Erin McNeaney and boyfriend Simon Fairbairn produce the popular Never Ending Voyage blog, which documents their global travel experiences. Erin describes herself as a ‘digital nomad.’ I’d never spoken to one before. Well, not knowingly. So I asked what she meant by the term.
“It’s somebody who works online, which means they can travel all over the world,” she told me. “It’s rare these days to find somewhere that doesn’t have good internet,” says Erin. And she should know. She’s travelled through all sorts of remote destinations, like Burma, Guatemala, Jordan, Fiji and Peru, as her website reveals.
“We stayed in Lake Atitlán in Guatemala for three months and the internet access was slow but the 3G was faster. So when the landline became too slow we tethered our laptops to our phones and used the through-the-air network. We buy local sim cards. Even in the middle of the ocean in the Maldives we had 3G. In fact on the ferry going to the island we were able to use the internet.”
Don’t assume great speeds everywhere, though. Erin says that internet access in Germany was surprisingly slower that she’d expected and some developing countries offered better speeds. “We’ve also heard from friends that Australia is bad for internet speed,” she added.
Erin’s full-time travels started after she returned from a year’s sabbatical from her job. “It was an amazing trip and I came back to the UK in November. It was very tough to get back into the nine-to-five routine, especially when everything was grey, cold and dark. I really struggled to adjust,” she recalled. “I read about a family who were travelling indefinitely and thought wow, if they can do that why can’t we?”
“Simon was working in web design and that lends itself well to being a digital nomad,” she told me. We started saving up and decided to sell everything and rent out our home in Manchester. We had a three-bedroom house so there were a lot of items to sell but it was quite liberating,” recalls Erin.
“At the start it was difficult there were things I put aside and listing items on eBay was time-consuming but emotionally it became easier. We can now pack all of our belongings in ten minutes and get on to the next place. We can get our entire lives in the overhead locker on the plane!”
For many people travelling around shops and buying souvenirs is part of the travel experience. I asked Erin if she missed that. “No we were saving money before we travelled and we no longer feel the need to buy things. We’re very selective. We don’t enjoy shopping at all. We’d rather spend our money on experiences and good food rather than buying things.”
The couple have found a place where they like spending extended periods during the winter – Ubub in Bali. “We rented a house there for five months last winter. It was gorgeous – overlooking rice fields and jungle scenery.”
Erin also likes the spiritual side of the town. “It’s a Hindu island in a Muslim country. There are constant temple ceremonies and regular processions,” she says. “The parades feature people wearing colourful masks playing the Gamelan music of percussive instruments.”
As a vegetarian Erin has been impressed by the food there too. “They do eat meat but they also cook a lot of vegetables and there’s tempeh, which is a less processed version of tofu from Indonesia. It’s amazing there and really cheap and they cook it very well,” Erin says. “There are lots of healthy foods – you can get raw smoothies and vegan cheesecake. It’s the sort of healthy eating choices you get in Portland or San Francisco.”
“Chang Mai in Thailand is another great place if you don’t eat meat,” she adds. “In the south where there are more Muslims it can be a little more difficult but if there are Buddhists and there are lots of temples in the area you know that you will find veggie options.”
Surprisingly, Italy offers good veggie food too. “Locals think we are crazy for being vegetarian but they naturally have a lot of meat-free food. The South is one of the poorer areas and they tend to eat a lot more vegetables. Everything grows there because it’s sunnier, so you’ll get an anti-pasti plate with tons of different roasted and marinated vegetables.”
If you’re a veggie, you might need to plan ahead in South America, she cautions. “We didn’t find any traditional Bolivian food that was vegetarian and if it wasn’t meat there was a heavy reliance on potatoes. We had to eat more in tourist restaurants because that was the only place where we could find food. If we asked restaurants to make something without meat they looked at us like we were freaks,” said Erin.
Erin and Simon have developed a smartphone app for travellers. It’s called Trail Wallet and can help you keep track of your spending when abroad. You enter the amounts that you have spent in the local currency and you can convert that to your home currency. You can also see how you are spending compared to your overall budget for the day, week or month. The app tells you which areas you are spending the most money on.
The couple got very good at saving money as they prepared for their travels and keeping track of everything they spent so they could identify where to cut back. “It helps to ensure you don’t mindlessly waste money. When we started travelling we wrote down all of our expenditure and I set up complicated spreadsheets, but it became time-consuming and wasn’t an easy way to manage our finances. You also tend to forget what you spend during the day,” Erin says.
“So how can you make sure you keep your expenditure down?” I asked. Erin says slow travel is the best way, especially renting apartments. If you can find a place for a week on airBnB you will spend a lot less than if you were paying for a hotel. And if you can stay for a month, then that will give you the best deal, she says.
“It’s so much cheaper than paying for a hotel night. You can spend anything from $300 in an apartment in Mexico to $800 on a gorgeous house with a pool in Bali. It’s better value and when you’re travelling slower you spend less on transport and you’re more likely to cook for yourself, so you save money on food.”
I asked Erin whether she negotiated on prices. “I try to, especially if I’m staying somewhere longer, but I haven’t had much luck on airBnB,” she says. “But in Bali it is expected that you should negotiate and they would be amazed if you just paid the price that you were quoted.”
So where next for the digital nomads? “Africa has been missing from our list,” she says. ‘So we’re going to South Africa early next year.” You’ll be to read about Erin and Simon’s African travels on Never Ending Voyage – as soon as they find a good 3G signal!
You can hear my chat with Erin in full here: