I think most articles either glorify the life of being a digital nomad or write about why it’s not a long-term plan. I think I’m somewhere in between. For example, I could never be an RV family as we tried that and it was a disaster for all of us, but unlike social media likes to make the van life a goal, it really isn’t the only option.
After years and years of moving around we thought we should settle in, bought a house and stayed that way. Yet, not even 2 years in we got ready to move again and change our base 🙂
I won’t lie to you: there are a lot of issues when being a digital nomad, and even more issues when you add kids to it. But, I have a love-hate relationship with chaos as my husband says and my toddler is the same. We both complain and then adapt easily. In fact, Dylan was only 2 years old when he told my husband that he’s ready for a new house and started asking to travel to places he found out about.
What Pandemic Taught Us
If the pandemic taught us anything is that nothing is permanent in this life. One would say that it makes the digital nomad lifestyle easier, but the reality is that it’s quite the opposite.
Bustling parties within the communities became non-existing, co-working spaces and hostels had to close down and many travel people realized that they’re stuck in never-ending lockdowns all alone.
Others got kicked out or locked in countries or cities they didn’t plan on staying in long-term (hello Australia!). Many couples or even families became separated for months.
While some managed to travel around a bit despite the restrictions they were hit with additional costs of testing, canceled flights, and quarantines. All of that still before the inflation hit all of us.
Am I saying that the digital nomad life is over? Not at all, but it requires even more planning than ever and a bigger safety net in terms of finance, planning and quality of life.
Travel Planning Takes a Lot of Time
Travel planning takes a lot of work and time. You need to book flights, prepare for all eventualities, arrange accommodation, necessities and then it might all fall apart on you.
On top of that, you still need to work to sustain your lifestyle and take care of the kids. It’s exhausting.
At home or at a longer base you travel from can have a privilege of a laundry machine. I’m lucky that my kids aren’t messy at all, but as much as I like laundrymats lots of times things get lost or ruined and you need to plan things carefully so that your clothes have time to dry.
Can’t Be Hopping Nonstop
Traveling with kids while you work is super challenging. You cannot plan much and be prepared for every eventuality. You can plan to leave a certain place at a particular time and that’s when your kid may decide to throw up or shit their pants.
If you can’t find an open supermarket you might just skip dinner and eat a bag of chips instead, but with kids it can be tricky. On the road we always end up overspending for food, because we’re too busy, tired or lack the possibility of cooking.
You also don’t want to be hopping around nonstop. At some point you’re tired of “another waterpark”, “another zipline”, and things become less and less exciting when you get to do them nonstop.
On top of everything else, you need to keep up with your life – you cannot escape it completely. The number of times one of my banks or cards didn’t work despite a travel openness and I had to spend hours on the phone with banks trying to fix that… and don’t even get me started on when an ATM ate my card and phone stopped working and I had to borrow the money to fly back to London from Sydney as it was the only way to handle things.
Flexibility with Babies
When I traveled with Dylan when he was a baby we could squeeze everything into a carry-on for a few days. However, as much as I wanted to be minimalistic in terms of raising my children I cannot imagine not having certain items full time for small kids.
I’m not talking about gadgets like fancy cribs or formula makers. Babies need stuff – bottles, bassinets, swaddles, change of clothes for different weather. We cannot travel with a carry-on with two kids anymore.
On Instagram new parents often glorify traveling with babies as easy. I’ve been there, I also thought it was easy and that it would stay that way.
Once baby became a toddler we couldn’t stay at any AirBnB anymore because we couldn’t babyproof the staircase, a glass table with trinkets was a hazard for everyone, and marble floors with dirty carpets for early walkers were made of nightmares.
On top of the simple fact that many cool places simply don’t accept kids, which required even more planning when traveling to certain places.
Accepting the Reality with Kids
I once read that “travel kids can potentially take part in whatever activity anywhere.” That might be true, however, many parents don’t realize that their ids might be different than you and want different things. I thought it was a fantastic idea to live by the beach with my toddler… just to realize that my toddler hates the ocean and sand.
We spent 3 months living by the beach and managed to drag the child out there twice for 15 minutes… half of the time trying to convince him to stay and play and other half chasing him when he decided to go back to the apartment.
You might be an excellent and experience van-living couple, but your child might hate this lifestyle. I had my reality checks as soon as my very smart and determined toddler turned 15 months old and started having opinions – and he’s traveled his whole life so it’s not like he wasn’t adjusted.
While babies can be flexible, many people don’t realize how many medical appointments there are within the first year of their life. And that’s if they’re all healthy without any other needs.
When we lived in Italy we quickly realized that there are various issues with private pediatricians because they cannot do it all and my husband didn’t speak the language, so I ended up having to fly to another country to do it. That wasn’t a big issue at first, but then my pediatrician recommended that my son needs some physical therapy… weekly. We couldn’t fly to another country weekly at this stage. Thankfully, it was nothing too serious, but what if it was?
You can say that you don’t go anywhere that we haven’t first researched health care. Nope, things happen when you change your location often. Things that you don’t expect.
Other friends discovered that while they were living in Hungary they had to report to a social worker every month because that’s the local law and had to adjust their schedule around it.
Homeschooling Issues & Working with Kids
While homeschooling could teach more and schools have many flaws, I don’t want to take away the social aspect from the kids. On top of the obvious – some of the concepts of worldschooling and unschooling seem a little bit extreme for some people, including myself.
In my opinion, while kids are social and can make friends easily, having regular friends vs “friends on the go” is huge, especially in this day and age. My own best friends are from school and college.
Both of my kids have been in daycares since they were 8 months old. I cannot imagine them not going to preschool even now, especially when Dylan is already telling us he misses his friends when he stays home sick or we’re traveling somewhere where there are no kids.
A babysitter/tutor full-time didn’t work for us no matter how hard we tried to make it work. Mostly because our kids are way too engaged with us, so if we’re home they’ll be banging at our door every 5 minutes until we all come out and play together.
It was frustrating to us, the kids and tutors and we were basically kicked out of our apartment desperately looking for a coffee shop with internet or co-working space.
You can still get plenty of breaks in some school systems if you stay in places for a while.
Homeschooling might work for some kids, but I also saw plenty of kids whose parents were very unqualified and kids “learned” whatever from YouTube videos and their kids are strange with zero common sense in social aspects. This is not what I’d want for my kids and I think it’s much more beneficial to send them to a local institution.
The school doesn’t necessarily mean a cement building that confines children (I feel like they’re more confined to their iPad education) – my kids went to a fun school in Mexico that was child-led and in the middle of the jungle teaching them practical and interesting things. All screen-free.
Every time I read about Khan Academy for kids I cringe because both myself and my older son hate it.
Some countries make finding good food difficult. Making your own meals using the local ingredients is by far the most budget-friendly method of eating local for a digital nomad. But, with little kids it’s adding extra stress.
We rarely cook on the road, because I’m either missing spices, tools, or the most important thing: time. At some point, another take-out gets boring.
If you live a traditional life at home you accumulate stuff. I’ve never had an issue with not having things like clothes or cosmetics as I moved a lot as an adult between dorms and small rooms on a budget, but with kids it’s different.
Let me be real though: having a small number of clothes doesn’t mean you need to look like a hobo or be badly dressed. However, I have been to a nomad conference with a black-tie event where half of the people showed up dressed in jeans and old T-shirts, because “they had no space in their suitcase”.
Pretending to Avoid Things from Your Home Country
Taxes are a mess when you live in different places and many people pretend to escape politics by traveling around the world but politics affect even basic aspects of your life, whether you want it or not.
To give you a real-life example from my life, I’ll talk about Brexit. London had been my base on and off for a while so naturally, my bank account along with other registrations was based in there. I was happily living as a digital nomad in Playa del Carmen when Brexit happened.
It basically put me in the situation of suddenly having no residency to claim, put my bank account at risk and taxes for the self-employed and corporate became ridiculous. Unless I returned to London to obtain a residency (basically stay put for a while) I couldn’t enjoy the benefits anymore.
We were forced to look for other options and ending up moving to the US and applying for my green card. It wasn’t a particularly smart decision from a financial standpoint or wise in terms of travel, as I’ve been stuck in the US for months during the process. Having a US green card is a costly, lengthy and annoying process, so personally, I wouldn’t recommend it.
Cost of Living
Digital nomad life is often portrayed as “you can save a ton of money”, but it’s not always true. For example, Italy seemed like a cheaper choice than Los Angeles when we relocated.
But, after realizing that we cannot buy a car and are doomed to renting, with short-term leases being more expensive, a babysitter was harder to find, and in the end we ended up spending a similar amount of money we did in Los Angeles and trust me, we weren’t living the high life.
Then there was the tax issue. Self-employed individuals still need to pay taxes in the US, because the self-employment tax cannot be excluded through the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE) or Foreign Tax Credit. It’s 12.4% of your income for Social Security and 2.9% of your income for Medicare… coming to a grand total of 15.3% of your income.
Many travel families don’t ever think of actually saving money for the future or retirement. They’re selling a dream of “being free”, but if they suddenly decide to buy a house, settle somewhere or something happens to them that doesn’t allow them to work then you’re basically screwed. You need a safety net.
Homeownership, raising a family and living in one city add up to what might sound like a prison sentence to ambitious millennials, but it doesn’t need to be. We decided to buy a house and in a short amount of time, we made a lot of money on it. We would have never made it by renting places. We still traveled from our base a lot, but now we can basically travel with working less thanks to what we did.
Let me be honest. Being a digital nomad is great, but one of the main reasons we decided we needed a base was friendships. While small kids could make friends easily, for adults it sucks.
On the one hand, there are many other digital nomads so the “communities” are everywhere, especially in digital nomad spots – think of Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Playa del Carmen, Medellin.
Any city with a good internet connection that’s cheap. It’s very easy to relate because you lead a similar lifestyle and make connections easy – much easier than if you were to move somewhere for a job.
But, the line between business networking and friendship is non-existent in this community. You can quickly realize that topics easily fall into work and there are often blurs of intentions, which in the long run is tiring.
On top of the fact that I have a ton of friends who I see once a year or two (or never really as many of my “friends” I’m yet to meet in real life despite talking to them for years) if we happen to stumble upon each other as we move around.
As a social person, it sucks to me that I never get to see my friends, because zoom calls just aren’t the same.
Another aspect is that as easy as you connect with other nomads over your nomadic lifestyle, you might quickly realize that you might not have absolutely anything in common – apart from being a nomad.
I have some fantastic nomadic friends, but after 10 years I want to talk about common interests other than “that time I traveled to (insert name of the place).
If you relocate somewhere permanently you usually get to interact with locals, eventually learn the local language and culture. But, as digital nomads who move often most people don’t bother at all.
I remember a friend of mine made a surprise post recently that a ton of digital nomads in Thailand have never tried Thai street food. To me, it’s not surprising at all, as the vast majority of digital nomads I’ve met in Mexico didn’t bother to learn more than a few words in Spanish, despite being in Latin America for months.
Digital nomads create their own English-speaking communities and most people stick to their habits and routes, which to me felt like a “fake life”. I feel like it makes me sound like a snob, but at some point I got tired of hanging out with people who lived in Mexico for months and months and knew no word in Spanish or a single local friend. I didn’t want to be so disconnected from reality in that way – to me, it felt extremely ignorant.
Being a nomad doesn’t mean country hopping every week or month. It can work if you country or city hop once a year or once every two years. This works for us with kids just fine.