Have you considered abandoning the 9 to 5 lifestyle and working remotely in exotic destinations around the world? Read on to discover the things we loved about digital nomad life and the things we didn’t.
We loved the digital nomad lifestyle for two years. Then we hit year three and it wasn’t so fun anymore.
The excitement and wanderlust that bubbled each time we traveled to a new destination started to fade to a trickle. Once we decided to put down some long-term roots, we ultimately decided to move to Lisbon.
Before we jump into the reasons why we both loved and hated the digital nomad life, let’s start with the basics.
What Is a Digital Nomad?
The term ‘digital nomad’ has become a catch phrase to the point that it’s been co-opted. Some people even confuse digital nomads with the characters in the movie Nomad Land. Trust us, it’s an entirely different thing. We were never desperate for money and we always had plumbing.
Digital nomads are individuals who have location independent jobs that allow them to work remotely anywhere in the world. You’ve probably seen these individuals at your neighborhood coffee shop typing away on their laptops and participating in conference calls.
Typical digital nomad work involves freelancing gigs like computer programming and copywriting. Many digital nomads run drop shipment businesses while other digital nomads trade stocks and teach languages. Our location independent work, both then and now, involves blogging and web publishing.
How We Became Digital Nomads
We didn’t intend to become digital nomads. It kind of just happened.
In fact, we were unfamiliar with the term until we rented our house and put our possessions into storage. Our plan was to travel for a year, following our whims, with the wind at our back, to destinations around the world.
The reality of our new status literally hit us in the face when we bumped into a Philadelphia acquaintance who greeted us by saying “So, I heard that you’re going nomadic.” Before long, we were on the road, living the digital nomadic lifestyle.
Our first two months as digital nomads were a blur as we literally circled the United States in our zippy Nissan Sentra. We then flew to Lyon for a one-month stay with no definitive plans on the horizon.
Having an apartment in the center of Lyon with a kitchen was a dream come true despite the fact that the mattress was on the floor. What mattered was that we could shop at local markets and cook food in a proper French kitchen. It was the first of dozens of apartments that would be our temporary homes in just as many cities and countries.
To say that our friends and families were surprised is an understatement. As members of Generation X, we weren’t exactly young but we were also nowhere near retirement age. To be honest, we were a bit surprised ourselves.
And so began our digital nomad journey.
Our Digital Nomad Journey
Every journey has a beginning, middle and end. Such was the case with our lives as digital nomads.
During three years on the road, our highs were exhilarating and our lows were crushing. We saw and did more than we had ever imagined in our wildest dreams, building a profitable business along the way.
Despite staying in cities for as long as two months at a time, we managed to eat our way through more than 25 countries in four continents. Some restaurants had plastic chairs while others were had one, two and even three Michelin stars. Often, though, we opted for inexpensive yet excellent street food like pho in Hanoi or ramen in Osaka. Other times we simply cooked amazing food, like pasta in Bologna, at home.
We didn’t just eat around the world. Our life-changing digital nomad journey took us to numerous world heritage sites and ‘bucket list’ destinations including the Grand Canyon, Angkor Wat, the Cliffs of Moher, Sigiriya and the Taj Mahal.
We look back fondly at that crazy time in our lives that ended with us obtaining D7 visas and living in Portugal. At the same time, we’re so happy that the experience is in our past.
Perhaps you’re thinking of embarking on a similar journey. If so, we say go for it. However, assuming that you have the financial means and motivation, be ready to cut the cord when the time is right.
Why We Loved the Digital Nomad Life
Some people plot and plan to become digital nomads. Our transition kind of just happened at a time in our lives when we were hungry for change. The joys of owning a three-story house and living a six-figure lifestyle were dwarfed by our wanderlust and unsated sense of adventure.
Our situation was conducive for taking a one-year (or so we thought) break. We were financially secure and relatively healthy. We had neither kids nor debt. Of equal relevance, Mindi was desperate to make a career change after one too many bad bosses. And, as we’ve stated many times, we had a little blog that we dreamed of growing into a full time business.
They say that hindsight is 20/20. With that in mind and with two years in the rearview mirror, these are things that we loved most about being digital nomads:
1. Eating Food Around the World
In our quest to become professional food trippers, exploring the world on a full-time basis was a game changer.
No longer limited to just a few weeks of vacation each year, we were able to slowly explore different countries we had visited before as well as at new-to-us destinations. Instead of merely scratching the surface as holiday travelers, we became experts at diving deep into each country’s local cuisine. Finally, we had the time to do it right.
We ate meat on sticks while strolling down ramshackle streets in Vietnam and sipped sparkling wine in Romantic castles and palaces. We’d tell you our about favorite meals but that would be difficult for one of us – he doesn’t like to rank things. The other one of us would say pizza in Naples but, then again, she’s nothing if not consistent.
2. Experiencing New Places
As digital nomads, we could spend time as temporary residents in almost any location on the map. Our travel planning had no boundaries beyond our budget and visa restrictions.
We’d say that we had a master travel plan but that would be lying. The truth is that we followed our gut… and the weather. For example, after freezing our patooties off in Finland, we hightailed it to Naples for a month-long pizza crawl. Then we cashed in frequent flyer miles and flew to South Africa where we went on three safaris and drank copious amounts of wine over a period of 10 weeks.
We were in some countries like Estonia and the Czech Republic for short visits while we spent extended time in others like Croatia, France and Vietnam. Then there’s Italy where we returned again and again and again. Did we mention that we love pizza?
3. Escaping the Rat Race
Fact – The corporate world is exhausting. Also a fact – Leaving it is wonderful.
While we don’t regret working at jobs that enabled us to live a solid middle class life and grow our retirement funds, we also don’t regret ditching them for an uncertain yet more exciting digital nomad lifestyle.
Leaving the rat race gave us time and distance to let our creative juices percolate, hone our skills and grow our business. Ironically, we often worked longer hours as digital nomads than we ever did as corporate employees. However, doing so was our choice and not mandated by, as Parton put it, the boss-man.
4. Downsizing Physical Possessions
We had a lot of stuff in Philadelphia.
If you’re wondering how much stuff we had, let’s just say it was enough to fill a three-story house to the rafters. Plus the basement.
We thought we loved it all. However, as we learned while downsizing phase of our digital nomad journey, most of it was junk. Albeit quality junk.
Giving a lot of our stuff to charity felt freeing. Storing the rest was a mistake. But, hey, we thought we were only traveling for a year. Oops.
5. Abandoning Car Culture
We drove a lot in America and owned cars ranging from an Audi A4 to a Toyota Camry. To say that we don’t miss driving those cars is an understatement. A big understatement.
We quickly learned that other countries don’t revere cars the way that America does. They instead invest in transportation systems with a mix of subways, buses and trams. Of course, there are some exceptions like South Africa where driving is a must and Vietnam where people drive motorbikes like maniacs.
Not having to drive everywhere as digital nomads alleviated much of our daily stress. Rather than sitting in rush hour traffic, hunting for parking spaces, worrying about car repairs and mitigating the occasional fender-bender, we gave our fitbit a daily workout instead. Both our nerves and our hearts are happy with the trade-off.
We also didn’t have to worry about car payments and insurance – a big plus!
6. Location Independence
As digital nomads, we could work anywhere so long as we had access to two things – an electrical outlet and decent internet. We became savvy at checking internet speeds before we booked Airbnb apartments and always tried to keep our computers charged.
Specialty coffee shops in cities like Paris and Dublin became our unofficial offices. Not only did we fulfill our caffeine requirements at these cafes, but we also made valuable connections and ate a tasty treat or two.
7. Making New Friends
We met some of these friends at coffee shops and coworking spaces and encountered others during food tours and cooking classes. Some were even our Airbnb hosts. Many shared our digital nomad mindset and most were food and travel fanatics like us.
We consider them all to be part of our digital nomad community.
8. Self Growth
Pushing personal boundaries was a regular occurrence while we were digital nomads.
Not only did we teach ourselves skills like Photoshop, video and still photography, web design and SEO (search engine optimization), but we also engaged in activities that still boggle our minds. We climbed mountains (ok, more like big hills) and hiked over frozen rivers.
We also expanded our culinary knowledge while touring cheese dairies, wineries and breweries. As a bonus, those tours typically involved tasting cheese, wine and craft beer.
9. Business Opportunities
We started our digital nomad journey with a hobby blog that barely got 10,000 views a month and ended it with a website that’s now our primary livelihood. It didn’t happen overnight. Instead, we got to this level by working really hard.
Along the way, we won Saveur’s Best Travel Blog award and were featured in USA Today. We no longer call ourselves bloggers. We’ve transitioned to professional digital publishers.
Why We Quit the Digital Nomad Life
After sharing why we loved being digital nomads, it’s only fair that we share the downsides of the trendy lifestyle as well.
Luckily, since we’re a married couple, loneliness was not one of our personal issues nor was dating on the road. However, we had our own trials and tribulations that are typical among digital nomads. We were twice crime victims. Our camera gear was stolen in Cape Town and Daryl’s smartphone got pickpocketed in Athens.
Read on to discover the six primary reasons why we quit the digital nomad life with no regrets or second thoughts:
1. Travel Fatigue
Travel is a passion that we’ve shared since the beginning of our relationship and and something that we didn’t want to turn into a chore. Let’s face it – it’s difficult, if not impossible, to feel passionate about anything when you’re tired.
We were so tired that we became more excited about having a comfortable bed in a new city than we were to exploring the city itself. And it wasn’t just us. Our luggage started to look dingy and our wardrobes needed major overhauls. As Mindi’s mom would say, “Our clothes were full of holes!!”
2. Changes with Airbnb Rentals
Airbnb was nothing short of a godsend when we started our digital nomad journey. By the time we moved to Lisbon, it was the bane of our existance.
We could write a book, or at least an article, filled with Airbnb horror stories like the time we arrived in Osaka at midnight only to find that the host had given us the wrong code to enter the apartment. Then there was that time that the sofa was in the kitchen. We could go on and on and on.
Suffice it to say that we rarely use the apartment sharing website any more due to those past experiences. We now enjoy the consistent comfort of a quality hotel bed. Plus, Airbnb apartments are rarely cost effective since the company went public and increased all of its fees.
3. Visa Restrictions
Before setting out on a life of constant international travel, being the spoiled, privileged Americans that we were, we thought we could just live anywhere in the world for as long as we pleased. We knew that American visas for foreigners were tricky to obtain but, in our ignorance, we always thought that in foreign nations: “Hey! We’re Americans! They love us!”
Well, while some countries DO love Americans, every country wants tourists to depart after a given period of time. You can’t munch on baguettes in France forever. You can’t sip on Khao Soi every morning for years at a time. You can’t safari around Africa for a decade straight. You get the point.
In Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand, many nomads obtain visas for one to three months and go on ‘visa runs’ to keep their visas current. Lately, some of those Asian governments have wised up to this game and have taken steps to squash the practice.
Nations have their rules and our life as digital nomads was dictated by them. For example, in Europe’s Schengen Zone, which includes about 80% of the continent’s land mass, we could only be in a country for 90 days out of a rolling 180 day period. While we could stay in Europe as tourists for half a year, we could never linger for more than three months at at time.
Sometimes we just wanted to stay in one place for an extended time. It’s rarely possible to do this without establishing some sort of long term residency like we did in Portugal unless you’re obscenely rich or secure a digital nomad visa.
Digital Nomad Visas
To attract digital nomads and freelancers for long-terms stays, numerous countries are offering digital nomad visas with differing costs, terms, requirements and regulations. Be sure to research specific details if you’re interested in setting down temporary roots in countries like Costa Rica, Croatia, Estonia, Germany, Georgia, Malta, Mexico Norway and even Portugal.
4. Nesting Urge
Jeez, we had a lot of stuff at our old house in Philadelphia: loads of books, pots, pans, dishes, glasses, furniture and art along with a load of useless tchotchkes. While it was great to get away from much of that stuff, we missed the daily routine of plopping down on our favorite couch, admiring some of our treasured artwork on the walls and using the kitchen knives and cookware that we’d accumulated over the years.
Daryl, who dedicated his life to music, missed sitting at the piano and plunking out some of his favorites pieces. Mindi missed decorating the walls with colorful art as she had done on many of our pre-nomadic trips together.
We both missed nesting so much that it felt great just to be able to live in a so-so place in Lisbon. When you travel full time, having a place to come home to and make your own becomes not only a desire but an absolute need. Now that we have an apartment that feels like home, the feeling is priceless.
Materialism is a bad thing but we’re okay with it in small doses.
We can’t overstate the joy we we’ve gotten from transporting some of our treasured possessions, ranging from Gourmet cookbooks to a cast iron pan, to our Lisbon apartment. We also love buying bits and bobs that add to the space’s pleasing decor.
While we’ll never go back to the point of filling up a house with stuff, we’re happy to have Daryl’s keyboards on hand for when he’s ready to make sweet music. It could happen any day.
As great as it was to meet new friends around the world, we found ourselves missing friendships like the ones we formed in Philadelphia.
We missed the fun of bumping into friends on the street and having shared memories with people beyond ourselves. Plus, we love to host dinner parties and meet up with friends for coffee or pizza depending on the time of day.
Moving from place to place never provided us with the opportunity to create the long term community and support systems necessary for everybody, including us, to be happy.
7. Having a Home Office
Now that we’re based in Lisbon, we love having a home office for so many reasons.
For starters, it’s great to know that we can rely on the quality and speed of our fiber internet. Also, storing our 24,000+ photos (yes, we’ve shot that many over the past nine years) has become a constant battle with loads of disk drives and corresponding backup drives. Having a fixed location makes it far easier to store all of these photos in one safe place.
We also like having a desk, dependable climate control and the creature comforts of a couch, good chairs and a kitchen. It turns out that we perform best when we have access a comfortable place to work that’s both quiet and free of distractions. Plus, now we can make healthy lunches and pots of specialty coffee at home. Winning!
About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.