How digital nomads are responding to a pandemic
A view of quarantine from the road.
Think you’ve had it rough this spring? Between shut-downs, lay-offs, economic slowdowns, increased joblessness, and actual helplessness, we all have.
But imagine trying to get through all of this while living on the road.
Imagine being told you need to shelter at home, but you don’t have a conventional home. Or, imagine traveling abroad and hearing that you have to go home. Or that you can’t go home.
We talked to more than a dozen people from around the world who live and work as digital nomads to see how they’ve been weathering this recent storm and how this uncertainty may impact their plans moving forward.
Being a digital nomad during the shutdown
When we polled more than a dozen full-time nomads, we were shocked to find that their lives during the quarantine were not terribly different from their lives before the pandemic. Sure, there were some short-term headaches and some cancelled plans. But, by and large, many reported startlingly little serious trouble.
Kelly Beasley of CampAddict.com decided to relocate her travel trailer from Arizona to Florida to help her family during the pandemic. She got in right before the shutdown—not that she would’ve had much trouble, as she’s technically domiciled in Florida and has Florida tags. She’s parked near family and her biggest complaint was finding a more affordable camping spot.
Laura and Mike Abalos were on the Greek Island of Crete when the coronavirus started to sweep across the U.S. Laura explained that they were afraid at first that they’d get stuck on the island. “We booked an emergency ticket back to the United States, which proved to be the right decision as Crete closed their borders just 24 hours later.”
When they got back to the United States—a full five flights later—they moved into a family member’s basement for a full two-week quarantine.
Changing travel plans
While some digital nomads moved in with or near family and friends during the pandemic, others experienced less upheaval. Instead, they had to reassess or cancel plans to travel or relocate.
Brandon Croke is one such case. He decided to ride out California’s shelter-at-home order with some friends at a home in San Diego. Outside of buying some extra vitamins, he saw few changes to his own routine.
He did, however, have to put off plans to go to Mexico—one of his favorite springtime work spots. He’s still considering Mexico for the fall. He said several of his housemates—who are also semi-nomadic—had experienced similar delays and cancellations of travel plans.
The same can’t necessarily be said of nomads in other countries, however.
Chris Polleys, an independent software engineer, is staying with his girlfriend in El Salvador, near the capital of San Salvador. When we spoke, Chris told us: “I was planning a trip to Honduras but ultimately I had to postpone that. The borders are closed and airports shut down, except for rare exceptions. It may be possible for me to leave El Salvador if I want to, but it would be tremendously difficult to return and I'd probably have to wait in a quarantine center for two weeks.”
And, while most Americans are used to dealing with quarantines and some international travel restrictions, Chris also indicated that he had a brush with local authorities that was slightly more unusual by American standards.
“I was asked to pull my car over once at a routine traffic stop. It was very brief and the police let me pass after they saw my driver’s license (and he probably didn't want to deal with my intermediate-level Spanish). Other than that, no, I haven't encountered any issues. The police in El Salvador are less concerned with foreigners and more concerned with local crime and blatant abuses of the lockdown orders.”
Not all travel restrictions have been troublesome, though. Taylor Martin is a writer and online yoga teacher who had just returned to France from a month-long trip in India, only to find herself quarantining alone in an upscale apartment in the South of France.
She said the isolation was enlightening.
“The quarantine has allowed me a lot of opportunity to achieve personal goals without the distraction of having other things to do. The real challenge I've found is my having to remain in one place. Traveling between countries and cities as I desired was my lifestyle. I was accustomed to the inconsistency.”
The changing nature of remote work
Living situations for digital nomads have changed somewhat in the face of the pandemic, but changes in work, for better or for worse, have been far more noticeable.
Digital nomads we spoke with confirmed that they could definitely feel the recent slowdown in the economy. Though the results for them haven’t always been negative. Instead, what stood out was a change in work rather than a decline.
Chris Polleys said, “after lockdowns started taking effect, some of my past clients reached out to me and started taking their online presence more seriously…from my observations, it seems that the pandemic has pushed small businesses into diversifying their revenue strategy somewhat away from brick and mortar and more towards online. A couple of my clients started pushing their online businesses more towards achieving the bottom line and efficiency rather than aesthetics and what would otherwise be considered to be conveniences to users.”
Brandon Croke had a similar experience and perspective. “My work has mainly stayed consistent since the pandemic. Some clients may have been hesitant to start new contracts, but other clients needed more help with online marketing, so things pretty much stayed consistent. If companies aren't maximizing their online marketing and services right now they are missing out on a big opportunity.”
So, yes, the economy has slowed down for sure, and the U.S. is mostly likely already in recession. But, even with more than 30 million people already unemployed and unemployment rates exceeding 25% in several states, many digital nomads are doing just fine in terms of ongoing work.
What preparation looks like
Among the headlines that have stood out for most Americans are cases of hoarding and price-gouging over the past several months. One would think that living as a digital nomad would present some distinct challenges in this regard. If you live in a camper, where do you store 64 rolls of toilet paper?
One interesting commonality that we found among nearly every digital nomad we interviewed was that they had been almost completely unaffected by hoarding. Some reported that they bought a few extra vitamins or supplements when the pandemic started. Another noted that they moved their prescription to a different pharmacy. One person said they stocked up on meat when they heard that processing plants might have to close.
But, by and large, the digital nomads we spoke with seemed to have seen very little impact from global shortages and other worries that have panged Americans living more settled lives.
One of the nomads we spoke to even noted that where she lives, “the toilet paper scarcity only really became an issue around the Easter holiday. I found myself without toilet paper for a week and then realized that I didn't truly find it to be a necessity and made the decision to not look for it again until our quarantine restrictions change.”
- (of a person or animal) able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.
Well, I’m impressed.
Reassessing plans for the future
In light of what they’ve been through—what we’ve all been through—we wondered what impact this pandemic might have had on nomads’ desire to continue with their wanderlustful lifestyles. This hardly seemed like a group that was prone to regret, but what might they change going forward?
What we found, though, was that almost to a person, the nomads we spoke with indicated that they planned to resume their travels once restrictions lessened. Some indicated that they may stay in-place a little longer until things calmed down, but almost no one made any indication of doubting or second-guessing their choice to live a nomadic life.
Kalev Rudolph, a health and wellness writer for ExpertInsuranceReviews.com, had this to say:
“In many ways, I think digital nomads are incredibly well prepared for quarantine, though I am certainly glad to be facing this in a country where I hold citizenship. We have extensive practice working in unique situations, isolated, and most likely living on a well-managed budget. So, here we are waiting it out, taking each day as it comes, and hoping I’ll get to book my next flight across the world soon.”
Rather than let the pandemic change their attitudes, the digital nomads we talked to indicated that they thought this experience would only help them to become more prepared and more self-reliant.
Asked what she thought she would do if there was a second wave of COVID, Kelly from CampAddict put it succinctly: “Ugh. There likely will be. At this point, you just have to go with the flow. As nomads, we already live a very flexible life. This, we will all get through.”
Special thanks go to all of the following individuals who were particularly helpful in sharing their experiences and perspectives for this story:
Kelly Beasley of Camp Addict
Laura Peters of Mike & Laura Travel, Publishers of Boondocker's Bible
John Frigo of MySupplementStore.com
Ozge Erdem of Turbo Domain Search
Kalev Rudolph of Expert Insurance Reviews
Chris Chalk of Jungle Straws
Taylor Martin of livingwanderfull.com
Brandon Foster of My School Supply Lists
Ria Hardcastle of The Kreative Kind
Chris Polleys of Imperfect Plan
Aaron Taylor of Aaron Taylor Creates
Brandon Croke of Croke Consulting