How to Actually Get Work Done While You Travel
Tips and tricks for making remote work...work.
I remember the moment I realized I could work from anywhere. It was just over a decade ago, and my work as a writer was finally keeping me afloat. Why not keep afloat—hell, maybe even flourish—someplace incredible? So I picked up and moved to Granada, Spain. Since then, I’ve lived and worked in Paris, Belgrade, Tunis, Athens, Bangkok, Hanoi, Mexico City, and beyond. Suffice to say, it’s a lifestyle I have come to understand well.
Back then, Wi-Fi wasn’t a given and cell phone data plans were limited. Most businesses didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with remote workers; it was either go freelance or go home. But all that’s changed. We’re living in the golden era of remote work, and more and more people are taking advantage, whether by crisscrossing the country in an RV or relocating to a cool new city for a spell.
Golden era or not, the remote work lifestyle comes with a wide array of challenges to navigate, like spotty Wi-Fi, different time zones, and how to actually get work done while still seeing the world. We’ve got solutions.
Get the gear you need
As with any job, getting it done right is often a matter of having the right tools. First, you need a good bag that provides some protection for your laptop. For on-the-go backpackers, it’s hard to beat the Tortuga Outbreaker, which is durable, well-organized, comfortable, and cavernous. If you prefer to go the suitcase route, I like the luggage set from Monos, which is tough and well-designed. For a smaller pack-away bag, the Hacky line from SylvanSport is nice because they fold into a pouch the size of your fist, but once in use are pretty big and durable.
If your biggest concern is a power source (looking at you, van-lifers) there are relatively cheap, highly efficient portable solar power units. I’ve been using the Jackery Explorer 1500, and it more than handles my workload whether I’m using my laptop, charging cameras or gimbals, powering audio recording equipment, or whatnot.
Obviously you’ll need a laptop that is light, durable, and fast, and for working in public spaces, a good set of noise-cancelling headphones can go a long way. Then it’s just a matter of cords and power banks. Make sure that you have all of these ahead of your travels—while they’re sold just about everywhere, there’s nothing more maddening than being unable to find a replacement USB-C or whatever when you really need one.
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Shop Remote Work Essentials
Make sure you have a comfortable, dedicated work space
Working remotely has allowed me to live in a wide range of sometimes very cool accommodations. Airbnb is great for the short-term, and services like Landing and Blueground are popping up to provide longish-term, furnished rentals.
While finding a place might be easy, finding one that’s work-friendly is a different story. Look for places that have a desk, or at least a good kitchen table with chairs—not all Airbnbs and few hotels have them.
“My #1 piece of advice would be to either book an Airbnb or hotel with a desk, or find a coworking or coliving space,” says Marina Gigis, who helps women build travel-centric businesses via her company Livin Vivaciously. “Cafes can be fun, but the internet connection is not always reliable and it can be distracting. Plus, if you find a great coworking space you can meet people who are doing the same thing as you and potentially become your travel/work buddies!”
Nicole Vasquez, the co-founder of Deskpass, reiterates that your surroundings directly impact your productivity. “I learned many years ago that working from a beach or pool doesn’t work. Your legs get sweaty, you can’t even see your laptop screen, so it’s not the glamorous ‘oh, I’m working from a pool in Bali.’ To be a nomad, yes, I work from exotic places—but during the day when I’m actually working, I’m indoors, on the Wi-Fi, connected to the electricity.”
Couples and friends need a workspace x 2
Many couples who are endeavoring to work and travel together find it difficult to coordinate workspaces between two people. Roxy and Nate Holdirez—online English teachers who have spent the past decade working and traveling through Southeast Asia and Latin America—have plenty of experience.
“There has to be some kind of door between you and the other person to be doing video conferences in the same apartment, but we've had to be creative,” says Nate. “We had an apartment in Hanoi with two beds and no door to block sound so we stuffed the mattress against the doorway and used blankets to insulate it. And don’t be afraid to work in the bathroom. It’s a fine place.” Some type of outdoor space, like a patio or balcony, can also help create some separation.
Don’t automatically choose to stay in the coolest neighborhood
While it might seem like fun to live in the coolest part of town, I’ve found that this can be quite distracting—sometimes due to noise, and sometimes simply because the temptation to go out and forget work altogether is too great. Which is why I always recommend looking for a place that is cool-neighborhood adjacent.
“Know your surroundings and have contingency plans,” advises Roxy Holdirez. “If the power goes out, can you get to a nearby cafe? What if it's out for the whole block? We live in Hoi An right now and they do rolling blackouts at certain times to save electricity and there is no power for hours.”
Befriend a neighbor who can keep you in the loop if anything unusual goes on in the building or area. “Making a friend or two by bringing them some beers or having them over for dinner can help you solidify that safety net you're going to need,” she adds.
We let go of a lot of norms in 2020: like shaking hands, wearing pants, and (most importantly) working in an office. You’re no longer tied to a commute — so why should you be tied to one place? Enter: Landing, the housing startup that’s reimagining apartment living. Thanks to its network of fully-furnished (or unfurnished) apartments across the country, you can have the freedom to live (and work) practically anywhere. With perks like a 24/7 concierge service, easy lease transfers, and waived security deposits, you’ll have more flexibility than ever before, too.
Be more specific than “How’s the Wi-Fi?”
Wi-Fi. The lifeblood of remote work. These days Wi-Fi is easy to come by, but quality Wi-Fi is a different thing entirely. And the definition of quality can mean different things for different professions.
When I was living in Puerto Escondido, Mexico—where the Wi-Fi is notoriously flakey, and sometimes downright abysmal—slower internet days weren’t as hard on me because it didn’t take much for me, as a writer, to send out an email. But for my partner—who taught English online and relied on video streaming—bad Wi-Fi days were a real problem.
If your line of work requires consistent, strong Wi-Fi, be sure to ask your rental hosts about their download and upload speeds. This can be determined via a simple internet speed test, and many hosts already have screenshots of said test available. At a minimum you should look for speeds of 10 MBPS download / 2 MBPS upload, but you’re better off aiming for at least 30/3.
“Always message the host saying you have to have great internet for work, or you'll have to cancel the reservation,” adds Roxy Holdirez. “Then you have it in writing when they say it’s great, and you have leverage to cancel a reservation if necessary.”
Bring in Wi-Fi boosting backups if necessary
If you’re living on-the-go—as is the case with van-lifers or those who are city-hopping abroad—you’ll likely want Wi-Fi that you can bring with you. I’ve been using Sprint’s Unlimited international plan for several years with few issues. Many van-lifers bolster their cell plan with an additional hotspot, like the Verizon Jetpack. There are also a number of non-traditional hotspot providers, like Skyroam.
Sometimes Wi-Fi is elusive, and for this there are cell service boosters. I’ve recently begun experimenting with the Fusion2Go Max from SureCall, which is pretty ideal for a van-life setup. While I don’t see it providing the cellular oomph necessary to stream video in extremely remote locations, it does provide me with the power necessary to perform data-light tasks like sending emails, browsing the web, or making calls.
Create a work schedule—and stick to it
“For most people (including myself), working and traveling is a hard act to balance. Chances are you'll either work too much and miss out on cool stuff, or you won't work enough because you're too busy having fun,” says Matt Kepnes. Kepnes is the New York Times bestselling author, creator of the popular travel blog Nomadic Matt, and founder of the Nomadic Network. Unsurprisingly, he’s a pro at time management.
“You can set aside a little bit of time every day for work, or set aside a couple of full days each week for work (which is what I do),” Kepnes continues. “While there are tons of fancy apps and tools out there, I find Google Calendar the most useful. I'll plug in all my tasks for each workday so I know what I have to do (and when). I also add my travel itinerary to my calendar so I can easily plan work around travel days, and so I know what time zone I'll be in. I'll even go so far as to pencil in when I eat and when I take breaks for social media. That way, I can stay on track without getting distracted.”
Set aside mornings and evenings to explore
The 8-hour workday can feel like a slog when all you want to do is get out and enjoy wherever you are. Seeing the sites is still doable—you miiight just have to get up a little earlier. “I was in the Dominican Republic last week and we’d go surfing in the morning and have kite surfing lessons at the end of the day,” Nicole Vasquez told us.
Alexandros Chatzieleftheriou—traveler and CEO of the furnished rental resource Blueground—agrees that mornings, evenings, and open slots between meetings are prime times for squeezing in activities. “Time flies so create a checklist of all the places you want to see, and plan in advance to figure out which part of the city is most important to avoid huge commutes. Go for a run in your neighborhood before work—you can explore a lot while getting in exercise!”
Write emails ahead of time if you’re in a different time zone
Chatzieleftheriou’s company has a team of over 400 employees working across 15 cities in three continents. That’s a whopping 11 different time zones. “One tool that works well for us is the ‘scheduling’ feature on both Slack and Gmail,” he says. “By using the scheduling tool to send messages or emails during each employee’s work hours and days, we’re respecting each other’s time and caring that our employees have a positive work/life balance all while allowing for a continuous flow of communication.”
That means that while you’re fast asleep in another part of the world, your boss is receiving your brilliant email at a reasonable hour. That’s strategy.