Maybe you have a healthy lump of cash set aside for you to deplete at will while you backpack your way around the globe, or perhaps you are independently wealthy and if this is you, congratulations! For the rest of us out there, at some point, picking up work along during our around the world adventures is inevitable. A romantic notion of working as you travel has traditionally included work as bartenders or service staff at hotels and restaurants, while a less romantic but more lucrative option has been to teach English or other languages at schools or language institutes. Until the widespread reach of the internet, such work would have been the easiest way for most travelers to finance an extensive round the world trip, but tends not to be as carefree as originally intended.
One problem with this method is that in order to do location-based work, you must stay, on location, for two weeks, a month or more, even running the risk of extending your stay for much longer (maybe forever). Not that there is anything wrong with staying, but the original idea was to get out and travel the world.
The other problem is that, especially as a member of staff at a restaurant or bar, you’ll most likely be earning in the currency of the country you are in. With the exception of highly-skilled consulting jobs, this salary will put even further restraints on your initial idea of ‘budget’ travel when earning wages in Thai Baht, Indian Rupees or Guatemalan Quetzales. I worked as an English teacher in Guatemala for two years, and though the native English speaking staff earned three times what the Guatemalan teachers did, the salary flat-lined at Q2,150 or $225 a month (granted that was eight years ago). $225 was a fine, middle class salary in Guatemala but once rent, food, booze and inner-country weekend travel made their marks on my account, hardly anything was left to save in order to move on. It can be a vicious cycle of spending what you earn while living in a place you have stayed in just to earn money to continue traveling. That is not to say that working in this way as you travel is impossible, and there are thousands of travelers around the world doing this right now.
However, in today’s world of location independence where wi-fi is available around the globe, scoring highly skilled, higher-paying freelance work from websites based in your own country can allow you to travel for much longer and in better conditions. Earning in Dollars/Pounds/Euros exponentially increases your spending power, which translates to nicer hostels (or hotels!), more specialized tours or adventure experiences and much better food. Even if you love the rough and tumble of super budget travel, the greatest advantage of online freelance work is the absolute freedom it affords you. You work from anywhere you want, whenever you want. If you meet a group of travelers who ask you to join them in a pick-up to the next destination on your path, you can pack up and hop in without quitting your job. If a town that used to intrigue you enough to stay for a while suddenly bores you to death, you can easily pack up your bag and head on to the next location.
In theory all you need is a laptop and wi-fi. Many if not most travelers carry laptops already, and working on a lightweight, low cost netbook has proved a great method as we travel. Wireless internet is available in almost every hotel and hostel for free, as well as in restaurants, cafes and even in most central parks.
Of course, you need to have basic professional skills that lend themselves to successful online freelancing, and the most common jobs are in web-design, copywriting, editing or translating. Another common type of remote work is a gig as a virtual personal assistant or other telephone type work. The only difficulty with taking phone-based freelance gigs is that you will have to be able to guarantee that your wi-fi connection is good enough to maintain reliable high-quality Skype phone calls.
If you have the skills, the laptop, and the wi-fi, then the next step is to sign up on a reputable freelancing website. Popular sites with quality jobs include:
When I went freelance in 2009, I built up a good portion of my clientele through People Per Hour in the UK. Freelancers bid on projects, and the bidder with the right balance of skills, experience and salary get the job.
Even more popular is the US-based Upwork.com, which has a much wider spectrum of available jobs and is rated much more highly than People Per Hour.
Guru.com has well-paid projects for highly-skilled professionals in three areas: technology (e.g. websites, programming), creative arts (graphic design, writing, translating, photography) and business-related (admin support, business consulting).
As with the rest of the website, the jobs section on Craigslist is loaded with possibilities. Jobs offered range from art/media/design over SEO and webdesign to writing gigs, but as Craigslist offers such a broad choice of services and is not specifically for freelance work, the quality of the posted jobs varies.
Freelancer.com lets freelancers bid for projects in areas such as web design, writing, marketing and programming.
Tips for bidding for freelance work online
1. Bid high, or at least higher than you think
According to People Per Hour, 90% of bids on their website are won by the mid to high bidders, not those who try to bid as low as possible to win a job. Having been both the ‘employer’ and the bidder on these sites, I can concur that when I receive a bid from a freelancer which is far below average, I immediately assume the bidder is too inexperienced to complete the project to a high standard.
2. Fill out your entire profile page
Find a nice picture, fill in your work history and show some personality so that a possible employer can get a feeling for you and your work. Often times, freelance websites also allow employers to search and actually invite you to bid, another reason why having a full profile is key. It is up to you whether or not you are clear that you are traveling the world or not.
3. Do work for free if you have to, but only at first.
At first you might take jobs that don’t pay for the purpose of boosting your portfolio. This is especially common with writing or web design gigs. In theory, it is useful to take on the free work to boost an initially thin portfolio. However, it would be possible to spend 40 hours a week writing free content online and you are not a volunteer! The successful digital nomad must learn to write winning bids which bring you better, higher profile clients and better pay, so only write for free if it brings you something of value. I used to write for free on a weekly basis for a very hip London publication. Doing this brought me referrals, writing gigs, cool free stuff like tickets, passes and heaps of street cred which helped when pitching the bigger publications.
4. Bid only when you are ready to work
Employers who place job ads on reputable sites like Upwork.com and peopleperhour.com do so because they want to reach a top-quality pool of available workers. Many jobs require you to start within a day or two. If you are going to be trekking for four days through the Brazilian jungle, don’t bid for a job that is looking for you to start straight away, even if it seems perfect. You might think that you include in your bid that you can’t start until a week from today, but keep in mind that every job you bid for has between 10 and 100 bidders willing to start today. If you worked in an office, you wouldn’t tell your boss that you’ll hand in the report next week after your jungle trek, so you can’t expect these employers to accept that either.
5. The key to online freelance success = Discipline
Ultimately, even if you have a good wi-fi connection, a super laptop and you have signed up and filled out the profile pages on all relevant freelance websites, the key to successful remote working as you travel is to have discipline. No boss breathing down your neck is certainly a relief, but means that you are solely responsible to balance the freedom that working remotely affords you with the ultimate freedom of being a world traveler. Even though you can hop on a bus to anywhere at a moment’s notice, once you get there, you still have to make yourself sit down and finish your work before you join your new travel buddies for a night of debauchery. But with those hard-earned pounds or dollars, you will be able to enjoy many of these crazy nights, or stay at that nicer hostel, or go scuba diving yet again, without worrying about depleting your savings.
Have you successfully become a digital nomad? Are there any other reputable freelance sites you would recommend? Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments.