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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Lessons You Might Learn If You Work and Travel at the Same Time

Nikki Vargas in Bali
Nikki Vargas/The Pin Map Project

You’ve probably read all about uninspired 9-to-5ers who ditched the office to become digital nomads. The stories make leaving the corporate grind to travel and work for yourself sound like a dream come true.

But if you don’t plan on being on the move permanently, what happens when you settle down? Does it hurt your career in the long-run?

I spoke to three people who worked remotely and feel confident that their stints abroad helped them get ahead in their careers.

So, if you’ve been itching for a change and dreaming of combining work and travel, get excited! Being a digital nomad could be just the thing to help guide you through a career pivot—even if you’re unsure of your next move.

1. You Might Learn Your Dream Job Isn’t What You Think it Is

Nikki Vargas got her start in advertising, but dreamed of working in journalism. She launched her travel blog, The Pin Map Project, in 2012, and a few years later left her full-time job in advertising to try to make a career out of it (while picking up freelance gigs to support herself).

She grew the site to more than 100,000 monthly visitors, but “despite my best efforts to pour everything into my website—money, time, effort—I couldn’t monetize [it] enough to earn a living,” Vargas wrote.

During a 2016 trip to Bali, she shared her dilemma with a fellow traveler who insisted Vargas read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Vargas credits the book with helping her realize that she was putting too much pressure on her passion project to pay the bills.

Nikki Vargas
Nikki Vargas on her trip to Bali (Courtesy of Nikki Vargas/The Pin the Map Project)​

She returned to New York City and applied to full-time positions. The twist she didn’t anticipate was that this decision would actually lead her to a “dream job.” The time she’d spent as a digital nomad helped her land a travel editor position at The Culture Trip, a media startup, and she got a salary and benefits to do exactly what she loved.

Vargas had learned first-hand during her travels that the people she meets can inspire new ideas to propel her career forward. She drew on that lesson once again when her role was eliminated in a round of layoffs and applied it back at home.

About a month after losing her job, she spoke alongside editors from CNN Travel and USA Today on a sexism panel at the Women’s Travel Fest in New York City. The discussion planted the seeds for her next project. She’s teamed up with three other co-founders to launch Unearth Magazine, written for and produced by women.

2. You Might Learn to Balance Work and Life in a Way That’s Impossible When You’re Home

Freshly recovered from a lifelong fear of flying, Melissa Smith decided that a year with the co-working, co-living program WYCO was an ideal way to finally see the world while achieving specific career goals.

After working as an executive assistant for more than 15 years, Smith had started a consultancy to help clients identify and onboard virtual assistants. Three years in, she felt it was time to level up. She wanted to create a virtual summit, write a book, and launch an online class—all the same year. Smith knew her goals were ambitious, but didn’t want to fall into the trap of working 16-hour days with little human contact.

“Doing things in isolation is much harder,” she said, adding, “I’ve always liked working in a team.”

Melissa Smith
Melissa Smith (clockwise from top left) at the Dead Sea in Israel; at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand; on the beach in Tel Aviv, Israel; at a rice field in Jatiluwih, Indonesia; and at the opera "Carmen" in Prague (Courtesy of Melissa Smith)

WYCO offered an easy solution. Surrounded by fellow nomads who were also juggling work with travel (and all those time zone changes!) kept her focused and organized. With limited time in each location, Smith and her new friends wanted to make the most of their off hours. And it turns out that having compelling reasons to set boundaries between work and play—like floating in the Dead Sea, taking a private food and wine tour in Mendoza, Argentina, and browsing the Botero Museum in Bogota, Colombia—is a great way to inspire productivity.

Over the course of 12 months and visits to 16 different countries, Smith kept her business going and made the course, summit, and book happen—just as she’d planned. And she wasn’t stuck at home alone while she did it.

3. You Might Learn That You Can Live on Less

At 26, Gabriel Loubier needed a challenge. He’d been working as the general manager of a restaurant at a ski resort in Breckinridge, Colorado. “I started to coast and let the restaurant run itself,” Loubier said. He felt frustrated working for a boss who wasn’t open to new ideas.

He quit that job and started learning skills like web design and coding to find a freelance niche where he could be his own boss for a change. Though he was making progress figuring out his strengths and interests, he was eating into his savings quickly. So Loubier decided to move to Thailand, where he could continue to experiment—but live on less than $1,000 per month instead of about $3,000, which he’d been spending on rent, car payments, food, and entertainment back at home.

Gabriel Loubier
In Chiang Mai in Thailand (left) and Hue in Vietnam (Courtesy of Gabriel Loubier)

He enjoyed writing and started producing articles for a cryptocurrency company, getting paid in their tokens. After just three months, he was able to cash out and fund two more years of travel. As he continued to freelance, he came across Rivetz, a blockchain company whose approach resonated with him.

“I wrote a three-page letter about my experiences working for companies I didn't believe in and how I wanted to put my effort behind a mission that I did believe in. I showed them the freelance articles I had been writing as my portfolio,” Loubier said. About a month after sending the letter, he joined Rivetz as a full-time writer. Unlike Vargas and Smith, Loubier decided to make his temporary adventure a more permanent one and stayed in Thailand even after he’d succeeded in leveling up.

For these three digital nomads, the experience was as much about the work as it was about the travel. The combination helped them pivot and grow. So, if you’re feeling restless on your career journey, taking a period of time to work while you travel won’t necessarily hurt. In fact, it could help you finally do what you’ve always wanted to do. And who knows? You might just stumble upon something or someone unexpected that leads you somewhere great.