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Ask HN: How viable is it to live off of freelance programming while travelling?
21 points by EvanZ on Oct 12, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 21 comments
Being young, single, and interested in traveling, I'm thinking freelancing day to day on elance and similar sites while traveling.

Has anybody done this? Is it viable? If so, what was it like (how much did you make and what was the daily workload), and would you recommend it? Thanks!

I've done this. In a word: don't.

The digital nomad freelancer lifestyle is fine, but one of the things you need to pull it off is a steady base of consulting clients already available, preferably with long term project needs, who are ok with your remote schedule.

If you go the ad-hoc elance route you'll be competing with 10/hr workers who speak English as well as you in countries with much lower CoL who do this for a living while you're scrambling to deal with flight tickets, airbnb fees and wifi drama in foreign countries. Never mind the problems of getting compensated in a timely fashion.

The second time I took an extended working vacation, I had four clients with semi-steady requirements and actually had to turn down work so I could spend as much time on the beach as possible. Way less stressful than hustling for elance/odesk jobs on a daily basis.

TLDR; first you get the clients, then you start the travel. ditch elance and use craigslist / your personal network, the lead quality will be much higher.

As someone interested in doing work-travel soon. I don't want to compete with the thousands of other competent, english-speaking engineers on elance/odesk/vworkers when my current market-rate salary would be 5-6x more.

I was also considering taking on one big project (maybe 1-3 months full-time), and then traveling without work.

What about trying to make money doing your own thing while traveling? I was thinking about starting a slice of life podcast series where I interview people I meet, and kickstarting the entire project. Or making a photo book of all the places I go. I'd imagine that these kind of projects would be much more effective to execute/promote if you get fellow (remote) travelers on board. Heard of any good ideas like this?

There are a lot of failed Kickstarters with the same idea of "pay me to travel and you will see where I went", and I think it's normal that they fail: it's just a better class of begging for - let's call it as it is - your vacation. Unless you're already very well known (mostly by chance, see Matt Harding[1]) and you want to continue a project, or you are a hugely charismatic person with really really great ideas, the chances to get the funding of your vacation through Kickstarter are slim.

I'm not the only one who thinks like this[2]. Maybe there are more who think otherwise, but I would not bet on it.

[1] http://www.wherethehellismatt.com

[2] http://gadling.com/2013/04/25/your-kickstarter-vacation-my-m...

This is good advice. The other point I'd make is: when you do start the travelling, ease into it so you get comfortable working from a foreign country, dealing with cell roaming, WiFi, local postal system, co-location spaces etc etc. By ease into it, I mean start with 1 month in a super-backpacker-friendly place like Chiang Mai Thailand, Quito Ecuador, Antigua Guatemala. That approach will massively reduce the stress of starting out.

Don't forget the legal barriers and visa troubles.

Remember - you're not allowed to work in many of these places on tourist visas...

I'd stay away from Elance/Odesk, etc, the rates you can expect there are bottom-of-the-barrel "commodity-programming" rates. Don't bother.

I'd recommend aligning yourself with a half-dozen dev shops. (They may call themselves "Full Service Marketing" firms, or "Agencies" or whatever.) Just look for some shops that are getting consistent clients. Reach out and tell them you're capable of XYZ; many will be willing to farm work out to you if you're good and reliable. They typically don't care where you're physically located....just that you can hit a deadline.

There's very little downside to them bringing you on (the more programmers in their arsenal, the larger they can scale their client base), so your chances are pretty good at landing a gig. But, as each agency is typically "Feast and Famine" (big project followed by lull) you'll want to balance out the highs and lows by aligning yourself with several shops, and always keeping multiple incoming streams. This last part is crucial, always assume that any given shop may screw you over at any moment, keep your income diversified.

I lived this way for several years, and it was a blast.

Nailed it.


The one's that check those 3 boxes, we keep on our speed-dial.

Nailed it.

Have lots of clients, rotate around them they each inevitably lull.

I did it for just shy of six years in over 60 countries. Cheap countries (Thailand, Colombia), expensive countries (Norway), countries with Wifi in every corner (Finland, Estonia), countries with barely any wifi (India, Guyana), safe places, not so safe places (Kashmir, Venezuela) ... It's amazing. Do it. You'll work it out.

I am going to go against the tide here and advise you to specifically not take programming jobs while travelling.

As someone here already mention, travelling is meant for you get out of your comfort zone and to experience life in a different forum. I would suggest that you save as hard as you can before starting your travels. Once you have started, starting looking for jobs that you wouldn't normally do. You would not believe how much you will change once you have experienced it.

I did that with my wife for about 9mths. We sold everything we had, and travel along the east coast of Australia. We did jobs like vegetable harvesting of cucumbers and pumpkins, labouring at the construction sites, caring for the elderly, caught our own fish for food on a daily basis, slept on the side of roads in our caravan while moving on from town to town. We met many folks that we would have not met in our regular lives. It gives us a different perspective on life. This 9mths was life changing.

I just want to add a point here about the travelling aspect: I am a remote developer, and I have found out that working while travelling is counter productive. When you are in a new place, you'd ideally want to spend as much time as possible exploring the place and enjoy travelling, rather than spending 8-9 hours stuck in front of your laptop trying to finish your work.

I think this was the case with me because I am a full time remote employee. If you can figure out some contracts which take up 3-4 hours per day, and you can sustain yourself comfortably with that much money, you can do this. But you have to be sure you have a nice safety net. Getting stuck abroad with no money is not fun.

It is definitely viable, particularly if you're traveling in countries where the cost of living is low. The biggest problem I ran into was that it was incredibly difficult to find motivation to work while traveling.

Traveling is fundamentally about meeting new people and getting outside of your comfort zone while experiencing a new culture. If you haven't done long-term travel before and particularly if you're staying in hostels, there will always be things to do and new people to meet. You're having the time of your life -- the last thing you will want to do is pick up your laptop and start coding.

I totally agree with namecast.

Also, it depends on your destination(s) and your connections along the way.

If you don't mind traveling cheap and light to cheap countries and live off a traveling bag on student dorms and the like, you'll be ok.

It was a really nice experience for me but it was more of a working vacation and by the end of the second year I was already tired of the working part: uncomfortable hours, environment and gigs. I was glad I finally got back home, earning the good bucks on a regular schedule again.

P.S: The "wifi drama" is true, and no better way to express it.

P.P.S: I'm writing this from an hotel room, as I took a week off my regular job to do a consulting joband travel a bit. So I guess I haven't grown so tired of it after all :-)

So long as you understand that you won't work hard any less, but will probably work harder, then it's viable. Most times I see people wanting to freelance while travelling they also equate it with "easy work" and being able to work 4 hours a week. Yeah, that's going to be rough. You can freelance, travel, but you might have to work 60 intense hours a week. Most people are not sufficiently motivated to work hard when answering to themselves. How motivated are you?

I totally agree with this.

I've been living the "digital nomad" lifestyle for the last year, but TBH I was really lucky to land a full-time remote role with a Bay Area startup.

I was freelancing for the first few months though - I found it was really stressful trying to travel & find projects at the same time. When you arrive at a new location, it's difficult to sit in a hostel foyer coding when all you want to do is explore.

It's definitely possible to do, but just be aware of how much self-discipline you have. You can make this easier by staying in one place for longer periods, so that you don't have to feel like you're missing out if you stay in working all day. As a positive, I've actually been able to save a lot of money, even whilst travelling, just by living in cities with lower cost of living. I'm planning my next move to Hoi An, Vietnam right now. This link might be useful: https://nomadlist.io/

Also, I wouldn't recommend Elance et all for freelancing. Assuming you have some experience, I think you'd be a lot better off trying to find long-term, remote gigs. Here are some places for remote jobs:

https://weworkremotely.com/ http://www.authenticjobs.com/ http://workinstartups.com/job-board (filter by 'Anywhere')

I'm doing it now, and unfortunately I can't really tell you how easy it easy to get a job because I was lucky enough to have an incredibly flexible and reliable long term contract fall into my lap. I'm making less than I would like, but my hours and methods are flexible.

If you can find a good client relationship I would fully recommend it; however, I think it would be pretty rough doing it scrounging on E-lance. It would put a good strain on the joy that is traveling.

I'd say it works best if you're a project manager, and have a few others working steady (and longer) hours that you can bill out. Also a well established set of clients is a must. I did this while in SE Asia and Nepal for months at a time and my trips were all cash positive, and didn't require too much of my time working.

Can I ask you, where were you in Nepal to be able to do this? I'm really interested in living there for a few months but was worried about lack of stable internet access....?

I'd say it works best if you're a project manager, and have a few others working steady (and longer) hours that you can bill out. Also a well established set of clients is a must. I did this while in SE Asia and Nepal for months at a time and my trips were all cash positive.

It depends on many variables that we don't know from you. Things like how many current clients you work with, your rate, which countries you plan on going to, if you want to travel like a baller or as cheap as possible, etc.

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