares to getting high on the freedom of living life on your own terms.

People tend to misinterpret things. For the sake of clarity, what is a nomad in the digital age?

Most people who don't settle in one spot can be considered nomadic: from travelling photographers to remote startup teams, from design agencies to any kind of freelancers.

Not all nomads are constantly on the road and not all nomads are working on purely digital products and services. Some of them stay in their chosen locations for a while and work in local companies.

What unites most of them is the fact that they refuse to settle for a lifestyle dictated by the society's perception of "normal".

Can we hear first-hand what it's like to live a nomadic life? Is the reality far away from what people usually picture about nomads?

There is a common misconception about digital nomads that I and the team behind Nomadlist are battling with very often. In overwhelmingly many cases, digital nomads are being perceived as slackers who will do anything to do minimum required work and spend the majority of their time lying on a beach with a cocktail in their hands.

Don't get me wrong, there are people like that and they do call themselves digital nomads as well. In my opinion, this is the echo of the past when escaping from the system was the reward in itself. And if you could achieve that, lying on a beach doing nothing would be a status worth bragging about.

This lifestyle is not only about escaping, it's about creating exciting things in new ways. This is something that has nothing to do with slackers or time wasters because this lifestyle is way more challenging than people think it is. However, it gives you an unvaluable opportunity to see the world and experience more than living the 9-to-5 life.

What should you be prepared for in the first place?

Oftentimes, things will be against you: from various problems with Visas to finding good spots to base yourself, from major anxiety to your social circle telling you over and over again that you're crazy.

I'll be very honest, there are tons of things that will try to stop you from going nomadic and not all of them have a simple solution. To me, one of the best things you can do for yourself is be mentally prepared for facing big obstacles.

In more practical terms, getting in touch with a community of existing nomads is a huge help. Nomad Forum is a place to ask questions and find answers, Hashtag Nomads is a Slack community for nomads looking for support and connecting with other nomads.

What do you think were your biggest mistakes at the very beginning of your nomadic life? What to watch out for beginners?

When I started, resources about being a digital nomad were scarce as hell and that caused a lot of unnecessary hassle and stress.

Today a lot of the hassle is much easier to avoid with online resources: from Nomadlist to a variety of Nomad stories on Medium, from Nomadler, a Hacker News-type nomad community, to Where My Nomads At, from Remote OK that aggregates remote job opportunities to What's It Like that helps to figure out the best timing to travel. Taking advantage of all the resources online is a critical piece of success in going nomadic.

As for rookie mistakes, one of the most common of them is trying to do a lot of work and a lot of traveling at once. Not giving yourself enough time to rest will exhaust you.

How much does it cost to live as a nomad? I've heard people saying it's way cheaper than the 9-to-5 life even though you are always on the road. Is it true? How much do you need to survive?

Typically, digital nomads are experts in travel hacking, and most of them have their own strategies to keep the costs down. So the travel choices they make will often be budget-conscious.

In general, it is very much true that living in cities, such as London, San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Sydney, will prove to cost way more than slow traveling across more affordable regions of the world.

It is especially a good opportunity for bootstrapping or seed-funded startups as it makes it possible to significantly extend a runway.

Traveling and providing UX design services in Southeast Asia cost me about $600 per month, working on What's It Like in South America cost me about $1000 per month, which is a small fraction of what I'd pay living in more expensive cities.

Should you have a decent amount of savings before taking off on your first journey?

It's always a good idea to have a safety net, but don't get discouraged if you don't have a lot of savings. Go on a shorter nomadic trip and measure how much you spend. This will give you a more realistic idea on your budget requirements.

Are your design gigs the only source of revenue?

At this moment and until What's It Like reaches a certain monetization stage, yes.

How did you find clients in the first years? People hold different opinions on nomads. Have they treated your lifestyle as a drawback or merit?

I was lucky enough to build relationships with long term clients who find my lifestyle exciting and who just "get it". For the sake of not going insane while doing client work and traveling, I'd recommend to learn recognizing clients who can bring you more business in the long run and respect your lifestyle.

I see how this may sound like an oxymoron, but trust me, these unicorn clients are out there. My best clients came from previous recommendations and I always advise to build long lasting relationships where all parties are encouraged to recommend each other's services to their network. Try to partner up with other professionals in your field; it will give your services or whatever you do a boost.

Different time zones, the lack of personal connection and face-to-face chats make it harder to collaborate online. How do you manage to cope with that? Do you use any specific tools?

As cliche as it sounds, communication is the key. Timezones, the lack of face-to-face and water cooler kind of communication is always a challenge.

I use Slack to chat and communicate with people, TrackDuck to get feedback and collaborate on design pieces with my clients in real time, Toggl to keep track of my work hours and easily analyze my workload.

Let's talk about the first destination. What countries or cities would you suggest for rookies to land on first?

Bali has several well established hubs, coworking spaces and co-living options. Chiang Mai in Thailand is famous for hosting a large number of like minded nomads. Medellin in Colombia, coastal Morocco, Florianopolis in Brazil are becoming strong digital nomad hubs, and Eastern Europe is starting to get a lot of traction.

I can imagine it may be hard to find a balance between work and travel, especially at the very beginning. What would you suggest on that?

Give yourself enough time for slow travel and rest. Many underestimate how much the pressure of traveling and working affects our well being. The most common regret I hear is "I wish I gave myself more time without constant racing."

Let's wrap things up. What are your final remarks for those willing to go nomadic? How to survive being a nomad in the digital age?

Living a nomadic life takes hard work and dedication. Sometimes, you'll feel alone and miserable wondering why the heck did you leave your comfortable job back home.

Sometimes, you'll feel misunderstood and disconnected when people in your social circles tell you that you should stop running away from life. And that's OK, because you're not doing it to be comfortable or to please anyone. It's good to remember that you're doing it for something bigger than temporary frustrations.

I hope this interview will help you to overcome at least some of your fears of taking decisive steps towards what you have probably been dreaming of for quite a while. Good luck on the road!