What makes a good digital-nomad destination?

Bali LaptopI hope this site – Price of Travel – is a useful resource for long-term travelers as well as those looking for value on shorter trips. We’ve included typical costs for over 110 major destinations around the world, in addition to monthly weather information, which should quickly give you ideas of where to go and when. See the World Backpacker Index for 2012 to see all countries ranked from cheapest to most expensive.

But there’s a different kind of traveler out there in increasing numbers, including yours truly. The so-called “digital nomad” earns a living while traveling, or at least never having a permanent home. I’d love to get feedback and ideas from anyone out there on this subject because it seems clear that this lifestyle will only get more popular as time goes on.

What are the key ingredients for a good digital nomad destination?

Having worked while traveling for many years now, including more than two years solid all over Asia, I’ve discovered that it’s rarely obvious as to which places are better than others for stays of one to six months. For a week or two you’ll only need a hotel room with wi-fi nearby, and if you are staying indefinitely then it’s a different set of considerations. It’s that in-between length of stay that can be tricky, so below are the things I think are important.

1 – Affordable and accessible housing

Part of the idea of being a digital nomad is that you can exist or thrive cheaper as a visitor in some parts of the world than you can in the US or Western Europe etc. If you wanted to stay in New York City or Tokyo for a month it would likely cost a fortune so those aren’t popular on this circuit.

So yes, a digital nomad destination has to be relatively cheap, and you need to be able to get a furnished apartment (if not a serviced apartment) on short notice without spending a fortune. Fortunately, this seems to be quite possible in many places.

2 – Desirable weather

Beach Massage Nha TrangAgain, part of the equation is that you are going to places that are appealing, so it’s ideal to go somewhere where you’ll be happy with the weather while you are there. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but what’s the point in going somewhere where sheets of rain are normal or it’s too cold to go outside?

Interestingly, most of the cheapest places on the planet also happen to be in the Tropics, so it’s usually a matter of dodging the rainy season or perhaps the scorching sun for a month or two (like Bangkok in April, for example).

3 – A legal means of staying long enough

This is far more complicated than one might initially think. Many countries require a visa before you arrive, and many of them typically only issue Tourist Visas for 2 to 4 weeks to meet the needs of the average tourist. On the other hand, there are many countries where you don’t need a visa or you can buy a cheap one upon arrival, and then get it renewed at a consulate or at a border again, indefinitely.

More complicated still, the rules seem to be ever-changing, so even countries that have a friendly attitude about longer stays are often threatening to clamp down, and sometimes they even do it. A good digital nomad stop should allow for at least 60 or 90 days, and hopefully an extension beyond that.

4 – Access to modern conveniences

Vietnam convenience storeThe “digital” in digital nomad usually means that you’ll be working on a laptop and that you’ll need a decent internet connection. Fortunately that can be found in many places, but for longer stays I think it’s also important to have things like a kitchen and a bathroom that you are comfortable with, plus a way to get foods and other daily items you like.

It might sound romantic to move into a tiny village and sleep on a pile of hay and wash yourself in the river like the locals do (as long as you have a wi-fi card that works), but it’s much harder to be happy doing that over longer periods. People are more productive when they are comfortable, so for more than a week or two it’s necessary to strive for some comfort.

5 – English-language resources

This is another one that might seem too idealistic, but I think if you don’t know the local language well then it’s important to have reliable English-speakers nearby. Thankfully, this is achievable in most of the world’s cities, but certainly not always in smaller towns.

When I spent 6 weeks living and working from a hotel in Nha Trang, Vietnam, I needed some computer accessories, and until I later found the expat community there, I was dead in the water. The hotel clerks knew a few hundred English words, but not enough to help me get what I needed. Had it been a health issue rather than a technology issue, it could have been much worse.

6 – An expat social scene of some kind

Another that might not be obvious or feel frivolous, I think it’s pretty much necessary to have access to at least some kind of expat community, even if the expats aren’t from your same country. It’s easy to daydream about moving to a tiny and remote village to write a great novel or whatever, but having no one around to talk to can get really old faster than you might imagine.

Thanks to email and Facebook and Skype it’s quite easy to keep up with friends from anywhere on a daily basis, though you’ll still feel social isolation without anyone locally to compare notes with, at least once in a while.

Some popular digital nomad destinations that qualify

Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bangkok seems to be the most popular digital nomad destination in the world, and it easily ticks all the above boxes. Chiang Mai isn’t far behind, and it’s actually cheaper, easier to deal with, and has better weather most of the year.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia

You’ll notice on the Asia Backpacker Index list that most of the world’s cheapest tourist cities are in and near Southeast Asia. Thanks to this, you can (and I have) live in nice hotel rooms with decent wi-fi for around US$10 per night in much of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Malaysia is more expensive (and internet usually frustratingly slow) and Singapore is more expensive still.

Bali, Indonesia

One of my favorite places in the world and possibly my home starting in 2013, Bali is very popular with travelers and expats alike. Relatively slow internet is a common gripe, but in most other respects it’s a star.

India

Traveling through India is not without complications and frustrations, and you don’t hear about many people wanting to live there long-term unless they have a highly-paid job to report to. However, it’s very cheap for the most part, very sunny, fascinating, and the internet is generally pretty fast and easy to find.

Turkey

More on this below, but Turkey is where I’ve made my home for almost a year now and it’s got a lot more going for it than you might expect. Istanbul is actually quite expensive compared to other places on this list, though the rest of the country is still quite a bargain.

Berlin, Budapest, Prague etc.

Most of “Western Europe” is very expensive for anyone but long-term residents, but many cities that were once behind the Iron Curtain are still quite cheap. Prague used to be a magnet for foreigners, but now that it’s gone up in price many are going to Budapest and Krakow among others. And Berlin is booming for creative people and entrepreneurs, with weirdly-cheap rent mixed with extremely modern conditions.

Latin America

Parts of Mexico are popular with digital nomads, as are most of Central America and a good selection in South America. Buenos Aires is getting quite expensive, it seems, but perhaps still worth it. I have only traveled through this region as a tourist so I can’t be too specific, though I do know that it’s just as popular as Southeast Asia for many Americans and some others.

Kaş, Turkey: Highly recommended for digital nomads

Kas Harbor ViewI hadn’t heard much about Turkey (except for Istanbul) as a good digital-nomad destination until I started researching it, and I found it has a lot going for it. As mentioned above, Istanbul is very popular for people from all over, but it’s actually as expensive as the mid-range European cities, and the climate is crappy most of the year as well.

Almost by accident, I stumbled into Kaş (rhymes with ‘posh’), Turkey almost a year ago, and I haven’t left since. This is an example of a place that has everything on the list above, and more. It’s a stunningly beautiful fishing village on the Mediterranean that has become quite touristy, yet is still devoid of even a single chain restaurant or chain hotel.

I’ll go down the list from above to describe it for those who are curious. There are several other nearby towns and cities along this coast that most of this applies to as well, including Antalya and Fetiye, but I haven’t spent enough time in those to know for sure.

1 – Affordable and accessible housing

Kas Laptop ViewWhen I first arrived in town I stayed for a week in a nice hotel room for under US$20 per night, including fast wi-fi and a huge breakfast. In fact, one of my projects is that I’m building a Kaş, Turkey hotels guide from the perspective of someone who knows the town. It’s worth noting that the town is jammed full of tourists in July and August, so prices are much higher and availability is sketchy, so avoid those months if you want to keep it cheap.

Apartments are even better value here. For longer stays you can find unfurnished apartments in the town center for around US$300 per month, and I’ve rented two different furnished places that are large, very well located, and come with fast wi-fi and utilities for under US$400 per month (700 Turkish lira to be exact). I got them with no deposit, no contract, and on a month to month basis. It might be a bit more complicated for most people, but unless you arrive in June, July, or August, finding a place shouldn’t be tough.

2 – Desirable weather

This part of the Mediterranean gets about 300 days of sunshine per year, so it’s almost relentlessly sunny. July and August do get quite hot, but never too humid, so it’s surprisingly nice even at the peak. The winter brings about 30 total days of rain, sometimes hard rain, but rarely more than two days or so in a row. Honestly, the winter weather here is nicer than anywhere in Europe, so likely I’m coming back next year.

3 – A legal means of staying long enough

As an American I can get a 90-day Tourist Visa upon arrival for €20, and until recently I’ve been able to get a new one every 90 days by taking the ferry across the harbor to the little Greek Island of Meis. The rules have changed, for now, to a Schengen-style “90 out of 180 days” but Turkey actually makes getting a residence permit for stays of 1 or more years quite easy. Also, many people predict they’ll loosen the rules again to allow consecutive Tourist Visas, but no one can be sure.

4 – Access to modern conveniences

One of the best things in Kaş for me is the local internet is 8Mb down and very reliable. I can download huge files in minutes instead of hours it would take in, say, Kuala Lumpur.

There are 5 supermarkets here, ranging in size from small to medium, with pretty much everything I have desired (except for ramen noodles, for some reason), and everything is no more than a 5-minute walk from where I live. There’s also an open-air market every Friday where I can get cheap fruits and veg, plus clothes and household items at very low prices. A few things, like beef, are quite expensive, but generally prices of food in Turkey are quite low. I can and do cook three times per day at home spending maybe US$6 or $7 total, including at least some meat (usually chicken) in every meal.

There are also a few small electronics shops and mobile-phone shops, so I can get most things I’d need within minutes.

5 – English-language resources

One thing that surprised me is that English, or at least fluent English, is quite rare still in Turkey. Fortunately, Kaş is a pretty touristy town so even if the person I’m dealing with doesn’t speak English, someone standing nearby does. Also, there are many English expats living here who now speak fluent Turkish, so I have access to translators even for complicated things.

6 – An expat social scene of some kind

Another happy accident for me is that I stumbled directly into the British expat scene here almost immediately, and within a month or two I could spot someone I knew by name almost every time I walked (5 minutes) across town. There are a handful of Americans here and quite a few Germans and Scandinavians, though they mostly keep their own social scenes, it seems.

What are your favorite digital nomad destinations?

On this site I typically consolidate research on prices and such so there isn’t much feedback, but this time I’d love suggestions on good digital nomad or long-term traveler destinations, or any other wisdom on the subject.

It looks like I’m heading through eastern Europe starting in late May and I’ll be spending the summer in Berlin, and then perhaps coming back here. Where else is good and why?



8 Responses to “What makes a good digital-nomad destination?”

Other cheap places I’ve been or have heard of that are cheap with good Internet:

– Romania
– Bulgaria
– Panama
– Nicaragua
– Colombia

 
Rob says:

I’m a Canadian who also works online (I maintain e-commerce websites for some companies in NY.. my clients don’t care where I’m located).
So I do the exact same thing you are doing… in the last year I’ve lived in Buenos Aires, Lisbon, Barcelona, Rome and now Belgrade.
As I’ve mentioned previously in another post I use the Airbnb.com website to find furnished apartments with wi-fi, linens, full kitchens… many have laundry machines as well etc. You can find a private room or full apartment through that website pretty well anywhere in the world.
All of the cities I mentioned above had excellent internet speeds for my work etc.
Another thing I love about using the Airbnb.com website… you can find rooms and apartments that are located in non-tourist parts of cities. This brings costs way down… even in Rome, where I was renting a private room in someone’s apartment ($20 per night, included everything) and the neighborhood was about 10 minutes from the Vatican, but not a tourist area so the local pubs etc. where very reasonable. A bottle of Peroni beer was about $1.85 USD which is cheap for Rome.
It’s also great because it introduces you to parts of these cities you’d never find or see otherwise.

 
Johannes says:

I’ve been working as a Digital Nomad all over the world on all continents.

Some of my favorite destinations are:

Cape Town
Lisbon
Rio
Bocas del Toro
Ko Tao

Not all of them are cheap, but they are all unique in their own way and you always live close to the beach 😉

 
Melissa says:

I’m a new digital nomad (3 months in) but I’m completely addicted and can’t imagine living full-time in my home country of (chilly) Canada ever again. My husband and I have sort of stumbled into a web designing business and are doing quite well.
We loved Bocas del Toro in Panama (like Johannes, above) but had a hard time finding a nice place with decent rent, also the food selection was quite meager. Boquete was better, but not on the ocean. Decent Internet in both places.
We’re in Costa Rica now, but it’s much too expensive to live here full time. Prices on many things are on par with Canada. Nicaragua is next…
Thanks for this article–the digital nomad lifestyle will only be growing in popularity as more and more people realize that their work does not have to depend on their location, and you don’t have to suffer through winter if you don’t want to.
Thank god for the Internet!

 
Brian says:

Hello from another digital nomad now. Just wanted to comment that I’ve noticed a real degradation in quality from AirBnb in the past year or 2. First they removed their ‘sort by price’ function, which makes it very difficult to find the cheaper apartments in big cities that have 100s of apartments. The second problem with AirBnb is that the bigger commercial agents have gotten on board in a big way, and their prices tend to be much higher than people who are renting out their own homes etc. In my last trip to Rome, AirBnb was actually the worst site that I used. It’s a real shame, as I used recommend it to everyone I knew.

 
Roland says:

Hey,

I’m currently in Nha Trang myself as a digital nomand and plan on going to Saigon later. How did you meet expat in Nha Trang?

Thanks,
Roland

 

    Roland,
    When I was there a few years ago there was one pub owned by a Vietnamese-Canadian guy on the main road. and all the English-speaking expats hung out there most nights. Good luck. -Roger

     

Great selection of destinations, and as valid now in 2015 as it was in 2012. If you want a legal means of staying in a destination, checkout passports.io – which ranks different residency and citizenship by investment schemes globally.

 

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