The world isn’t ready for the digital nomad movement.
If projections are to be believed, the growing trend in how people choose to live and work is fast outpacing the service and policy enhancements needed to keep up with a borderless workforce bound only by its need for a reliable Wi-Fi connection. But that’s not slowing down the nomads.
The Economist theorizes that there could be as many as one billion remote workers by 2035. Such a movement has implications for entities ranging from banks and insurance companies to national governments — but few organizations are in the habit of looking 15 years down the road and altering course appropriately. But even short-term, the numbers deserve our attention: about 59 million people are considering joining the digital nomad movement in the next two to three years.
Put another way: in the next 24 to 36 months, roughly the population of Italy plans to sever traditional workplace ties so they can go mobile. How are our global services and infrastructures going to accommodate these individuals?
Having spent more than six years as a digital nomad myself, I can tell you that there’s a steep learning curve to this lifestyle. While it’s one that I’ve found well worth the effort, tapping into the networks and services needed to sustain my professional and personal networks hasn’t always been easy. Looking back to when I first gave into my wanderlust, after starting my career in the late ‘90s dot-com era as a serial entrepreneur in the U.S. digital marketing and ad tech industries, I can’t help but muse that I wish I knew then what I know now.
So for all of those aspiring or early stage nomads out there, in hopes that your own transitions to the nomadic lifestyle might be easier than my own, I’m here to tell you what I know now. While we can expect to see a great deal of change over the next couple decades, as the world economy races to catch up to the digital nomad movement, these are the essential considerations — and your best options — when it comes to the core elements needed to sustain yourself in your nomadic ramblings today.
Let’s start with the basics: where to live.
It’s almost impossible for digital nomads to find suitable accommodations at fair prices within major U.S. metropolitan areas that foster the standard of living they’re seeking. That’s one of the main reasons why so many nomads are ending up in Asian countries and other economical international destinations. In addition to being lower-cost, these destinations offer desirable alternatives to city environments where the standard 9-5 is required to afford everything the city has to offer.
When it comes to finding a place to live, whether for a few days or many months, there are a lot of options. The one that makes the most sense has a lot to do with your individual situation and preferences. Most important is having a place to stay with strong Wi-Fi. Consider:
Airbnb: Given its popularity for vacation rentals, a lot of new nomads initially turn here. While it allows for a more “at home” feel in a rental (because it is someone’s home), it can quickly become cost-prohibitive. Airbnb is great for short-term rentals, but comparatively expensive for anything more than a couple weeks.
Booking and Agoda: Similar to Airbnb, but these sites are more professional in that they’re mostly used by professionally-run apartments, hotels and resorts. All are great for those who are looking for more services with their accommodations. But they don’t always have the home-like feel that many nomads crave, and like Airbnb, they can get expensive fast.
Facebook Groups: A number of Facebook Groups for digital nomads have emerged recently. These groups can be handy because they let guests and hosts connect directly and come to mutually agreeable arrangements. However, these groups aren’t a rental platform. Guests don’t have access to reviews or an easy way to issue payments confidently. So while accommodations can be a bit more affordable when organized through groups, it’s hard to know what you’re going to get.
Hostels: As any rambling college student can attest, hostels are an affordable, social way to see the world. But living at a hostel offers little privacy and near-constant disruption, often of the drunken partying variety. It’s not a terribly viable route for nomadic couples or anyone looking for living space that can also double as an office.
Hotels: On the flip side, hotels are great for couples. But for nomads spending weeks or even months abroad, they’re expensive and can be isolating for people looking to truly immerse themselves in new local cultures. Hotels are best reserved for short-term expeditions.
VIP hostels (e.g., Selina): This new breed of the hostel experience offers a great combination of co-working and social connections that help nomads connect with like-minded people. They provide some level of privacy, but these accommodations — like others — become expensive in the long term if you want your own bedroom.
Co-living spaces: As with co-working spaces, there’s a growing movement in which digital nomads come together to share the cost of living accommodations, which range from multi-bedroom apartments to large-scale co-living buildings complete with kitchens, shared and private bathrooms, working and community spaces. These environments are great for making connections while having access to privacy when needed, but branded co-living spaces will still cost more than a local midterm apartment.
Midterm rental platforms: For nomads looking to stay in one place for a month or more and truly soak in the culture, midterm rental platforms represent a more-affordable alternative to platforms like Airbnb. These platforms (full disclosure: I now operate one of them, by the name of NomadX) offer affordable month-to-month options with fast Wi-Fi in everyday neighborhoods, which enables you to connect more deeply with the local community without an overly long commitment. That said, this category is still quite new, so midterm rental inventory might be limited or nonexistent in the market you’re considering.
Couchsurfing: Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Couchsurfing, a social network for travelers and nomads that makes it possible to connect directly with locals and even crash on their sofas for free. That said, Couchsurfing is only designed for short-term stays, it’s not very professional and it’s quickly evolving into more of a dating/hook-up platform than anything else.
Also, a quick note on Wi-Fi: No matter where you stay, you’ll need to ensure you can always be connected in order to stay on top of work. While you can check with your current mobile provider on international roaming plans, the coverage might be limited and ultimately become expensive. You might instead want to consider buying a local SIM card in every country and using it with your smartphone. That way, you can use your phone as a hotspot and get internet on your laptop. In a pinch, though, it’s good to have a backup mobile hotspot option. (For example, I travel with a Skyroam Solis.)
We digital nomads are risk takers by nature, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want or appreciate a safety net. After all, having an accident isn’t a choice. Unfortunately, if nomads can’t get coverage for a fair price, many opt to forego insurance altogether and end up resorting to crowdfunding if they end up in a bad situation. I’ve had several friends get into accidents in foreign countries, and they couldn’t get proper medical treatment until they’d crowdfunded the needed resources. This is a worst-case scenario, and it’s one that I hope becomes a thing of the past as more borderless options for insurance emerge.