Home is where the job is: working on the road

by Jonathan Hine

imagesCAF26T62We who serve as bridges between cultures know that travel enriches our work as much as our lives. Indeed, it nourishes our very souls. For most, traveling involves breaking away and coming back. However, as professionals working in the 21st Century, we don’t have to make travel an exception to our “normal” life. Working while traveling may be easier and more effective than you expect– whether your ticket is one-way or round-trip.

By way of background, I have been living and working on my bicycle since leaving Charlottesville, Virginia in September 2013. Since then, I have made many changes, as I got rid of things that I was not using, learned to use the smartphone, the internet and the cloud more efficiently, and changed continents from North America (2013-2014) to Europe (2015-).
The details are in my blog(http://freewheelingfreelancer.com).

A miscellany of thoughts.
If you are going to keep working while traveling extensively, you will need a computer that will support your business on the road. It needs to be capable of handling all the software and applications that you need, but not be too big for the travel mode you are using. If you are traveling in a car, you can haul a desktop around; on my bicycle I can’t use anything bigger than a 13-inch laptop or tablet with a keyboard. My current workhorse is a Microsoft Surface 3. Its little sidekick is a Nexus 5 Android smartphone. laptop-762548__180

Over the last three years I have learned to exist almost completely without paper. All the paper documents that I used to carry around in files and briefcases are now in PDFs, located on my telephone, in my computer, and on a 1 TB hard drive that I keep separate from the computer. The smartphone instantly converts new papers and documents into PDFs for the collection. I have been able to find a printer whenever I needed one, either in the business center of a hotel, a public library, an office store like FedEx or UPS, or at friends’ homes.

For revising translations, I prefer two sheets of paper side-by-side. That becomes challenging on the road, so I have found an HDMI cable very helpful, plugging my computer into the large screen TV found in many hotel rooms. That allows me to put up full-size (or enlarged) images of two documents side-by-side. Let me be clear that it is not as good as paper, but it works.

Each of us has to find our own way to maintain a routine. That can be difficult, if you are working for other people and having to interact with them, especially across time zones. If you are traveling slowly, at least you can avoid jet lag. When I know that I am going to fly somewhere west of where I am (e.g., an ATA Conference from Europe), I try to go to bed later and get up later every day for a week, until I am essentially functioning on local time for the destination. Even when I am in Europe for months at a time, I work as late as I can and sleep in, because most of my clients are on US Eastern Time.
Besides the road itself (don’t text), sleeping and exercise are the two most important things you can pay attention to while living on the road. If your traveling is your exercise, like my bicycle, you have it made. If not, then you have to make time for running or walking, workouts in the hotel gym, or whatever will keep you fit and ready to work. Remember that sleeping is as important as exercise, because you cannot be fit unless you recover from the exercise properly.

If you don’t have medical insurance, get it. If you’re traveling outside your home country, travelers’ insurance is a good deal unless you are over 65. It takes the headache out of wondering what would happen if you get sick or injured on the road.
Potentially, one of the nice things about the nomadic lifestyle is financial flexibility. When I was living in one place, I found that overruns in one part of the budget could not be compensated for somewhere else. I could not trim the mortgage or the car payment to handle a surprise in the electric bill. On the road, I have found that eating cheap can make up for having to spend too much for the hotel room and vice versa. Since leaving Charlottesville, I have yet to run over my budget or fail to pay the balance on my credit cards in any one month (not counting the month I completely forgot, but the money was there!).

It took two years (2011-2013) to get ready to do this. Part of that was taking a very hard look at the budget, and building up my savings account before I started out. Once I started traveling, I found that the freelance income paid for the itinerant lifestyle without having to dip into savings. But I might have stressed out and made some bad business decisions had I not put that safety net in place.

If you are remaining in North America, you probably don’t have to change your checking accounts, your business mailing address and things like that. If you decide to travel abroad, as I am doing now, you have to be very clear about a few things. One is to remember that you are not your business. I believe in keeping a single location for the business, both physically and legally. For example, Scriptor Services LLC is in Charlottesville Virginia and has never moved. The company pays its business taxes and renews its business license there every year. It pays a business support consultant to check the PO Box, and either she or my son forwards the mail on a regular basis to wherever I am. She also deposits checks from those few clients who have not left the twentieth century. All of my banking is online with my credit union. Because all of my work is online, through email and the Internet, the estimates, invoices, payments, etc. all move to and from the Charlottesville location. I have found no need for a European bank account or credit cards for business or personal affairs. This is just as well, because the Financial Accounting Transaction Control Act (FATCA) is creating a nightmare for middle class Americans traveling or living overseas. The exchange rates on my credit card transactions are just a cost of living overseas. Of course, if you are going overseas, be sure that the cards that you carry are chip-and-PIN cards (EVM in Europe), and that they don’t charge foreign transaction fees.

Alone and in (good) company
Working on the road can happen anytime. Some take work to professional conferences or high school reunions; others tap on their laptops in airport lobbies or on the train. I did that for five decades myself. Based on what I’ve learned traveling alone, with a friend, and with a family, I suggest that you need to be clear in your own mind about whether you are on a vacation or traveling while you work. If you have someone with you, the decision to work on the road has to be shared. For example, when I ride by myself, I go about half as far each day as I do when I’m riding with my friend in the summer. This is so that each day, I have time to process my email and work on whatever translation is due next. When alone, I can accept a rush job that requires me to stay put for a couple of days and crank it out. I make that decision on the spot, as I prepare the estimate for the client. One consideration is, “Will this job pay for the place that I am having to stay in now?” It almost always does, and I try to stay in places with internet, even campgrounds. The other consideration is, “Can I afford to stop and still get to where I am headed?” If I have to make a flight from Fiumicino or Heathrow next week, I may not have the option to stop. Worldmap_LandAndPolitical-21

Each summer, I go on holiday. At that point, I don’t even try to take in new work. Instead, I concentrate on touring each day, seeing the new marvels and sites that we will visit, and writing it all up for my blog. Personally, I have not yet found a balance that allows me to get a reliable amount of work done each day while touring long daily distances.

If “family” consists of only yourself and your partner, then the analogy is similar to touring with a friend. If you both have to make a living, you can share the decision to travel a little less each day, or to stop frequently to work. If you’re traveling by car, RV, plane, boat, or something with more than two wheels, one of you can work while the other is piloting the vehicle.

Traveling and working with children is another story. However, there are far too many examples of successful families living on the road for one to say that it cannot be done. With children, it definitely helps to have a partner if you are trying to work while traveling. If both must work, then you have to take turns with the kids. Children need and deserve the attention that they demand, and the one parent who is working needs the support of the other to keep it all running together smoothly. Children are remarkably adaptable, and as they grow, they are capable of doing more and more to help the family unit moves along.

When they reach school age, you have to decide whether you are going to travel only during the holidays, or home school. I have met several families who made the latter decision, but in each case, one of the two parents was already a schoolteacher. That is not usually a requirement; in Italy and in many American school districts, it is simply necessary that one of the parents have a college degree. I have met families who lived on the road using bicycles, automobiles, recreational vehicles, sailing vessels, trucks, public transit, and even a Chinese junk.
Of course, if you make the summer vacation decision, it becomes easier, because you and the children can concentrate on the traveling, with or without your having a partner. As a freelancer, you have the make all your money during the school year, but so do school teachers, college professors, and ski instructors. It can be done. The friend with whom I tour in the summer took her two-month old son to Europe rather than interrupt her planned trip. They rode the rails until he was four. He grew up knowing that summers were spent on a bicycle with mom. The summer that I met her, he had a job in California. It was her first tour without him since he was born. I have met him, and he is a very impressive and well-adjusted young man.

Final thought
Here is a tip from a former boss of mine, Admiral Gerry Miller of the US Sixth Fleet:

If you are not having fun, you are not doing it right!

This means fun in the broader sense of “satisfaction”, not just always happy. If I am not enjoying my work, it’s time to take a look at the work itself or the way I am going about it. It’s also a signal that I need to ask around. The same thing applies to your travel and to working on the road. Be prepared to change, but don’t give up too quickly. Buon viaggio e buon lavoro!