Many of you that follow me on Instagram have been asking for more information about my life as a digital nomad…so starting today, I’ve set up a new section of this blog for exactly that! For me, travel is inextricably linked to language learning. But even if you’re not so into travel, don’t worry—I’ll still be posting plenty about language. The new “Digital Nomad” section will feature tips for how to live and work on the road, with tips and recommended resources for current or aspiring digital nomads.
While I’m technically based in South Korea, I’ve now been on the road almost nonstop for the past year (and traveled a fair amount during the four years before that as well). My travel is mostly for my work (I founded a translation company in 2015), but I also do it simply because I can! There are definitely benefits to having a job that is fully online. By the way, if you want to follow along with my travels and see where I have been, you can check out my Instagram.
But don’t mistake my travel for vacation: I work the whole time. Like, really, the whole time, including nights and weekends—because you do have to compensate for the time lost in the air, or searching for the next hotel, or for when you find that perfect hike or beach or street market and just can’t resist.
And I have also worked really hard to optimize my career: before I started traveling as much as I do now, I spent a good couple of years truly chained to my desk, with no social life, working long hours. And even now, I expend a lot of energy making sure to optimize my travel strategies—that is, keeping travel affordable, figuring out what to pack, how to stay healthy, how to stay in touch with friends and family, and more.
The one question I get the most is: “Is that really all you packed?”
I HATE checking bags (a lost bag can really throw off your trip, and even when it isn’t lost, I hate waiting at baggage claim when I could be heading into the city.) That said, I’m not exactly low-maintenance; I like my Korean skincare routine and my computing accessories. So, I give a lot of careful thought to my packing before each trip.
Clothes are usually the biggest sacrifice – for long term travel, I try to make do with three or four outfits, max…one of which I can use for working out. Usually, this is the number of outfits I need in order to not wear the same thing twice at a conference. And when I’m not at a conference…who cares if I wear the same thing twice? I do a lot of laundry, but that is a small sacrifice for not having to lug a huge suitcase around.
As for everything else, I’ve put together a list of the essentials that have kept me going this year, essentials that truly spark joy (and make me more productive). And some of these truly spark joy. I’m looking at my power strip now, full of all my cords and plugs and with all my devices happily charging, and I’m feeling a lot of joy. Why did it take me so long to finally decide to pack a power strip?
One note: some of the devices I recommend are not the cheapest option out there—I recommend them because I have learned that sometimes the cheaper option ends up costing you much more in time in the long run (I’m thinking about all those cheap headphones that conked out during important meetings…can you hear me now??) When you are self-employed, time is literally money. However, wherever possible I’ve also tried to scout out more affordable alternatives, in case that is more helpful.
So, let’s dig in!
I know I said that I would be offering both the expensive and the cheaper options for the items on this list, but I really have found that when it comes to converters, the cheap ones work the best for me. Those fancy block converters with ten different plug types look so handy!...until you actually try to plug one of them into a sunken socket in Beijing and the block itself doesn’t actually fit. Trust me, just get these cheap ones (and buy them in bulk, because they do seem to disappear to that same place that socks do…)
These shallow round converters work for me everywhere and with everything, fitting well even into the sunken sockets that are so common in many countries. For maximum adaptability, you should always choose converters that are as shallow as possible and small as possible, in the case of both sunken sockets and sockets that are high up on a wall, for which case the weight of your cord and gravity sometimes makes it hard to stay plugged in.
My favorite converters do not accept a third pin; however, I have recommended some others that do (you should check to see if your computer cord or any other devices you need have a third pin).
Important: the only drawback to these cheap converters is that they do not convert voltage. For that reason, you should not depend on them for items like hair dryers, due to risk of fire.
3-pin use US to EU, Korea
2. Asus External Monitor
GAME. CHANGER. There are some tasks that just really need more monitor real estate, when you need several tabs open at once simultaneously and don’t want to have to switch between them. I bought this monitor in December and it has saved my life. It flickers to life right after you plug it in to the USB hub of your computer and props up nicely with its own case. Definitely make sure to use a good USB-to-USB-C converter if you’re on a USB-free Mac—don’t skimp on a cheap converter like I did initially, because you’ll need a good current. It’s also uber-light to carry around, weighing in at only 1.76 pounds.
I have to admit, when I set this up at a café next to my laptop (don’t worry, I only do it when I know I’m not taking up valuable table space from other potential customers) I feel pretty baller. Welcome to my corner office, single-screen chumps.
I’ve had so many digital nomads come up to me in cafes or co-working spaces just to ask about it. Totally worth the price tag. You can get this monitor on Amazon here.
If you’re looking for a cheaper version, you might try this model. However, at 4 pounds (4x as heavy as the Asus) and only $30 cheaper for a used version, I think you’re probably better off splurging on the Asus or finding co-working spaces that offer external monitors as part of their membership.
3. Hot Packs
Wow guys, these hot packs have changed my life. My temperature tends to run a little colder, so at overly air-conditioned conferences or on winter trips, I really suffer.
In Korea and Japan, women use these stick-on heating pads, which stick to the inside of your clothes, to remedy this issue. Korean clubgoers even wear them under their miniskirts in the dead of winter!
They’re ubiquitous at any 7-Eleven out here in Asia, but much harder to find in the US. Luckily I’ve found a few suppliers on Amazon to keep me stocked when I’m stateside.
4. Noise-Cancelling Wireless Headphones
I am very picky when it comes to headphones, and I have tried so many over the years. I need my headphones to be small and light (for travel), comfortable and long-lasting (for use during long-haul flights) and wireless (for working out, and also just because I am such a klutz—putting me near any devices connected by wire is just hazardous for everyone and everything involved).
I love the Bose QuietControl 30 Wireless Headphones. I've been using these headphones for working out, for calls, for listening to Pimsleur while walking through the airport or around the house, for my online language lessons, or even just for blocking out the noise around me. The noise-cancelling feature on these headphones is no joke—the first time I put them in I was working in a crowded, noisy café and actually looked up to see if something dire had just happened. I thought everyone had suddenly stopped talking.
I’ve used these headphones to sleep through Chinese New Year fireworks in Malacca, and they’re a must for any flight where you’re looking to block out the roar of the engines. You can get them on Amazon here.
Cons: While the noise-cancelling feature is incredibly powerful, the microphone can be a bit over-sensitive. Sometimes, on calls, people I am talking to will complain about loud clattering of dishes or traffic noises if I’m in a café,. If you want to level-up from these headphones (although they’re already quite expensive), you should look for headphones that also have noise-cancelling in the mic, which is probably what I’ll do next. Just beware that these will cost over US$300.
UPDATE: I've now tried out the Jabra Elite 65e in an effort to find headphones that work better for Skype meetings and italki lessons. These have microphone voice cancelling so that your interlocutor hears your voice and not all the sounds of your cafe. They work great for this purpose! However they are not as comfortable for long plane rides, they don't reach as far as the Bose headphones when I'm walking around the apartment, and they won't connect to my computer - only to my phone.
5. Power Strip with Extension Cord
I never thought a power strip was really a necessity until I bought one while staying at a socketless hotel in Penang, and now I’ll never travel without it. For all those times I found a really cute café but the best seat was too far from a socket, or all those hotels with no sockets near the bed…this has made life so much easier. Not to mention I only need one converter for several devices at a time.
Most importantly: this power strip helps protect your computer from high voltages when you travel. If you buy an American computer and plug it directly into a wall in Nicaragua, you might not notice the difference at first. But one month and one fried computer later, I learned my lesson.
I first came across this Chinese-made extension cord in Malaysia. It weighs less than 0.5 kg and has a MultiProtect safety system with surge protection that keeps it safe from power overloads and from fire. The USB hubs on this particular extension cord provide a voltage of 5V-3.1A so that even when they’re all being used, they can charge really fast, unlike those USB plugs on planes that look so handy—only to charge your phone at a rate of 1% every 20 minutes!
6. Xiaomi Power Bank
Power banks are a must when you rely so heavily on your phone, especially during travel (maps, meetings, emails). Truthfully, I couldn’t live without my Miniso battery chargers. They are cheap, small, and come in a wide variety of mAHs (units of electric charge, so how long they’ll keep you powered) so that you can choose the right size and power for your needs. They also look like candy with their bright pastel colors…I bring three of them, all different sizes, to charge my phones and other electronic devices.
However, while Miniso stores are everywhere in Asia (along with their many knockoffs) there are only three in the US at the time of posting (there are many in Europe now though!). And for some reason, their products aren’t carried on Amazon. So instead, I’ll recommend this Xiaomi power bank that many of my friends use and love, which is similar in size, price and mAh. You can get it on Amazon here.
7. RAVPower External Battery/Portable Power Bank for Charging Your Computer
I could not believe it when I found out that my new Macbook Pro could be charged by an external battery charger! Game changer. No more passing on adorable cafes because they don’t have any plugs!
After LOTS of research and a few returns, I ended up purchasing the RAVPower 20100mAh 45W PD Portable Charger for several reasons: cost, Wh is low enough to be accepted on Chinese airlines, and lighter than many of the other options around. I've been using this now for several weeks and taken it on several flights, and so far I love it!
When purchasing a charger for your computer, you'll want to check mAh (how long your charge will last), Wh (for certain airline restrictions) and finally if you're purchasing a charger for your Macbook Pro or some other models, you'll want to make sure it includes Power Delivery (PD) as without it, the charger may not be strong enough. I'll write a more in-depth post on this soon!
8. Hanging Toiletries Organizer
Once, I was traveling with a girlfriend. We checked into our Airbnb and started to unpack. I carefully arranged my toiletries, perched precariously on shallow grate shelves, picking them up when they fell through, trying to leave room for her items. Then she came in to the bathroom, hung this up on the towel rack, and got back to the rest of her unpacking. I bought mine on Amazon five minutes later.
Not only is it great for airport security (easy to unroll and make everything visible without unpacking it) it is great for staying with friends (no need to clutter their bathrooms) and great for hotels without much counter space. And finally, it is great for just keeping all your travel toiletries stored when you’re in between trips. I just toss it in my closet when I get home, then pull it back out when it is time to travel again. Get yours here.
9. Echinacea, Zinc, and Vitamin C
Apparently, there are many promising but inconclusive studies that suggest echinacea can strengthen your immune system and either prevent or shorten the length of common colds. While the jury is still out on the conclusiveness of these studies, after echinacea was recommended to me by many fellow travelers (have you heard of Airborne?), I decided to give it a try.
My immune system is not the strongest, and sometimes all it takes is a plane ride and some lost sleep to tip me into a cold. I hate getting sick when I’m traveling! Now I take these pills wherever I go, and I pop a couple before I fly, or whenever I feel like I might be coming down with something. So far, it seems to have worked! It could be a placebo effect, but hey, even if that is the case, then it’s done its job!
10. Stretchy Band
It can be really hard to fit in exercise while you’re on the road, which is coincidentally when you need it most! You’re eating out, so probably not as healthily, you might be drinking more alcohol, and you’re not doing your usual sports or exercise routine. Once I started traveling as much as I do now, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to make travel an excuse for not working out. Now I always travel with this uber-light stretch band – even in a tiny hotel room I can at least do resistance exercises, without bringing along weights. Hold the band down with your foot and lift up for biceps – just don’t do it too much the night before you need to carry your luggage to the airport! Get yours here.
11. Mini Curling Iron
Buzz cuts, move along. But for anyone with longer hair who likes a little styling, this curling iron weighs nothing (10.4 ounces) and is about the size of your hand…you can even fit it in a purse. It heats up immediately. I’ve tried out the new cordless versions recently which I suppose can be useful…but they take forever to heat up, valuable time when you’re traveling. I’ll stick with this one for now.
12. Instant (Vietnamese) Coffee Packets
Guys, this coffee. I’m obviously not a coffee snob so if you are, maybe skip this item, but after using dozens of kinds of instant coffee while I travel over the years, I couldn’t believe this taste. (Disclaimer: I like it roasted dark, chocolatey, popcorny, minimum acidity – just how the Vietnamese like it. I have been told that these are hallmarks of a very lowbrow taste in coffee. I’m ok with that.)
These little packets are so convenient to take on the road – especially since most Asian hotel rooms and Airbnbs will have a water heater. Unfortunately, Amazon only has the iced black coffee version and the cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese milk coffee) version, which is delicious but definitely not the healthiest option. My favorite is actually the plain hot black coffee version, which I couldn't find online. But you might still like to try the iced coffee version!
Do you have any other recommendations for items that you could never travel without? Do you disagree with any of my choices? Please let me know in the comments!
By the way, I am using affiliate links, which means that if you decide to purchase any of these items, I’ll get a small commission, which helps me run this blog (and fund more travel!) It won’t cost you more than the original purchase price; in fact, many of these links come with special deals for Amazon partners. At the time of publishing, most items were marked down by a few dollars.