Travel is traditionally something people look forward to as a break, a vacation from the real world, time to tune out and recharge. Now, however, young people especially are making travel a way of life, rather than an escape from it. No longer reserved for backpackers or gap year-takers, millennials are taking their show on the road full time—ditching the stable home life of their parents’ generation. Dubbed “digital nomads,” this way of living seems to be a natural fit for the new American generation: a ragtag bunch of youngsters spurned by the fallout of hyper- global- imperialist- etc. capitalism, and, according to many a keyboard philosopher, unable to afford houses, find steady office jobs, or experience love, thanks in large part to avocado toast.
As Michelle Poler of Hello Fears puts its, “The American dream used to mean buying a home and having a stable job, but now that’s shifting. This is the new American dream: not owning anything, being on your own, and traveling.”
Thanks to improved technology and a bounty of new companies that promise users a seamless global lifestyle—and thanks to the privilege of relatively uninhibited global access enjoyed by citizens of the “global north”—the prospect of becoming one of these career wanderers is more realistic than ever for young Americans. Still, this appealing/terrifying life choice can feel out of reach for the average person looking to escape monotony and test out a radically alternative lifestyle. Below, you’ll find five “digital nomads,” all at different stages in their journeys, and all with different perspectives on life untethered.
The calm before the storm with Todd Plummer
It’s a common experience, to graduate from school and have a handful of vertigo-inducing “so… now what?” moments. Attempts to answer that question often include travel in one way or another, like a cross-country road trip or a city tour of western Europe. For 27-year-old Todd Plummer, however, your basic post-grad trip with one destination and an end date wasn’t going to cut it.
After graduating from St. John’s University School of Law in 2017, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. Having spent the last three years working to get his writing career off the ground while simultaneously in law school full-time, Plummer was ready for a break. “For years, I made most of my living covering parties. I got really good at it, and it’s how I launched my career, but it was a grueling lifestyle,” he says. “I was out until 1 or 2 in the morning, coming home, turning around a story for 8 a.m. the next day, then rushing off to class and studying all day, then doing it all over again. I just sort of woke up one day and realized, ‘I’m exhausted.’ And worse, I realized that I was working so hard at trying to ‘do it all,’ that I started to lose track of who I was and what I wanted.”
Plummer realized he might never have the opportunity to travel freely again, so he packed his bags and headed to Bali. “My original intention was to just set up shop on Bali for a few months, perhaps even a full year,” he said. “But one thing led to another and basically for the next six months I’m traveling nonstop.” After Bali, he’s headed to Norway for a Kygo show and Oslo Fashion Week, then on to Germany and Italy, Shanghai for a friend’s wedding, Cambodia for a river cruise, then to Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth, back to Bali, on to New Zealand, and, finally, to Argentina and Chile.
“It’s kind of a daunting list, but the day-to-day in each of those places isn’t planned at all,” says Plummer. “I’ve set up the framework of the trip but will just sort of play it by ear.” In order to sustain his new lifestyle, Plummer’s plans include working as a travel writer from the road. “When you’re a writer, the work takes on a whole new level of meaning when you can be ‘in the field,’” he says. “And not being tied down to an apartment means I can really get creative with my workspaces.” Luckily, there is a huge Australian ex-pat population in Canggu, Bali. “Australians love their coffee, so there are so many great cafés to set up shop for an afternoon and work.”
In the thick of it with Michelle Poler
Michelle Poler has a lot of fears—enough that she launched an entire career around how to beat them. As the woman behind Hello Fears, based off of a 100-day project where she challenged herself to conquer a new fear each day, she travels all over the country and the world inspiring others to face their fears alongside her. Becoming a nomad was not necessarily her intention at the outset, but with continued speaking gigs that have her jet-setting two weeks of every month, it’s the only way for her and her husband, Adam, to make her new career work. Soon after her speaking business took off last year, Poler quit her advertising job, Adam quit his job in finance, and the two agreed not to renew the lease on their N.Y.C. apartment. They threw what they could fit into suitcases and the rest in storage, and set off for Miami, where they stay with family in between speaking commitments.
One definite perk of living as a professional nomad: travel is completely open-ended. A speaking engagement in Rome can turn into a few months hopping around Europe, which happened for Poler and her husband. “And while we were still in Europe, another [opportunity] came up to speak in Tel Aviv at a big Microsoft event, so we decided to stay even longer in Europe and then travel to Israel from there,” she says.
Last year, they also traveled to Colombia and Panama (Poler, who is Venezuelan, speaks Spanish, which helps the couple get around Central and South America with ease). The itinerary for the rest of 2017 includes Panama (again), Costa Rica, a number of stops in the U.S., and parts of Asia.
Shortly after adopting this new lifestyle, Poler realized one key thing. “You need a home until you don’t have one, and then you realize that you don’t need one,” she says. “The idea for us is not only to travel for work, but to constantly challenge our comfort zone. If I’m telling people that they have to do things that are uncomfortable for them, I have to do that in my own life.” To that end, Poler sets up her own mini-challenge everywhere she goes—in Costa Rica, she’s planning to go rafting. “I’m not at all looking forward to it, because I am a very fearful person at heart!” she laughs. “But I still do it.”
Nomadic expertise with Ben Jamin of “Kombi Life”
It’d be a challenge to find more of an expert on the topic of nomadic living than #VanLife celebrity Ben Jamin of the YouTube series Kombi Life. Having traveled the world professionally for years, the UK native’s magnum opus, Kombi Life:
Hasta Alaska—which involved living in and driving a van from Chile to “the end of the road” in Arctic Alaska—seemed a natural next step. In order to sustain his life on the road, though, he needed to find a way to make his journey economically viable. “My passion is exploring and traveling and discovering new places and cultures,” Jamin says. “One of the ways of funding that was to share the bus with people along the way—I didn’t charge people to come into the Kombi, but we’d share the cost of gas and food and things like that. It was kind of like a social experiment.”
It’s one thing to consider living life as a nomad, but something completely different to consider going rogue, as Jamin did, and living it out of a van. “You’re not just going between the bus stations—you get to stop in all the small towns,” he says. “And usually break down in all the small towns.”
When Jamin’s nomad life is hard, it’s really hard. Between the frequent mechanical troubles and visa and banking complications, Jamin has had his fill of challenges. But would he trade such uniquely exciting adventures as Alaska King Crab fishing, staying with families in roadless communities of the Amazon Jungle, and living with headhunters in Borneo for something easier to swallow? Not a chance. Inconveniences and all, Ben is certain that his life on the road is more fulfilling for him than the alternative.
If you’re wondering how he’s pulled it all off, he offers up this: “Use travel to experience new possible careers. For example, I was never a videographer or a photographer before, but I was always interested in it. On the road, I’ve been able to learn how to do those things because I have more free time. Then I turned that passion into a career.”
It’s the perfect antidote to the 9-to-5 grind. “I think one of the biggest problems that we face is that we get on a treadmill from education into a career, to a marriage, or onto the property ladder, and sometimes that defined part is so fixed that we don’t actually stop for long enough to look up and see if the path that we’re on is the path that we choose to be on,” he says. “I think that everybody should at least stop and consider if they’re living the lifestyle that they want.”
Nomadic business with Hannah Hart of Sabik Design
Cincinnati-born Hannah Hart started her own company with the idea that she’d never be in the same place. Temporarily based out of Denver, the 24-year-old runs her design agency Sabik Design from a new location every few months. After graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, Hart wanted to return to Bali, her favorite destination that she visited during her year abroad in Hong Kong. With her freelance career going well, she was able to spend a year there before returning to the States, working out of Chicago and then Austin for three months each. “I just love the excitement of experiencing a new place and moving from one place to another,” she said. “I recently moved to Denver and I’ll probably be here for about a year and then I’ll want to move abroad again after that.”
Her career as a digital designer makes the nomadic lifestyle an attainable dream. “Design is something that is never going to go away—it’s not something that exists only in one part of the world,” she says. “Every single economy is based off of selling products, and everything needs a design.” In general, Hart believes that designers should be taking advantage of their ability to work from anywhere in the world. “I think it’s pretty detrimental for designers to be cooped up in an office all day, because you just get into this routine that’s very static, and there’s not much that’s inspirational about that, especially for me.”
The challenges of being a young nomad with an even younger nomadic company are numerous. In particular, though, Hannah’s found that it’s hardest to make a lasting impression somewhere when she continues to bounce from place to place. “[The hardest part] is definitely trying to establish yourself somewhere. For example, I just moved to Denver and I’m really trying to get my foot in the door and network.” To aid in the daunting task of getting her name out there, she works out of WeWork, which has spaces all over the world, and takes full advantage of their online community, app, and their many events.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bali has been an ideal location for Hart to grow her business, as it seems to attract people with an entrepreneurial, adventurous spirit. “Ideally, I’d love to develop and grow Sabik into a badass 5 to 10 person design agency, and have offices in different countries,” she says. “I’m looking into doing that in Bali, to have a location there so that even when I’m traveling, we can maintain a connection.”
Where to stay with Bruno Haid of Roam
If vagabonding in a van for months at a time isn’t exactly your style, there are still ways to live life like a nomad—plumbing included. Enter Bruno Haid, the founder of the global co-living and co-working network Roam. With locations in Miami, Tokyo, Ubud, London, and soon San Francisco, Roam provides community networks and housing for digital nomads who are able to work from anywhere in the world with a Wi-Fi connection.
At any given Roam outpost, you can find guests that range in age from early 20s to late 60s, doing everything from litigating court cases to finishing novels. And while the thought of dropping everything and traveling full time is intimidating even to the most seasoned traveler, Haid wants people to know that there are ways to make it a reality, and a relatively painless one at that. “The hardest things about traveling full-time are just the little practical issues,” Haid says. “My advice is to try one of the offerings out there that make it easier, like Roam. Why not work from Tokyo? It really is becoming increasingly easier to ‘try before you buy’ when it comes to living abroad. Before you try it, though, it’s just this abstract leap of ‘one day, I want to do this,’ but it’s actually much more attainable than we tend to think.”
Without a reliable home base, maintaining a sense of stability can be difficult for nomads, which is why Roam prioritizes community-building for guests from their first day on site. “In general, we have an open-minded crowd of people who want to go out and explore, and want to make friends,” Haid says. “In Bali, for example, Roam connects members with interesting local initiatives, and in turn, our facilities and spaces are open to the local communities, and are often used for local art collectives, galleries, exhibitions, and discussion groups.”
Haid’s long-term vision for Roam is pretty ambitious, but thoroughly captures the spirit of a millennial’s globalized utopia. “We’re trying to create this very dense network of locations and people all around the world,” he says. “At the same time, we’re working to not lose the uniqueness of each place, and to prove to people that they can find a relatively affordable way to live somewhere that’s completely different and new. Ultimately, we’re thinking hard about how we can create a system where there is a ‘home’ wherever you go in the world.”