Technology has made combining work with constant travel an increasingly appealing and viable option for remote-first workers. In this article, freelance translator and editor Elizabeth Garrison answers questions about life as a digital nomad, the technologies that enable the lifestyle and how best to tackle the challenges it inevitably involves.
Tell us a bit about your career so far as a translator and editor and how you came to be a digital nomad.
«I have this job that gives me a lot of freedom and I can do it anywhere. So why aren’t I making the most of it?»
I started translating as soon as I finished my master’s at the tender age of 23, back in 2009. I’m from the US but was living in Manchester in the UK and working from home. In 2014, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, «I have this job that gives me a lot of freedom and I can do it anywhere. So why aren’t I making the most of it?» At the time, I was in a long-term relationship and my partner wasn’t freelance, so I stayed put. But then we split up and I no longer had a reason to work from the spare room in Manchester any more. I got my first taste of the nomad life in the spring and summer of 2015 when I spent some time travelling and working, visiting Valparaíso in Chile and Jerez, while trying to figure out what my next move would be. Then, one day in August 2015, I saw an ad on Facebook that said, ‘Travel the world while working remotely’. And I suddenly realised, «Oh my gosh, that’s me. This is what I want to do. This is the idea I’ve had in the back of my mind for the past year.” So I clicked on the ad, which was for Remote Year, a programme where you travel for a year with a group of other remote workers. At first I thought it had to be a scam, but a little research reassured me and I decided to pay the $50 application fee and, long story short, at the end of February 2016 I left my rented room in a shared house in Manchester, stored all my stuff with friends, fitted everything I needed into a suitcase and a rucksack and set off. That’s how it all started.
How many countries and continents have you lived and worked in since making that choice? Has it become a way of life for you now?
After joining Remote Year, I travelled full-time for three years, covering 20 countries.
It was easy to get caught up in the spirit of it and just keep going, even after my one-year programme finished.
It definitely became of way of life for that three-year period. Doing Remote Year had a big influence on my choices of where to travel to next because I was travelling with like-minded people who also had the nomad bug, so it was easy to get caught up in the spirit of it and just keep going, even after my one-year programme finished. People kept saying to me, «When are you going to stop?» And I always said, «Oh, when I fall in love with somewhere or someone.» And in the end, it turned out to be somewhere, and that place was Italy. By that point, I also felt ready to put down roots again, because there’s no denying that continually moving to new places, meeting new people, having to say goodbye to those people and then starting all over again is emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting.
Tech is one of the factors that enable digital nomadism. In your experience, what minimum tech do you need for digital nomadism to be viable?
One thing that has been life-changing for me and that I recommend to everyone is a dual SIM phone.
If I think about what I throw into my rucksack every day, the first items are always charging cables and plug adapters. You don’t want to get caught out and not be able to charge your equipment. One thing that has been life-changing for me and that I recommend to everyone is a dual SIM phone, because that way you can keep your main contact number but use a local SIM card to reply or create a hotspot without racking up crazy roaming charges. When you’re working you want to be as available as possible, and if you have the mobile connectivity then you’re all set.
You should make sure every piece of equipment is 100% reliable. This is one of the big pitfalls because if a device is failing, how do you replace it?
The other thing I should say is that you should make sure every piece of equipment is 100% reliable. This is one of the big pitfalls because if a device is failing, how do you replace it? My go-to is Amazon, for better or worse, but if I can’t order something with next-day delivery, what do I do? It can be a real challenge. For example, in 2017 I was in Italy on the train from Florence to Bologna and my laptop wouldn’t charge. The Wi-Fi on the train wasn’t functioning properly either, and we were going through all these tunnels, so the hotspot kept cutting out and I had a deadline looming. The journey was hugely stressful. At the time I was based in Valencia, so as soon as I got back there, I rushed out and bought a new laptop because I was convinced it was the whole computer itself that was the problem. But it turned out only the charger was faulty! One of the great benefits of Remote Year was that we had an assigned co-working space every month and we were able to use that as a mailing address. So, if you needed to order something, you could have it delivered there, though obviously that works better in some countries than others.
The thing is, I found that the more I travelled, the less I could be bothered with carrying around.
Going back to your question, I think it’s a matter of what you’re comfortable with. Some people have power banks, collapsible laptop stands, second screens even — I’ve seen some really impressive set-ups. The thing is, I found that the more I travelled, the less I could be bothered with carrying around. One of my goals for travelling was to learn to live with less and streamline my belongings and the things I use on an everyday basis. Also, when you’re travelling by air you have to take the restrictions into account as you don’t want to pay a boatload for every flight. And even when you’re travelling by train or bus, let alone when you’re trying to get on a ferry somewhere in Thailand, you don’t want to have to lug a massive suitcase around with you.
What would you say is the ideal tech combo for a digital nomad and what tech set-up would you want in your destination?
Some cities have become digital nomad hubs while other locations that are nowhere near city size have become favourites among digital nomads.
Ideally, the first thing you want is a laptop with a 10-hour battery life. My five-year-old one currently lasts about an hour before it gives up the ghost, so I now have to plan things very carefully in advance. Again, that was something that Remote Year figured out for us. Sometimes it was done very well and other times it wasn’t, but there were people in my group who would find power and connectivity solutions for all of us where needed. I’m not really a tech person but I can definitely say from experience that you learn how to make things work, what to look for and where to find it. If you’re nomading completely by yourself it’s kind of trial and error. When you arrive somewhere you can ask around, though, and, of course, often there’s tons of information online in terms of places that are good to work from, especially if you’re in a decent size town or city. Some cities have become digital nomad hubs while other locations that are nowhere near city size have become favourites among digital nomads, where you can find facilities that offer everything you might need. For example, I spent New Year’s 2016 on the island of Ko Lanta because some of my friends from Manchester were travelling there. I had to work over the holidays, so I did some research and found this co-working space where I not only had a desk, fan and Wi-Fi but where they also organised a lot of activities, which meant I got to meet a few other digital nomads. There are so many places like that now and there are more and more options, even in remote locations. So, with a little research, you can identify a location in advance that will offer you everything you need to get your work done (the laptop with the 10-hour battery life is your responsibility, however!).
In terms of socialising, if you go somewhere like Bali or Ko Lanta, where digital nomads tend to congregate, there’s a lot of camaraderie and interaction.
Then in terms of socialising, if you go somewhere like Bali or Ko Lanta, where digital nomads tend to congregate, there’s a lot of camaraderie and interaction. Conversely, if you’re in a city co-working space that the same people use every day it can be a little harder to socialise because they already have their own routine and friend group. It depends where you go, and it depends on the co-working space. Anyone who has tried co-working will tell you that different spaces have different vibes. Some are very social and some are just all about work and no one talks to you which, if you’re traveling alone, isn’t necessarily what you want.
What are the biggest tech issues you’ve faced as a digital nomad, and how did you resolve them?
In Bolivia, there were a lot of problems with connectivity, with the Wi-Fi, with the SIM cards, and so on.
In Bolivia, there were a lot of problems with connectivity, with the Wi-Fi, with the SIM cards, and so on. That was stressful and frustrating. Hardware failure and connectivity are always the two biggest headaches and resolving them often involves a lot of frantic running around, so you should always try to have a back-up plan in mind in case of a worst-case scenario. Hardware problems can be really, really tricky because if you’re somewhere remote and your phone or laptop dies there’s not a lot you can do. Again, having a pool of people to draw on was one of the benefits of Remote Year. For example, one of the guys in my group had something happen to his mobile and couldn’t easily get a new one, but I had a spare phone I could lend him and he ended up using it for eight months. You might find something similar if you go to one of these digital nomad hub cities or co-working spaces where there’s a community or where it’s easy to get to know people. One of the biggest challenges with digital nomadism is that you’re not in a familiar setting, which is why having local connections can be so helpful if you get into a tight spot.
And what are the biggest non-tech issues you’ve faced and, again, how did you resolve them?
The time zone issue is a big one. I found it quite difficult in Asia because my clients were in Europe, so I was seven hours ahead.
You can get disrupted very easily, which could be due to a tech issue or could be due to something circumstantial. You don’t have the comfort of your home office and it can be difficult to find a quiet, disruption-free place to work. And then of course, the time zone issue is a big one. I found it quite difficult in Asia because my clients were in Europe, so I was seven hours ahead. I would go the whole day thinking, «Oh, I don’t have anything to do today. I can make plans for this evening.» And then at 7 pm local time I’d get a job and find myself torn. On the one hand, I needed to do the work because obviously I needed the money, but how could I fit in my other plans without having to stay up all night? That said, if I got a job that was due first thing the next morning in Europe then the time difference meant I could do it comfortably the next day. I found that aspect difficult because I’m a planner and I like to have everything organised in advance. I always managed to fit my work in around evening plans (and without having to pull any all-nighters!), but it’s definitely something to take into account when choosing a location because your clients will expect you to be available. Having said that, if you’re somewhere you really want to explore, you can just reduce your workload while you’re there. It’s really a matter of time management, which is something that freelancers have to do anyway. At the end of the day, though, I think some locations should be saved solely for leisure because trying to fit in sightseeing around work commitments can be very stressful and you don’t want to be stuck thinking about a big project while hiking the Inca Trail, something that should be a mindful and immersive experience.
Has becoming a digital nomad changed your client base? Do you tell your clients when you’re travelling and, if so, how do they tend to react?
It hasn’t changed my client base, but it has been a good way to visit them. For example, I do work for the Miguel Torres Chile winery and I had trouble understanding some of the emails because the Chilean Spanish was totally beyond me. So I thought, «You know what, I’m going to go there. I’m going to stay there for a month, learn some Chilean Spanish and visit the winery,» and it was great! I improved my Chilean Spanish and I learned about the cuisine, which has worked out well because they’ve opened a restaurant and I’ve had some translations that talk about the dishes they serve there. I got to meet the people that I email all the time and it really helped to reinforce our relationship. It didn’t change my client base, but it certainly strengthened it.
I put a lot of pressure on myself and was always super diligent about replying to messages and being available.
Also, once clients find out you’re doing this, they want to know more and your relationship with them becomes more personal. My clients thought it was cool, which was great because, honestly, I was worried about how they would react. I put a lot of pressure on myself and was always super diligent about replying to messages and being available. I really strove to show them that I was still working more or less as usual. I would put my current time zone in my email signature and every night before I went to bed I would turn on an out-of-office reply telling them where I was and the time difference with Europe. I didn’t have a single problem in this regard. Everyone was happy and the feedback was good.
Based on your experience, which client profiles provide the best fit for digital nomads?
It was a nice way for the project managers to get to know a different side of me and have a bit of chit-chat versus the usual largely transactional conversations.
In my case, most of my clients at that point were agencies, mostly based in Spain and small or medium-sized. It was a nice way for the project managers to get to know a different side of me and have a bit of chit-chat versus the usual largely transactional conversations. Unless you have a client that’s particularly demanding and/or wants you to be available at specific times of the day, I think most clients can fit with this lifestyle. Then it’s just up to you how upfront you want to be with them about what you’re doing and any potential impact it could have on your availability.
How do you receive payment while travelling? And how do you access that money? Have you ever had any difficulties?
In total I think I had two debit cards and three credit cards, because you don’t want to get caught out if you lose a card or one doesn’t work for some reason.
Payments were made the same way as always, by bank transfer. When I started out, solutions like Revolut were in their infancy. I tried to use it but could never manage to top up my account, so that went out the window very quickly. I then just used my normal bank account and although I don’t want to think about how much I paid in fees, that’s what I did. There are much better options now. I’ve currently got a Wise debit card and that’s been great. In total I think I had two debit cards and three credit cards, because you don’t want to get caught out if you lose a card or one doesn’t work for some reason. At the time I was banking with Royal Bank of Scotland and there was an option on their website to inform them when you were travelling. You could even put in the country and the dates you were going to be there. That was massively important, because it meant my card never got blocked. Now they’re more likely to send you a text message to confirm it’s really you. This is also why having a dual SIM phone is so good, because even though my main number now is Italian, I still get texts from RBS or PayPal on my British number and can do the two-factor authentication without any problem.
When you decided to become a digital nomad did you think your earnings would change?
It was tough to maintain that same pace of work, and I soon realised that I couldn’t do the same volume of work that I was used to.
I hoped my earnings would remain the same. I mean, increasing them would have been fabulous, but I would have been happy with the status quo. In fact, I did end up earning a little more during the first year, and I don’t think it’s because I worked more than before. It helped that I got a couple of new clients at the start of that year. To begin with, it was tough to maintain that same pace of work, and I soon realised that I couldn’t do the same volume of work that I was used to, because apart from the fact that there were fun things to do, there were also a lot of other things to take into account that I wouldn’t have had to at home, like continuously getting to grips with a new location. For instance, mundane activities, like going to the supermarket or doing the laundry, tended to be more time-consuming. You can’t expect to live at the pace you normally do when you’re in a place that you’re familiar with; things are probably going to take longer than you’re used to and you have to allow for that. But overall, my income roughly followed the same course it would have if I hadn’t become a nomad: I gained a bit more experience, some new clients came along, I kept the ones I already had and, in that sense, it certainly didn’t have a negative effect. What’s more, I came away from the experience feeling like I had a better handle on my time and workload management because I learned how to prioritise the activities I really wanted to do and how to fit my work in around them.
To close, what have you learnt that you wish you knew before you started, what advice would you give to translators and editors keen to try digital nomadism and, finally, what were the other digital nomads like?
You can even just do a week or two, it doesn’t have to be years, and it doesn’t have to be somewhere exotic.
I’ve often thought about this and I really can’t say that there was anything I wished I’d known. Maybe it’s because it was six years ago and I can’t remember any more! I’m very lucky because I have a lot of well-travelled friends who gave me loads of good advice before I left: things like “Get a dual SIM phone!” or «Don’t talk yourself out of doing things!» Doing my first big nomad experience with Remote Year helped to ease the transition into full-time nomading because I had the group to draw on and the logistics were all sorted out for me: if there were problems with the Wi-Fi or the accommodation there was someone to fix it. Also, like I said before, once you get into these digital nomad circles a lot of knowledge-sharing goes on. You learn how to meet people and what makes a good co-working space. You learn a lot on the go. So, my advice would be to go for it, because we have so much freedom as freelancers. You can even just do a week or two, it doesn’t have to be years, and it doesn’t have to be somewhere exotic. I would say that if you’re able to and have the inclination, then you should definitely give it a try. My other piece of advice would be to be deliberate about nomading. In 2018 there were some places I went to just because other people from my Remote Year group were going there and I didn’t want to miss out. For example, I ended up in Mexico City for two weeks even though it wasn’t a place I’d ever had a strong desire to visit. Moreover, when I got there I was really tired and had a lot of work to do, so I felt like I didn’t make the most of it and maybe I would have got more out of somewhere else that I’d chosen more thoughtfully.
I never think about the work I did in that period because I was so stimulated by everything else and work was just the thing that enabled me to do it.
In terms of what fellow nomads are like, I’ve met a lot of web developers and coders. My Remote Year group was almost 50:50 male and female and people had all kinds of jobs. There were graphic designers, coders, people who worked in management, a cartoon designer, even a girl who booked people private jets. If you can do your job remotely you can be a digital nomad. People would always ask me, “What do the other people in your Remote Year group do?” And I’d say, “I don’t actually know,” because we’d go to the co-working space and we’d do our work, but we never talked about work; we would talk about where to eat or visit or what to do. I never think about the work I did in that period because I was so stimulated by everything else and work was just the thing that enabled me to do it. Work was a means to an end and that end was visiting new places, trying new things and meeting new people. But everyone’s experience is going to be different, and you have to be deliberate about it and do it for what you want to get out of it, whether that’s enjoying the local cuisine or just being by yourself in the middle of a forest.
Elizabeth is a freelance translator and editor working from Spanish, Catalan and Italian into UK or US English, specialising in food and wine, arts and culture, business and, of course, travel and tourism. Her long-term stint as a digital nomad ended in early 2019 when she settled in Milan after having spent a few months studying Italian in Verona in 2018, although she continues to regularly combine work and travel, having managed to visit 14 out of Italy’s 20 regions over the past few years.