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Working full-time while traveling full-time is easily the biggest challenge I’ve faced in the past year.
At first glance, I have nothing to worry about. I’m earning far more money this year than last year. I’m taking part in interesting campaigns and trying out new ideas. I’ve never had more readers.
But my most publicly visible work, my blog posts, have slowed down considerably. I haven’t launched a fraction of the new projects I’ve wanted to launch this year, and I’ve put far too many of my priorities on the list for later.
That’s not all. The ugly truth, the part that is hidden from most of the world, is that full-time work on top of full-time travel has made me stressed out, irritable, antisocial, and it has adversely affected my health.
I sought out some fellow online workers and asked for their thoughts on combining full-time work and full-time travel. Here’s what I found.
The Truth About Working Online
Most digital nomads who work full-time and travel full-time aren’t on the move constantly. They either travel at a slow pace, have a base somewhere and travel from there, or alternate weeks or months of constant travel with weeks or months of staying put.
“My best advice to anyone considering running a business while traveling is that if work is just as important as travel, rather than just working enough to pay for your travels, you have to really change the way you approach travel,” says freelance writer, researcher and travel blogger Frankie Bird. “Traveling while working is not a holiday, nor is it something you can give yourself 100% to when you work full-time.”
For Jessica Benford, a Marine Mammal Scientist whose work takes her around the world, she’s always been focused on alternating blocks of time devoted to her travel-filled job and her independent travel. “Throughout the year, I work and travel full-time, usually split eight months work and four months travel,” she says. “As soon as I hit land, I maximize every minute traveling full-time again for several weeks.”
For others who work a more regular schedule, it’s necessary to travel slowly, spending months in each destination.
“[My husband] Michael and I gave up on the idea of working and traveling full time because it left us exhausted and unable to really enjoy most of the places we went,” reveals freelance writer and travel blogger Stephanie Yoder. “Now we tend to stick in one place for three to six months or more and only take side trips and we get so much more done.”
As a result, Stephanie and Michael cut their trip across South America short and headed to Buenos Aires for three months. Their latest stint abroad is a six-month stay in Sayulita, Mexico.
When Traveling Fast, The Work Suffers
How do you define fast travel – or just travel, period? Most of the time, I stay in places for about a week; sometimes, it’s just a few days. I get used to my destination, then I get up, move on, and do it all over again.
Even after 26 days on Koh Lanta, a long stay that I did over the holidays, I didn’t emerge from that time feeling rested, caught up on work, and ready to hit the road again. Quite the opposite, actually.
Still, I wasn’t in as bad shape as freelance writer and travel blogger Lauren Juliff, who traveled nonstop for two months in New Zealand, a country notorious for its poor internet quality. “I survived work-wise but only just. My time online was spent frantically writing articles that weren’t particularly great. I pretty much ignored my site for two months. While I managed to get all my work done and see all I wanted, I nearly had a nervous breakdown while doing so.”
Balancing Work and Travel
Finding a quality work environment is my first challenge whenever I arrive in a new destination. It quickly becomes a game of trying out various coffee shops, restaurants, and guesthouses until I find a place that has good wifi, a few places to plug in, seating that won’t kill my back, and (if I’m lucky) decent coffee.
It’s even more dire for Frankie Bird, who traveled long-term with her entrepreneur boyfriend before settling in Amsterdam. “Because my boyfriend’s business is all online we always have to be connected to an internet connection in case his servers have issues or there are urgent problems…when I have deadlines they take precedence over sightseeing, sun-downers and everything else.”
(A note: If your biggest priority is quality internet, head to Hong Kong, South Korea, or Japan. Alternatively, consider Eastern Europe – Romania’s incredibly fast internet speed has been a long-kept secret.)
Beyond finding an appropriate place to work, it’s challenging to balance work with exploring and enjoying the act of travel.
“When I first started working while on the road, I had to adjust to the reality that I was no longer on vacation, and that work had to come first even if it meant missing out on things that I wanted to do while traveling,” says freelance writer and consultant Julie Falconer. “It also meant late nights and early mornings in my hotel getting work done so that I could free up time during the day to do the sightseeing and activities that the places I was in had to offer.”
For me, the balance usually tips back in favor of the work, which is why I was on Boracay for eight full days and only spent two of them on the beach.
Even days that look like they’re short travel days can be impossible to get work done. Take this past Sunday, when I was traveling from Boracay to Manila. With just an hourlong flight, the day looked like it had plenty of time to get work done.
The door-to-door journey actually took seven and a half hours and was almost entirely without internet access. Earlier in the day, the café where I had the most reliable wifi access slowed to a crawl. I wrote a bit offline when I could, but otherwise, the day was a complete waste.
Travel like that once or twice per week and your productivity will slow to a crawl. It’s best to keep those days to a minimum.
Should you work full-time and travel full-time?
Frankly, the bigger question is whether you can manage working online in the first place. Working independently requires a tremendous amount of dedication and discipline and should be practiced long before you add in the travel factor.
If you are starting a business so you can have location independence – the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want – the irony is that you are best off rooting yourself in one place for the time being while you get it off the ground.
For many people, that place is Chiang Mai, Thailand. The northern Thai city has dirt-cheap prices, good internet, excellent food, a robust expat community, and it’s an exceedingly pleasant place to live. Berlin is another popular digital nomad hub, as is Playa del Carmen, Mexico, but it’s tough to top Chiang Mai in terms of sheer value for money.
Anthony Middleton chose to hunker down in Chiang Mai while launching his businesses. He spent five months living on the cheap and “working more than Obama and the Queen put together,” he says, then once his sites started gaining traction, he headed to Borneo for an adventure.
These days, his businesses earn him passive income, which ensures a better work/life balance – though it hasn’t always been easy. “I remember being around so much beauty in Borneo but being stressed to bits and thinking, ‘It wasn’t supposed to be like this,'” he confesses. “You can’t be lukewarm with travel, or business. They both need your complete focus and energy. Travel and working is a bad idea. I really think that.”
Is it possible to work full-time and travel full-time?
I’ll conclude with my interviewees’ thoughts:
“I’ve tried everything and I realized I really can’t work full-time while traveling full-time (as in being on the road 365 days of the year). It is possible but the quality of my work is always compromised,” says DJ Yabis.
“It is possible to work full-time and travel full-time, but it requires a very different style of both working and traveling,” says Julie Falconer.
“I think it is possible to do both but there is a really high risk of burnout, particularly if you are moving every few days or even every week,” Stephanie Yoder points out.
“I’ve found it to be possible to work full-time and travel full-time but I think one or the other is often sacrificed,” adds Lauren Juliff.
Anything is possible. Go and try it for yourself. But don’t expect it to be smooth sailing.