Digital nomads flit all around the world doing their online jobs wherever they can find a good internet connection. It’s an enviable lifestyle but the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic made it less easy for a while. However, with borders opening and flights taking off again, the dream of being a digital nomad is alive once more. In fact, because many people have now taken their work online to comply with personal distancing recommendations, they could continue doing that in the future — perhaps near a tropical beach and at a much lower cost of living!
RentCafe’s sister division that focuses on responding to people’s self storage needs surveyed almost 200 digital nomads to find out more about the lifestyle and about their favorite places for working efficiently, enjoying the local attractions, and having the least worries; they then used 20 criteria to determine the best destinations for these workers right now, taking into account any re-arranging of priorities caused by the pandemic. As well as tropical beaches, many digital nomads are drawn to historic European cities or mountain hideaways in Southeast Asia, and there are even those who happily stay in the USA.
Vietnam’s Da Nang and Mexico’s Cancún and Mérida ranked highest for all the study’s 20 criteria combined, making them stand out as the top global destinations for digital nomads. These workers’ priorities extend beyond adventure to cultural delights and community atmosphere, while cost of living, internet connectivity and the weather are also undeniably important factors.
We present here 10 top tips for anyone thinking about becoming a digital nomad right now or returning to the lifestyle. As regarding where to start the journey, we’ve also identified a few amazing destinations — both popular and providing good quality of life — that are worth exploring even in the aftermath of COVID-19.
1. Embrace the Digital Nomad Life but Prepare for the Good and the Bad
Leaving home to start life as a digital nomad will mean lots of adventures, and plenty of stories to tell when you get back. There will be exciting new scenery, food and cultural experiences and a whole range of people to get to know. Popular travel blog writer Philip Weiss knows this well but he also sounds some notes of caution, saying that “the main challenge is the fear of unpredictability, which needs to be overcome.” He is certainly going to continue as a digital nomad, even though COVID-19 has added a new element to the mix, and believes that a positive attitude will win through. It is of course highly advisable to take out good insurance before leaving and to read up a bit about the healthcare provisions where you are going — the US and Europe do well in this regard but some other destinations also stand out. One more thing you can do before heading down this road is put your belongings in a self storage unit back home, saving the inconvenience of leaving them with family or friends but still knowing they are safe until you’ll need them again.
2. Traveling With Old Friends?
There are different styles of traveling and it’s not a case of one size fits all. Going as a group can give safety in numbers, which can be particularly important for inexperienced nomads. It can also be a good idea if you all have the same spare-time interest — for example rock climbing — for which certain destinations are renowned. Also, women travelers can come up against heightened risks and might be especially glad to have some old friends with them, and then there are the economic advantages of sharing accommodation and cooking facilities. But the frustrations of having to account for traveling companions’ differing tastes and needs can be significant, and many experienced digital nomads prefer to go it alone. Of course, traveling with a partner can be the best of all worlds and, with the coronavirus still lingering, it can be a relief that the one person you won’t be social distancing from is somebody you totally trust.
3. Making New Friends Is Part of the Fun
A community of like-minded people at a destination can ease the stress of being a digital nomad. Kate McCulley is an expert at helping women travel safely, and she confirms that “you can often find a fun group of expats wherever you end up on the road.” Established hotspots such as Bali and Thailand’s Chiang Mai had well-developed communities. For digital nomads, it will help if the ex-pats are also engaged in online work, so they can share advice and won’t be partying all the time while others need to work. Because these populations move around a lot — it’s often recommended that nomads spend 2-3 months in any one place, and visa restrictions may not permit more — such friendships can be short-lived. Alternatively, they might just last a lifetime.
4. Have Patience and Be Eager to Explore
With the discovery of new places and peoples comes the need to adapt to them. Megan Starr is a traveler who has explored some of the world’s most out-of-the-way places, and her advice is to be patient. While you may not like the first food you try in a new place, shop around until you find something you enjoy. Accommodation may not be quite what you are used to, and when asking for directions you might not get them in the same way as back home. But it’s surprising how quickly you can get used to new ways of doing things, so keep smiling, go with the flow, and listen and learn. As Megan says, “Don’t let something silly ruin your time and just have patience…. The world is a beautiful place if you do!” She stayed in Armenia during the coronavirus pandemic, so she can clearly speak with authority about adapting as well as about traveling.
5. You Will Want Good Accommodation
However short a period of time a nomad stays at a destination, accommodation will always be very important. Firstly, getting a good night’s sleep is vital — especially if there is work to be done in the morning — and this is not an insignificant consideration in hot temperatures or in big, noisy cities. Also, nomads will probably want to make their own food some of the time and not be dependent on restaurants. To make sure you get good accommodation, the advice is to ask experienced travelers for tips and to book in advance, whenever possible. Alternatively, an Airbnb can be rented for a short period until the ideal place is found. Savings can be made with longer-term rentals, and Malaysia’s George Town, Brazil’s Florianópolis and several Mexican resorts come highly recommended, among others, for their good value accommodation.
Mérida in particular stands out as a great place to start your digital nomad journey. “What I love about remote working in Mérida is that it’s an extremely safe city (often cited as the safest city in Mexico), the people are warm and friendly, there are tons of good restaurants, internet speed is very good, and there is a VERY low cost of living here,” explained Kate McCulley. “I think a frugal single person could live on less than $1,000 per month here.”
Moreover, “Mérida also has a rich expat community, and many people here have settled long-term, unlike places like Chiang Mai where expats pop in and out continuously. And Mérida is an outstanding base for exploring the surrounding region: for day trips, you can go to cenotes, ruins, and beaches; on a weekend getaway you can visit places as diverse as the Lake of Seven Colors in Bacalar, the pristine city of Campeche, the ruins of Chichén Itza, and the pink lakes of Las Coloradas,” she added.
Of course, there can be downsides to living somewhere as tropical as Mérida. As Kate explains, “It gets extremely hot and humid in the spring and summer (May is the worst month), there aren’t many coworking spaces, and there are only a handful of international flights (to places like Miami, Toronto, and Havana), it can often be loud (though that’s more of a Mexico thing), and while the city center is charming and beautiful, most of the amenities like gyms are outside the city center.”
6. You Will Want Good Internet
The sun is shining and the waves are lapping the beach, but a digital nomad still has lots of work that needs to be done. A reliable internet connection will therefore be vital — the faster the better. And if access to entertainment venues remains restricted due to the continued presence of the coronavirus, streaming movies at home might make nomads appreciate their broadbands even more. Asian and Latin American locations often don’t boast the same speeds as back home, but European destinations generally provide good connectivity. For nomads who find it easier to work in an office environment, a variety of coworking spaces can often be found at popular destinations — East European cities often combine great internet speeds with well-priced coworking facilities. One thing to be wary of is accommodation which advertises high-speed internet but doesn’t quite come up with the goods.
7. Big City, Small Town or Village?
Many nomads want to explore the world’s great cities, places like Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Lisbon or South Africa’s Cape Town, and these all often get recommendations from nomads. But while such places may offer a great buzz and exciting nightlife, they can be expensive and noisy to live in, and coronavirus social distancing might not be so easy there. Other nomads, understandably attracted to beach life, choose tourist resorts or even villages located by the sea which have developed as hubs for digital workers — Costa Rica’s Sámara, for example, has emerged as one such popular place. In the middle are the small towns, offering a more laid-back vibe but no inflated tourists’ prices. In the US, places which are generally underrated as tourist destinations can become excellent locations for enjoying both the sun and a carefree lifestyle. Albuquerque, NM, Colorado Springs, CO, and even rural Utah all come with a low cost of living than can be found in the US’s biggest cities, and they have the added advantage of easy access to the great outdoors.
8. Pick Your Time Zone
Digital nomad working can involve a surprising amount of that all too familiar office routine. You hoped you’d work on your project alone, to your own rules, and then email it back it to base before going to the beach. But it’s possible your company will want as much interaction as they ever did, meaning virtual meetings and last-minute conference calls, and these will take place during their office hours. This is one reason US digital nomads like Mexican destinations so much: Cancún and Playa del Carmen, for example, are in the same time zone as Texas and just an hour behind New York or Tampa — this Florida city proved to be the survey’s top-rated US nomad destination.
Marie Dominguez of search engine optimization firm Coalition Technologies is a seasoned digital nomad and worked from different locations around the globe. Although she’s quite happy with her current location in Kandy, Sri Lanka, she recalls having had to work nights to stay in touch with her employers.
“Before moving to Kandy, Sri Lanka, I lived in my hometown of Miami, FL,” Marie said. “Working remotely in Miami was a huge plus as I used to sit in traffic for 1 to 2 hours per day to commute. My remote work conditions are pretty similar in both countries — fast internet, reliable power, etc. The main difference is that in Kandy I work at 10:30 PM – 7:30 AM local time (to keep West Coast hours) whereas in Miami I would work 12:00 PM – 9:00 PM. Working overnight is quite challenging and took me the better part of a year to get completely used to it.”
As for other pros and cons of living in Sri Lanka, Marie says: “cost of living is about 80% less than my hometown. Although there are no coworking spaces in Kandy (as far as I’m aware), the internet speed is quite good (fibre optics is available), and power cuts are rare and usually brief. There are plenty of coworking spaces available in the country’s largest city — Colombo — however, the cost of living is higher there.”
9. Know All About the Weather
Nomads are often attracted by beaches, great scenery and a relaxed lifestyle. But this requires good weather, as nobody wants to spend months huddled up in a freezing apartment by a small electric fire or lying in bed 24/7 worrying if the monsoon rains will get through the roof. This can be especially true when a nomad has a lot of work to do and so comfortable conditions are even more appreciated. Some locations offer great weather all year round, with Tenerife in the Canary Islands and Colombia’s Medellín scoring well in this regard.
“I am originally from the US, born and raised near Chicago, Illinois,” explains Wendy Howarter of Coalition Technologies. “I lived in Northern Illinois in a small town called Oregon, Illinois (pop. 4,000) until I moved to Medellín, Colombia (pop. 3+ million) in 2014. Besides the population, the biggest difference is the weather. Medellín enjoys Spring/Summer climate year-round while Illinois has four distinct seasons including extreme heat and humidity in the Summer and extreme cold and snow/ice in the Winter. Also, the cost of living is dramatically less in Colombia than in the States.”
Similarly, Malaga is a great spot to enjoy life in the sun, all the while being well connected to the rest of the world. It comes highly recommended by Patricia Palacios, co-founder of Euskoguide. “In Malaga, you have beautiful sunny weather, an immaculately restored old town that’s always abuzz, plus miles and miles of sandy beaches. You get all of that and you don’t even have to break the bank.”
“In Malaga, your money goes a long way,” she continues. “The cost of living is about as low as you can get while still being in a 1st world country. But you still have all of the benefits such as fast and reliable internet, good healthcare and safety. Even as a female, you can feel comfortable going out alone at night. In addition, the expat community along the coast is massive. This makes it extremely easy to navigate without really needing to know any Spanish. Because Malaga is such a loved destination, it has seen its airport grow to become Spain’s 4th largest. All of the European budget airlines have flights to Malaga which means it’s very well connected to the continent. With cheap airlines deals to be had, Malaga makes the perfect hub for exploring more European destinations.”
However, other famous nomad destinations, although consistently warm, may have rainy seasons that have even the most adventurous running for cover. For example, Bali’s rains last from November to March, while Vietnam’s Da Nang — which the survey rated as the best digital nomad destination right now — has its monsoon season between September and December.
10. Be Respectful
The world is certainly a beautiful and fascinating place, but it’s undeniable that the people you meet can seem very very different. In some cultures, they will invite you into their homes — perhaps even up to the point where it’s not so comfortable — while in others they are simply brusque. Cash is welcomed all around the world, but for some places you might like to hone your haggling skills before you arrive. In some countries macho attitudes thrive, while others are much gentler. The key is to always try to understand things from the perspective of the locals and their culture, and only make waves if you get into real problems. Follow the advice of our experts: be patient, be prepared, be friendly, and then you may find you have gained respect for things you didn’t understand before. Lastly, don’t be shy about spending your money wherever you end up — the locals need you there as much as you need a great digital nomad location.
The digital nomads’ lifestyle always was rather exciting, and although the COVID-19 pandemic halted their activities for a while, there is no reason why they will not be back on the road again soon. Indeed, now many more workers and employers have found remote online working gets the job done without any need to commute to an office, this community may grow even more. And while the new recruits might lack the wanderlust of the true nomads, they will enjoy seeing new places and using the lower costs of living there to put a bit of money in the bank. Digital nomads are good problem solvers, and with caution, some good advice, and sensible selection of destinations and traveling companions, problems like the coronavirus — even if it continues a while longer — can be managed. Digital nomads may find themselves an even more important part of the global economy than ever before.