Why more people are packing up their lives to travel the world

Post-pandemic, business owners and even whole families are becoming digital nomads

The Fisher family headed off from the UK on full-time travels back in 2017. Photo: Clare Fisher
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Picture this: You wake up at 9am in your Airbnb, leisurely explore a new city for a few hours before heading back, taking out your laptop and clocking on for work. You could do it by the beach in Bali, at a Parisian cafe or even beneath a forest canopy in Costa Rica. The world, quite literally, is your oyster.

Thanks to the remote-work boom brought about by the pandemic, this dreamy way of life is becoming a reality for more and more people. Year-long travel adventures are no longer reserved for students and “free spirits”, as business owners, working professionals and even whole families are packing up their permanent homes to make temporary ones in new destinations every few weeks or months.

Nicole Vilaca, whose online name is Nomad Neeks, is a digital nomad. She, along with her partner, moves countries every few weeks, all while running an online digital marketing agency and hosting a podcast on which she shares finance tips and insights with fellow full-time travellers.

“When I left my home country of Canada, I had this itch for a different kind of life, something that didn’t involve the mortgage, marriage, 2.5 kids and a two-week annual vacation routine we’re all familiar with,” she tells The National. “I didn’t exactly have a road map for what I wanted, just a strong craving for a change from the western way of life I was used to.”

That’s how Vilaca ended up in China, where she lived for four years until Covid-19 made it difficult to stay. Now, she’s travelling full-time, currently in Argentina and planning her next move within South America before it’s time to head to the next continent. “I don’t have a home base or even a country I call home,” she says.

“The beautiful thing about this lifestyle is that I can always return to any country in the future on a moment’s notice.”

Turkey, she says, is one of those she will visit time and time again. “I loved exploring; the people are kind and the food is amazing.”

There are many ways to be a digital nomad

Moving to new locations every few weeks isn’t for everyone, but a life of working remotely around the world can be whatever you want it to be. Take Chloe Rees, for example, who lives in Bali, but operates a social media and content creation business in Dubai, where she employs 35 staff members, and travels regularly to Australia, her home country.

“My husband’s company shut their Middle East offices, so his role was transferred to Sydney,” Rees explains. “I initially went to Australia for a while; however, the time zone for working on Dubai hours wasn’t amazing and the transit back to the office was a full day of travelling, plus the associated jet lag. I made the decision to meet halfway.”

So, the couple, with their two children in tow, sold everything they owned (“aside from two moving boxes of personal items” and six suitcases) and headed off from the UAE, where Rees had lived since 2012.

While it can be challenging at times to run a bricks-and-mortar business remotely, Rees says she’s fallen in love with her new, slower pace of life. “Bali is a fantastic time zone to work on as it’s ahead of the UAE by only four hours. Essentially, I have the whole morning to do what I need or like to do, as people in Dubai don't hit their laptops until 1pm Bali time.”

Now, she can do her work, host meetings online, but also have a bit of “me time” and enjoy her family more. “I don’t think I realised the pace at which my body and mind functioned for so long,” she says. “Overall, I make decisions – work and personal – from a place of calm. I used to make them from a stressed place, but now I am much more present, mentally … I am healthier overall, sleep better and generally a nicer person to my children and husband,” she adds with a laugh.

Of course, it’s not all rice paddies and pristine beaches. “The traffic is bonkers. We ride scooters everywhere, including the school run.” Her children have also complained about the lack of toy shops and soft play centres. “They’ve also had a real-world awakening when it comes to wildlife. We have a constant stream of lizards, spiders and the odd snake in the house, which is terrifying for all.”

The medical system doesn’t compare with the facilities and care available in the UAE, either. “That is something I miss,” Rees adds. “The water isn’t safe and you need to be careful where you eat, but we have only – very luckily – been affected badly once.”

Long stints at home and away

The Fishers, a family of travelling content creators from the UK, also have a different approach to the nomadic way of life. “Up until 2017, we were just a normal family that took a few trips a year,” mum Clare tells The National. “Then, after the passing of our close friend, we watched a TV show where a young family were travelling the world together and we thought: 'That’s it, we're going to do it.'”

They sold everything they owned, saved up £30,000 and, with their then two children (they now have a third), spent a year travelling through Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Bali, Australia and New Zealand. “It was the best thing we ever did,” she says.

After that, they returned to the UK, where the children went back to school, but they made sure to visit new countries regularly. Then they moved to Mexico for a while and road-tripped around the US. “The kids have very much done a mix of traditional school and homeschooling.”

Now, after a few months in Mallorca, they’re back in their home country as their eldest starts comprehensive school, before going back into full-time travel in 2025. They’re currently planning to go on their first cruise, then on a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip to South Africa and add in a “cheeky” visit to Lapland come Christmas. So far this year, they’ve also been city-hopping around Europe and headed farther afield to the Maldives and Abu Dhabi, where they stayed for four nights at Saadiyat Rotana Resort & Villas and visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

“Abu Dhabi is a really cost-effective way to reach destinations farther away – it breaks the journey up into smaller parts to make it easier on the whole family, and you get to tick off this bucket-list destination on the way,” says Clare. “We really loved our time there. It was our most surprising destination of the year and we can’t wait to return.”

How to financially sustain full-time travel

To live this lifestyle, you do need to have enough money coming in each month, says Vilaca, who recommends earning at least $1,000 to $2,000, with about $5,000 to $10,000 in savings and a good health insurance plan, which usually costs between $100 and $300 per month.

“There are countless ways to earn an income online, but I opted to start an online business in an area I was passionate about,” she says. Vilaca also hopes to buy homes in various countries and rent them out while she’s travelling.

The Fishers, who would need more money considering they’re a family of five, have several income streams, including from brand partnerships, modelling, content creation and licensing. Over the next few months, they also plan to release a portfolio of digital products and focus on making their website more profitable. Husband Ian, who currently works as director of marketing and communications for a renewable energy company, will soon become a part-time consultant, while Clare builds on everything they’ve created so far.

“Nomad finance is a whole different ball game compared to traditional finance,” adds Vilaca. “Take geo-arbitrage, for instance. We earn money in a strong currency, but live in places where the cost of living won’t break the bank – our money goes so much further.” On top of that, financial priorities don’t look the same, she says – there are usually no mortgages and car payments, but instead co-working space fees, software tools and accommodation rental costs.

It's important to have your finances in order before following in these travellers’ footsteps, however, she warns. “Be sure to have enough money to cover monthly expenses, travel and emergencies. If you don’t, start building a side hustle before taking the leap.”

Rees agrees. “Specifically for Bali, you need cash.” Everything is paid in cash, she says, including renting or buying property, school fees and so on. “It’s not easy, as a family, to live month by month here, so you need to have your financial ducks in line, so to speak.”

'Take the leap'

Beyond finances and navigating complex visa situations, there’s a deep sense of wanderlust that drives these nomads. For Clare and co, it is fuelled by their losses and Ian’s recent diagnosis of liver disease at the age of 34. “We just don’t know what’s around the corner and we can’t wait our whole life until retirement to see and do the things we really want to do, because we just can’t say we will make it.”

She also loves that their travels have made her children “citizens of the world, accepting and understanding of everyone”.

Fear of missing out, or of living a “mediocre” life, is also what drives Vilaca. “This is the trajectory I found my life on after finishing university at 21 years old. It was never running to somewhere, but running from the life I knew I didn’t want,” she says.

“If you feel a calling to live this unique lifestyle, you won’t know how it will work out until you start,” Vilaca adds. “I moved to China six years ago and look where I am today. Take the leap. You won’t see the whole staircase, but take that first step.”

Clare says, simply, “go for it”. “While it’s not for the faint-hearted, it will leave you with experiences and memories you will never forget, and time with the people you love that you will cherish forever.”

Updated: September 13, 2023, 12:57 PM