The Digital Nomad Lifestyle Vs. Backpacking: 6 Key Differences and How To Cope

by Rachel Story
digital nomad lifestyle

There are many different travel styles – vacationing, backpacking, flashpacking, family travel. Our first big trips were backpacking trips. Over the last few years, we’ve been making the transition to working online. We’ve now been living the digital nomad lifestyle for a little over a year. After living and teaching English in China, we moved to Bali, started teaching online, and have been on the road ever since. I’ve started to notice some key differences between our current travels and our backpacking adventures. For those eager to try out the digital nomad lifestyle, read on to learn the key differences so you know what to expect.

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digital nomad lifestyle

Having a Plan Makes Everything Better

Due to the nature of our online teaching jobs, we have to know where we’re staying and what the internet speed is. Sasha spends a lot of time messaging hosts on Airbnb asking for the internet speed and details about the layout of their home. Our teaching jobs are loud, energetic, and a little obnoxious. We need at least a door between us as teaching in the same room would be nearly impossible.

When we were backpacking through Southeast Asia, there were many places we went on a whim. For example, we didn’t even know the town of Ninh Binh in Vietnam existed until two days before we went there. Myanmar wasn’t even really on our radar until almost three months into our trip. We had no idea we would end up spending 45 days in Indonesia.

When we started our backpacking trip, we knew what countries we wanted to go to but we didn’t know where we would go within those countries. We had our bucket list of places we wanted to visit, but other than that we had no idea what was next.

Currently, we’re in Medellin, Colombia and we know where we’re going and staying through February. February! That’s a whole four months of planned travel. Most backpackers would scoff at this.

digital nomad lifestyle

Medellin, Colombia

But we have a good reason for it and that’s using our airline miles. They were going to lose half their value in November, so we cashed them in to go do some awesome things we probably otherwise wouldn’t be doing, such as the Galapagos Islands and Carnaval in Brazil.

Why It Helps

Having things a bit more planned out has allowed me to be more excited because I know what’s coming up. By booking our accommodation in advance, we don’t have to worry about not finding a place we like and being disappointed.

When you’re backpacking, you often spend a lot of time walking around a town checking out hostels in search of a bargain. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you end up in a super popular town in Laos during Chinese New Year when all the Chinese tourists have booked up every room (true story).

Socializing Is Different

The digital nomad lifestyle can be more lonely than backpacking. We can’t really stay in hostels anymore, which takes away a crucial way to meet people and make friends.

Hostels almost always have common areas, a bar, and tours where you’re always meeting new people. Airbnb apartments do not. You have to put forth a lot more effort to be social as a digital nomad, especially the online teaching type.

When we were backpacking, we stayed in only a handful of Airbnb places. Now we almost exclusively stay in them. Thanks to the fact that we work online, we spend a large majority of our time on our computers, in our apartment. It can start to feel quite lonely. Sasha and I are both very social people with large personalities. We need to be around other people to really feel like ourselves.

Couchsurfing is a great way to meet people.

Be Proactive

I mean, how do you meet people when you’re not working somewhere or studying? It can be really hard!

Many digital nomads like to work in co-working spaces, so that can be a good place to meet like-minded people. However, that also presents its own difficulties.

Most people at a co-working space are there to WORK. They’re not there to talk and make new friends. Chatting people up in that environment can be tricky. You don’t want to be that person that distracts everyone by asking their plans for the weekend.

Thankfully, Medellin is a hotspot for digital nomads. There are a lot of meetups geared towards our type. There are also several language exchanges throughout the week at different locations where you can meet locals and other travelers and also practice your Spanish! Wins all around!

The best way to cope is to seek out meetups around the place you’re going and just put yourself out there. Look for events at coworking spaces or language exchanges. Finding a bar crawl is also a good idea if you’re into that sort of thing. Since we need to wake up at 5:30 most days to teach, we’re not exactly night owls anymore.

Travel at a Slower Pace

The longest we stayed in one place on our big backpacking trip was 7 days and at the time it felt like forever. Typically, we would only stay somewhere for 3 or 4 days. While it was thrilling and we managed to pack in a ton of places, we started to feel pretty burned out after a while.

Now we are spending close to a full month in one place and using it as a base to explore the surrounding area.

We kicked off this year by traveling to Mexico. Sasha needed some serious dental work so we decided it would be best to stay in Puerto Vallarta. On our way there we stayed for a full week in both Mexico City and Guadalajara in between short trips to Monterrey, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato.

digital nomad lifestyle

Exploring Monterrey, Mexico

It was our first time traveling while teaching and we quickly realized that even a full week wasn’t enough time to accomplish everything we would like to do. I ended up getting sick in Guadalajara from trying to do too much and not sleeping enough.

In a place as massive as Mexico City, you can barely scratch the surface in a week there, especially when you have to carve out several hours a day to work.

Take Time to Reassess

Rather than only staying a month in Puerto Vallarta like we had planned, we ended up staying for six – a perk of the digital nomad lifestyle. We were able to use it as a base and visit several of the coastal towns near PV that we probably wouldn’t have seen if we had moved forward with our original travel plans.

digital nomad lifestyle

Not a bad place to spend a few months.

It allowed us enough time to travel, work, and save money all while feeling much more relaxed. Realizing that about ourselves helped us shape our plans for our current South American adventure.

We’ll be staying six weeks in Medellin, a month in Lima, and a month in Santiago (with some other stops sprinkled in). While I definitely have some FOMO about not going to all the places I would like to in each country, it’s nice to feel like we’re making a connection with Medellin and the people who live here.

After month-long stays in these cities, we’ll definitely be able to decide whether we’d be interested in staying more long-term. We’re always doing research when we travel for potential home bases, so it’s nice to get to spend so much time in a few places.

Time Management is Key

This is something I struggle with a lot. Time management is crucial for the digital nomad lifestyle. If you are organized and do things efficiently, it frees up your time to go do what you ultimately came for – travel!

As a backpacker, you have all the time in the world. You can wake up when you want, join a tour at any time of day, and spend all afternoon on the beach. When you’re working online as a freelancer, you’re not earning if you’re not working.

Sure it’s great that you can work while sitting in a cafe overlooking the ocean or the Eiffel Tower, but wouldn’t you rather be swimming in the ocean or touring the Eiffel Tower? (Duh)

digital nomad lifestyle

In order to make this happen, you need to have a to-do list for each day. This will help ensure that you’re not getting distracted by “shiny things” or cat videos. Having a to-do list will help you be productive rather than just being busy – a big difference.

As I said above, this is one of my biggest issues. I find myself constantly starting new tasks or projects and then inevitably chasing a laser pointer like a cat and leaving them on a dusty shelf for a while. If anyone has any tips on how to be better at time management, help me out in the comments!

Create Systems

Sasha, on the other hand, is much better at managing his time as a digital nomad. It helps that he’s been freelancing for several years and has gotten into somewhat of a routine with it.

He keeps track of all the articles and videos he has to do by making a list and keeping it on his desk. He checks it out the night before and decides which things need to be done sooner. Then he makes sure to finish 2-3 a day during the work week. It’s not a complex system but it works for him.

It must be nice to be so self-disciplined!

Think About Money Differently

As backpackers, we had quite a lot of money saved. We did some research about the costs in the countries we planned to visit and made a budget. We did our best to try and stick to the budget by writing down everything we spent money on.

In order to make our funds stretch as far as possible, we were always on the hunt for the cheapest things; we would eat the cheapest food, sleep in the cheapest hostels, and take the cheapest bus or train.

There were definitely some things we wanted to do but just couldn’t as it was way out of the budget. Some of these things included nice hotel stays or epic adventures.

Now that we’re able to work on the road, we don’t have to always hunt down the cheapest things. Our future plans include a lot of EPIC adventures that we wouldn’t be able to afford on a backpacking budget.

With a plan in hand, we know how much we need to earn in order to pay off those credit card bills (which are also scoring us more miles for future travels – hooray travel hacking!)

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You Can Stop Whenever You Want

The best thing about traveling as a digital nomad is that you are in control. You can choose how long you want to stay in a particular place and you can stop whenever you want.

You could even live somewhere for a year to recharge and then get back out on the road when you’re ready.

When you’re backpacking, your money is limited as you’re likely not earning any. At some point, you run out of funds and either have to go home or find a job somewhere, which can present its own difficulties.

One of the most important things about living the digital nomad lifestyle is understanding that it is not a forever lifestyle.

At some point, you will want to settle in somewhere. Having a community is important and it’s something that’s hard to nurture if you’re constantly on the road. It can be exhausting when you don’t have a home base and your backpack is the closest thing to a home you have.

digital nomad lifestyle

My life in a few bags.

Understanding these things before you get started can save you from beating yourself up about it, giving up, and feeling bitter about it all. It can also help you make your plans in a way that ensures you’re getting everything you need.

Conclusion

Making the transition from traveling as a backpacker to the digital nomad lifestyle has definitely been a learning curve. We’re feeling it out as we go and we’ve made some mistakes along the way. I’ve always wanted to be location independent. These are the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I hope they can also help you on your journey to making long-term travel a reality.

digital nomad lifestyle

Living the digital nomad lifestyle means sunset cocktails on a Wednesday.

What are some of your tips for working on the road? Leave me a comment and let me know!

6 comments

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6 comments

Shannon June 13, 2018 - 9:10 pm

I’m also from Tennessee! I recently quit my job to do a year of travel with the plan of teaching for VIPKID to earn money if I need to. (I had already been teaching for VIPKID on the weekends). It was nice to read this and get an idea of what to expect! Super helpful. Thanks!

Reply
Rachel Story June 13, 2018 - 9:32 pm

Well hello, my fellow Tennessean! That’s so cool! What a small world. Where in TN are you from? I’m so glad you found this helpful. Where are you going on your travels?

Reply
Shannon June 14, 2018 - 8:16 pm

I’ve lived in Knoxville for four years 🙂 I’m going to start in Spain and stay there for three months. That’s as far ahead as I have planned haha. Where are you from in TN?

Reply
Rachel Story June 14, 2018 - 8:35 pm

I’m from Johnson City! We’re almost neighbors, haha. Go Vols go!

Reply
Amanda October 30, 2017 - 3:28 pm

Totally agree! I found I was much happier when I stopped trying to travel everywhere, and just spend some time in ONE place at a time. I love basing myself in a city, then doing day trips here and there. It’s also impossible for me to get work done ‘on the road’. I need my own space, some kind of routine, and good internet! Also, it’s nice being able to come ‘home’ to somewhere – wherever that is that week/month 🙂

Reply
Rachel Story November 2, 2017 - 5:07 pm

You are absolutely right, Amanda. Having a base makes getting work done so much easier. Otherwise, I just feel completely overwhelmed. Thanks for reading!

Reply

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