To many, the lifestyle of a “digital nomad” is an aspirational one — you can live anywhere in the world, visa permitting, with your laptop as your office.
Forget the daily grind of the rush hour commute. As long as there’s decent Wi-Fi, simply pick a coffee shop, park or pool and get to work.
The lifestyle has become more popular in the wake of the Covid pandemic, which accelerated the trend of remote working. The number of American digital nomads increased 9% in just 12 months from 2021 to 2022, to a total of almost 17 million, according to the jobs platform MBO Partners.
But one factor deters many from the lifestyle: kids.
Whether it’s schooling, health and safety concerns, or the question of a child’s ability to develop lasting friendships, parents face multiple barriers.
But some have taken the plunge anyway. Two families tell CNBC Travel how they’ve made it work.
Sam Keller is the founder and CEO of Working Without Borders, which calls itself “the world’s first company providing coworking retreats for families with culturally immersive programming for kids and teens.”
He’s also a dad of two kids under the age of 12.
Sam Keller, founder of Working Without Borders, which organizes coworking retreats for families.
Working Without Borders
“My wife and I each had living abroad experiences, but we couldn’t figure out how to make it happen” again, he said. “Then we had kids.”
The couple scoped out a school while on vacation in French Polynesia, thinking it could be “the place where we can go live,” he said.
Another factor worked in their favor: Keller’s wife Pascaline Cure works for Airbnb, which allows her to work anywhere she wants.
So together they made a big move from California to French Polynesia. And not just at any time — they moved during the pandemic.
“The stars aligned, we made it onto the plane and decided we’re going to make lemonade out of lemons of this pandemic.”
Sam Keller with his family in Bora Bora.
Working Without Borders
Education is regularly cited as the biggest challenge for digital nomads with children. Navigating an unfamiliar school system, often in an entirely new language, can be a struggle.
“We found that [in French Polynesia] there are a fair number of private schools that will accept kids for as short a time as a couple of weeks or a month. Then there are plenty of schools set up to provide online support, or online-only schools with really good teaching and instruction and curricula,” Keller said.
Homeschooling is another option for some, but Keller prefers to call it “world schooling,” which he says “embraces this notion of viewing the world as your classroom.”
“From the playground you could see stingrays swimming by,” he said. “Kids are out as part of the curriculum, so we’re paddling outrigger canoes in the lagoon, seeing sea turtles and dolphins. It was just magical in so many respects.”
He added that now more resources exist to help people learn about the digital nomad lifestyle, thanks to its growing popularity. Companies, like this own, let families “dip their toes in the water,” and some Facebook groups for world schooling have more than 50,000 members — so there’s always someone to answer a question, he said.
The beautiful Indonesian island of Bali, famed for its laidback lifestyle, is a popular destination for digital nomads.
Martin Penner and Taryn Elledge-Penner from the boutique travel agency Quartier Collective call it home, along with their three children, aged between seven and 12.
Since leaving Seattle in 2018, the family has visited nearly 20 different countries, including Japan, Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Mexico, Morocco, Turkey and Sri Lanka. Sometimes they stay a few weeks, but typically they’re in one place for one to three months.
Taryn Elledge-Penner and her son Viggo in Ahangama, Sri Lanka.
Penner said his children were part of the reason they decided to leave the United States.
“We traveled a lot as individuals and just felt that the world was this big, wild place — and that our world in Seattle had shrunk in a way,” he said. “We had to show them the world and didn’t want to miss this connection to something bigger.”
Elledge-Penner said they wanted more time with their kids, to make their journey sustainable and, critically, to connect with other families.
“When we left it was lonely for families like ours on the road,” she said. “Now that has really changed and a lot of families have realized this is an option, going longer and deeper.”
The family of five have enjoyed a range of experiences: living on a farm in Japan where they slurped soba noodles from a 30-foot hollowed-out bamboo pole; making pottery in Mexico; and taking in a shadow puppet show in the Cyclades in Greece — though they didn’t understand a word.
Penner said the key to making the lifestyle work for them is “connecting with people” and not approaching places “as a travel highlight hit list.”
Martin Penner walking with two of his children in Japan.
But it’s not all fun and games. There are also practicalities to be reckoned with, Elledge-Penner said.
“One of the challenges has been finding a balance with time and space on our own — and away from each other and the kids,” she said. “We’ve gone such long periods being together, every waking moment of a day.”
“We all need a break and space, normally by going to work or school. Even though this is what we’re choosing, it still requires some balance and that can be difficult to find and that can lead to tension.”
She also touches on what she calls “decision fatigue.”
“The time to plan out the logistics, getting from A to B, where to stay, it can literally be a full-time job and really exhausting,” she said.
Once again, education is one of the biggest questions for global nomads with kids, but — like Keller — Elledge-Penner said there are plenty of options.
“Things have changed a lot from when we first set out. It’s tenfold the number of options you can find and plug into as a world schooling family,” she said.
“We’ve dropped into schools in different countries around the world. There are accredited distance learning programs too and home-schooling pods. For literally anybody who wants to untether from their current school system, it’s totally possible to find whatever you’re looking for.”
The couple noted that the family dynamic has changed since they started traveling in 2018. Their daughter, for example, now wants more long-lasting friendships, while the idea of having a dog — and a bedroom she doesn’t have to share with her brothers — is a big draw.
“The pre-teen marker is a natural point when pressures mount. Lots of families we see stop traveling when [kids] are that age. Now they want to spend more time around friends [which is] a big shift from when we started out.”