The digital nomad lifestyle has become even more attractive in the aftermath of COVID-19 as working online has become more popular and doable even in industries otherwise regarded as office dependent. We’re seeing an increase in medics practicing telemedicine, lawyers offering advice online, and realtors taking buyers on virtual tours, and much of this work can be done anywhere there’s a good internet connection.
As travel bans are eased and borders open again, digital nomads can start exploring and enjoying the world once more. But where should you go? To give you a head start if you’re thinking of joining this wanderer cohort, we’ve asked globe-trotters to share their opinions about the best places to stop and smell the roses, all the while working to keep the economy alive and well. The map below shows the top ten most popular, with Colombia’s Medellín standing out as the must-go place for digital nomads.
When zooming in on the originating states of American travelers, our research revealed that New Yorkers and Californians are most eager to jump on the digital nomad wagon, with 18% and 15% respectively of our survey respondents coming from these two states. As for the destinations they favor, New Yorkers are drawn to exotic locations like Playa del Carmen but far-off, culture-infused places like Tbilisi are also on their radar. Californians express an interest in historic European cities such as Prague and Dubrovnik but are also drawn to sun and sand destinations.
Best Cities for Digital Nomads: Da Nang, Cancún & Mérida Help Nomads Chill and Save Their Dollars
Places like Medellín, Chiang Mai, Bali, and Lisbon are popular, which is no surprise as they have great weather and plenty of natural and cultural attractions. But we wanted to find out if they really are the best ones for digital nomads in the aftermath of the pandemic that changed the world. Starting with the recommended locations provided by our survey respondents and using data coming from several reputable sources, we used 20 metrics based on criteria we had ascertained to evaluate 100 popular digital nomad cities. Five criteria concerned cost of living expenses, including accommodation and dining costs; seven concerned the infrastructure a digital nomad needs to work, including internet speed and availability, coworking costs and healthcare; three related to culture, including the extent to which English is spoken locally; and then there were three about lifestyle, plus metrics for air quality and people density (important when social distancing is recommended). The final ranking, along with some of the most important criteria, is shown in the graphic below.
The high placing of Latin American resorts, such as Cancún and Mérida in Mexico and Costa Rica’s Sámara, indicates a sunny and well-developed tourist resort could become one of the best places for digital nomads — and thanks to their time zones there’ll be no need to take a conference call at 2am.
Even though cost of living has gotten increasingly expensive in Europe, there still are some amazing locations that provide a good bang for your buck. Life seems to move slower in the Bulgarian ski resort of Bansko and Spain’s Tenerife has the feeling of eternal spring – literally, as even in winter you can avoid temperatures below 65 ºF. Locations such as Vietnam’s Da Nang and Malaysia’s George Town are very chilled and offer good value for money, while Bali and Colombia’s Medellín are recommended for their friendliness and laid-back vibe, which seems to be reflected in the scores.
While renowned destinations in Thailand and Bali performed commendably — and our survey respondents particularly recommended such places for their food — it may be their popularity is taking a toll on how comfortable it is to live there now. Digital nomads will want to know not only which places were popular but which will be the best in the future. Chiang Mai, for instance, has air pollution problems these days, registering a much worse score for that than all but one of our top 20 cities. Many governments and tourist boards want to spread the load by directing nomads to places with better air and less burdened infrastructures, which pushes other destinations up the popularity ranking before too long. Also, with internet provision being a big factor, nomads’ discovery of the free Wifi we see in highly ranked Vietnamese, Malaysian and Mexican destinations, for example, may signal their transformation into true digital nomad cities.
America’s Dream Destinations Also a Possibility, But at a Price
The US may be one of the world’s most appreciated countries but no American city made the top 20. As you can probably guess, we have the high cost of living to thank for that. When looking at rents for a studio apartment in 2020, 11 of the 20 most expensive places in our list are in the US. New York City is second only to Tokyo regarding housing costs, and other sunny American hotspots follow suit. Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle all have fantastic settings for digital nomads but prices tend to temper travelers’ enthusiasm.
To see how big of a difference we’re talking about, we’ve selected some pairs of destinations, one overseas and one in the US, which might be considered comparable as digital nomad locations.
A stunning combination of beaches and spectacular mountains — and the healthy air they provide —is liable to attract visitors. The top-rated foreign destination on our list, Vietnam’s Da Nang, offers both plus a very economical cost of living, with hotels costing $383 a month and dinner in a restaurant setting you back just $3. Honolulu, HI, has its own special glamor and offers equally stunning natural spectacles but has a deeper impact on your finances. A 3-bedroom apartment in the center of Da Nang might cost around $800 per month while something similar in Hawaii’s capital could easily require four times more – a nice rental in Honolulu now goes for approx. $3,000, but homes with picture-perfect views might carry price tags of $8,000 per month.
Other nomads prioritize ideal weather and a fun, youth-orientated atmosphere. Medellín, our nomads’ most popular destination, landed 8th place on our list of the best places and fits this profile in addition to having very low living costs. It’s true Medellín comes with some safety concerns, plus it is a densely populated place, but the same could be said about Los Angeles, which is a lot more expensive. In LA, which came 88th on our list, you could experience an amazing lifestyle, particularly at a diverse and exciting place like Venice Beach. But while a 2-bedroom apartment, maybe with access to a pool, could cost anything between $200-$600 in Medellín, something similar might set you back $3,500 in LA — but you’d be living in the City of Angels and that is never going to come cheap.
Beach resorts often feature in nomads’ dreams, and coastal Mexican destinations score highly on our list. For Americans, they offer ease of access, although internet speeds and healthcare can be somewhat behind the standards back home. Cancún, our second-most highly placed location, outscores other hotspots south of the Rio Grande with its superior nightlife, entertainment options and safety. For something similar stateside, and weather to match, you could try Miami, FL, though your wallet would feel the extra strain. The city came 87th on our list and offers a good quality of life plus access to superb beaches. But while a centrally located 3-bedroom Cancún apartment rents for about $680, something similar could require more than $2,000 in Miami, and an average studio apartment costs four times as much there as in Cancún.
NYC and Miami Too Costly? Try Tampa and Buffalo as Great Places to Lead a Digital Nomad Lifestyle in the US
While US cities can be a lot more expensive than those overseas, travelling abroad can sometimes be a false economy. For one thing, you have to factor in the cost of flights and extra insurance. And, as the problems involved in traveling abroad are greater right now, staying in the US, but still choosing a location for maximum efficiency and enjoyment, could be an excellent alternative option for anyone looking to work online. We ranked our digital nomads’ favorite US cities with the same metrics we used for the worldwide locations, as shown in the map below.
Tampa, FL, achieves the highest rank among our US cities — not so shocking considering the high scores of locations on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico. It does well for quality of living and its accommodation costs are reasonable compared with comparable US cities such as Miami, but it still has access to great beaches and Florida’s legendary entertainment attractions.
Buffalo, New York State’s second-largest city, takes the silver medal, and although bordering Canada it has surprising pleasant weather, in addition, of course, to a much more agreeable cost of living than over in New York City. Kansas City, MO, takes third position, and while some might consider it just a Midwest town that’s fine for families, nomads clearly feel at home there too — maybe it has something to do with the city’s signature jazz and barbeque styles. Provo, UT, and Albuquerque, NM, fill out the top 5, and both offer good value for money; the former is a great base for enjoying Utah’s famous outdoor sports while the latter boasts nearby desert and scenic mountains, so our survey confirmed that nomads often love the great outdoors.
While the US’s large metropolitan cities may offer great nightlife and a vibrant lifestyle — Dallas emerged as having an excellent quality of life according to our survey respondents — they are going to be a drain on a nomad’s bank balance. Smaller cities may win out in large part owing to their accommodation’s good value for money, and with no compromises needed in terms of personal safety or internet connectivity. Another noticeable trend is caused by the increasing difficulty with which younger folk can get on the housing market these days, resulting in smaller towns or suburbs having a greater attraction for nomads.
Dreaming of the Digital Nomad Lifestyle? Meet Your New Buds!
In our survey of nomads, we gathered their opinions not only about their preferred destinations but also their reasons for choosing them. As can be seen below, cost of living is by far the most common reason for choosing a destination and, in addition, the presence of high-speed Internet and a digital nomad community are understandably highly valued. But quality of life is clearly also important, as features like good weather and the availability of excellent food and coffee score highly.
Travelling the world with little more than a backpack is usually considered an activity for youngsters, and our survey confirms this, with more than half our digital nomads being in the age range 20-34. But what’s interesting is that digital nomading is slowly becoming a way of life for anyone who is young at heart, with a third of our respondents being over 35.
As also might be expected, a large number of our digital nomad respondents work in tech-related occupations, for instance graphic design and web development. Many others find their time taken up with more literary activities such as creative writing and blogging. Marketing and customer support jobs are clearly also very viable from a nomad standpoint, and there were additionally a number of financial industry professionals represented.
Nomads Know How Long to Spend at a Destination
How long a nomad remains in a location depends firstly on visa restrictions — many countries allow 60 or 90 days’ stay, but others permit only 30 at a time. Some countries do not require a visa at all for a certain period — US citizens can stay in the Caucasian country of Georgia, for instance, for 365 days without one. Our data shows that, as you would expect, it’s cheaper to rent an apartment than to live in hotels or Airbnb rooms, and nomads taking that option will require a proper lease and so stay for longer periods.
Many of our respondents report that 2-3 months is a good length of time at any one location, but some nomads find shorter stays fit better with visa requirements, not to mention with their wanderlust. Others happily settle in for longer periods, reaping the economical advantages of long-term accommodation leases or perhaps riding out a winter in a cozy place until the traveling bug returns.
How to Travel: Do It the Nomad Way
It’s a momentous decision when you ask friends to go traveling with you — just how will it be if they don’t share your accommodation tastes or claim the Sancocho you made them eat gave them stomach pain? For this reason, many nomads, with experience and an ability to make friends anywhere, prefer to travel alone. For single women travelers the worries are somewhat heightened, and caution is always advised. Traveling as a couple, of course, can be the best solution of all.
The nomad lifestyle means traveling light, so few will want to put winter clothing in their backpacks. Our nomads have certainly chosen a lot of locations with great climates, with year-round warmth in places like Playa del Carmen, Bali and Tenerife, for example. It is perhaps no surprise that many of our US nomads came from places not renowned for great weather — the biggest group came from New York City and places nearby, while Minneapolis was the second-placed city of origin.
What the Experts Say
Besides surveying the opinions of nomads and analyzing relevant data, we thought it would be very informative to obtain the opinions of experts to better judge how this area of the international job market might change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We therefore asked for insights from some highly reputed professors who bring a great deal of experience to bear regarding the digital nomad phenomenon.
Ingrid Erickson, Assistant Professor, Syracuse University, School of Information Studies
In your opinion will this situation affect the amount of work available for digital nomads?
I think that the pandemic has brought on a new necessity and, simultaneously, a new appreciation for remote/distributed work—at least among knowledge workers (i.e., those folks whose bodies are not required in a specific time/place). So given this, I think that more employers will be willing to recognize the possibilities for work being done away from certain locations. This move potentially helps digital nomads, since this is the logic they have been exploiting from the beginning. However, there is also the question of trust on the part of employers. Given that there is a lot of uncertainty at this moment, they may elect to stick with their salaried employees until the future is clearer. This may be bad for digital nomads because they primarily work on short term contracts (when they are not running their own businesses remotely). Work still needs to be done, and the current situation has proven that it can get done anywhere. It remains to be seen, however, whether employers will tighten their boundaries in the face of ambiguity and stick with that they know or loosen their boundaries, moving more toward a virtual organization made up of contract workers the world over. The jury is still out on this point.
With regard to locations, I think that folks who can elect to be wherever they want to be will migrate more to places that signal their governments are sane, strategic, safety-conscious, etc. This bodes well for locales like New Zealand and Taiwan, and really bad for places like Brazil and the US. I am personally not aware of how cowering places—and other organizations that act like social infrastructures for digital nomads—will fare. This remains to be seen.
Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi, Associate Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Information and Library Science
How do you think the digital nomad lifestyle will change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
In the short term, it will be restrained due to travel restrictions that have come with the pandemic. The pandemic has resurrected the more conventional form of remote working (working from home) which had given its place to more vibrant, mobile forms in recent years, exemplified in the work life of digital nomads (as hypermobile workers). However, I think the long-term effects point to a different direction. Many organizations/employers are becoming more comfortable with remote working. Technology is an important driver but changes in norms (e.g. presenteeism) present even a bigger paradigm shift. So it may not matter as much if you connect to organizations from San Francisco Bay Area or from Thailand. This will likely make digital nomadism a more appealing trend and a more accepted work environment.
In line with my first response, the answer is probably yes and no. More businesses will be open to outsourcing work/projects to remote workers and freelancers. But the demand has also intensified and will continue to rise since many knowledge workers have been laid off and will resort to online freelancing, which is the primary platform of work for digital nomads. In this new equation, those digital nomads with strong and already-established social/professional networks probably fare better. This is consistent with our previous research on digital nomads pre-COVID era.
Jennie Germann Molz, Professor, College of the Holy Cross
How do you think the digital nomad lifestyle will change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
We are seeing immediate reactions to the pandemic, but the long-term impacts will likely look quite different. In the short term, some digital nomads returned to their home countries as borders were closing and flights were being canceled in March; others decided to stay put wherever they were and ride out the quarantine there. The biggest impact, of course, is that an otherwise mobile lifestyle grinds to a halt. They aren’t so much digital nomads anymore as they are digital captives!
Long-term, however, there is a good chance that this experience will prompt even more people to consider the digital nomad lifestyle. People who were able to shift to work-from-home scenarios may realize that they don’t have to be tethered to an office, and as travel restrictions ease, they may question why they need to stay in a particular city or country for their work. And businesses that are seeing productivity remain the same or even increase under work-from-home scenarios might even encourage these new arrangements. In a way, many workers have had to become digital nomads (without the nomadic part) whether they wanted to or not.
In your opinion will this situation affect the amount of work available for digital nomads?
It will really depend on the kind of work digital nomads do. Online tutoring and education, software development, healthcare (traveling nurses, telehealth, analytics, etc.) and other sectors will likely remain quite strong. Lifestyle bloggers, influencers, and those whose livelihood is tightly interwoven with their identity as a digital nomad may have to retool their business model if they can’t actually travel as extensively as they did before. The growing intermediary sector — digital nomads who build their livelihoods on catering to other digital nomads or teaching people how to live the digital nomad lifestyle — will probably also have to make some adjustments to the kinds of products and services they offer. Large in-person conferences (like DNX) and co-living/co-working spaces are likely to be cancelled or limited for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, digital nomads will require different kinds of technical, social and emotional, and career development support, and so there are probably new entrepreneurial opportunities there.
Which destinations do you think might become more popular in the aftermath of the pandemic?
It’s hard to say. Digital nomads practice a kind of “geoarbitrage” by moving to low-cost-of-living destinations in the Global South where their dollars stretch further. These are usually destinations whose economies rely heavily on tourism. Likewise, digital nomads often piggyback on the amenities provided for tourists: clubs, restaurants, cafes, beaches, local transportation, yoga studios, and so on. If these tourism-related businesses don’t recover, or take a long time to recover, digital nomads may find these destinations less desirable or less able to provide for their needs, as well. And since digital nomads tend not to become integrated into the local communities where they land for a few weeks or months at a time, they will probably be quite opportunistic about relocating to places that can cater to their needs.
US digital nomads who go abroad often appreciate not only cultural and environmental factors but also a lower cost of living and conditions in which they can work efficiently online. It also appears many nomads who stay in the US are influenced by cost, though they will still likely pay more than those overseas. And as they can usually take good working conditions and the presence of English language speakers for granted, they can focus on being close to the attractions they enjoy, making US digital nomading an attractive alternative to going abroad.
Comforts are also clearly important for nomads. Both Latin America and Asia provide destinations which have been tried and tested by tourists and are up-and-running for anyone who wants to work remotely online — they also often have sizable ex-pat communities, making them a home from home. Europe may offer some familiarity, plus a choice of great weather in the southwest, value for money in the east and the chance to explore some grand cities. For added comfort and a lack of worries wherever they end up, nomads should consider tying up administrative loose ends and putting their belongings back home in a self storage unit before they travel.
During COVID-19, many companies have found their employees can perform adequately away from the office, creating more workers in the digital economy. This means any place which is well-prepared for these changes will be economically better able to emerge from the pandemic. And if these employees have grown to enjoy their new online lifestyle, they might like to consider living it somewhere else. When the COVID-19 situation has settled down, the prospects for digital nomads will look even more positive. A new hybrid digital worker might even emerge, not so bothered by wanderlust, but spending months at a time in foreign destinations enjoying great weather, exotic food and putting a bit of money in the bank as well.
This research was conducted by StorageCafe, an online listings portal where people can easily find self-storage units for rent across the United States.
To select the most popular places for digital nomads, StorageCafe’s research team created a survey which was distributed across multiple digital nomad platforms. We then evaluated the 100 most recommended locations based on 20 metrics, including cost of living, quality of life, internet infrastructure, safety, healthcare and entertainment.
Data for Airbnb costs, hotel costs, the price of a dinner, coworking costs, the price of a cup of coffee, internet speed, Wi-Fi availability, traffic safety, hospitals/healthcare, walkability, the extent to which English is spoken locally, friendliness to foreigners, personal safety, and lifestyle attributes concerning quality of life, nightlife and ‘fun’ were supplied with kind permission by NomadList.com .
People density data comes from the US Census.
Figures for air pollution came from the World Air Quality Index.
Data about rental rates came from 99acres.com, batdongsan.com, cityexpert.rs, en.spitogatos.gr, finn.no, globalpropertyguide.com, housingjapan.com, idealista.com, immowelt.at, immowelt.de, imobiliare.ro, imoti.bg, irr.ru, lamudi.com.ph, lifeafar.com, longtermlettings.com, nestaway.com, nomadlist.com, numbeo.com, point2homes.com, realestate.co.nz, realestateview.com.au, rentroombali.com, rightmove.co.uk, segundamano.mx, sublet.com, yardimatrix.com, waqi.info, worldpopdata.org, data.census.gov.
All metrics were initially given the same weighting but then non-qualitative metrics considered to be of greater importance were given added weigh so as to arrive at a result which best expresses the suitability of a place for digital nomad workers.
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