In the past eight weeks, I’ve pared my entire life down to 44 pounds of belongings and a series of extensive checklists.
Durable, lightweight luggage that meets airline size requirements? Check. A bank account with minimal ATM fees, and a credit card with no foreign transaction fees? Check and check. Visas for Turkey and Vietnam, and Argentina’s “reciprocity fee”? Check, check, check.
In just a couple days, on May 30, I’ll leave the comfort of my home in New York City to travel the world as part of the inaugural class of Remote Year, a program that facilitates extended travel for professionals able to do their jobs remotely.
Dreamed up by entrepreneur and founder Greg Caplan and brought to life with the help of a full-time staff of five organizers, Remote Year will take 75 participants to 12 locations in 11 countries over the course of a year.
Over the duration of my time abroad, I’ll be writing for Mashable both about the experience and some of the locations I’ll be visiting. I promise that I’ll try my best to make these updates as minimally “Eat Pray Love”-esque as possible.
Of the 12 destinations on the itinerary, I’ve previously visited only two — Dubrovnik, Croatia and Istanbul, Turkey — on a college study-abroad program, Semester at Sea. This time, however, I’ll see these cities through a different lens: Spending a month in each location enables participants “bursts of stability,” according to Caplan — a chance to truly experience what it’s like to live in a country versus simply visit. I’ve never been to either Asia or South America, which will account for about two-thirds of the overall trip.
Ahead of my departure, I’ve outlined some basics about the program as well as how I’ve been preparing in the weeks leading up to my initial flight to Prague, Remote Year’s first location.
Making “remote work” work
The concept of working and traveling, or a “transient lifestyle,” as Caplan refers to it on the program’s website, isn’t new — but it is on the rise. Remote Year isn’t the only program attracting digital nomads: Hacker Paradise is another startup aiming to connect remote workers with one another in a traveling community.
Within Remote Year’s inaugural class, there’s a wide range of industries and professionals. Surprisingly, only a small percentage are professional writers like myself. Unsurprisingly, tech is a predominant theme: About half of the participants are either developers or designers. The median age of participants is a little over 30.
For Caplan, one of the most exciting aspects of planning the program has been the reaction from employers. “It’s been really exciting that a lot of companies are embracing remote work; they’re embracing this new type of world we’re living in,” he said.
Other than the obvious (getting to travel the world with a steady paycheck), what’s appealing to me about the program is that a vast majority of the logistics are pre-planned. I’ll arrive in Prague and immediately have my own accommodations, a workspace with 24/7 Internet and a calendar of social events — some local and some sponsored by the program. For some, this could take the spontaneity out of travel, but for me, it’s reassuring to have these details worked out in advance. I’m also excited to have this nomadic community of like-minded individuals with which to share the experience.
“I wanted to travel and experience the world, but I was really longing for that deep connection of stable relationships.”
When first announced, Remote Year attracted instant interest: 50,000 people signed up, and half that number applied for acceptance, said Caplan.
The final class is split almost evenly male/female, and about 55% American and 45% global, representing 15 countries from around the globe. June 1 marks the program’s official start date.
The daunting to-do list
Needless to say, leaving the country for a year requires more than a little preparation. It’s taken about two months to get all my affairs in order, and I’m happy to say that I’m finally at the point when panic over the sheer number of things to do is subsiding and restlessness about just getting there already has taken its place.
Here are a few of the things I’ve had to tackle:
We’ll be traveling on tourist visas to each country, as most participants’ jobs will still be based in their respective home countries. Personally, I haven’t had significant issues getting tourist visas for any of the countries that require them (Turkey and Vietnam).
Argentina — the only location in which we’ll spend two months, one in Buenos Aires and one in Mendoza — doesn’t require a visa, but does ask that visitors from specific locales pay a “reciprocity fee” of $160 in order to entry the country. The good news is that the fee validates multiple entries to the country for the next 10 years.
The program itself isn’t free; for my accommodations, workspace, travel to-and-from each destination and a few social events per week, I’ll pay $2,000 a month. (Frankly, this seems like a steal after paying NYC rent for two years.)
That said, there were significant costs that I hadn’t anticipated: $160 for a yellow fever vaccine; $180 for the Vietnam visa; $150 for a one-year supply of contact lenses; co-pays for every single doctor/check-up imaginable; the costs of luggage and miscellaneous items purchased for the trip; and $170 for an expedited passport renewal. (
Many countries require a passport be valid for six months before allowing a traveler to enter.) I also paid off all my credit cards so that I’m embarking on the trip debt-free.
Taking a suggestion from other participants, I took out a checking account with Charles Schwab that doesn’t charge fees for foreign ATM withdrawals, as well as a credit card that charges no foreign transaction fees. I’m hoping to keep cash on my person to a minimum, but I will be rocking one of those uber-stylish money belts from time to time.
There has been a great deal of debate both among participants of the trip and, it seems, within the general online travel community about the necessity of travel immunizations. The program lists certain vaccinations as mandatory and others as recommended; I ended up getting all of the “mandatory” shots after falling down the WebMD rabbit hole (Google “Japanese encephalitis” sometime if you’re in the mood to be horrified), but I’m leaving most of the “recommended” vaccinations for a later date. Personally, I didn’t have any bad reactions to any of the shots besides a little soreness.
In addition to vaccinations, I’ve seen every doctor under the sun for pre-trip check-ups and any annual exams I might miss over the course of the year. With a clean bill of health and a “yellow card” proving I’ve been immunized, I’m confident that at least my body is ready for the adventure ahead.
Moving makes you celebrate the small victories — like successfully dissembling an IKEA bed — but it also tends to adhere to Murphy’s Law. Though I ultimately sold most of my big items/furniture on Craigslist, it’s amazing how much stuff accumulates over the course of a two-year lease. Perhaps I’ll enjoy a life of minimalism after all.
While I was lucky that my lease happened to end just a month before Remote Year’s start date, not everyone in the program has been so fortunate. Some participants are having to sublet apartments or break their leases. All my stuff is currently stored at my mom’s house, but again, not all participants have this option: Some are selling all of their belongings or taking out storage units. As for a permanent address at which to receive mail, some are taking advantage of a service called Earth Class, which will let you remotely manage your deliveries.
I’ve spent more time than I care to admit looking at luggage in the past two months. Ultimately, I decided on a hard-sided Samsonite 28″ spinner, an accompanying 22″ carry-on, and an Osprey daypack for side trips and adventurous endeavors. Stay tuned for updates on how these are holding up throughout my travels; though the fact that the spinners have survived being lugged through the streets of NYC for nearly a month already is promising.
As every travel blog on the Internet will attest,
packing light seems to be the first step to successful long-term travel. Our “suggested packing list” only contains 20 items, includingclothing. A few things that will be adding to the allotted 20 kilograms (another thing I’m going to have to get used to: the metric system) in my suitcase: travel adapters, an unlocked global Mi-Fi (for which I’ll be purchasing local SIM cards along the way), luggage scale, an external hard drive, a portable iPhone charger, a 5L Pacsafe portable safe, a Kindle Paperwhite (in lieu of heavy and precious-real-estate-consuming novels), a “cocoon” sheet for any time spent in hostels with questionable bedding, micro-fiber travel towels.
I wish that I had golden nuggets of wisdom to impart on the issue of long-term pet care, but countless hours spent pouring over Reddit threads and conducting research online leads me to conclude that there simply aren’t many options. I ended up leaving my cat with family; while some longterm pet boarding facilities do exist, they’re wildly expensive and conditions leave something to be desired.
Prepping for @remoteyear and turning my room @ mom’s house into a cat palace for a year… if this isn’t the makings of a reality TV show…
— Steph Walden (@StephLizWalden) May 1, 2015
My phone plan is the last unresolved item on my checklist. It seems that most participants will be opting for unlocked phones and local SIM cards for each country; my phone is still under contract and I can’t (legally) have it unlocked without paying an arm and a leg, so I’m considering keeping my phone-use limited to WiFi and apps like Viber and WhatsApp, which I’ve made every person I come in contact with preemptively download. I’ve also loaded up my Skype account with credit so that I can call mobile phones straight from my desktop.
A one-way flight and an abundance of goodbyes
There’s something freeing and simultaneously unnerving about booking a one-way flight. After what some may consider an insane amount of time searching Skyscanner and Kayak, I opted for a budget flight via Norwegian Airlines, making sure to select the “Lowfare+” option that includes one checked bag and a meal.
I saved close to $100 on my flight by booking through the UK-based site; here’s a quick primer on how to do this and why it can help you save.
I’m leaving behind a life I’ve built in New York over the past couple of years after moving here from Miami in 2013. (As one of my friends points out, “You literally spent as much time as possible in New York winter.”) This in and of itself is a bittersweet transition: I have friends here. I have a life.
I’ve had more than one friend tell me, “You won’t come back the same.” While I know this deep down, it makes the goodbyes sting just a little more. Something feels a little more permanent.
But new friendships and experiences are just around the corner: A month ago, I sat at a table in a New York City restaurant with eight strangers, other members of the program. We exchanged names and backstories; the anticipation among my future travel companions was almost palpable, and everyone seemed to share a similar, excited sentiment of, “Can you believe we’re really doing this?” Over the course of the next year, these people will become my family.
As I move down my list, I mentally tick away the seconds until that first flight takes off. No matter how much I plan for luggage weight requirements and the like, what I can’t yet prepare for is, well, everything else — including the transformative change that inevitably awaits. I’m reasonably sure no emoji exists to accurately encapsulate my emotional state: Apprehensive, antsy, slightly terrified and unbelievably excited.
Undoubtedly, this experience will change my life. For now, though, I’ll just focus on the checkmarks.