Is it possible to travel as a digital nomad with a family?

We could think of no better way of finding out the answer to this question than asking someone who has been able to travel with a husband and a son by her side.

Thus we’re continuing our series where we let digital nomads tell their stories in their own words, and this week we’re talking to Sandra Muller. Let’s hear Sandra out.

The Mortgage Myth and Other Obstacles Stopping You from Making the Leap

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I loved the freedom of travelling to exotic destinations around the world. I travelled on a whim and rarely prepared beyond the first night of my arrival. I also lived abroad for a few years, teaching English in South Korea, China and briefly in Taiwan. At first, I travelled solo. Later with my husband. It all came easy!

However, things changed since we moved back to Melbourne in 2004. Soon enough we had a mortgage, two cars, jobs, a lot of stuff, and about 10 years later, a different kind of ‘obstacle’ – a kid with a place in a hard-to-secure day care facility.

In principle, I would have been able to travel – after our son was born, I returned to freelance copywriting and worked from home, giving me the freedom and flexibility to manage my time and work remotely. However, I felt shackled.

In hindsight, my attachment to the idea that I had to be mortgage-free and maintain a base in Melbourne is what got in the way of pursuing the overseas dream, more so than having a child. But I did not know that back then – until I tried…

Try Before You Buy: Test out the Digital Nomad Lifestyle before You Commit

A chance to travel came soon. Realizing that we shared a desire to travel, my husband convinced me to spend three months in Vietnam. It was a good opportunity for us to see if this ‘digital nomad thing’ would work for us as a family. Our son was three at the time. We booked our tickets and began the journey!

However, I quickly realised that I was a terrible nomad. Working around the clock to meet client deadlines meant I didn’t get to see much of Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi at all, but I did get a crick in my neck from hotel furniture that wasn’t exactly ergonomic.

I realised that I was craving routine (and decent office furniture!) so we cut short our travel plans in northern Vietnam and flew to Nha Trang, a beach destination on Vietnam’s east coast, and rented an apartment for about 12 weeks.

And we loved it.

I got rid of the crick in my neck and we all fell into a leisurely lifestyle. My husband and son spent a lot of time together while I worked. We made it work. And rather than referring to myself as a digital nomad, I adopted the term ‘digital plonker’.

Our trip was such a success we decided to sell our house, sell our cars and most of our stuff and move to Korea. We’ve now been plonked in Daejeon for 18 months and loving it.  

If you’re in a similar situation to us before our Vietnam adventure, I highly recommend trying the digital nomad lifestyle for a few months first before selling your house and packing up your current life. You’ll soon work out if it works for your family and what sort of nomad (or plonker?) you are.

What Kids Get out of It

One of the best things about our 3-month test run was that my husband got to spend quality time with our son that he would have missed while he was working in Melbourne. He is still so grateful for that time.

But probably the best thing we got out of our test run was the idea that we didn’t have to let those perceived obstacles stay in our way. I let go of my old mindset of thinking we couldn’t live overseas until we had paid off our mortgage.

Kids get so much out of overseas travel and even more out of living in another country.

They get to experience life in another culture. From expanding their food palette to seeing how other people live and meeting people from all over the world. It really is an amazing and sensory experience for them.

Older kids will learn about the history of another country and perhaps even pick up a new language. They’ll make friends with locals and other travellers and make a pen pal or three.

Things You’ll Need to Consider

There are obvious things you’ll need to consider like dealing with time zone adjustments and getting over jet lag, accommodating fussy palettes and dealing with bugs you’re all likely to pick up during your travels. But here are some other things to consider when nomadding with kids:

Curbed freedom

When our son came along, we had to confront our own lack of freedom. Our son is asleep by 9 pm, so our evenings end early. No late-night bar-hopping for us! And in our 20s and 30s we loved to party.

We also can’t be as spontaneous as we used to be. We have to consider the effect travel will have on our son, how much he can walk and see or do in a day and build in rest days whenever we were on the move, so he can properly recover.  

Living in close quarters

Chances are, if you adopt the digital nomad or plonking lifestyle, you’ll be spending a lot of time together in close quarters. It can be hard to go from a life where parents work, and kids go to school to suddenly spending 24×7 together. Have strategies and back up plans in place for dealing with times when you’ve all had enough of each other. Because it will happen.

Visas and their restrictions

Visas are another important consideration and what you can or can’t do on your visa and how long you can stay in a particular place and if you can exit and re-enter a country. I know a family who was refused a further 3-month visa in Malaysia after doing a ‘visa run’ in a neighbouring country and were only given a week to pack up their Malaysian life before moving on.

My husband is Korean, and our son is an Australian and Korean citizen. I’ve got a type of permanent residency here. I am very aware of how lucky we are that we can choose to live permanently in more than one country. It also comes with a range of other benefits, like government subsidised childcare and healthcare.

School

Depending on the age of your kids, school could be a big factor.  Or in our case, initially it was holding a day care place for him – they are so hard to come by in Melbourne.

There are options though if you’re going for an extended period. You can home school or world school your kids.

Missing your old life

While you might not miss the daily grind of your old life, chances are your kids will miss their friends and extended family. We kept in touch with family and friends back home with frequent Skyping.  

Our son got quite lonely after about 2 months in Vietnam and would attach himself to some random child at the pool or at the beach and tell me they were his new best friend. I knew that if we decided to sell up and pack up our old life, we had to go somewhere our son could join a kindergarten or some other program, so he could mix and mingle and play with kids of his own age. That’s one of the reasons why we chose Korea – because as a Korean citizen, we have that option to put him in day care. It’s been amazing for him. It didn’t take him long to make friends and pick up the language and now at five, he is bilingual, something that would never have happened had we stayed in Australia.

When and how you’ll work

It can be hard to get quality work done while you’ve got a child or two or more underfoot. If you’re planning to be a digital nomad with kids, you really need to think about when and how you’ll get your work done.

In Vietnam, we would walk every morning along the beach, have breakfast and then my husband and son would go out for a few hours while I got some work done and then we spent time together at the beach late in the afternoon before having dinner. I would fit in another two or three hours of work after he slept. We found everywhere was busy on the weekends, so I would usually work on weekends and take time off during the week to go exploring. I loved having that flexibility.

These days in Korea we put him on the kindy bus at 9.30am and he’s dropped back home later in the afternoon. Too easy! I love being able to keep more regular hours.

Interested in Following Sandra’s Footsteps?

Sandra’s biggest tip is to learn what suits your family! Becoming a digital nomad when you’re a parent is a massive decision with great impact on your family. Doing a trial run is the best way to figure out if it’s going to work for you and your family and how you can all adapt to life in another country.

Sandra says she would never have thought this life would be possible if it hadn’t been for that trial run in Vietnam. She is very forever grateful to her husband for cajoling her into this epic journey and giving their son the chance to experience life in another language and culture. She hopes you can do the same, or something else that works for you!

If you want to learn more, you can find Sandra at her website sandralmuller.com or on Facebook. Sandra also blogs about all things writing, creativity and digital adventures at The Smarter Writer.