What it's really like to be a digital nomad

You know those digital nomads who are on never-ending vacations? Yeah, they don't exist.

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For example, I'm currently renting a small studio in Sparta. It's much smaller and simpler than any place I've owned or rented in America. Yet it's a perfect place to live for three months. Why? Because it's new to us!

Last night, we had the most fantastic meal at a nearby taverna, a traditional family-owned neighborhood restaurant. To the locals, the restaurant is no big deal. But to us, it was fantastic.

And that's the secret sauce of digital nomad living: What's ordinary for locals can be the experience of a lifetime for visitors. And when you're a digital nomad, you're always a visitor.

What's not so great about being a digital nomad

The worst thing about being a digital nomad is that nobody understands what you're doing. Friends and colleagues treat you like you're on Mars, even when you're available (as I am) via the same phone number, same email address and same social network. Location doesn't matter anymore, but you've got to work really hard to remind people of that.

Plus, there are situations when paying bills, getting things shipped, interacting with various companies and government agencies grind to a halt because you don't fit into their pre-existing categories. They need a home address. They require you to pick something up in person. They need you to send a fax.

Another chronic problem is with the dreaded (Schengen Area, a collection of 26 mostly European countries that act as a single entity for visitor limits.

You can stay for three months for each six-month period in the whole Shengen Area before you become an illegal visitor.

So, for example, if you want to stay in France, Spain and then Germany for two months in each country, you'll be lucky to escape from Spain without a big fine. And they won't let you into Germany at all, because you violated your three-month Shengen time period.

In fact, you may be banned from Germany and the rest of Europe for up to five years. Your passport can even be stamped "illegal immigrant." That's not what you want on your passport when your plan is to enter a new country several times a year.

So Europe-loving digital nomads have to leave Europe after three months and live somewhere else for at least three more months before coming back to Europe.

Violating Shengen stay requirements is just one of many ways to screw yourself as a digital nomad.

Short-term accommodation sites like AirBnB have a dirty little secret that nobody talks about: Honesty can get you blacklisted.

You'll notice that nearly all the reviews of places to stay on AirBnB are positive. Why? Because if you post a negative review, the host is likely to post a negative review about you in retaliation. And once you have a negative review as a guest, nobody will rent to you. So if you use AirBnB, you must never be honest about a bad experience or you risk being blacklisted forever.

AirBnB guests naive enough to tell the truth have been excluded from participation. As a result, the reviews are useless, and every AirBnB experience is a roll of the dice.

When you're a digital nomad, you're cut off from many of the online services available to Americans in the United States. Amazon.com, Pandora and all the other streaming music services, Netflix and other video sites are simply blocked abroad.

Amazon will ship only to the country where your credit card is based. Content streaming services are for specific countries and regions only. You don't realize how great these services are until you're no longer allowed to use them.

If it sounds like I'm complaining, I'm not. Living as a digital nomad is the coolest thing I've ever done. But the reality of the lifestyle is far different from the shallow, skewed vision trotted out by the average digital nomad blog.

If you're interested in the truth about digital nomad living, circle my Google+ page, called The World Is My Office, where I'll share my real experiences, and also point you to the posts and stories by others who are also telling the truth about what it's really like to be a digital nomad.

Working near the Athenian Acropolis
Work is work, no matter where you are. But in Athens, you also get a view of the Acropolis. (Image: Mike Elgan)

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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