What happens to digital nomads during a pandemic?

by Gigi Griffis
Luna the dog scream-yawning

With the whole world on various levels of lockdown, how are digital nomads holding up? Where do we stay when we don’t have a permanent address? What happens when visas expire mid-quarantine? How have our lives been derailed?

I haven’t seen many people talking about the location independent. Which is a bit strange, since 4.8 million people identified themselves as digital nomads in 2018

Now, do I think there are actually 4.8 million nomads? Nope. I think people conflated “working from home” with “being nomadic.” But I do think there are a fair few of us wandering the world in RVs and on bicycles and on foot and by train, living out of backpacks and working from wherever the WiFi is best. 

And since the pandemic turned my life on its head in some weird ways, I wondered what’s happening with my nomadic comrades.

Which is why I asked them. 

And today I’m going to share my story and a handful of other stories of digital nomadism in the time of corona:

Gigi Griffis (me!)

dog at restaurant in Rome

As you probably already know, I’m Gigi—the architect of this little website and the 100 Locals guidebook series. I’ve been traveling the world full-time since May 2012 with my freelance writing and content strategy business and my small dog, Luna. A few years into my travels, we added my partner Chad and became a traveling trio.

Where were you when isolation and quarantine orders started going into effect?
Florence, Italy. We have D visas in Estonia, so we’ve been loosely based there since last summer, but this winter we took a break from the cold and dark and headed south to Switzerland and Italy. 

What did you do?
On March 8th, when the quarantine for northern Italy went into full effect, we were still in Florence. I woke up that morning to a message from a friend (thanks, Ali!) that the military was rolling into the north and people were now confined to their homes.

Florence was not a high-risk area at that time, but we took one look at what was happening and we knew that the quarantine could expand and expand quickly. We decided to get out – fast. That afternoon, we boarded a train to Rome, where we stayed overnight and took a morning flight back to Estonia, where we still have our long-stay (D) visas

We arrived in Estonia at about the same time as the quarantine order expanded across all of Italy. We checked into our Airbnb in Tallinn and started self-isolating, thanking our lucky stars that we made it out when we did.

Are you encountering any issues unique to your situation as a digital nomad while you’re sheltering in place?
One of the big reasons we chose to flee to Estonia ahead of the pandemic situation is that we have visas here and as soon as the quarantine net started to drop, we knew this might be more than a few weeks of chaos. We wanted to be where we had legal permission to stay (and not have to try and travel during lockdowns and border closings) and where we could (hopefully) extend our D visas as needed.

Our big concern now is getting our visas extended, because it seems unlikely that life will be business as usual come June (when our visas are set to expire). We’ve been emailing with the border control officials here and are hoping to start the extension process in the next week or two (with plenty of time before our June expiration just in case things change again). The big irritation right now is getting our damn health insurance provider to call us back, since we need to extend our coverage before we apply for the extension.

Do you have plans to go somewhere else soon? If so, where and why? 
Nope. We knew pretty much as soon as we got here that the COVID-19 situation was going to go beyond a month or two and impact more than one or two countries. Here we are safe, legal, and relatively low risk. 

We worked out an indefinite month-to-month rental agreement with our landlord, stocked our freezer full of food in case one of us gets sick and we have to fully quarantine, and picked up several months’ worth of medications for myself and dog, both of whom are on meds for the foreseeable future.

I believe our D visas are extendible to January or February, so we’ll apply for the full extension asap and reassess our plans once it’s safe to do so. 

Gillian & Stephanie, Our Freedom Years

Gillian and Stephanie with pups

We’ve been traveling full-time for the past six months. Our plan is to take the next few years to explore the world slowly, starting with a year or so in Europe. We were previously working as expats in Singapore but we were able to reach our financial goals, say goodbye to corporate jobs, and set off for a life of travel with our two little dogs. Adding the dogs has made nomadic life more complicated, but they also bring us a lot of joy and make every place we visit feel like home.

Where were you when isolation and quarantine orders started going into effect?
We were right in the middle of a two-month stay in Italy. Our original plan was a visit to Florence in February and then off to Lecce in the south of Italy for March. After that we planned a lengthy exploration of the Balkans over the spring and summer.

Of course, we were aware of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Italy over February and the subsequent quarantine in the north. But, to be honest, we did not appreciate the gravity of the situation and how it might impact our travel plans and our lives. The national quarantine in Italy caught us completely off guard. Little did we realize how quickly the situation would escalate to border closures around the world and flight cancellations.

What did you do?
When we heard the news that the lockdown had been extended across all of Italy, we knew we needed to take action or we might get stuck for much longer than expected. The very next day we found out that other countries were closing borders to travelers from Italy. We realized we needed to move much more quickly and booked a 6am flight for the next day from the nearest airport — which was 2 hours away — to Budapest, Hungary. This was the cheapest and closest European destination that was still accepting travelers from Italy.

Unfortunately, we were already too late. We were woken up in the middle of the night by our family calling to let us know that the borders to Hungary were officially closed to foreigners and our flight was cancelled. We took the early morning hours to organize our next best option: waiting out the national lockdown at a friend’s holiday home at Lake Como.

Where are you now?
We’re still here, safe and healthy, in a small community on the edge of Lake Como in Italy. We are very grateful to be in such a beautiful place where we can take our dogs for a short walk in the mountains every day. That said, we are in the Lombardy region, which is the epicenter of the outbreak. The lockdown rules are quite strict here. We’re not allowed to leave the house except to get groceries or walk the dogs. We also hear ambulance sirens almost every day and see non-stop news about the number of deaths in the region, which creates an underlying stress.

Are you encountering any issues unique to your situation as digital nomads while you’re sheltering in place?
Since we are in Italy on a Schengen Visa, we were concerned about running into our late April deadline for leaving Italy. That was one of the reasons we made plans to return home to Canada…

Do you have plans to go somewhere else? If so, where and why?
Even though we are comfortable, ultimately we are quite isolated here at Lake Como. We don’t have a car, making a trip to the grocery store or pharmacy an 8km round-trip on foot. We don’t speak the language. If we had any health issues, including the virus or any other medical concern, it would be very difficult to receive treatment. Although flights are running now, we don’t know how long they’ll be available.

With all that in mind, we’ve decided to pause our European travels for the moment and go back to Canada. Even though we will need to self-isolate for two weeks upon arrival, it’s worth it to be in Canada where we can better take care of ourselves and our families. Of course, as soon as borders open, we plan to resume our travels.

Aleah Taboclaon, The Solitary Wanderer

Aleah in Wadi Rum, Jordan

I’ve been a digital nomad for eight years now, alternating between traveling and staying in the Philippines where I’m originally from. I left the Philippines in February with an open itinerary, planning on staying in Belgium for 2.5 months (to be with my boyfriend), then on to Turkey, Albania, Russia, etc. Basically anywhere where I didn’t need a visa or could get one online. I didn’t have plans to go back to the Philippines in the near future, which is why I let my apartment go and put my things in storage.

Where were you when isolation and quarantine orders started going into effect?
I was still in Belgium. We had plans to travel to Andorra and had booked all our tickets when we received news that Andorra went in lockdown (i.e. all ski resorts/restaurants, etc. closed). We cancelled our plans and lost most of our bookings.

What did you do?
I stayed at my boyfriend’s house.

Where are you now?
I’m still in Belgium.

Are you encountering any issues unique to your situation as a digital nomad while you’re sheltering in place?
My main problem at this point is that my visa expires in two weeks. The Philippines is in lockdown until April 15 (same with Belgium). If the Philippines extends the lockdown (which is likely), there would be no public transport. I also have nowhere to go, since I don’t have an apartment in the city anymore. I have a house in the next province, but I have sublet it to a family and, given the lockdown, I wouldn’t know how to get there.

My best bet is to apply for a visa extension. I don’t have proof that the Philippines will extend the lockdown though, so I don’t know if I’ll get it. Qatar Airways also hasn’t cancelled the flight yet (which I think they might do closer to the date) so that’s another issue. If they cancelled my flight already, I could have used that as supporting data for my visa extension application.

Do you have plans to go somewhere else soon? If so, where and why?
Given the pandemic, I’m definitely staying put here in Belgium. If the pandemic were resolved already, I would push through with my plans to travel. I wanted to go to either Albania or Turkey as I’ve never been in either and I could get an e-visa.

Alexx Hayward, Finding Alex

Alex of Finding Alex

I’m a Kiwi travel blogger. I’ve been traveling solo for nine months and had planned to travel until at least the end of 2021, if not longer. I’m from New Zealand originally; I grew up in Hamilton in the North Island but moved to Auckland when I was 18, before moving to London at 25, and then kicking off my indefinite solo trip last year when I was 27. My trip had already taken me around Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, and I was meant to have another two months in Asia, two months in North and Central America, and back to Europe for an extended period, before coming home for a quick visit for a friend’s wedding in December.

Where were you when isolation and quarantine orders started going into effect?
I was in the Philippines in early March which had minimal cases (only 65 at the time), on a group tour around Palawan. One of our tour mates actually had a fever at one of the standard temperature checks, and that (understandably) threw our trip into disarray.

The next 12 hours were a crazy mess. We waited in a rural hospital carpark for three hours for her to be seen and then she was taken back to Puerto Princesa, while we had a health check and were allowed to move on. When we arrived at our next stop, a small coastal village, we were told we weren’t allowed off the bus. We spent two hours waiting on our bus in the hotel carpark while the local health department decided what to do. Our hotel brought us dinner to eat on the bus. Then, at 10:30pm, we were told we’d be heading out to an island to quarantine there indefinitely until our friend got her coronavirus results back (2 – 5 days).

Being on the island was the most insane experience. There was a basic toilet and tents with foam mattresses but no power except for two lights, no cell reception and, obviously, no WiFi. We had fresh fish, fruit, and veggies for most meals, a bonfire, and an entire bay with colorful coral, fish, and some turtles to ourselves.

After two days, our tour guide got a call when we went for a snorkeling trip into an area with reception, where he was expecting to hear about an update on our friend. Instead, he was told that Manila was going into full lockdown within 36 hours and he had to get the entire group there and out of the country ASAP!

What did you do?
After hearing about the lockdown we had a one-hour boat trip to the mainland and had to wait for a local doctor to clear us all for the four-hour drive back to Puerto Princesa. And all 21 of us were desperately trying to get seats on the very few flights to Manila the next day before the restrictions came into effect. Luckily, we managed to get a spot for $225 USD (which is about four times the normal price) but some of our travel buddies had to get to PP airport at 4am and wait the entire day to get a standby spot, which they managed to score at 9pm.

From Manila, I made the difficult decision to come “home,” even though I hadn’t lived with my parents in over 10 years or in the country for more than three. Borders were closing each day and I didn’t want to be stuck anywhere with no option to go home and no way of making income since the travel industry was shutting down, so I booked a ridiculously expensive $2300-AUD ticket from Manila to Auckland.

My next destination after the Philippines was meant to be the Maldives, which was incredibly tempting as a quarantine destination! But, obviously, I didn’t want to be a vector for transmission and I definitely can’t afford to be stuck in a Maldivian resort for the foreseeable future.

Where are you now?
I’m in my childhood bedroom in Hamilton, New Zealand! I’m very lucky that my parents still have room for me. When I arrived in NZ, I had to self-isolate for 14 days, and a week into that self-isolation the government announced we’d be going into a full lockdown within 48 hours. Right now we’re on day 12 of the four week lockdown, no travel except for groceries and essential work, and the lockdown is likely to be extended another couple of weeks.

Are you encountering any issues unique to your situation as a digital nomad while you’re sheltering in place?
The only issue I’m really dealing with is the financial side of things. All my freelance travel writing contracts were cancelled and obviously partnerships with suppliers are all on hold. It’s hard because NZ is an expensive country in terms of food and I had budgeted for the next two months in Asia which covers about two weeks in NZ!

Do you have plans to go somewhere else soon? If so, where and why?
It’s likely that NZ’s national lockdown will be lifted in the next few months, but there is talk about our international borders staying closed until there’s a vaccine, which could be 18 months away.

So, as soon as it’s safe and responsible to do so, I’ll be heading off on an NZ camper-van road trip! I want to make the most of this time to explore my own backyard, as well as shout about our incredible local tourism industry. We’re one of the most beautiful countries in the world, at the top of so many bucket lists, but lots of young Kiwis (including myself) tend to spend their annual leave and disposable income on going abroad for their holidays. Now is the perfect time to channel that money into small businesses and destinations closer to home who are feeling a gigantic hole from the lack on international visitors. And as a small silver lining, there will be far less people around too.

Christina Grance, Live a Wilder Life

Live A Wilder Life

We’re a family of three who, in early 2019, realized we needed to make a big change to our lives. My husband and I had been living in Los Angeles for over 15 years and were struggling big time to keep up with the costs of living in such an expensive city. The birth of our son is what helped us to question if working 80-hour weeks and poor physical and mental health is really what we wanted to model to our child.

We were free spirits who had crushed our vitality in an effort to keep up with an LA lifestyle. We felt the calling to roam and return to our creative roots of writing and photography, so we decided to sell our home and our belongings to travel the US for a year in search of where we wanted to live. In October of 2019, we hit the road, ready to have an epic adventure together.

Where were you when isolation and quarantine orders started going into effect?
We were in Boise, Idaho, when California issued the stay-at-home orders. After California, Idaho wasn’t far behind in following suit.

What did you do?
We were renting an Airbnb and had already booked it until the beginning of April. We knew we would stay there until then and re-evaluate what our options were. Flying out to stay with our parents never felt like an option since my husbands parents live in California (a hot zone) and my parents are elderly and one has diabetes. It didn’t feel smart to travel and potentially expose my son or my parents to the virus.

Also, Idaho is one of the least populated and least visited states in the US. The entire state of Idaho has a population of just under two million people. To put that in perspective, Los Angeles has ten million. Whether it’s actually true or not, it felt safe to stay in Idaho.

Where are you now?
We were able to extend our rental for an additional two weeks. After that, the owners will be returning to their home, so we have no choice but to leave.

Are you encountering any issues unique to your situation as a digital nomad while you’re sheltering in place?
The issue we’re having is…where to go next? We have no home to return to and it doesn’t feel wise to be with our parents. My husband’s dad has a longstanding history in Northern Idaho and still owns the house he grew up in, but it is a small mountain town with limited resources. There’s a big backlash in the US against people escaping to second homes and straining resources from the locals.

I understand their grief with outsiders coming in to flee big cities, but at this point, we have no other choice. If we do, I definitely feel like we’ll have to hide where we’re from. Hard to do that when we have California license plates! My hope is that people will understand we’re in a very unique situation.

Do you have plans to go somewhere else soon? If so, where and why?
For now, we will be staying in place until it’s clear that it’s safe and responsible to travel again. There’s a sadness that our great “travel year” might turn out to be a five-month journey, but we’re open and willing to let go of whatever we had planned. Overall, we feel incredibly grateful that we’re in Idaho and moved before COVID-19 shut down the city of LA. In a funny way, perhaps being “stuck” in Idaho means we were always meant to be here.

Corritta Lewis, It’s a Family Thing

Coritta Lewis and family

We are a family that finally decided to live their dream. We recently became a full-time travel family after selling everything and leaving San Diego, California, in January. Our original destination was Mexico, but we took a detour and decided to take a road trip to Colorado.

Where were you when isolation and quarantine orders started going into effect?
Luckily, we returned from an impromptu trip a few days before the Governor issued self-quarantine orders. This was perfect timing, since we were traveling with my pregnant sister and did not want to get stuck in Las Vegas with a baby and expecting mom. We are now in Colorado Springs.

What did you do? 
We tried to see if we could travel safely to a different location, but were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, while trying to find a place to quarantine, we were informed a close family member had the virus and was in critical condition. This prompted us to decide to stay in Colorado Springs.

Where are you now?
We are still in Colorado Springs for the time being. We rescheduled our flight to Guadalajara, Mexico, for mid-June and had to cancel our trip to Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Mexico City, and Costa Rica.

Are you encountering any issues unique to your situation as a digital nomad while you’re sheltering in place?
Our situation is unique in that we are unexpectedly sheltering in place with family. When we left California to travel indefinitely, we imagined not seeing our family for several years, not staying with them for several months.

It has been an adjustment for everyone, especially since we are used to being on our own and exploring. Even though nothing is turning out as planned we are happy to have the opportunity to form stronger relationships with our family and meet its newest member.

Do you have plans to go somewhere else soon? If so, where and why?
We plan to try to get to Asia as soon as possible when the travel advisory is lifted. If possible, we would like to get to Thailand to volunteer at WFFT (Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand). We love what the organization stands for and have been longing to return since our trip there in 2017. This pandemic has hurt a lot of countries that rely heavily on tourism for survival. Our goal is to do everything we can to help those in need. If we are unable to obtain a visa upon arrival in Thailand, we will reroute to China or the Philippines.

Mandy Moore, Vagabondette

van interior

I’m originally from the USA and I’ve lived all over that country. I originally started nomading in late 2008, so I’ve been on the road for quite a while at this point.

Where were you when isolation and quarantine orders started going into effect?
I was in Turkey when things started heating up in Italy. I had plans to cat sit for a friend in Belgium from mid March, so in early March I started making my way there, via Spain. When it became clear that Spain was going to be the next hot spot in Europe, I changed my plans and headed to Belgium early.

Not surprisingly, my friend’s trip was cancelled, which left me figuring out where to go but knowing I didn’t want to return to the USA.

What did you do?
After thinking for a day or two, I decided to head to Germany. The death rate in Germany is significantly lower than in any other country, and the population in general is known for following the rules and there didn’t seem to be the hoarding issues that were starting to pop up in other countries, so I figured that it would be a relatively safe place to spend the duration. It also fit with my long-term plans, which include buying a van to convert to a camper and living in that full time.

Where are you now?
I am currently living in a rental camper in Germany. I found a local small business that was willing to give me a good price on a month-to-month rental. At €1000 a month, it is more than I would pay for an apartment, but it is allowing me to see if this lifestyle is a good choice for me long term and I am not stuck in one place. So far, it has been great. I’m moving around a relatively small radius in West Germany because I’m waiting for a piece of mail from the USA (now is not a good time to be without an ATM card!!), but once I get that, I will be heading for central and eastern Germany where there are significantly fewer cases.

Are you encountering any issues unique to your situation as a digital nomad while you’re sheltering in place?
So far, my biggest issues have been with relation to the van given that most RV-friendly places are closed. But, I’ve figured out the water and gas situation and it’s going well. I also have to be concerned about cell coverage as I’m tethering to my phone for work, but that hasn’t been bad so far. I use a 4g coverage map to find towns with good coverage during the week and go rural at the weekend. My Schengen visa is good until early June, so I’m not worrying about it at this point. Once early May comes I think we will have a better idea of the situation and I will start figuring out next steps.

Do you have plans to go somewhere else soon? If so, where and why?
I intend to continue living in the van unless they really lock things down, but I don’t see things getting significantly more restricted than they are now. I will hopefully be able to stay in Germany until the borders open. Then I can buy my van and drive it through to Bulgaria to register it as I’ve always planned to do.

Sneha Inguva

Sneha traveling

Hi! My name is Sneha Inguva. I’m originally from NYC and have been a nomad for about 3 years.

Where were you when isolation and quarantine orders started going into effect?
I decided to go on a climbing and mountaineering-centric trip to South America this spring. To that end, I was in Bariloche, Argentina, when the quarantine order went into effect.

This entire situation is a bit surreal as the first time I learned of COVID-19, I was on a mountaineering trip in January in Colombia without wifi. My friend and I stopped at a mountain farm where we saw several news stories about an emerging virus in Wuhan, China. We joked about feeling like we were in a 28 days later situation; would we emerge in a week and find a completely different world? However, that wasn’t the case and I continued my trip and found myself in Bariloche at the beginning of March.

The week before the quarantine order went into effect, I was already debating whether to head back to Colombia or head home but decided to continue climbing in Patagonia (it was a dream after all!). However, reality became very quickly apparent when, overnight, all national parks were closed in the country and my friends and I were kicked out of a mountain hut on the weekend. I returned to Bariloche and spent two days debating what to do: fly back to the US or stay.

What did you do?
Ultimately, I decided to stay. Bariloche is a fairly small town in Argentina. The entire country shut down fairly quickly with almost all travel stopped between provinces. If I had decided to fly home, I would have needed to take a flight to Buenos Aires, then Panama, then Miami, and then Detroit (to my parents house – I gave up my apartment in NYC when I became a nomad). I felt that the level of exposure wasn’t warranted at the time, given that I worked remotely and could simply continue to extend my rental housing in Bariloche.

Where are you now?
I am still in Bariloche, Argentina!

Are you encountering any issues unique to your situation as a digital nomad while you’re sheltering in place?
Luckily, extending my rental housing is not a problem at all. In fact, my landlord generously extended a discount without me even asking! I am a bit worried, however, about my visa situation. Under normal circumstances, Argentina offers a three-month visa with a possibility for a three-month extension. After the quarantine started, I emailed immigration here and was told that all visas were extended by another month and could be extended longer. I found that slightly reassuring at least!

Do you have plans to go somewhere else soon? If so, where and why?
In the short term, no! Like many, I’m simply waiting and watching. I’m from NYC but had planned to eventually move to California this summer after visiting my parents in Michigan; both places seem less than ideal to travel to at this point. As I’m in northern Patagonia and inter-country transport has been suspended, leaving now would mean a twenty hour private car journey to the capital of Buenos Aires and a series of flights out of the country – many of which are still being cancelled. I think the best thing may be to wait and see when some quarantine restrictions are lifted (and there’s some indication of getting the spread of the virus under control), before heading back to the U.S. Of course, I still worry about my parents and cat in Michigan!

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Steven May 14, 2020 - 5:06 pm

A lot of nomads I know went back to their home countries. I know I debated it for a while. I decided to hunker down where I was currently at; Istanbul, Turkey.

It’s almost three months and I’m still here waiting to figure out my next move.

Jack May 15, 2020 - 3:16 am

Likewise, Steven. I’m not too far from you in Belgrade… Greece may be our first good opportunity, but I’ve got to figure out an overstay or taking up residency, both which may come with additional costs.

gigigriffis May 15, 2020 - 3:37 am

Yep. Those were pretty much the options: hunker down or go “home” – whatever home means to people.

Jack May 15, 2020 - 3:14 am

It’s good to feel a little less alone, though I’m probably stuck in the most awkward situation in a “developing” country I don’t want to stay in. But it’s this or incredible costs to return to a country I’ve shunned.

gigigriffis May 15, 2020 - 3:38 am

Good luck. :(


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