I work all day and night, and it’s a struggle to get me to not work weekends (no joke, my dad keeps lecturing me about it). You could call me a workaholic. Yet in the period of just over one year, I vacationed in New York, lived in Europe, toured Israel, spent winter holidays in California, and then took my next year’s vacation in Australia; all while freelancing as a WordPress developer and Internet marketer. And no, business didn’t suffer.
Traveling the world while working – sounds like a fantasy, right? Well, fantasy it may still be (I’ll get to that later), but most other self-employed business owners who see my travels either say they’re envious or that I’m super lucky, while I find that to be far from the truth. My thoughts in response are, “If you want to travel, why don’t you do it too?”
If you are already self-employed, believe it or not there are ways to get out there and experience other cultures, but it’s not about saving up money, getting rich first, and then taking a sabbatical. It’s also not about outsourcing your life. I believe it’s all about two things:
- How you set up your day-to-day life.
- How you set up your business.
There may be many methods to travelling while being entrepreneurial, and I’m sure there are a myriad of blog posts, videos and webinars out there on how to get rich so you can go anywhere your heart desires, but my story is a little different than most of what you hear out there. Let’s just say the advice I’m about to give you focuses on the practical part (rather than the entrepreneurial part) of world travel while working as a freelance web developer or Internet marketer (though the principles could apply to many other remotely-based job titles as well).
Freelancing While Travelling: How You Set Up Your Day-To-Day Life
Note: all the lessons mentioned in this section refer to day-to-day life both at home and while abroad!
Lesson 1: It Ain’t Cheap, But It Doesn’t Have To Be Expensive Either
It takes money to travel. This is obvious but something that costs money doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s only expensive if:
- It doesn’t provide value for its price point or,
- If you don’t have enough money to pay for it.
So since we know that travelling is so worth the price (duh), we only need to cover the part about not having money to pay for it.
In simple terms, my advice here is that you need to be wise with your finances. Yes you should have a savings plan, but you shouldn’t need to use it to travel. Your mentality of spending on needs verses wants may need to be adjusted if you feel like you can’t afford to travel, but are working full time and making a decent income based on Western living standards.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Starbucks and I hate the latte principle (if I want a $4 cup of coffee you better believe I’m going to buy a $4 cup of coffee, and I’ll throw in a muffin too). I own a car, I take good quality vitamins, and I’ll buy new shoes if I think they’re cute. But I don’t go overboard. If what you want in life is the most expensive leather furniture and can’t settle for the IKEA couch that is clean and presentable (and happens to be used but is still in excellent shape), then yeah, of course you can’t afford to travel. But you made that choice. You chose leather name-brand furniture over floating in the Dead Sea, visiting Rembrandt’s house and snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.
I know girls who own 20 different bottles of department store (i.e. pricey) eau de toilette because, get this: they believe night perfumes and day perfumes are supposed to be different. Think about it: that is a conscious decision to have eau de toilette sitting in a drawer than to travel. I also know a not-rich somebody who spent $150 on one curtain panel. Yes one, not a set. These are not people who have buffer room in their bank accounts to afford these types of things – these instances were the very definition of splurging. If you spend money you don’t have like that, please don’t be envious and call me “lucky.” I set up my finances and ‘consider my wallet’ or so to speak, all so I can live my dream of world travel. That means I’m still comfortable, I have everything I need (actually more than I need), but I place higher value on plane tickets than fancy cars and gadgets that end up collecting dust, in or out of storage.
Lesson 2: The Word ‘Vacation’ Is Not In The Title Of This Article
In the first paragraph I talked about vacations, but that is only once a year for me, just like most working and middle-class North Americans. The main point of this article is being able to work while travelling. This is a very hard reality that can hit you in the face if you don’t get it straight away, so let me say it again: it’s not a vacation! When you freelance and travel the world (and are a workaholic like me), you will be very disappointed, as I was, to find that you will be stuck inside most of the time you’re in another country. That’s because for your clients, it’s still ‘business as usual.’ If you choose not to keep up with ‘business as usual’ then you will not have a business, which means you will not have money, which means you will not be able to travel. So ‘business as usual’ it is!
I think it would be very appropriate here for me to dig up an e-mail I wrote to a client once who found out I was in Israel at the time and said I was “having too much fun” (in a good and kind hearted manner):
I have to admit I’m learning that if I want to do this travelling thing as a business owner I have to sacrifice a lot of the ‘extras’ to get my work done at the same time. I’m in a museum now and checking e-mail tonight I will miss the evening Jerusalem tour to get work done. On the other hand I’m just thankful I can be here at all and experience the highlights like floating in the Dead Sea and seeing where Dead Sea scrolls were found, or where Jesus prayed that His cup would be taken from Him before His crucifixion at the garden of Gethsemane…Yes, I’m privileged to be able to travel while working but it’s also a false misconception that I’m having 100% fun all the time. Or that I’m resting well with all the work to do! OR that I’m rich to do this!
Does that sound like “having too much fun” to you?! I sure didn’t think so while I was there, overtired from sightseeing with the tour bus all day then rushing to a hotel room to work all night. But the idea is that while you’re abroad you have your ‘normal’ time off (weekends and evenings if you’re keeping the conventional work week), to do fun things like sightseeing or spending time with family and friends.
Lesson 3: Practical Stuff You Have To Do
These are nitty gritty boring errands you need to do before travelling for a longer period of time, so I’ll do a quick run down of them, just so you’re prepared:
- Get travel insurance, don’t be silly and go without it. Shop around for good rates and get a plan that will pay the hospital for your future broken leg up front. Otherwise you’ll spend your life savings and will have to wait to get reimbursed later.
- Set up a phone-fax agreement. I don’t know what it’s like in other countries but in Canada if you are abroad having an emergency and you call your bank to say, “please send me the money in my bank account,” they won’t be able to do it without a phone-fax agreement prior to your departure. This needs to be set up at your home branch and signed in person well in advance so you have time for its approval.
- Set up travel notifications on your credit cards – otherwise Big Brother at Visa will freeze your card thinking it’s been stolen.
- Tell PayPal you’re going to be out of the country for a while! (Seriously, I spent like 4 hours a month on the phone going through PayPal’s support hierarchy in who knows what call centers, trying to tell them a million times that I’m me and that it would be just dandy if they would let me make a purchase on my account!). Also, make sure your account is verified, connected to your bank account and has healthy transaction history so that their security thing-a-majiggy doesn’t kick in, which they claim they can’t do anything about; unless…you’re the manager’s manager (but they won’t tell you that).
- Cancel your Netflix before you go and save yourself the $8 a month since it probably won’t work wherever you’re going. They will save your preferences for you when you come back to comfortable, low-cost life in North America.
- Switch car insurance to parking coverage only. Preferably park your car in a garage so it doesn’t rot through winter…not that that’s ever happened to me…ewww.
- Ask your cell phone company if they can freeze your plan while you’re away or put you on the lowest-priced plan temporarily. No need to buy into their roaming packages since most countries have pre-paid SIM cards for unlocked phones that are very reasonably priced.
- Unlock your phone before you go.
- Figure out how you are going to receive payments from your clients before you go. For some reason Canada’s financial system still allows the existence of checks. But getting paid by check requires someone picks up your mail, goes to the bank and makes deposits for you. Make sure you ask someone organized, reliable and trustworthy! Ask them to take photos of checks for you so you can enter your bookkeeping details later too.
Cultural things that may shock you if you’ve never travelled before:
- In many countries the shops close at 5 or 6 and don’t open on Sundays. I know; I couldn’t believe it either. If you need medicine or milk for your starving baby, you have to plan ahead.
- Bring plenty of your own over-the-counter drugs! I’m telling you, some countries won’t sell sinus relief helpers without a prescription! Oh the memories of pain…
- We are wasteful people in North America. We use heat and lights when we don’t need them. This is polar opposite from many other winter-experiencing countries where heat is only turned on in a closed-door living room during the day. After bedtime you’re left to fend for yourself in the dead of winter with wool blankets and really cold toilet seats. Or you can offer to pay the bill, the amount of which will depress you. Just be ready for acclimatization!
- Be mindful that our abundance of free Wi-Fi and ‘sit in Starbucks all day on my laptop’ just doesn’t roll that well in countries outside North America. If you find a café with unlimited free Wi-Fi in a European city, please share its exact longitude and latitude coordinates with us all.
Freelancing While Travelling: How You Set Up Your Business
Lesson 1: Get Help!
I don’t want to spend too much time on this section because I think there are a lot of resources out there that already describe how to be efficient in business so that your business can run without you if necessary. The 4-Hour Work Week is a great descriptive, practical and fun read on this, and I strongly recommend you read it if you want to do this travel and work thing (especially read the part about being specific with instructions when outsourcing an assignment to someone else). But don’t take the “4-Hour” part literally.
The idea here is that you need sub-contractors to help you out. Don’t let every client task be dependent on you (though some things are necessarily going to require your involvement, like executive-level decision making…so that translates into a lot of e-mail checking). But the other side of the coin is to also not to say to a sub contractor, “Just go at it, have fun, see you when I’m back.” Read every e-mail that is cc’d between your client and your sub contractor, be available for your sub-contractors (so they know what to do) and keep up with quality control! The last thing you want is a reputation for ignoring your clients and your projects!
Could you do it all yourself? Probably, but it’s not about your capability, it’s about your time. When you’re in an airport or on an island with no Internet, you need someone who is going to be able to keep production moving along while you’re unavailable.
Lesson 2: The Time To Go Is During Your Low Season!
Every industry has a season when business just comes to a halt and all us freelancers wonder if we should start looking for a job. I’ve noticed for me (and most other industries), it comes in January and February. That would be the ideal time to get on a plane because it will allow for a smoother transition into your new life on a beach somewhere. I’ve also noticed that leaving the country during summer time seems more ‘acceptable’ to clients because they and all their employees are on vacation too.
But here’s another thing to consider – when is your hired help going to be available? Big mistake I made last year: lots of people wanted their projects started in November and December, but no sub-contractors wanted work during that time of year! So don’t say “yes” to a project during holidays! Even if your sub contractors make it sound like they’ll be available to squeeze in these projects, we as business owners need to be realistic – no one is going to give up family reunions and holiday skiing to go get stressed out with Photoshop.
Lesson 3: To Facebook Or Not To Facebook?
Here’s the thing with using Facebook while working and travelling: many people will start to believe you are having one big party and aren’t actually working at all. In my experience, most clients won’t care where in the world you are – they just care that their work gets done. But for prospective clients and some old-fashioned-minded clients, seeing that one photo of you at the zoo will give the impression that you are never working…even if that’s not true (and you were only away from your computer for a few hours), it will look that way. This has happened to me, though only to a small degree. So my advice is to hold off on the excessive Facebooking, or set up privacy settings so only your friends can see your amazing Instagram-filtered photos.
A Concluding Word About Freelancing While Travelling: I Left Something Out
I have to admit that some people are going to read this and think I’m just so wrong, especially about finance management. So as a concluding word I do want to acknowledge that my advice is coming from a single, young, mortgage-free freelancer – not an employee who has to check in at an office or big agency owner with several employees to manage.
I know that sometimes you can spend money carefully and still not have the freedom to pick up and go whenever you want. Kids are in school, bills have to be paid, sub-contractors need training and you just have to be at those in-person business events and meetings. However, I still feel that many people, even those with other life obligations, could follow the principles I’ve outlined above, albeit knowing that the sacrifice will be higher than mine is (I still have things to pay for and do at home too, believe it or not!).
But remember, never say never! If what you want is to travel and work, find a way to do it that works for you.