How do you make money while traveling the world full-time? How much does it cost to be a digital nomad? What did you do with all your stuff? Is it safe to wander around the world solo as a woman? What bank accounts are good for nomads? How do you date and make friends with a lifestyle like this?
With nine years of full-time travel under my belt, I get these kinds of questions a lot. And so every few years I chime in with a giant post full of answers, updated to reflect how travel has changed, how I have changed, how my business has changed along the way.
In case you’re curious about the digital nomad lifestyle, here’s pretty much everything anyone ever asks me.
Oh, and before we dive in, in case you’re new around here, a quick intro on me: My name is Gigi. In 2012, I ditched my home base for a life of full-time travel with my freelance content strategy and copywriting business and my 11-pound dog. We’ve been traveling full-time ever since.
Jump to questions about: Getting Started / Finances / Working from the Road / Solo Female Travel / Travel & Safety / General Travel & Planning / Sanity, Love, & Relationships / Health & Mental Health / Packing / Blogging & Travel Writing / Other
GETTING STARTED Q&A
What did you do with all your stuff?
I sold it, gave it away, trashed it, or donated it as appropriate. And I still own a couple boxes (mostly of old tax forms and receipts and paperwork) in the basements of friends and family members.
Do you ever miss your stuff?
For most of my travels, the answer would have been no. Lately, though, I’ve really started to miss having my own kitchen. I want a powerful blender and an ice cream maker. I love cooking and while it’s fun and interesting to be creative in other people’s kitchens, I’m also looking forward to having a home base where I can create my own little nest of necessities.
Do you have any hobbies that require you to carry extra stuff? If so, what and how do you manage?
For about six months, I traveled with a restored vintage Swiss army bike. I bought it for cycling across France, but also used it to cycle within Switzerland, through the Slovenian countryside, across about half of Belgium (southern border to Bruges), and in Amsterdam for one terrifying day.
After those six months, I sold the bike in Amsterdam and left for the US without it. I did this because transporting it was, honestly, less than fun. The trains I took (in Switzerland and Austria) have special cycle cars usually at the very end of the train, which means when you’re switching trains not only do you have to lug the extra weight of the bike, but you often have to walk (read: run) the entire length of two trains in order to make your connection. The other issue is that the Austrian trains had elevated bike cars, so to get my cycle into the train required lifting it over my head. Luckily, I never actually had to do this, as a variety of well-dressed European men came to my rescue at every stop, but if I had to do it on my own, it would have been a challenge. Because while I can certainly lift and carry my bike, raising it over my head is another story.
Additionally, the cost of transporting the bike on so many flights (Amsterdam to Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania to Colorado, Colorado to Colombia) made it less than worthwhile. It made a lot more sense to sell it and consider re-purchasing a bike once I was in the next place for awhile.
Eventually, I decided that I did still want a bike, but that my best option for travel would be to invest in a folding bicycle. Now I travel with a Brompton folding bike (pictured below) that fits into a special wheeled suitcase and travels as checked baggage.
Other than that, my biggest hobbies are hiking and reading, both of which require minimal gear.
I do have friends who travel with a lot more gear than I do (paragliders, BASE jumping gear, etc.) and somehow manage it successfully, so it’s definitely possible.
What travel planning tools do you use?
I use Rome2Rio all the time to figure out my transportation options, distances, and routes (it’s a site that gives you distances, times, routes, and estimates for traveling from point A to point B by train, car, taxi, plane, bus, or ride share). I use Flickr to figure out where I want to go, since being in beautiful places is the most important thing to me. I use a variety of blogs for inspiration. And I use Flatio to find affordable monthly rentals.
Many European train companies now have apps, which I use frequently (on my tablet) to purchase train tickets on the go.
What do you do about mail?
Almost everything I have is set up to be paperless (credit cards; bank statements), so my mail needs are pretty minor. When I do need to include an address or receive paper mail, I use my best friend’s address.
Other nomads I know use mail services that receive your mail and scan and send to you by email or shred at your request. This is the one a friend uses.
As for things I need to receive myself, I usually stay long enough in one place to have packages and important stuff mailed directly to me or to a friend in a city I’m about to visit.
What about cell phone service?
I gave up my cell phone after a few months of travel and use Skype and Zoom for most of my calls with both clients and friends. I also currently use a free phone number app on my tablet. In exchange for the occasional ugly pop-up ad when I open the app, I have the ability to call and text clients and family in the US for free.
This is all internet-dependent, which means whenever I have internet and am near my computer, I have a phone. When I’m out and about, I don’t. Which I love. It forces me to be in the moment and if I ever genuinely need a phone, borrowing one is easy since everyone else has them.
How did you get the guts to go?
I’m always a little surprised when people think I’m so gutsy. I’m really not. I was wildly unhappy when I was in Denver, struggling with my depression in a big way, and even though I was afraid to make the leap to full-time travel, I was more afraid to stay put. Going felt like saving my own life. And so I went.
But if you’re asking this question, you’re probably asking for advice. And my story won’t apply to most people. So my advice is this: always remember that you have an exit. Even if you leave with the intention of traveling indefinitely or for a year or for six months, you can still turn around and come home. You can always go back.
Leaving is much less scary when you realize it isn’t a permanent decision. It’s not all-or-nothing. It’s not pass-fail.
What was your financial and personal situation like when you left?
I didn’t leave to travel full-time until I had already been freelancing for a year (and things were going well enough that I felt reasonably confident that I would be able to continue making a stable-ish income), I had 12+ months worth of expenses in the bank (in case of emergencies, slow months, etc.; for me, living on a budget of $2k per month, that’s $24,000+), and I was able to get out of my home lease without financial penalties.
The only debt I had when I left was about $7,000 owed on my car. I had enough in the bank to pay it off, but the interest was so low that I’d decided I would rather have access to that money than pay the car off immediately. For my first four months on the road, I let a friend drive my car in exchange for her keeping up the insurance and upkeep while I was away. After four months, I decided I loved being on the road and that it was working for me financially, so I returned to the US, paid the car off, sold it (it was worth about $12,000, if I’m remembering correctly, so that was nice), and left for the second time, this time with no debt at all.
It’s also important to note that I was not in a financial situation where I could take a bunch of time off. I was (and still am) in a position where I need to work for a living. I don’t have a trust fund or family money, but I was lucky enough to pick a career (writing and content strategy) that can easily be done from anywhere, as long as I have a good internet connection.
What about visas?
Most of my tourist stops have been in places where US passport holders can travel visa-free. I’ve also gotten several long-stay visas (in Estonia, on a D visa, and in Switzerland, on a visa that is – sadly – no longer available). This year, I’ve also applied for a digital nomad visa in Croatia.
How has traveling changed you?
Even though I still struggle with those delightful old demons depression and anxiety, overall I’m happier. I’ve also learned to love myself, dropped two dress sizes, and realized my dream of becoming a travel writer and book author. I also found the inspiration to write four novels on the road.
Did you find what you were looking for? And what happens after that?
What a loaded question. Perhaps some people go looking for some massive soul-level change, but I was just looking for newness, creative inspiration, and forward motion. I wanted freedom. I wanted permission to do something different with my life. I wanted something to shake me up, to move me out of my more traditional life. So, yes, I found it.
How do you make money while traveling?
I am a writer and content strategist, so I primarily make my living by doing things like writing website copy, blog posts, and white papers and helping clients answer high-level content questions. I also make a tiny bit of money from ads here on the blog.
For a more in-depth look at my business, check out this lengthy post.
How do you afford to travel like this…I mean, isn’t travel expensive?
Actually, travel doesn’t have to be that expensive. Staying longer, living as the locals do, and getting rid of your expenses back home can mean very cheap living indeed.
So, let’s unpack that:
Staying longer: Monthly rates in furnished rentals are far cheaper than their nightly or weekly counterpoints. A studio in Paris on Airbnb might cost $80 per night, but only just over $1,000 for the whole month. And if you’re going in the off-season and ask for a discount, you can probably get it even cheaper.
Staying longer also means less big transportation bills and more time to explore. And more time to explore means you actually spend less money. Why, you ask? Because if you’re in Paris for a month and you want to see the Louvre, go up the Eiffel Tower, eat at seven restaurants that were recommended to you, and take a day trip to Verseilles, you spend the same amount as if you try to do all that in four days. But the person who has four days then moves onto another place where they’re spending money on their next 10 must-sees. You, on the other hand, are spreading out your Paris must-sees and spending time in between enjoying all the gorgeous free things the city has to offer as well…the parks, the streetscapes, and so on.
Living as the locals do: Staying in apartments, shopping at the local markets, cooking at home, buying a monthly bus pass instead of a day pass…all these things save you money. And over time that money adds up.
Getting rid of expenses back home: If you have a car payment, rent/mortgage, cell phone bill, cable TV bill, health insurance, car insurance, and condo fee back home every month in addition to your travel expenses, of course traveling is going to feel expensive. You’re paying double.
That’s one of the reasons being a digital nomad is often more affordable than staying put. You’re ditching those ongoing home expenses along the way. Not to mention that you don’t have much room in your bag, so you won’t be shopping half as much as you did at home. Instead, you find yourself with a small manageable set of expenses all connected to the city you are living in at that moment.
With all that in mind, my lifestyle is actually very affordable (except when I’m hanging out in Switzerland, but even that’s not as bad as you think). I try to spend less than $2,500 per month on living expenses (not including a few variable things like business expenses).
What’s your monthly budget?
For the first nine years on the road, my maximum budget was $2,000 per month, not including some business expenses. When I did the math on my actual average spending, it came in closer to $1,500 per month.
I’ve recently raised my budget (mostly due to inflation of apartment prices in Europe), and now I try to keep my monthly living expenses under $2,500. The lowest I’ve spent in a month is about $1,200 and the highest was about $3,000 (while cycling across France).
What does that monthly budget cover? Are you living in hostels? What kind of lifestyle do you sustain?
I am a solidly middle-of-the-road traveler when it comes to budget. I’m too cranky, introverted, and particular to live in hostels or super-budget accommodations and while I do occasionally enjoy a luxury suite, I wouldn’t want to live in them full-time. Which means you’ll normally find me renting a comfortable, budget-friendly apartment in a local neighborhood via a rental site like Flatio.com for a month or two or three at a time.
Food-wise, I love cooking, so most of my budget goes into grocery stores and markets, butchers and bakers. Occasionally, I eat out (about once a week in non-foodie places and 2 – 5 times a week when I’m somewhere like Paris). Eating healthily, well, and tastily is a priority for me, so this budget line item is one of the largest in my monthly budget.
I’m not a big museum-goer and I rarely pay to go into castles or wander through tourist attractions. Instead, you’ll find me mostly hiking and exploring new places on foot, trying the local cuisine, riding my bike, etc. When I do spend money on entertainment or activities, they are mostly things like spa days, high tea, food tours, or outdoor activities.
As a travel blogger, don’t you get lots of stuff free? How does that impact your budget?
While most of my travels are paid for by me (including my day-to-day living expenses), I do sometimes get free or discounted things. Mostly, this includes the occasional free hotel or B&B room, occasional free products to try and review (like my hiking backpack and Luna’s carrier), and even more occasional free passes to activities (like my passes to walk the Dubrovnik city walls).
For the most part, the freebies are fairly rare and don’t have a very big impact on my budget, mostly because if I couldn’t afford the activities, rooms, etc. I get free, I’d just replace them with cheaper or free activities, places to stay, etc. If I couldn’t get a free spa day in Dubrovnik, for instance, I’d probably go to the salon for a $20 head massage and hairstyle.
Dinner out in Tbilisi. Not a freebie.
What’s your safety net? What would you do if you suddenly couldn’t work remotely?
When I left to travel, I had enough money to live for a year with no income. Today, I could go much longer if I was willing to dip into retirement savings, so if everything imploded tomorrow, I’d be stressed as all get out, but not destitute.
If I suddenly couldn’t work remotely for some reason, I would attempt to get a visa for somewhere in Europe and base myself there. If I had to get a full-time job, I’d look for something with a lot of vacation time, probably working in content strategy with a writing component.
Of course, this hypothetical question is a very very unlikely one. My income comes from about three to five different sources at any given time, which means it’s very unlikely that they’d all dry up at once. Even if one client no longer has work for me, I still have the other sources while I look for a new client. This is one of the good things about freelancing: my livelihood is not dependent on a single employer.
Where do you pay taxes?
For the most part (though rules vary by country), you are expected to pay taxes where you reside. When I lived in the US, I paid taxes in the US. For the two years that I was a Swiss resident, I paid taxes in Switzerland. The rules vary a bit by country, so if you’re going nomadic yourself, definitely consult with a tax professional.
How much money should someone have in the bank before embarking on this kind of journey?
That depends very much on how you’re traveling (are you working on the road? Traveling slowly? Taking a year off?), where you’re traveling (Asia is obviously cheaper than Europe), and how much you’re earning.
If you want a sustainable full-time travel lifestyle, the trick is just to earn more than you spend…the same as you would living in your home country. If you’re traveling in Southeast Asia, earning more than you spend might mean as little as $600 or $800 a month. In Europe, it’s more likely to be over $1,200, even if you travel in a budget-friendly way.
If you’re traveling this way, you’re probably self-employed. And if that’s the case, I believe most financial advisors advise self-employed folks to keep at least six months worth of living expenses in the bank as a buffer in case of lean times or losing clients. Personally, six months seems too short to me and I didn’t start my business until I had 10 months of buffer money (and I didn’t start traveling until over a year after I started the business).
What’s your long-term financial plan? What about retirement?
The short answer is that I plan for retirement just like any other self-employed person. Packing your bags and traveling full-time doesn’t change financial planning.
I’m an aggressive saver, saving 50% of my income in 2018 and aiming for higher numbers in subsequent years. My current goal is to reach barista FI (e.g. be semi-retired) by my mid-40s.
Any tricks for finding cheap plane tickets?
Be flexible both with your dates and destinations. An open-ended flight search for one-way flights from New York to anywhere in Europe anytime in the month of January yields offers like $228 to Paris, $209 to Milan, and $155 to Rome. A similar one-way search from Miami to South America shows October flights to Peru for $238, Panama for $138, and Bolivia for $406.
What banks are good for nomads?
Charles Schwab waives your international ATM fees, so it’s the option most American digital nomads seem to go with. I’m also a customer at Wise because they make it super easy to transfer money across borders (with lower fees than other banking options).
How do you find affordable rentals?
My favorite site at the moment is Flatio. They specialize in mid-term rentals (at least 2 week stays) and they do a good job vetting their apartments. If Flatio isn’t available in my area, I turn to Facebook groups (expat and digital nomad groups in the local area sometimes have good tips), local rental sites, or Airbnb.
My passion for Airbnb has been waning a bit in the last couple years as prices rise and the user experience on the site seems to keep changing for the worse, but they are still the most extensive network of furnished places with monthly pricing. So when I can’t find something elsewhere, I still find myself on Airbnb pretty often.
I start my apartment search, filtering by Wi-Fi and price. Then I contact the owners and ask if A) they are okay with having a dog in their space and B) they can offer a long-stay, off-season, or blogger discount. Often they can and the price drops a little by the time I book.
Now, in cases where I can’t find a good option (as was the case for my month in Kobarid, Slovenia, and my two weeks in Freiburg, Germany), I reach out to hostels and guesthouses. They have kitchens (which is important to me) and are often willing to offer a long-stay price on a private room. Sometimes student groups on Facebook also have good housing options.
Should I travel without money?
No. Absolutely and completely no.
This is one of only a few instances in which I would tell someone not to travel.
Traveling without money puts an enormous burden on the people around you, which isn’t fair, particularly in developing countries where the people taking care of you are often far less privileged than you yourself.
Also, traveling alone without money as a young woman…that’s going to put you in situations you don’t want to be in. Even if you are couchsurfing or hitching rides, money gives you options. If someone seems creepy, you can get yourself a hotel room. If no one is picking you up, you buy a bus ticket instead of sleeping on the side of the road. Money is the freedom to protect yourself.
Does that mean you shouldn’t travel? Of course not. It means you should work and save up some money and then go on your big trip or get a job abroad or join the Peace Corps or find some other way to have the financial freedom to travel. You don’t need a lot of money to travel, especially if you are willing to stay in hostels and go to a cheaper part of the world. But you absolutely should not travel without money.
WORKING FROM THE ROAD Q&A
How do you deal with time zone differences with your clients?
Most of my work is done on my own at the computer, so time zones aren’t really a factor. For the instances when I need to schedule a call, I just work around the client’s workday. If I’m in Europe (which I usually am) and they’re in the US, we do the call morning their time, evening mine.
If I was constantly on calls, I’d probably need to stay within a certain set of time zones, but currently with a full workload, I still only do 2 – 5 calls per week, usually between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. my time.
At what point would you start to worry if income streams started drying up?
I’m constantly readjusting my business, making new plans, and rolling with the punches, so really there’s no worry tipping point. I’m always tweaking and I always have plans B and C on hand if income starts to drop. My financial planning is the same when I’m on the road as it was when I lived in one place.
What are plans B and C? How do you keep your freelance income streams coming? When you lose a client, how do you replace that income?
With my copywriting and content strategy work, where I usually take on anywhere from 2 – 5 clients at a time, it’s unlikely that all my income would dry up at once. Even if I lost my biggest client right now, I could still manage my expenses (though I wouldn’t be saving for retirement at the aggressive rate I prefer).
New clients come to me in a variety of ways. Sometimes through networking with other writers and content strategists. Sometimes through contacts I meet at conferences. Sometimes through this blog. When I need to pick up new clients, I start by reaching out to my network and attending more conferences or letting people know that I’m available on my quarterly business reports. For the last couple years, I’ve started regularly turning down work, so I expect that unless something major happened, I’d be able to pick up new clients very quickly.
How many hours do you work each week?
This varies a lot. In 2014 and 2015, I worked feverishly to get my new business off the ground, so I’d say I probably averaged 35 – 60 hours per week or even 70 on a really backbreaking week. (Thus launching four books in one year.)
Of course, the ultimate goal has always been to not work so damn hard.
In 2016, burned out and recovering from an illness, I made not working so damn hard more of a priority, working about half time (maybe 25 hours a week) most of my time in Arizona that winter, then working a bit less (probably 20 hours a week) while road tripping across Canada. In 2017, I committed to keep my working hours low, shooting for about 20 hours per week and I mostly kept that up until March/April 2019.
Currently, I’m working about four days a week for four clients.
What’s your work schedule like?
I am most focused, productive, and creative in the mornings, so I usually try to get as much done as possible before lunch (it helps that I’m an early riser, usually up between five and seven). Afternoons are generally for work that doesn’t require as much focus (emails, eBook formatting, meetings, things like that) or, on a very productive day, walks, naps, explorations, and reading.
While I was in Arizona, I worked in the mornings and took most afternoons off. While I was road tripping across US and Canada in 2016, I worked two long days per week (Mondays and Thursdays) and took most of the rest off. In 2017, I worked a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday morning schedule with an occasional Wednesday morning thrown in. And currently I’m working Monday – Thursdays, prioritizing focused work in the mornings, usually taking a break in the afternoons, and then coming back for evening meetings.
That said, my schedule varies greatly. The good news about working for myself, even if I’m working a lot, is that I have control over my schedule. If it’s a gorgeous sunny day, I can take the day off and go hiking. If I’m feeling uninspired, I can shift things around and work on something that doesn’t require as much creativity. And I always try to make time for people, so if I’m in a good conversation, I try not to rush off back to work. I’d rather add an extra working hour into the next day than skip an interesting or important conversation.
How do you get everything done?
Because I have power over my schedule, I also have the power to say no to things. I’ve also made it a priority to reduce my urgent deadline-driven projects, take on more relaxed ongoing work, and to raise my rates so that I don’t have to work so many hours to make ends meet.
Aren’t you distracted, being in a new place?
Actually, no. I’m energized and inspired by it. Some of my best work happens the first week after I arrive somewhere new.
How do you balance work and exploration on the road? Is it a tough thing to juggle?
For me, the answer is staying longer. When I stay in a place for a month or two or three, I don’t feel like I’m missing out when I have to work. I still have time to see and do the things I want to see and do, but also have time for my work and for plenty of introvert days in between. The only time I feel like I’m missing out is if I travel too fast.
What does your traveling office look like? When looking for a workspace abroad, what do you consider?
Depends on the space I’m in! In some places, I have a desk to work from. Other places, a coffee table. Still others, I work from a couch or loveseat or kitchen table. My primary workspace in my current apartment is the couch (though I do try to sit out on the balcony if the glare of the sun isn’t too bad). In my two places, I worked mostly at their respective kitchen tables. And in the two places before that, my workspaces of choice were a coffee table and a cheerful cafe.
I work best in sunny places with good views, so I try to choose apartments with sunny rooms and big windows when I can. It’s not always possible and if the room is rather dim, you’ll find me at coffee shops more often than usual.
SOLO FEMALE TRAVEL Q&A
Don’t you ever get lonely?
Certainly, I get lonely sometimes. But I was much lonelier living full-time in Denver than I have been on the road. Because loneliness isn’t about staying in one place. It’s about connection.
Is it safe for women to travel alone?
Absolutely. Most of the places I travel in (Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, even Mexico and Costa Rica) have lower violent crime rates than major US cities (Miami, Chicago). But even if I was a little less safe traveling than staying at home? I’d totally do it anyway. Because seeing the world, opening my worldview up wider and wider, hiking the Swiss Alps, cycling across France…they’re all worth a little risk.
That said, there are definitely parts of the world that I wouldn’t recommend for a solo woman…
Is there anywhere you wouldn’t travel as a woman alone?
The only place I’ve felt genuinely unsafe in my own travels so far was Colombia. Yes, it’s come a long way since its major drug trafficking days. Yes, murders are down by a lot. But what no one tells you is that street crime in cities like Medellin (popular with travelers) is actually up. And harassment for women is constant. Getting catcalled? For me, that was a good day in Colombia. My bad days included being followed home by an ominous motorcyclist, being screamed at while drinking coffee on a patio near my apartment, and having strange men rub themselves on me while waiting in line for gondola tickets.
I also, personally, don’t have any interest in traveling places like Saudi Arabia where women are second-class citizens. I’m also (obviously) avoiding countries actively in conflict and I do take the advice and warnings of other well-traveled solo ladies seriously.
Is there anywhere you particularly recommend for solo lady travelers?
So much of the world is safe and welcoming, really. But if you are particularly nervous, the places I’ve felt absolutely safest have been Slovenia, Belgium (particularly Ghent and Bruges), the Swiss Alps (which is the safest I’ve felt as a solo hiker due to their exceptionally well maintained trails, good signage, and other friendly hikers on the trails), the French countryside, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, and Germany’s Black Forest area. Most big European cities are also pretty safe, but like any big city, it’s important to know which neighborhoods have low crime and which don’t.
TRAVEL & SAFETY Q&A
Are you afraid to travel, especially with all the craziness going on in the world right now?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is that the places I travel are actually much safer than staying in the US. The US actually has a much higher homicide rate than other similarly developed countries. In fact, it’s three or four times more than any of the Western European countries.
The problem is perception. We’re told that the world isn’t safe. The media reports on the sensational, not the ordinary, and so terrorism and gun violence take the spotlight. Border towns are the focus of Mexico coverage, not lovely little beach towns like Sayulita. The one woman who disappeared while traveling solo in Turkey gets all the coverage, not the hundreds of thousands who made it home just fine. This is just perception. It’s just news coverage. It’s not an accurate representation of the safety of the world.
The reality is that quite a lot of the world is safe. And, in fact, much safer than the US.
The reality is that wherever you are, you are more likely to be fatally struck by lightning than to die in a terrorist attack. You’re actually more likely to be crushed to death by your own television than killed by a terrorist.
The reality is that the world is still safer than you think, as long as you stay out of obviously dangerous places like active war zones and don’t do obviously scary stuff like renting a run-down place in the bad part of town somewhere.
How do you help worried friends and family understand your desire to travel? How do you help them calm their own fears?
I actually wrote a whole post on this.
GENERAL TRAVEL & PLANNING Q&A
What are your favorite places?
I love a lot of different places for a lot of different reasons. My favorite landscapes are in and around Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, Slovenia’s Soca Valley (and Lake Bled), and the unique Okavongo Delta in Botswana, Africa.
My favorite places for food are Italy (particularly Modena, Rome, and Tuscany), France (particularly Paris), Zimbabwe (Victoria Falls), Slovenia, and Costa Rica. I also love France and Italy for wine.
My favorite cities and towns in terms of sheer beauty include Bruges, Belgium; Thun, Switzerland; and Assisi, Italy. (Cuzco, Peru; Kotor, Montenegro; and the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris are also pretty damn beautiful.)
My favorite place in terms of warm, welcoming communities of people is Ghent, Belgium.
What are your least favorite places?
Colombia because of the harassment I experienced there. The UK because its immigration officials are straight evil. Morocco, because the gender inequality grated on me. And (I’m sorry to say) Spain. I keep wanting to like Spain, especially since I speak some of the language and because so many people love it wholeheartedly, but every time I go I’m either disappointed or downright unhappy, especially in Catalunya, which seems to have the least friendly people in Europe.
Canada is another spot I’m unlikely to return to, but only because I was treated so poorly by border officials, not because I actually dislike the place itself.
I’m also not a fan of the US. There’s a certain sameness to it. Same stores. Same culture. Same constant sound of car traffic. And I really dislike all the billboards and advertisements that are constantly bombarding me there. Not to mention the politics, high priced healthcare, and inability to really get around without a car.
Is there anywhere you don’t want to travel?
Anywhere where women and dogs are less-than-welcome. Also, despite the hype, I’ve never felt a draw to India.
Where are you dying to travel to?
Portugal is at the top of my list, as I’m considering it as a potential home base. I’d also love to get back to the Slovenian Alps and take a trip to Paris to see a good friend once it’s safe to do so.
Outside Europe, Japan is very high up on my list. I’d love to walk the 88 Temples Pilgrimage one day.
Where would you recommend for first-time solo travelers or nomads?
Sayulita, Mexico would be an excellent starting point. It’s a small town (and, thus, perfectly manageable and not overwhelming) full of surfing, yoga, and tacos. Good Wi-Fi is available if you’re working from the road. And it’s a vibrant, international little community of people from all over the world, usually staying for at least a month or two. English is widely spoken. And you’re just 45 minutes from an airport.
(Go in the shoulder season if you’d like to avoid major crowds.)
Ghent, Belgium would also be a great place to start. The people are friendly. English is widely spoken. The food is fantastic. It’s super cheap for Europe, while also managing to be historic and interesting and way artsy. And gorgeous Bruges and hip Antwerp are less than half an hour by train. Brussels (and its airport) are just an hour.
Split, Croatia is another great choice. It’s very affordable for Europe, sunny and warm most of the year and full of incredibly friendly people who often speak English (especially the younger generation) and things to do. (Go in winter, though; summer gets chaotic and hot.)
Ljubljana, Slovenia is a favorite. It’s very affordable (I spent less than $1,000 living there for two weeks) with gorgeous summer weather, super easy access to outdoors scenery and activities (Lake Bled and Soca Valley being at the top of my list), English-speaking locals, very good food, cool summer festivals, and very friendly people.
What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you on the road?
Getting detained by British immigration was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life (and the only time in the last nine years I truly thought about giving up). A close second was when I got super sick and ended up in the hospital on Malta and then spent over a year trying to get fully back on my feet.
Are you ever going to settle down? And will it be in the US?
One of the things I’ve learned about myself in the last few years is that I am at my absolute best when I’m living in the moment. And so that’s how I try to live. Do I plan for the future? Sure. I save money. I plan on investing. I book things sometimes as much as six months in advance. But do I know if I’ll ever settle down for good? Not really.
I’m currently looking into a home base in Europe, but is that settling down? Or am I just traveling differently? Doing the expat thing again?
And that’s the beauty of the lifestyle I’m living. It’s 100% flexible. If I feel like nesting, I can stop and nest. If I feel like going on, I can go on. Right now, I feel like nesting. Who’s to say how I’ll feel in two years or 10 years or 30 years?
And as for the second half of your question…I can give you an answer I feel more certain about: No. I have no intention of coming back to the US long-term. I feel safer and more at home abroad.
How do you choose where to travel next?
It varies. Sometimes I choose to go somewhere because a friend lives there or it was recommended to me by a traveler I trust. Sometimes I see a photo essay or Flickr photo online and pick my destination that way (it’s how I decided to go to Ljubljana the first time). Sometimes I’m invited to an event. Sometimes the place is just nearby or on the way to somewhere else. And sometimes I’ve just been pining for a place for a long time with no discernible reason.
In any case, I usually factor in:
How close the destination is to my current location (when possible, I like to save time, money, and fuel by clustering my destinations);
How expensive it will be and whether it fits into my current budget;
How cheap plane or train tickets are (if I’ve been wanting to visit Greece, Norway, and Poland and the Poland train ticket is $200 less, I’ll likely choose that as a place to start, knowing I can hit the other two later);
How beautiful it is (for me, beauty, particularly of the natural or small-town variety, is priority; this is one of the reasons I rarely spend time in big cities) as determined by online photo searches;
And climate (I don’t want to go to Greece in the height of summer when it’ll be too hot to enjoy it or Sweden in February when it’ll be too cold to explore).
I also frequently go with my gut.
How far ahead do you plan?
It varies. I’ve booked as much as six months at a time and as little as one. Generally, I book ahead more during high season (summer in western Europe, for instance) to make sure I get a reasonable deal. And I rarely ever fly completely by the seat of my pants because that’s tougher to do with a dog (you need paperwork when crossing borders and need to find dog-friendly housing).
Currently, I have about 6 weeks of accommodations booked and I plan on booking an additional 3 – 4 months as soon as my visa is approved in Croatia.
How long do you stay in each place?
Again, this varies. The longest so far has been my almost-year in Switzerland. The shortest was about three hours in Zagreb, Croatia. I’m currently in Croatia and, assuming my visa is approved, plan to be here for 6+ months
The average is probably somewhere around 1 – 2 months.
Do you ever get homesick?
Yes! But not for the place you’d think. I never miss the US, but I frequently and wholeheartedly feel homesick for Europe whenever I’m not here.
I do, of course, miss friends back in the states. But they’re scattered all over the country, so there’s no one place to be homesick for in the US.
What do you do all day?
It depends on the day, but my day-to-day life includes plenty of work (writing, data analysis, developing messaging strategies) and lots of the mundane things we all have to navigate (doing laundry, making meals, going to the grocery store, going to the dentist, bathing the dog).
I also spend a good amount of time reading, both because I love to read and because I’m an introvert and need quiet time to recharge, and hiking/walking because I love the movement and like taking in new scenery on foot. In good weather, I spend plenty of time cycling as well.
Sometimes I actually document a day in my life on the road. You can find those here.
Do you have to re-purchase essentials everywhere you go? Are you constantly buying new pots and pans?
Nope. I rent furnished places, so they generally have all the essentials. Very occasionally (maybe a couple times a year) something important is missing and I have to go on a quest for a bread knife or can opener. But generally everything is provided.
Do you ever have a “meh” reaction to what you see? Are you getting harder to please now that you’ve seen and done so much?
Yes. I’m a massive nature snob and things that everyone else seems to love can sometimes feel anti-climactic to me.
How do you navigate length of stay requirements? How did you get your Swiss residency?
In Europe, the system is simple (if frustrating). You can stay in the Schengen Zone (which is most of mainland western Europe) for up to 90 days; then you have to leave for 90 days. Before I had Swiss residency, this meant I would spend 90 days or less in the borderless portion of mainland Europe and then head somewhere like Croatia, Montenegro, or Mexico (all outside the Schengen). Then I’d come back in.
When it comes to navigating the requirements for other countries, the best thing to do is always research online before you go. Some countries let you stay 90 days without a visa. Some are just one month. Some are six months (like Mexico). And all of it depends on your nationality. Know before you go and plan accordingly.
And if you want to stay longer? You’ll need to apply for a longer stay visa/residency. For many places, you’ll need to apply for the visa before you leave your home country, so make sure to research ahead of time.
In my case, when I wanted to stay in Switzerland for a year (which turned into two) to write my book, I went through a lengthy residency process and was eventually granted a residence card that gives me the right to stay in Switzerland beyond the normal 90-day tourist visa (note that this visa, sadly, no longer exists in Switzerland). In Estonia, I went through a shorter visa process (about two weeks from application to approval) to get a D visa (long-stay visa). And in Croatia, I’m currently in the process of their digital nomad visa application process, which has taken about 6 weeks so far.
Could someone be a nomad part-time or is this an all-or-nothing lifestyle choice?
Of course! There are very few all-or-nothing choices in life.
Full-time travel looks different for different people. I know one couple who consider themselves nomads (and indeed travel faster and more than I do), but still own a home in Utah that they return to from time to time. Another couple I know are expats in Germany but frequently take anywhere from two weeks to two months to travel. And then there’s me…with a substantial amount of travel, but also a stint as a true expat in Switzerland. Nomading is what you make it.
Do you think everyone should go nomadic at some point in their lives?
The short answer is no. Being untethered, living a minimalist lifestyle, traveling the world, working from “home”…for some people, that’s the dream. For others, it sounds more like a nightmare. I am a firm believer that what you want is good enough. Your dream doesn’t have to be my dream. My dream doesn’t have to be yours.
I have friends who are happiest when they are circling the globe, others who feel best being stable expats somewhere outside their home country, still others who can’t imagine living anywhere but where they grew up. And all of those options are good and worthwhile. None more than the others.
Now, I do wish everyone had the chance to travel. Because all those things people say travel does–opening you up to the world, diminishing prejudices, making you braver and more confident in your abilities, offering up new perspectives–they’re true. And I think getting outside your own culture is a valuable thing.
But nomadic life and long-term travel? Well, they’re not everyone’s dreams and, frankly, they just aren’t feasible for everyone and that’s okay too. If you wish you could travel full-time, but have chosen instead to stay put, at least for the moment, and care for a sick loved one or pay off your debts or otherwise live a responsible, loving life, I applaud you. Travel, long or short-term, is wonderful, but so is caring for those who need you and living a life that doesn’t unduly burden others.
Has traveling made you feel disconnected with your friends as your lives diverge so greatly?
My closest friends are similar in both interests and mindset. Sure, most of them don’t travel full-time, but they do live unconventional lives and they do love to travel. We’ve all always been this way, which probably is what brought us together. And so with my closest friends, I’ve stayed very close. We Skype and email often and I make an effort to see them when I can.
What do you like most about full-time travel?
I love change. I’m so energized and inspired by new places, new people, new landscapes, smells, foods, sounds. And every time I move somewhere new I feel like I get to reinvent myself.
Equally as important, I love the freedom of my lifestyle. I can fit my whole life into a backpack. I can change my life in less than a month. I can go. I can stay. I can chase the sunshine. I can invest in community. I control my work schedule. I control my travel schedule. I prioritize my values (people, connection, learning, nature). I’m free.
What do you like least?
Paperwork and immigration rules. The world should be a whole lot more open. I feel sick and sad when I see the political pressure for tighter borders and less welcome happening in many countries.
Right now, I am working on getting residency in Europe and the bureaucracy makes me want to scream.
Do you buy souvenirs? If so, what do you do with them?
I don’t really buy souvenirs, but I do often replace my possessions along the way, so almost every skirt or bag or mascara bottle has a story and a place attached to it. I also take tons and tons of photos.
Wait…You travel with your dog? How does that work?
SANITY, LOVE, & RELATIONSHIPS Q&A
How do you manage when you feel ungrounded?
The short answer? I stop. I stay longer. I go somewhere familiar or somewhere I have friends.
The beauty of the nomadic life is that I haven’t committed myself to anything. If I feel lost or lonely, I can always go to Berlin or Paris or Arizona or Pennsylvania (all places I have good friends) for a month or two or apply for a visa and put down roots somewhere for a year or more. The key is recognizing when you’re starting to feel lost or burned out and giving yourself permission to stop for however long you need to.
How do you help yourself feel grounded in a new place?
I unpack my bags (living out of a bag is a sure-fire way to feel unsettled). I buy groceries and seek out farmers markets. I frequent the same coffee shop until the owner recognizes me. I rent apartments in neighborhoods with locals instead of living out of hotels or hostels. I go for long walks in my new neighborhood. I set up little routines that make me feel settled, like tea in the morning or a glass of wine on my terrace a few evenings a week.
And, of course, Luna is a tremendous help. Dogs require some small amount of routine and have a way of making you feel at home anywhere. No matter how jet-lagged or uninspired you feel, you still have to walk them, feed them, and pay attention to them. Also, dogs are like a magnet for people. No matter where I go, everyone wants to talk to me and everyone assumes I’m staying awhile, that I’m part of their community.
What about relationships on the road?
For the most part, my first 3.5 years on the road were spent solo. But don’t blame my singleness on travel; I was single for another 3+ years while living in Denver before hitting the road. I had some lovely dates and mini romances along the way, but I was mostly single and, honestly, not always thrilled about it.
That all changed in late 2015, when I met someone and we ended up traveling and living together for five years. In the end, we parted ways, but I wish him all good things.
If you’re looking for relationship travel advice, I’ll point you toward an interview: Advice from a World-Traveling Couple.
How do you make friends on the road?
I actually find it really easy to meet people and make friends on the road. Firstly because other travelers are usually up for a conversation. Secondly, because telling someone you travel full-time is a great ice-breaker and often leads to more conversations. And thirdly, because travel forces me to get out of the house and go exploring, which means I meet more people.
Do you find that your new friends are mostly transient…and how do you deal with that?
Actually, the vast majority of my friends have home bases of some kind. The friends I made in Belgium still live in Belgium. The friends I made in Germany still live in Germany. I’ve only met a handful of other full-time travelers. And so we stay connected via Skype and email and Facebook and by meeting up when we can.
HEALTH & MENTAL HEALTH Q&A
You travel with anxiety, right? What’s that like?
Yes, I do. It’s tough, but manageable. Here’s a long piece I wrote about it.
You also talk about depression on the road…what’s that about?
I’ve struggled with depression for years, but I try my best not to let it keep me from experiencing life. And, in general, I find that travel helps. it.
What about health insurance?
After a lifetime of bad experiences with health insurance companies, I’ve finally found one I love: GeoBlue. For $268 per month, I’m covered anywhere in the world except the US and they are amazing at setting up direct billing with whatever doctor I need to see (they’ve done this for me in both Rome and Dubrovnik). They’ve removed all the hassle and the fear I always have about things not being covered. I recommend them highly.
What do nomads who need prescription medication do?
What kind of bag(s) do you use?
Right now I’m carrying an Osprey 65-liter AG pack, which was kindly given to me in exchange for a review here on the blog back in 2016, and a smaller day pack (which I picked up at a thrift store in Switzerland) that I use as a carry-on.
I’m also traveling with a folding bicycle, which I carry in a special canvas bag with wheels.
What’s on your packing list?
It changes a lot based on where I am, what time of year it is, and how I shift over time, but here’s the latest.
What can you simply not live without?
Well, the essentials (the two things I would rescue in a fire) are my laptop and Luna. But nearly everything I carry feels essential to me either in terms of actual necessity (toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) and things that keep my quality of life at a level I can live with (mascara, nice dresses, iPod, good tea).
BLOGGING & TRAVEL WRITING Q&A
How did you become a travel writer?
I became a writer like this. And I landed my first (and second and third) travel writing gigs like this. But these days I don’t do as much travel writing. Instead, I focus on my technical copywriting work for income and write historical fiction (mostly based in Europe) in my spare time.
Any tips for someone who wants to become a writer?
Yep. Start here. Also: do interesting stuff. The more experiences you have, the more stories you have to tell.
How do travel bloggers make money?
Tons of very different ways, but mostly not from blogging itself. Here are some.
Do you take press trips and freebies? I know there’s some controversy about all that. How do you feel about it?
I don’t do press trips, but I do sometimes take freebies or discounts. This allows me to have a more diverse, rich experience of a place so that I can write about it from a more informed perspective. When I do take freebies or discounts, I do my best to make it clear here on the blog that I’ve done so, and I’m also committed to always telling you the truth about places I stay and things I try.
What do you miss the most? Is there anything that would make you move “home” again?
At this point, I doubt if there’s anything that could entice me back to the states full-time, but when in Europe I do miss TexMex pretty much all the time. The Mexican food in Europe is atrocious. I also miss good chapstick and it took me forever to find non-greasy sunscreen here.
Did I somehow miss your question? Ask it in the comments!