Camper retreat Digital Nomad Campervan Portugal Caravan Retreat Boat Ride

Lessons From a Year of Affordable Luxury Full-Time Travel

Our first full year of affordable luxury full-time travel was full of lessons!

We knew it would be.

We decided to adopt digital nomad lifestyle knowing it would change us in ways we couldn’t even imagine. But some of the things we learned as location independent professionals still surprised us!

Even though we travel and do pretty much everything together, each of us brings our own perspective to our shared experiences and lifestyle. So as we took stock of our first year as digital nomads we found that our top 3 lessons from our life of full-time travel were slightly different.

And so we’ll take turns sharing our personal top 3 lessons from our first year of full-time travel as digital nomads from our own perspectives!

Our First Year as Digital Nomads Lesson Number 1

Matt’s Lesson #1: Travel is More About People than Places

Places are cool. People are awesome.

My biggest lesson from our first year as digital nomads is that so much of what I love about travel is the people we meet along the way.

We’ve both been traveling our whole lives. In fact, Lisa and I first met when we were both traveling – to a beer festival in Portland Oregon.

portland brewers festival
This Photo Was Taken the Second Day After we Met

And we developed a great group of travel friends – our travel tribe – and enjoyed doing group trips…including one just before we launched as digital nomads.

martin birthday
Some of Our Group Travel Tribe the Day Before We Launched as Digital Nomads

Other than that, before we became digital nomads we did luxury travel rather than affordable luxury travel. We stayed at resorts and really only interacted with other luxury travelers. We did have lots of friendly interactions in that lifestyle, but we didn’t really develop any deep relationships with other travelers.

This year we developed more deep relationships with other travelers than I can count!

That’s because the digital nomad community is incredibly open and welcoming. The reality is that traveling full time as a digital nomad can become a lonely grind – even when you are a nomadic couple! So rather than being closed off, most digital nomads are open and welcoming of meeting new people and welcoming you into a community.

With the luxury of time, we stay in cities for an extended period. As a result, we’ve made lifelong friends with locals, expats and fellow travelers all over the world.

Chiang Mai Thailand

We went to our first digital nomad events in Chiang Mai Thailand where we attended networking events, went to board game nights and even joined a bowling social!

We made our first digital nomad friends for life in Chiang Mai!

Da Nang Vietnam

In Da Nang Vietnam we met my favorite food bloggers, Rosemary and Claire from Authentic Food Quest.

We saw them again in Bansko Bulgaria where we got to know each other better as couples and as people.

And then they even mentored me on how to take blogging and SEO to the next level! I’m still a little star-struck about having met them much less learning directly from them. But that’s the magic of the digital nomad lifestyle!

Penang Malaysia

In Penang Malaysia we fell in with a group of locals and expats and spent over a month with that tribe.

Bansko Bulgaria

Later in the year we had our minds blown in Bansko Bulgaria where we met so many amazing people! Matthias Zeitler, the ringleader of Coworking Bansko has done an incredible job of attracting a diverse crowd of digital nomads and expats to the Bansko community.

We met so many friends for life in Bansko. Including a couple whose wedding we will attend, friends who we went campervanning with and even some brilliant professionals that I now work with on consulting gigs.

Our Bansko experience truly changed our perspective on what a community of nomads could be and how quickly and deeply we could form bonds with fellow travelers.

Campervan caravan in Southern Portugal

But I can’t really talk about meeting amazing people without mentioning the Camper Retreats campervan caravan we did in the Algarve in Portugal.

There’s a cliche in the digital nomad community that everyone is looking for their ‘tribe’: Like-minded people who share your interests and passions with whom you nearly instantly deeply connect.

We definitely found our tribe in Bansko Bulgaria.

But we took being a part of a tribe to a whole new literal level during our campervan caravan as we spent 10 days playing, working, eating, exploring, adventuring and, yes, pooping together! It was a highlight of our year.

Our Camper Retreats tribe was so strong that many of them showed up at my birthday party in London a month and a half later!

The thing I am most excited about for our continuing digital nomad lifestyle is meeting new people as well as reconnecting with friends as we continue to build tribes and networks all over the world.

Lisa’s Lesson #1: Don’t Over-Plan

Yes, shocker! Matt likes people! 😉

So do I!

But my lesson number 1 from a year of full-time travel is actually about travel!

And it’s really simple: don’t over-plan.

This was by far my biggest and hardest lesson from our first year of full-time travel.

I am, by nature, a planner. I firmly believe that this trait has helped make me successful in business and in life. And before we launched as digital nomads I felt that doing the right amount of planning made for awesome travel.

Turns out that what was ‘the right amount’ of planning in our old lives is way too much in our new lives!

The irony is that I felt like I used to purposely under-plan our travel. We never made day-by-day (much less hour-by-hour) itineraries for our travel. But I did like to have a good idea of where we would be when – and generally what we would be doing there.

So my biggest lesson from a year of full-time travel was: the whole point of being digital nomads is that we can go where we want when we want…planning ahead too far tends to blow up in your face – and waste a lot of money!

For example, we pre-planned our nomad summer in Europe pretty far in advance. We would spend a very planned couple of weeks with my parents in Germany and Poland. So that required lots of logistics to see as much as we could during my parents’ two week vacation.

And we did! Yay meticulous planning!

But when my parents flew home after an amazing 2 weeks I was still in hyper-planning mode. We would explore all of Bulgaria in 3 weeks. Then move on to the country of Georgia for a couple weeks before heading to the Baltic countries. I had it all planned out including flights and some of our lodging!

But by the time we got to the digital nomad hub of Bansko Bulgaria we were utterly exhausted.

We realized we had not slept in the same bed for more than four nights in a row since we had been in Penang Malaysia…3 months earlier!

So we threw away our non-refundable onward airline tickets to Tbilisi Georgia and settled into Bansko for seven weeks.

It was an expensive lesson in sunk cost – but the right one.

So I have learned to go with the flow. Especially when thinking about booking non-refundable affordable upscale plane tickets and short term apartment rentals!

Sometimes it costs us a bit more – like the time we didn’t decide where to go in Europe until we landed in Brussels – but it also saves us from throwing money away when our plans change – and they most likely will!

Our First Year as Digital Nomads Lesson Number 2

Lisa’s Lesson #2: SLOW DOWN!

My second lesson learned from a year of full-time travel is closely related to my first about not over-planning. It’s to SLOW DOWN!

Fast travel is exhausting!

When we launched as digital nomads I had a vision of visiting as many places as we could – all in the first year! It think we were both so excited to break the shackles of our corporate jobs and limitations that we were like kids in a candy store: we wanted it ALL and we wanted it NOW!

All the beaches, all the nomad hotspots, all the cool places we’d been talking about traveling to but never had the time.

And so we did a lot of fast travel.

And it was fun! But it was also exhausting.

Did you ever get home from travel and think, ‘I’m so tired from that vacation that I need a vacation!’? Well imagine doing that sort of travel full time!

It’s not sustainable.

It’s also expensive. We loved visiting Sydney, Melbourne and Tasmania Australia.

But we could live in slow travel destinations like Thailand, Vietnam, Penang or Bulgaria for more than a month for what we spent in one week in Australia.

Slow Travel Is Fulfilling!

Besides, slow travel is even more fun and fulfilling than fast travel.

To Matt’s lesson number 1 about the people we have met above, when you slow your travel down you not only get to know a place better but you have the time to meet locals, expats and other travelers. You develop friendships and, if you’re lucky, a tribe!

Plus we’re not just nomads, we are location independent professionals.

We actually need to do slow travel so we can focus on work. Sometimes for a few days…but sometimes for a month or more!

The other thing about the luxury of time is slowing down to spend time with family. Spending 5 months in Asia was too long for me to not see my family. And Matt felt the same.

Learning that lesson early on, we were able to adjust.

And I am really happy to say that I spent more time with my parents (thanks in part to our time in Europe together) this year than any year since I was in my sophomore year of university.

I also got more quality time with my niece and nephew than I have in years. And Matt visited his kids more often than ever.

So now slow travel in Hershey, Pennsylvania is simply part of our digital nomad lifestyle. We also spent some family slow travel time with Matt’s parents at their winter getaway in Jamaica.

Bottom line is that we’ve learned to slow down and it’s fantastic.

Matt’s Lesson #2: Say Yes!

I agree that learning to slow down has been a really meaningful lesson from our first year of full-time travel.

Lisa still likes to tease me that I am the ‘conservative’ one in our relationship and reminds me that she had to talk me into this adventure after years of me saying no.

Well I’ve gotten over ‘no’. And so my second lesson from a year of full-time travel is to say ‘YES!’…which does not always align with Lisa’s ‘slow down’ lesson.

When we first launched as digital nomads in Koh Samui Thailand we had a loose plan to beach-hop for a while. But then Lisa mentioned that Chiang Mai Thailand has become almost a digital nomad must-do.

So I said yes!

And we spent six life-changing weeks in Chiang Mai. Lisa worked on her Amazon FBA business and I took a crash course in website development and SEO on a typical digital nomad day in Chiang Mai.

During our time in Chiang Mai Lisa suggested a quick side-trip to Kuala Lumpur. I said ‘YES!’

Saying YES! was really turning out well for us.

Then we found out that a friend would be visiting Australia – and we have a dear expat friend who lives in Australia so we said YES to some time in Australia!

Well, as Lisa says above, Australia was amazing…but it was also expensive.

And we never did manage to catch up with our friend who was visiting.

So the lesson we learned was: saying yes is great – but it still has to be a measured yes.

By the time we said yes to showing Lisa’s parents around Germany and Poland we knew what we were signing up for and planned for it. That made our ‘yes’ an amazing fast travel experience traveling with Lisa’s parents.

After Lisa’s parents flew home we went to Bulgaria mostly to spend time at Bulgarian Black Sea Coast beach resorts. But we also said yes to a quick 3-day visit to Bansko to have a quick dinner with friends. And that turned into two amazing months in Bansko.

While there, I was shocked when Lisa told me she had said ‘YES!’ to a campervan caravan in southern Portugal.

But I have learned to be all about the yes. And those 2 weeks in the Algarve region of Portugal were a highlight of our year.

And so it went for the entire year.

We learned to say yes. But we also learned how to say yes while still taking care of ourselves and our priorities.

Learning to say YES! definitely took us out of our comfort zone. And mostly for the better.

So we’re going to keep doing it.

Our First Year as Digital Nomads Lesson Number 3

Matt’s Lesson #3: Be Who You Are – Not Who You Think You Should Be

My last ‘top 3 things I learned during my first year as a digital nomad’ is all about getting comfortable with who I am in this lifestyle.

I was a bit lost when I left my fast-rising corporate job to become a digital nomad.

When I thought about digital nomadism before we started doing it, my vision of the ‘digital nomad me’ was a version of the hippie I had been in college. Footloose and fancy free!

making the decision to become digital nomads
Matt in College

So when we finally launched I was torn. Between the vision of the digital nomad cliche I had in my head and who I actually was.

Quite honestly, I was unsure how to behave. What to write about. Who I was.

After all, I had been a hard-charging corporate executive. Now I was an unemployed ‘writer’ wandering the world.

Or, as my dad humorously (if somewhat accurately) put it: I had become a hobo!

Digital Nomad Lessons
Lisa and Matt Riding the Rails

I decided to not decide. Instead I just buried those feelings deep down inside and decided to write and to learn.

I wrote about what we did. I wrote about what we ate. I wrote about how we lived.

I took a crash course on SEO, online marketing and studied the blogs that I love to read trying to see how and why I am attracted to them.

When anyone asked me what I was doing as a nomad I was demure and self-deprecating: I was helping Lisa run her Amazon FBA business (I mean, I DO handle sales taxes and the wholesale side of the business!). I was doing some writing.

Thanks, Lee!

Then one day in Chiang Mai I was hanging out at the pool at Kantary Hills where we lived.

I started chatting with a guy who we had seen at the pool many days over the past month. Turned out he was an Englishman called Lee who was in Chiang Mai on extended holiday.

He asked me what we were up to in Chiang Mai and I told him we were digital nomads.

In his reply he gave voice to all of the inner turmoil I had been feeling. He said, ‘You don’t LOOK like a digital nomad. Where is your man bun? Where’s your sleeve tattoo!? Besides, you are living in a pretty posh complex, not a hostel!’

There it was! All of the thoughts that had wracked my brain for our first 2 months of full-time travel! If I didn’t fit my own cliched notion of what a digital nomad looks like, is and does then what the hell was I doing. Was I the worst thing in the world: a POSER!?

Digital Nomad Poser

But that was also a moment of liberation because it forced me to address my own neurosis. I had to to reply to Lee!

So I did. I said: ‘We’re not the cliche of digital nomads. We’re just a couple of goofy, fun loving people who love travel so much that we decided to travel full time and work from anywhere in the world.”

And that was a moment of liberation! Of stepping out of the conflict between the cliche of what I thought I should be and who I actually was and simply saying: this is who I am!

Thanks Lisa!

But it was just a moment.

Although I felt a lot more confident about who I was and what we were doing I did still have some lingering ennui.

But that all got wiped away one day walking to lunch in Bansko Bulgaria.

I had spent a few weeks in Bansko taking the amazing Blogging Fast Lane course from the folks at Adventure in You. I was struggling to figure out ReadyJetRoam’s ‘blue ocean’ – what I had been writing about that would appeal to a mass audience in an original way.

I explained my struggle to Lisa: a lot of what I had written about applied to ‘affordable travel for full time digital nomads‘. But a lot, like our Priority Pass Airport Lounge reviews, was about ‘luxury travel‘. I was frustrated during this walk. I was ranting.

Ok, I was throwing a total hissy-fit.

It was all of the frustration of the duality of my preconceived notion about digital nomdaism vs. our lives doing it bursting to the surface!

Lisa just looked at me, smiled and said: ‘You just said it. But you didn’t hear yourself.’

I stopped, turned to her and said: ‘WHAT did I just say!?’

And she said…’ You said these words: Full time. Affordable. Luxury. Travel. That’s the life we are living so that’s what your website should be about.’

Have I mentioned that Lisa is an amazing consultant? Yeah, she consulted the hell out of me in that moment. It was more than a lightbulb moment. It was a supernova moment!

Write for people who aren’t gap year backpackers, but for people who dream of a mid-career sabbatical, long holiday travel (like Lee!), extended retirement travel or, like us, affordable luxury digital nomads. Oh yeah, and living on a full time travel keto diet!

It was a moment of clarity that not only solved my ‘blue ocean’ dilemma, it finally gave me total peace of mind about what we were doing, how we were doing it and, most importantly, WHO I AM.

I didn’t fit into any neat cliched box of ‘corporate executive’ or ‘digital nomad.’ Nor did I need to.

We were making up our own identity as we went. And the best way to describe that is as affordable luxury full time travelers!

With that resolved I found not just the focus of this website, but peace of mind.

And that peace of mind freed me to be open to amazing personal and business opportunities that I couldn’t even perceive before.

It was me, not them

But here is the larger lesson I learned: no nomad we’ve met is the cliche that Lee and I both had in our heads.

Not only do I not fit that cliche but neither does any other nomad we’ve met.

Oh sure, we have nomad friends with man buns and/or sleeve tattoos. And they are cool people! But no more or fewer than in any other walk of life.

The nomads we have met are equal in knowledge, experience, success, career mobility and VARIETY to any subset of professionals in my traditional career.

In fact, in my experience, the biggest difference between digital nomads and traditional professionals is that nomads tend to be more open to collaboration, sharing, teaching, learning and mentoring.

Nomads don’t provide and take professional development because they have to. We do it because we WANT to!

And digital nomads support each other and cheer for each other. Nomad friends helped me a LOT over the past year. They taught me advanced SEO strategies, the intricacies of branding, website development and so many more skills. Just because they could and I asked for help.

And now I even work with other nomads and we deliver SEO, branding, web dev and project support services at a cheaper price and better quality than corporate consultants I have worked with.

Turns out that digital nomads are smart, collaborative, awesome and as varied as any group of professionals.

So, yeah. Big lesson there.

Lisa’s Lesson #3: There are Infinite Ways to Make Money During Full Time Travel

Like Matt’s, my third ‘lesson from the road’ is also about my preconceived notions about digital nomadism vs. the reality of it.

But mine is focused on how we sustain it for the rest of our lives.

Anyone who knows me knows that I had dreamed about a life of full-time travel from the day I read Tim Ferris’ The Four Hour Work Week‘ in 2007.

And that book was all about becoming location independent by starting a passive income business that you can run from anywhere in the world.

So that’s what I did! And eventually my Amazon FBA business (please check it out!) was successful enough that we were able to quit our day jobs and travel full time.

Well, turns out that running an Amazon FBA business is far from a passive income. But if that’s what it took to make money as a digital nomad that’s what I had to do.

And then we started meeting other digital nomads. And I realized that as an entrepreneur running my own business I was actually a minority in the digital nomad community!

We met so many nomads who had an amazing array of income sources.

Our friend Sammy works for a recruiting and career counseling company and writes amazing Adult Urban Fantasy books. Carole works for a banking concern. Nathan is a professor of online classes for a university in Kentucky. Fedor is a digital nomad stand-up comic!

We have also met coders, programmers online English teachers, proofreaders and other location independent freelancers.

We learned so much about how digital nomads make money that Matt ended up writing an article about How to Make Money as a Full-Time Traveler.

And then Matt REALLY blew my mind by taking his own advice and becoming a location independent consultant himself!

He applied all of the knowledge and experience he had gained from a year of focusing on SEO and networking and sold some SEO, branding and web development work. Our next venture, EQM Management Advisory Group was born!

And then he sold some more work that happens to align to my former consulting expertise in offshoring. So now I split my time between running my retail Amazon business and dipping my toes back in to my roots as a management consultant.

Thanks to this lesson, the prospects of our continuing our affordable luxury full-time travel lifestyle indefinitely have never been brighter!

Bottom Line – Lessons From a Year of Affordable Luxury Full-Time Travel

We leapt into the the digital nomad lifestyle knowing that we would learn a lot.

We didn’t know what we didn’t know and left ourselves open to learning along the way.

And we did learn a lot. In the process we have grown as people and had our minds expanded to the wonders of the world and the people that inhabit it.

We have become more tolerant to different cultures, different approaches to life and different perspectives on what’s important. We feel so much more positive about the world and the people that inhabit it.

And we’ve learned to slow down. To appreciate the amazing good fortune we have in life and in each other.

And while we’ve never worked harder in our lives than we did during our first year of full time travel, we’ve never been happier.

Inspired? Pin it!

first year digital nomad

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