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Trying out the digital nomad lifestyle: How to start – and how to afford it

Here’s how you can “demo” becoming a digital nomad

Summary

Has your wanderlust made you consider trying out the digital nomad path? Here’s how to begin – and which cards to take with you.

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For anyone familiar with chronic wanderlust, the digital nomad lifestyle may sound like the stuff of dreams.

Digital nomads are location-independent workers who work online while traveling. They may switch locations every few months or even live “on the road,” constantly on the move.

The pandemic and the rise of remote work have allowed more people to consider this kind of lifestyle. If you’ve been curious about trying it out, you may be wondering how to start – and how to afford it.

I’ve been wondering, too. Here’s what I’ve been able to gather.

Check out all the answers from our credit card experts.

Ask Ana a question.

The digital nomad lifestyle has become more accessible

The pandemic has changed the way we work. Now that it’s become clear many office workers can successfully do their jobs from the comfort of their homes, many expect to continue to do so.

In fact, according to a recent survey from Bankrate, 37% of employed Americans looking for new job opportunities said it’s important for them to have the ability to work from home or remotely in their future role.

This is especially true for younger generations. Sixty-two percent of Gen Z workers and 60% of millennial workers say work flexibility (the ability to work remotely and/or flexible working hours) is important to them moving forward – that’s even more than those who cited higher pay. Additionally, 18% of Gen Z workers and 14% of millennial workers worked from somewhere other than their home for an extended period.

These trends show that remote work and the location-independent lifestyle are becoming more common. Now, they’re available not only to freelancers and those with passive income but also to many full-time employees.

Preparing to become a digital nomad

You’ve been working remotely and you expect to continue to do so, so you feel ready to try out the digital nomad lifestyle. Where do you even start? And can you afford it?

For starters, let’s agree: You don’t have to go all-in by selling everything you own and convert a van into a home on wheels. You can start by trying this lifestyle for a few weeks before committing to any form of it, be it switching locations every few months or nonstop road tripping.

With that in mind, here are steps you need to take before hitting the road.

Learn about your company’s policy

If you’re working full time, it’s not enough just to know your employer allows remote work. There can be policies in place limiting where you can work from and for how long. These may have to do with tax issues, business licensing or simply expectations of your role – for example, your company might need you to work in a certain time zone.

For that reason, before you start planning your nomad adventures, make sure they’re compliant with your employer’s policy.

Figure out your budget

This is one of the most important steps along the way, and it’s a complex one.

For this story, I chatted with Joe Ferro, who worked while traveling the United States for almost three months with his girlfriend and their dog in spring and summer of 2021.

For a couple well-established in their respective industries, funding the trip wasn’t an issue but still required tracking expenses in Google Sheets and splitting them using Splitwise. The couple also had some savings from the trips they didn’t take in 2020 due to coronavirus.

“We had a ballpark idea of how much we thought this trip was going to cost and we tried to keep it within that,” he said. “We saw that some of the activities were getting too expensive and kind of tried to cut there.”

Depending on your income and where you’re planning to go on your first trip as a digital nomad, your adventure may take some more financial planning.

First, start thinking where you’ll be staying. Lodging costs vary greatly by state (and country) and type of accommodation. Nightly rates on Airbnb properties in California will be very different from those on Midwest motels – or, say, hostels in Berlin.

Consider what you’re going to do with your house or apartment as well. For example, Ferro had a friend living at his place while he was away, which gave him peace of mind. Some digital nomads also rent out their primary residence while traveling to recoup housing expenses.

Next, count in other regular expenses, such as food or transportation. This may take some research and crunching of numbers but the more you can plan ahead, the better prepared you (and your wallet) will be.

Organize, organize, organize

Speaking of preparation – it’s another crucial step.

Ferro was fortunate. His girlfriend took organizing the trip upon herself and did an admirable job. The couple went from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Portland, Oregon, hit a couple of coastal towns and then proceeded to Northern California where they visited the Redwoods, Napa Valley, San Francisco, Big Sur and Santa Barbara. After that, they headed inland and visited four national parks, including Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. The last leg of their journey took them back to Utah and from there to Colorado and Arkansas to visit family.

“My girlfriend is very good at planning things,” Ferro told me. “She planned it all out. She put the itinerary together… tried to schedule travel days on Friday and Saturday, so every drive we were doing was anywhere from eight to 12 hours… We were just trying to jump from place to place.”

As you can imagine, that’s a lot of organization put into a trip.

Your itinerary doesn’t have to be quite as ambitious but it helps to think it through. Even if you’re staying in the same city for weeks, it’s best to eliminate all the possible surprises beforehand.

Remember, you’ll still be working on your trip – and you’ll want to use your free time to explore and enjoy the place you’re visiting instead of dealing with unexpected issues or scrambling to figure out your plans.

Read about travel requirements and restrictions

If you’re traveling abroad, do your research to find out whether you need a visa or any additional documentation.

Since the pandemic isn’t completely over yet, certain countries may also impose their own requirements for entry, which often include a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of the flight. Some countries may require proof of vaccination, others, additional testing and self-isolation. Moreover, there are countries that currently aren’t allowing U.S. residents at all.

These requirements and restrictions may change as the situation changes. Stay on top of them and try to book travel that allows rescheduling and refunds in case of cancellation.

Take the right credit cards with you

Another essential organizational step is picking the right credit cards to use on your digital nomad adventures.

With a well-chosen travel credit card in your wallet, you cannot only save money and earn rewards on your trip expenses but also get perks that will make your travels more comfortable – think airport lounge access and TSA PreCheck, Global Entry or Clear membership.

Ferro told me he skipped this step but now is considering applying for a new credit card.

“We pretty much just used my main credit card and her main credit card… But we did not do any research ahead of time to try and optimize our reward points. It’s kind of unfortunate. We did spend a decent amount of money on this trip.”

Another thing to consider is how likely your credit card is to be accepted where you’re going. For example, if you’re traveling abroad, your Amex or Discover card may be of no use at many merchants. Visa and Mastercard, on the other hand, are widely accepted worldwide.

Wondering what some good cards for new digital nomads are? I’ve got a list for you.

Best credit cards for digital nomads

There are quite a few excellent rewards credit cards on the market. But when it comes to digital nomads, I think it’s important to have a card that makes earning and redeeming travel rewards easy and offers travel perks – especially statement credits to help you save on travel expenses.

Chase Sapphire Reserve card: Best travel credit card overall

There’s no way around it: The Chase Sapphire Reserve card is the top choice for frequent travelers.

See related: Chase Sapphire Reserve: Is it worth it?

The $550 annual price tag might seem eye-popping but trust me – this card pays for itself and then some. This recently updated gem of a credit card earns:

  • 10 points per dollar on hotels and car rentals booked through Chase Travel
  • 10 points per dollar on Chase Dining purchases through Ultimate Rewards on prepaid restaurant reservations
  • 10 points per dollar on Lyft rides (through March 2022)
  • 5 points per dollar on flights booked through Chase Travel
  • 3 points per dollar on all other dining and travel purchases
  • 1 point per dollar on all other purchases

But these earning rates aren’t even the most exciting thing about the Reserve. Cardholders also get to enjoy an outstanding list of benefits, including a flexible $300 annual travel credit, Priority Pass Select lounge access, Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application credits, a point redemption value of 1.5 cents per point when redeeming through Ultimate Rewards, a complimentary Lyft Pink membership for 12 months and more.

Not to mention, the Reserve is a Visa and charges no foreign transaction fees, meaning it’s a good card to take abroad.

The Platinum Card® from American Express: Best for premium benefits

If you prefer to travel with class, The Platinum Card® from American Express is your top pick. At $695 per year, the card boasts a long list of statement credit benefits and complimentary elite statuses, including:

  • Access to the American Express Global Lounge Collection, including The Centurion Network
  • Marriott Bonvoy Gold status
  • Hilton Honors Gold status
  • Complimentary elite memberships in Avis Preferred Club, National Emerald Club Executive and Hertz Gold Plus Rewards
  • Up to $200 in hotel credits each year on prepaid bookings with Amex Travel at Fine Hotels + Resorts or The Hotel Collection properties
  • Up to $200 in airline credits each year on one selected airline to cover things like baggage and selection fees or in-flight food purchases
  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck credit
  • $179 Clear credit
  • $200 Uber Cash credit
  • Up to $240 digital entertainment credit each year that can be used for eligible purchases from Peacock, Audible, Sirius XM and The New York Times (up to $20 in statement credits each month, enrollment required)
  • Up to $300 in statement credits each year on eligible Equinox memberships
  • Up to $100 Saks Fifth Avenue credit (enrollment required), which is credited as a $50 credit twice per year

With these benefits, your digital nomad life will feel rather chic. Plus, you’ll earn 5 points per dollar on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel (on up to $500,000 in these purchases per calendar year), 5 points per dollar spent on eligible prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.

See related: Who should get the Amex Platinum?

American Express® Gold Card: Best for digital nomads traveling the U.S.

While the Platinum Card is definitely a more premium credit card product with luxurious benefits, the American Express® Gold Card makes it easy to earn rewards and also offers valuable perks.

See related: American Express Gold card vs. American Express Platinum card

With this card, you’ll earn 4 points per dollar at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets, 3 points per dollar on airfare booked directly with airlines or through American Express Travel and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases.

As you can see, whether you eat out or cook your own food during your digital nomad travels, this card will reward you generously. Plus, you’ll get points for booking flights.

Now to the really exciting part: The Gold offers up to $120 in Uber Cash credits per year, up to $120 in annual credits on eligible dining purchases, a $100 hotel incidentals credit on eligible hotel stays and a complimentary ShopRunner membership. Additionally, you’ll be able to enjoy a free Uber Eats pass for 12 months (must enroll by Dec. 31, 2021).

The card costs $250 per year – a much more modest price comparing to the Amex Platinum. Plus, it’s justified by all the value you get in statement credits.

See related: 8 ways I maximize the Amex Gold card

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Best for simple travel rewards

The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card doesn’t offer flashy perks like statement credits or lounge access. What it offers instead is simplicity and flexibility.

The rewards structure couldn’t be any less complicated. With the Venture, you’ll earn 2 miles per dollar on every purchase. You can then redeem them for any eligible travel purchases, including travel purchases made through Capital One Travel.

Speaking of Capital One Travel, it’s getting a makeover. The new travel portal will soon offer exciting price protection tools and added flexibility when booking airfare with the option to get a refund in case of cancellation.

One premium perk that the card does offer is Global TSA or PreCheck credits, so going through security lines will become less complicated with the Venture, too.

See related: How to maximize your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Finally, it’s a great card to take abroad, as Mastercard is widely accepted, and there are no transaction fees to worry about.

The Capital One Venture charges $95 per year, which makes it the most affordable option on our list.

Bottom line

The digital nomad lifestyle is an appealing idea but it can also be a bit overwhelming. Luckily, you don’t have to go all-in. Instead, you can try it out for a few weeks or months and see if it fits you.

Make all required preparations to avoid unpleasant surprises and pick the right card to take with you. Here’s to unforgettable adventures!

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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