Not long ago, any young person whose parents weren’t footing the bill had to save thousands of dollars before they boarded a plane to travel abroad. They shared stories and tips at hostels in Europe, Asia and Central America. The questions they asked each other usually went like this:
How long have you been traveling?
Where have you been?
Where are you going next?
How much money did you save before leaving home?
I’ve traveled extensively three times in my life: the first was in my late teens after I graduated from high school. The second time was in my early thirties when I took a year off to see the world (a naïve pursuit, considering the vastness of the planet). The third was in my mid-40s when my wife and I planned a year off to travel. That year, which began in 2014, has extended to seven. And although we can afford more expensive digs, we often stay at hostels to soak up the social vibe.
Travelers still ask the same basic questions— but there’s a nuanced twist. Instead of asking, “How much money did you save?” they ask, “How are you doing this?” Years ago, plenty of travelers worked under the table at bars, restaurants or hotels when their money ran out. But in most countries, regulators have cracked down on undocumented employment. It’s mostly the newbie who seeks undeclared work for cash. These days, online gigs are far more common…and they’re legal.
I’ve met young people who have been traveling for years. Some have part-time, online jobs with US-based businesses. They don’t have to work full-time because they chose to work in and explore low-cost countries. They might rent workspaces; work from cafes, libraries or from hostel hangout spots. By living and traveling where it’s cheap, they can experience more adventure and (in some cases) even stuff money into retirement accounts.
Gone are the days when every young traveler came home broke.
If such adventures sound appealing, but you don’t know where to start, I recommend The Digital Nomad Handbook, published by The Lonely Planet. They divided the book into seven sections:
The first two sections, Making The Leap and How To Be a Digital Nomad, should inspire any wannabe traveler who wants to work online. It shows several common jobs that digital nomads do, ranging from travel blogging; social influencing (a bit easier if you’re posting from an exotic place); computer coding; freelance writing; business marketing; graphic designing; music creation; online teaching or website designing.
Some global nomads stick to a single thing. As I explained in this story, I’ve met travel-video producers (with their children in tow); a lawyer; and a freelancer who works for video game companies. Others cobble together employment doing a few different things.
The Digital Nomad Handbook’s next three sections describe where you could go and how to prepare. They explain how to set up visas, get paid, buy travel insurance and manage money overseas. They also offer several safety tips. But section four is the most inspiring. The guide lists some popular cities to work from, online. Global nomads typically select their locations based on affordability; the strength of a social life; leisure activities; availability of co-working spaces; great weather and super Wi-Fi connections.
One of the popular locations is Bali, Indonesia–where I met a Spanish couple who built and managed the Madrid-Barajas International Airport’s website from their Balinese paradise. Lisbon, Portugal is another hot location for people working online. Living costs are higher than in Bali, but it offers great healthcare and a first-world vibe. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam has a bit more color and grit. My wife and I spent a month in Vietnam. Young digital nomads could live in Ho Chi Minh City for as little as $1000 a month.
Medellin, Colombia is another low-cost location that’s drawing global nomads and expat retirees. In fact, International Living rates Colombiathe fourth best retirement destination in 2021, after Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico.
My favorite, among the digital nomad hotspots, is Chiang Mai, Thailand. The Wi-Fi is great. It might be safer than any North American city, and the cafés and co-working spaces teem with international motley crews earning their living online. It’s also almost as cheap as Vietnam.
Best of all, after a day hunkered in front of a screen, smiling masseuses offer massages for far less than you might think:
“One hour massage, 300 baht,” they’ll say.
That’s $9.40 USD.
You’ll see massage parlors on every street.
The Digital Nomad Handbook also lists seventeen other favorite locations. Among them, they recommend Bocas Del Toro, Panama. It’s a string of Caribbean islands with a growing network of co-working spaces, gorgeous beaches and idyllic scuba diving. It’s so tempting, in fact, that I’ll be leaving for there tomorrow. The digital nomad lifestyle has suited me well for seven years. It’s great to see Lonely Planet offering everyone a guide.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas