Writing Wanderlust: How Digital Nomads Write While Exploring the World

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Writers can work from just about anywhere, so why not work from everywhere? Meet some “digital nomads” who are making a living while exploring the world—and find out how you could become one of them.

Germans have a wonderfully literal way with words. Even if you aren’t fluent, you surely understand
wanderlust, the deep desire to travel. The German word for homesickness, heimweh, translates to
“home ache.” There’s even a word for the opposite of homesickness, fernweh, which goes even deeper than wanderlust: It describes an ache to be far away.

I write this from a bright, airy cafe in central Berlin, near the flat where I’ve been living for the past few months. My path to becoming an international freelancer for hire began almost two decades ago, when I was an exchange student living in Germany’s Rust Belt. I loved the language, I loved the people, and years later, when I quit my day job to pursue full-time freelancing, it was with the idea that I’d live abroad again —somewhere, somehow.

Now I’m doing it. After spending two summers working from Germany, finding troves of new stories to pitch while exploring Europe, I took the plunge and moved to Berlin. The energy of this bustling, international city never gets old. But if it ever did, I could easily hop a train to Prague or Paris or Poznań, Poland, for a change of scenery.

More independent writers are feeling the fernweh and taking advantage of a flexible schedule and digital workplace to take their shows on the road. Some are working on their next novel; others are juggling freelance clients.

Some have found foreign locales to settle down in; others move around every month. The change of scenery provides fresh perspective and an endless font of inspiration for writers who long to travel. Let’s get lost.

All smiles in Dubrovnik, Croatia, Gigi Griffis loves how traveling gives her new points of view.

Deciding to Go

A common thread in the origin stories of the “digital nomad” writers I’ve chatted with is the need to escape the everyday.

Gigi Griffis (gigigriffis.com) is a freelance content strategist who just finished her first novel. She was working long hours at an ad agency in Denver when she realized what she really wanted to do was work for herself. She built up a roster of freelance clients, but was still feeling overwhelmed and lonely. That’s when the travel idea came up. “I always felt like when I traveled I was able to look at things from another angle,” she says. A year into freelancing, she and her dog got on a plane. Th at was 2012, and since then they’ve lived all around the world, spending a month or two in each city, and her partner has joined them on their travels.

Scottish novelist Kerry Hudson (kerryhudson.co.uk) also travels with her partner and spends a month or two in each place she visits. Her desire for international adventure started with a round-the-world trip at age 21, and was recharged last year aft er the cost of living in London became untenable and Britain voted to leave the eurozone. “The longer we’re on the road, the more we’re like, We have to keep doing this!” she says.

Johnny Jen (johnnyfd.com) is a Californian who started his nomadic life in 2008 as an itinerant muay thai fighter and scuba instructor mostly based in Thailand. By 2012, tired of those pursuits, he self-published a travel guide offering his best tips for Thailand and has been able to live off of the proceeds.

[Learn how to pursue the dream of writing as you explore the world in the online course
Travel Writing with Jack Adler]

Amy Rigby (whereverwriter.com) is a freelance digital marketer from Florida who globe-trots about half of the year. She had a desk job she didn’t love and felt trapped. Then she devoured Tim Ferriss’ The Four Hour Workweek, started a travel blog, and quit her job to move to Latin America and learn Spanish.

Jodie Ettenberg (legalnomads.com) is a former lawyer turned food writer currently living in Oaxaca, Mexico. Where she travels “is almost always based on where I want to eat,” she says. “Th at’s why I keep returning to places like Thailand and Vietnam—because they are absolutely delicious.”

If you don’t already have a specific destination in mind, visa regulations may help direct where you go. Americans and Canadians can travel to many countries without a visa and can spend up to three of every six months in the Schengen Area, which includes 26 countries of Europe.

Kerry Hudson, pictured in Budapest, Hungary, likes to stay in one place for a month or two to get a feel for the culture.

Budgeting to Travel

The cost of living can actually be cheaper away from home, especially outside of major cities. Griffis budgets $1,000 per month for her lodging in Europe, knowing it’s likely to cost more if she’s spending a month in Paris, and less if she’s living in a small town. Being frugal is key to longevity with this lifestyle. “I always try to live below my means,” Jen says. “Last year, even though I made well over $100,000, I spent on average $1,200 a month.”

Rigby quit her job in February 2013 with $4,000 in the bank—and ran out of money within four months. Delayed but undeterred, she went home to regroup and laid out a plan to try it again. “A lot of times when we read about freelance success or digital nomad stories, I don’t think people understand how difficult it can be to start,” she says. Though she’s successful in her wandering
aims now, she emphasizes the trial and error involved in getting there. “It doesn’t happen overnight. I really struggled the first two years of my business.”

Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America are especially attractive destinations for the budget conscious. But while it might be tempting to live it up on the cheap, it’s important to be conscientious of your host country. “If we’re visiting or living somewhere, I think we have an obligation to learn as much as we can and be sensitive to local culture,” Ettenberg says. New or temporary residents can forge connections by volunteering, taking classes in the local language (I’ve found that mastering even 20 to 30 words of a language can make a huge difference in how well you’re able to get along) or simply making an effort to learn about the area’s history and culture.

Johnny Jen has spent much of his time abroad in Thailand, purposefully living below his means.

Handling Practicalities

Talk to a tax adviser before going on permanent walkabout. If you don’t establish a permanent residence in another country, you likely won’t be subject to taxes there, but every country’s rules are different. Even Americans who spend most of their time outside of the country and pay taxes in another country still have to file U.S. taxes every year.

Checking in with your bank before you head abroad is a good idea. The age of converting cash before you go to the airport is over: It’s quicker and cheaper to take out money from an ATM when you reach your destination.

Jen recommends keeping at least two ATM cards from different banks in case one runs into difficulties. To avoid foreign currency confusion, Hudson takes out only the amount of money she’s budgeted for each week so she doesn’t accidentally overspend.

You may want to shop around for a bank account that doesn’t charge international ATM fees or has low international exchange rates. If you end up falling in love with a place and set up residency, you should consider opening a local bank account as well.

Take stock of regional spending habits once you arrive. Some countries are card-crazy: In Sweden, Singapore and the Netherlands, even the smallest payments are commonly swiped. Other countries, including Germany, Brazil and China, favor cash.

Ask your mobile carrier about international plan options before you go. If you’re traveling for more than a few weeks, it might make the most sense to buy local SIM cards abroad for your unlocked device. Just make sure you can still access your home phone’s text messages in case you use any online services that require two-factor authorization.

Amy Rigby isn’t a luxury
traveler, but she does indulge sometimes, like this vacation to Venice, Italy—her laptop was not invited.

Getting Settled

As a digital nomad, all you really need are a comfortable bed and reliable Wi-Fi. “Having a nice place is the most important thing if you’re working from home,” Hudson says. Many of the freelancers I’ve talked to use Airbnb to find temporary housing and sublets. If you’re willing to stay in one place for a month or more, you might be able to negotiate a discount compared to the nightly or weekly rates.

You may also have luck in Facebook groups for sublets and temporary rentals in the country you’re looking to live in. If you’re more adventurous, you can try Couchsurfing or WWOOFing. With Couchsurfing, people around the world offer up a free bed or couch to travelers for limited amounts of time, and you may find longer-term sublets on the site’s forums.

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and it refers to a network of farmers who seek seasonal help in exchange for room and board for stays ranging from a few days to a few years.

Griffis always asks potential hosts to test the Wi-Fi speed before she arrives (they can do so by going to speedtest.net and sharing the results) so she knows whether the internet access is reliable. Hudson recommends looking for cafes, libraries and co-working spaces near your rental ahead of time in case the home office isn’t suitable.

Seek out the advice of others who have been in your shoes. “The most important thing is to find an online community of people who are already doing it and starting to do it, and find a mentor,” Rigby says. Search Facebook groups for “digital nomad” or “freelancers” and your target city or country to get started.

Living the Dream

Setting aside time to write every day is important in creating a routine you can stick to no matter what time zone you’re in. You might decide that mornings are for writing, and once you hit a certain time you’re free for the rest of the day. Or if you have clients in another time zone, you might explore during the day and work in the evenings.

Thai food is among her favorite cuisines, so Jodi Ettenberg spends a lot of time in Southeast Asia.

“For the most part, my life and fun activities are built around the writing, not the other way around,” Ettenberg says. Believe it or not, even being a world traveler can get tiring. “I really get bored of traveling as a tourist,” Jen says. “I write as an escape from my escape.”

Traveling constantly can be a lonely adventure, but every traveler develops his own hacks to counteract that. Jen, for instance, always travels with a card game or two: “It’s one of the best ways to connect with new friends,” he says. If you are working at cafes or co-working spaces, you’ll likely find it surprisingly easy to strike up conversations with others doing the same. For me, becoming a
regular at a bar or cafe in my neighborhood helps create a sense of normalcy and routine.

It’s also OK to take a real vacation now and then. “It’s so easy to just keep working when you work for yourself,” Griffis says. “I committed to take a full month off [in 2015], and it’s so amazing, I’ve done it three times now.”

Hudson and her partner keep an emergency fund for last-minute tickets home in the event that things go south or something unexpected comes up. “What stops people from taking a big leap into something is the idea that once you do it you can’t go back,” Griffis says. “You can go back. If you go and you miss your old life after six months, you can do it, it’s OK!”

There are always a million reasons not to do something. But it takes only one “yes” to set you on a course to see the world.

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One thought on “Writing Wanderlust: How Digital Nomads Write While Exploring the World

  1. AvatarBrett Minor

    As someone who moves around a lot, I love everything about this article. However, I will challenge you on the cash preference of China. I’ve lived in Beijing for the last 18 months and they have become almost cashless. Everyone here pays for goods with their phones. You can even pay street vendors with an easy to use app like WeChat or Alipay.

    China is now leading the world in electronic mobile transactions and have implemented a plan to eradicate paper money in the bigger cities by 2020.


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