The differences between a traveller and a digital nomad

Does this Googled image of “woman laptop beach” represent a traveller or a digital nomad? Hmmm…

Here’s a mini-questionnaire for you:

  1. Do you travel a lot (i.e. spend at least 50% of your time “away” from home)?
  2. Do you tend to stay in places that aren’t hotels?
  3. Do you get paid for what you write/produce on your laptop while you’re away?

If you answered “yes” to all three questions, congratulations – you’re a… erm… hmmm. Well what are you? Are you a digital nomad or a traveller?

In the hierarchy of important questions in life, this one’s probably below “Can a pregnant woman drive in the carpool lane?” and slightly above “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”.

But for some reason, the issue really gets people’s backs up (especially digital nomads, who HATE to be called travellers. I know – I’m one of them).

To clear things up once and definitely not for all, here’s what I think the differences are.


By “travellers”, I don’t mean gap-year students or people who go on the odd yoga retreat in Thailand for a few weeks. I mean people who travel almost non-stop and find ways to fund it/make money while they do so – usually by blogging.

Travellers want to fit in as many new areas and new experiences as possible. Their stamina is extraordinary, as is their almost-innate need to keep moving and keep experiencing.

But they also have to keep moving: 63 blog posts on life in Iceland, for example (spas, Bjork, rams’ testicles… time to recycle those topics for more posts) are going to drive away the readers and – most importantly – the advertisers/sponsors.

And that’s a key thing to know about blogging travellers: they do it because they love travelling, but in order to fund it they need to keep their readers interested (i.e. visiting the blog) – so that the advertisers and sponsors will continue to pay up.

Yes: it’s actually possible to travel around the world, blog about it, and get paid for doing so. In fact, the bloggers don’t even need to be that good: loads of travel blogs are pretty dry, boring and unimaginatively written, and I sometimes struggle to understand why people continue to read them.

But read them they do, and so the advertisers continue to pay for space, and sponsors continue to send the travellers off on tiger-cuddling, ziplining and sushi-making jollies – or else put them up in one of their hotels for the week in return for a favourable “They paid for it, but my words are honest” review.

“I stayed in this WONDERFUL hotel room in the Sunshine Splendid Resort (they paid but all views are my own)”

Accommodation-wise, it’s often hostels, very cheap hotels, or sponsorship (as mentioned above) if they’re to stay somewhere a bit “nicer”. Travelling non-stop is expensive, and only a few travellers will be making enough money to afford hotels or apartments.

Digital nomads

Being a digital nomad isn’t about travelling: it’s about having the option to travel. If they feel like it, digital nomads can move around as much as travellers. But if they’re happy in their Liverpool three-bedder, they can by all means stay there and enjoy the excellent broadband speeds and unmatchable Lancashire hotpots. (For this reason, my questionnaire at the top was slightly bogus: not all digital nomads are actually away from home that much.)

Digital nomads have careers that they can do from anywhere, due to the way they’ve set up their businesses. Loads of them work in the techie sphere, in jobs like web development/design. But there’s no reason why people in “traditional” professions (like accountancy, law, teaching and HR) can’t be digital nomads too – and indeed many of them have found ways to make it work.

They make it work by putting their whole business (or most of it) online. So instead of meetings around a boardroom table, they use Skype. And they share documents using Google Docs. And of course, they use email for day-to-day correspondence – which is no different these days from working in the same city/country as your clients. (There are loads of other online tools for digital nomads – see here.)

The great thing about Skyping in? When they bring out the bar charts, you can just switch over to LOLCats for a while

It’s only really possible to be a digital nomad in places where there’s a decent enough internet connection. And because pretty much everywhere (except Indonesia and a few others, according to Google) falls into that sole criterion, the world is a digital nomad’s virtual oyster.

There are huge variations in how much digital nomads actually do travel around, but it’s generally less frequently than travellers because they need a fair amount of routine and consistency in order to actually get work done – and it’s hard to find time or inclination for work if you arrive somewhere, eat some fried dog (or whatever’s typical of the region), take a camel ride, watch a sex show, glug down some Sake and get the bus to your next destination.

Because they hang around in an area for longer, digital nomads are often able to rent apartments for months at a time – which is far cheaper than a hotel and providers more space, peace and quiet than a hostel.

When it comes to money, digital nomads often earn as much or nearly as much as non-digital nomads with comparable jobs. It’s like any career: the more experience they get and kudos they receive, the more they’re able to charge. And because they don’t have to live in expensive countries like the UK or USA, they often make a ton of savings on accommodation and living costs.

Consider this: it’s possible to get a fully furnished apartment in Chiang Mai (Thailand) – complete with kitchenette, dining room, communal swimming pool and twice-weekly cleaning – for about £200 a month.

Here’s a cause of contention/confusion: digital nomads often blog too. They even make money from their blogs sometimes. What’s more, their blogs are often about the experiences they’ve had while travelling, rather than about the work they do. But that still doesn’t mean they’re travellers: it just means they’re digital nomads who’re making the most of working around the world and experiencing what each area has to offer. If you’re not sure whether a blogger is a digital nomad or a traveller, it will often be clear on the “About” page of their site.

As with travellers, digital nomads’ blogs aren’t often that inspired. But I feel I can cut them some slack because blogging is a by-product of their chosen lifestyle, rather than the money-making core of it.

What do you think?

Do you consider yourself to be a traveller or a digital nomad? What do you think of my definitions? Let me know in the comments!

  • Tanmaya

    I just stumbled on this website, I wasn’t quite quite aware of the digital nomad phenomena, let alone the persistence of terms like digital nomad. Its an interesting lifestyle and quite doable. And probably enjoyable. But it seems more of a ‘in your 20’s thing’ rather than a sustainable ambition.
    Anyway, cheers. Heading off to check out more stuff.

    PS- I came here because I just joined the Cafe Freelance Manhattan something something Meetup and got a notice that you guys were leaving. Blows.