The Ultimate Digital Nomad’s Buying Guide

Shawn Forno

“Work from anywhere and see the world.”

That’s the dream, right? But is it really that easy to become a digital nomad? And if you do make the leap, what gear do you need to make working from anywhere work for you?

From Analog to Digital Nomad

I’ve been a traveler, writer, teacher, deckhand, hostel manager, surf instructor, and itinerant bartender for over a decade working a combination of remote freelance gigs with US companies and local businesses while living in over 20 countries across four continents.

I’ve done it all with little more than a laptop, a cup of coffee, and a few gadgets.

The exponential growth of wireless internet connectivity, lighter, faster, cheaper computers, and (hopefully) an increasingly fluid work/life culture has allowed thousands of professionals to travel the world while still pursuing their careers—in some cases traveling the world because they’re pursuing their careers. Heck, some people can work from just their smartphone with a few attachments.

How do these digital nomads do it? What’s the special sauce to balancing world travel and/or short-term relocation with a successful career?

I asked dozens of friends, colleagues, professionals, and travel experts exactly what they use to get the job done, because, while it’s never been easier to work from wherever you want, you don’t want to waste half your day looking for wifi.

This is the gear you need to combine your travel dreams with upping your professional savvy to truly enjoy the freedom and flexibility of the open road.

Table of Contents

Best Laptops

It all starts with the right computer. Your laptop is your trusty steed, your wingman, your old faithful. Which laptop you need really depends on how you use it, so here are some of the best in the biz, broken down by price and performance:

Macbook Air ($899 11″ or $999 13″)

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The MacBook Pro, or MacBook Air, topped the list of nearly every full-time digital nomad I talked with, and it’s easy to see why. I know, I know, you don’t want to drink the Kool-Aid, but Apple practically invented the “Ultrabook” category of lightweight, hard-working travel laptops when they introduced the Air in 2008, and it’s still the gold standard of many digital nomads.

Starting at $899, the MacBook Air is light (2.38 pounds) powerful, and features 512GB of Flash Storage (that’s a lot) which lets your computer wake up quickly and respond at speeds 17x faster than a traditional 5400 rpm solid state hard drives. The 9-hour battery life (12 hours on the 13”) is a must on the road.

MacBook Pro Retina 13” ($1299)

If you edit a lot of video or photos (like I do) and really need the increased speed, performance, and storage space without adding too much bulk to your bag, the MacBook Retina Pro is a solid upgrade. The 3.1GHz (up from 2.2 in the Air) 1TB Flash Storage, and increased screen size and resolution make a big difference for services high-end clients. Plus it has an extra hour of battery life, so that’s nice.

Toshiba Satellite C55-C ($450)

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If you only care about what’s under the hood and performance is king, the Toshiba Satellite C55-C is one of the best Ultrabooks on the market—and at half the price of a Mac. The Toshiba nowhere near as pretty as a Mac—Hayden Dingman from PC World says, “Opening the C55-C feels like trying to open a bag of potato chips in a quiet classroom.”

However, Dingman goes on to conclude, “It easily—and consistently—outperforms the competition, and does it for only $450.” Talk about a mixed review.

The Toshiba Satellite skips the spinning rims and sleek Cupertino design to deliver high performance hardware that just plain works. The 2.2GHz Intel Core i5-5200U processor matches that of the MacBook Air, and the standard 8GB of RAM with 1TB of storage are all the guts and storage you need to get the job done. The 5400 rpm HD can be a little sluggish, so this computer isn’t great for rendering large video files, but you can’t have everything for under $500.

The decision between shiny Macs and get-er-done PCs really comes down to how precious you are with your gear and what you’re doing with it. Full-time freelance copywriter (and Tortuga contributor) Laura Lopuch swears by the durability of her Toshiba:

Laura Lopuch, Packsmith“I’m not exactly gentle with my computers. My last Toshiba lasted through seven years of my abuse—both on, and off, the road—and it’s still chugging.”

Laptop Alternatives

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While incredibly useful, a laptop is not always the right answer. Luckily there are lots of computer alternatives that cost (and weigh) a fraction of what traditional computers do. Brianne Miers, travel blogger and founder of A Traveling Life keeps her tech streamlined on the road:

digital nomad“If I’m not planning on doing much work, I just bring an iPad to access apps and books. I can also transfer photos from my camera to my iPad to easily update my blog and social media outlets (and my photo sharing is on to sync between my iPad and iPhone, which makes Instagram easy).

What does she do when the workload increases? “If I do need to work along the way, I take my Lenovo Flex 3, which has been great. It was only $350, so if something happens to it, it won’t be devastating, but I can still do everything I need to do with it.”

NetBooks

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I’ve personally used both an Acer NetBook and a Google ChromeBook (both $199) in addition to a customized MacBook Pro (thanks bro) and I have to say, you get what you pay for. If you need a laptop for web browsing and writing in Google Drive, a NetBook will do. But, so will an iphone. However, if you do more heavy lifting—collaborative writing, video editing, photo tweaking, graphics, even uploading large files to Drive—NetBooks simply aren’t up to the task. There’s a reason they only cost $200.

Invest a little more money upfront for a machine that will pay for itself in the long run. I couldn’t do the work I do without a top of the line computer, and lag time sucks when you’re on the road. Remember, if you’re a digital nomad, you don’t want to be cooped up in a cafe all day waiting for your files to upload. Every minute counts when the beach is waiting.

Portable Hard Drives

Every serious digital nomad always needs more portable storage. Honestly, that’s all most travelers talk about, but great storage is about more than just how many terabytes you’re packing. Transfer speed, durability, size and weight, as well as price are all considered in the portable storage options below:
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WD My Passport Ultra – 3TB ($129)

If you remember your first HD (mine was a 256GB $250 slug) this HD will blow your mind. It’s 3TB, weighs next to nothing, and comes with a durable padded protector. Just slip into your bag and upload away. There’s also a budget 1TB option available for $58. A great storage option.

WD My Passport Slim – 1TB ($94)

Another teeny tiny travel friendly hard drive, this HD is built for speed with USB 3.0 tech.

Bonus: It comes with data protection and cloud software storage and only weighs 5.6 oz.

Seagate Backup Plus Slim – 2TB ($89)

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Data transfer speeds of 220MB/s are decent, but not amazing, however the storage space and price trump all. The slim is light, sturdy, and USB 3.0 compatible, so it’ll be useful for trips around the world for years to come.

If 2TB isn’t enough to satisfy your greedy storage needs, double down for 4TB for just $179. Apparently Costco also sells the Seagate 4TB option, so if you’re a member, enjoy the discount.

Samsung T1 Portable 500GB SSD ($179)

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If speed is paramount, this drive is your work horse, with transfer speeds of 450 MB/s. A portable solid state drive (what your computer uses) it’s the gold standard for transfer and upload speeds. I know that when I’m editing video on my laptop, upload speed is one of my biggest obstacles.

Upgrading to larger storage is pricey—newer models like the T3 can easily jump up to $600+—so actually downgrading storage size in exchange for speed is a nice move. The 250GB SSD drive is only $89 and has the same 450MB/s speed.

LaCie Rugged Raid ($400)

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If you really can’t be trusted with nice things, the LaCie Rugged Raid HD is for you. “Raid” is more than just a cool name; it actually defines the internal structure and design of the drive with two redundant aligned 2TB drives (4TB of storage total) so your data is doubly protected.

Factor in the signature orange rubber padding, water-resistance, and five-foot drop-rating and it’s no wonder why LaCie is the portable hard drive trusted by professional surf photographers the world over.

Cloud Storage

Portable hard drives are great, but you should always backup your backup. Luckily you don’t have to be a Silicon Valley wizard to find and manage massive, inexpensive, cloud storage.

Google Drive Storage

If you have a gmail account you already have 15GB of free cloud storage. Congratulations. That’s enough for almost anyone, but you can easily upgrade to larger cloud storage paid plans starting at just $1.99/month for 100GB (I use this plan) 1TB for $9.99/month, all the way up to 30TB/month.

The best part about Drive is that you can upgrade for a month (or longer) and cancel the service once you get back from your trip. It’s much cheaper than an annual plan.

Amazon Cloud Drive

$120/year is kind of a lot for just 1TB, so if your data needs expand past Google Drive, Amazon Cloud Drive is a great solution. If you’re already an Amazon Prime member, congrats again—you get free unlimited photo storage. Seriously. Store away. If however you have video, or audio, you need to host, or store, online, Amazon’s unlimited plan is only $59.99/year after a free 3-month trial.

That’s 15 months for only $60. Not too shabby.

Thumb Drives & USB Flash Drives

Portable hard drives are amazing and enormous, but if you’re looking to keep your carry on extra light, or you want to add a little storage diversity so all your digital eggs aren’t in one basket, a thumb drive is a great solution.
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SanDisk Ultra: 256GB USB 3.0 ($59)

On sale from Best Buy for only $59, this teeny tiny 256GB drive has enough storage for 131,000 2MB photos (that’s the typical iPhoto size). That’s a lot. You don’t have to upgrade to a massive HD to travel smart.

SanDisk Ultra: 64GB USB 3.0 ($14.99)

Videographers and Photographers: 64GB is still a surprising amount of space for a drive that’s the size of a chapstick tube. I use a suite of 64GB thumb drives for managing video projects and footage for longer trips. A little masking tape and a marker is a great way to stay organized and keep your footage safe.

Portable Wifi & Routers

Unreliable wi-fi is the biggest complaint from digital nomads, and it’s no wonder. We make our money online, so an internet blackout takes money out of our pockets. Literally. Luckily wireless routers have gotten amazing.
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D-Link AC750 Portable Wifi Router ($99)

You can work from just about anywhere for under $100. That’s amazing. Link it up to your mobile device and share the signal anywhere, on multiple devices, with a decent 300MB/s transfer rate.

Built-in 4000mAh battery capacity and USB ports also makes this router a charging station in a pinch. Connect a flash drive, or a HD, and boom—instant media center.

HooToo Wireless Router & 10400mAh Travel Charger ($39)

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While the D-Link is a bit faster, HooToo is a great travel router and a massive travel charger with 10400mAh of power (that’s enough for 5 iphone charges). Choose from 3 different router modes—

  • AP (ethernet cable)
  • Router (connect to a modem)
  • Bridge (split a wireless connection into a safe channel)

—and work from multiple devices or connect external drives via the USB ports for a mobile media center anywhere.

This hub will help you transfer files, photos, videos, and more from your phone, or device, to the cloud or storage device. At only 8 ounces, the HooToo travel router is beyond travel friendly.
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Satechi Smart Travel Router ($33)

Specifically designed to work practically anywhere, the Satechi router is compatible with everything in over 150 countries. Built in plug adaptors for every continent and a voltage toggle for the US, Europe, and Australia make this little magic box your key to the internet from practically anywhere.

Karma Wi-Fi HotSpot ($149)

A little on the pricey side, but the travel friendly pocket sized wi-fi hotspot, Karma, is a must for serious digital nomads who can’t function offline. Monthly data plans range from $40/month for 5GB of data, to $140 for 20GB. If that’s a little too rich for your blood, you can always pay as you go for $14/GB.

Cell Phones, International Roaming Plans, & Options

A phone is a digital nomad’s lifeline. It needs to work wherever you go, which means you need a plan for roaming the globe. Here are some of the better options.
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Unlocked iPhone

This essential digital nomad tool is probably already in your pocket, since “jailbreaking” an iphone is now completely legal. Simply open the side of your phone, take out the SIM card and insert a new one from the country of your choice. Data plans, obviously, vary everywhere, but you can typically get a pay as you go monthly plan almost anywhere in the world for $30-$70.

Nathan Yates, co-founder of WeRoam simply says the best international cell phone plan is no plan:

digital nomadThe best and most complete solution we’ve found for an international cell data plan is in fact not having an international plan at all, but rather using local prepaid SIM cards for the specific countries that you’re traveling in. The focus here is on the best data plan as you probably won’t be making many phone calls, if any, and can place phone calls using data anyway via WhatsApp, Viber, or Skype.

T-Mobile Simple Choice International Plan

When I tell people about this plan, they always think I’m messing with them, but T-Mobile’s Simple Choice International Plan is exactly that—simple and international. For just $50/month you get unlimited data at 140+ countries across the world. You don’t have to do anything, notify anyone, change anything, or sign up for it. If you have T-Mobile, you have this plan.

Seriously. When you land in Guatemala, your phone pings the local carrier and just starts working. Same number, same bill that you pay back home. Nothing changes. The $50 plan includes 2GB at 4G speed and drops to LTE speed once you’ve exhausted that, but you’ll never pay overage charges.

If you need to upgrade, 6GB is an extra $15/month and unlimited high-speed 4G data is $45/month.

KnowRoaming Global SIM Sticker

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If you don’t trust T-Mobile (or don’t want to switch) and can’t be bothered swapping your SIM card every time you land, KnowRoaming is an alternative option.

Simply pop the sticker on your existing SIM card, and let it do it’s thing. When you’re at home, KnowRoaming stays dormant, but the minute you land into a country, or an area, not covered by your data, or voice plan, it switches on and alerts you. KnowRoaming provides local coverage and data, with unlimited data plans starting at $8 and you can pay as you go if you’re just hopping on to reply to a few quick emails.

I’m always skeptical about fix-it gadgets that promise the world, but the KnowRoaming SIM card sticker might actually deliver for digital nomads on the go.

Best Travel Bags

I’m obviously a huge fan of the Outbreaker travel backpack and especially the Homebase backpack. The separate laptop storage sleeves, built-in mesh pockets, and streamlined design mean I always know exactly where all my gear is every time I travel. It also makes getting through airport security a breeze (a huge plus for the digital nomad on the go).

But, there are some other interesting bags for tech savvy digital nomads on the move:

Ampl Smart Backpack ($249)

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Digital nomads are all about portable power. The Ampl Smart Backpack is designed with that in mind; featuring a whole suite of customizable built-in batteries and enough ports to charge 6 devices at a time.

The standard Ampl($249) weighs 5 pounds and features a 6000mAh battery capable of recharging a phone three times. However, the next option ($429) jumps up to 27,000mAh charging capacity and includes extra batteries and an ac inverter for charging a laptop or any other three prong device. The fully loaded option ($499) boasts 42,000mAh and weighs in at 7 pounds.

Water-resistant, padded, cushioned, and organized explicitly to carry fragile devices, Ampl won two CES innovation awards in 2015, and it doubled its funding goal on IndieGoGo. However, I’m not completely sold on a bag so heavily dedicated to one thing—charging. The raw power is impressive, but the storage space isn’t “ample.” Unless I’m “trekking and teching” somewhere really off the grid with a lot of power hungry gear, I doubt I’d need something so gluttonous.

You might want to simply pack the Anker 8W solar charge ($29) that weighs less than a pound and call it a day.

Ampl ships later this year, and the reviews look promising. More of day bag than a travel backpack, Ampl could be a go to day bag for serious tech-savvy digital nomads on the go.

BlueSmart Suitcase ($399)

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The BlueSmart Carry On Suitcase might be the one bag that could make me adopt wheels. At 22 x 14 x 9 it fits most carry on requirements while still packing 34L of capacity, but the high-tech features are the real stars.

The BlueSmart bag syncs to your phone, providing a digital lock at the press of a button, gps tracking to monitor your trips (and your bag if it’s lost) and even a built-in pedometer in the wheels to show how far you’ve walked. Even cooler, the handle has a built-in scale—simply lift the bag up and it weighs itself. However the coup de grace is the built-in battery that has enough juice to charge your phone 6 times.

Add in an easy opening laptop sleeve and the functionality of the BlueSmart app with features like trip tracking, weather alerts, and even a proximity feature that alerts you if your bag wanders off, and you’ve got a suitcase built for the modern digital nomad.

Best Headphones

travel gear Sound matters when you have to work in noisy places. Honestly, the difference between a digital nomad and a tourist comes down to their taste in headphones. Noise canceling, over-the-ear, wireless—there are a lot of features to choose from. Here are what the experts in the trenches have to say about headphones:

Master & Dynamic ME05 Ear Buds ($199)

I’ve recommended these solid brass headphones in the past, and I’ll recommend them again. They’re the ultimate earbud, and durably built for long term travel.

JBL Synchros E50BT Headphones ($149)

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Over-ear headphones are a must for any digital nomad who needs to drown out the screams of the baby sitting in 15F or the wild monkeys in a Bali jungle workspace. Ditch the kook cord and opt for the added convenience and versatility of a wireless model — you can’t beat the combination of durability, performance and affordability of the JBL Synchros E50BT.”

—Sean Harvey, Co-Founder, WeRoam

Bose QuietComfort 20 Headphones ($249)

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If you’re really looking to keep your carry on bag as light as possible, but peace and quiet is top priority, the Bose QuietComfort 20 is the in-ear headphone for you.  Taylor Coil, Tortuga marketing manager and current Remote Year participant, calls these headphones “a game changer.”

The price tag is steep—$249—but they fit comfortably in your ears without feeling like a plug, use a proprietary noise canceling chip for near perfect silence, and only weigh 1.5oz. They even come with their own little case.

Miscellaneous Gear

White Noise Generator

Sometimes you just need to get to sleep, and headphones just won’t do. Freelance copywriter and traveler Laura Lopuch swears by the Marsona TSCI-330 Travel Sound Conditioner ($69) for that sweet, sweet, white noise when you just need to pass out.
tortuga-packing-cubes-stacked_grande

Cable and Electronics Organizer

I use Tortuga packing cubes to keep my photographer equipment separate from my other gear, but those cables and chargers can start to add up, and clutter drives me crazy. A designated electronics organizer, like the Damai Universal Bag will keep you streamlined and ready to work at the drop of a hat.

Microphone & Audio Equipment

Not all digital nomads work with text, images, or photos—some of us are in the audio game. Veteran digital nomad and avid traveler, Jason Moore from the Zero to Travel podcast, breaks down how he gets great audio from practically anywhere:

digital nomadYou can get fantastic audio without your gear taking up a ton of space, or wearing an ugly vest. For on the fly interviews and catching ambient sound you can’t beat the Roland R-05 . Snag a couple of SanDisk SD Cards and you’re good to go.

If you want more versatility, a better option is the TASCAM DR-40. Couple that with the Audio Technica ATR-2100 microphone and you have the option to record using the external microphones for a more raw sound, or go with the direct microphone inputs (don’t forget the mic cables).

Best Foreign Credit Cards and Banking Options

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Charles Schwab High-Yield Investor Checking Account

It sounds like a financial mouthful, but all you need to travel the world without fees is a Schwab checking account.

This checking account not only has: no minimum monthly balance, no fees, no foreign transaction fees, no ATM fees, it even reimburses you for using any other ATM in the world. You read that right. At the end of each month, your account is credited for every cent you spent on domestic or foreign ATM charges. Now you can withdraw money from anywhere in the world in any amount you want without fretting over fees.

Oh, and did I mention that this checking account pays you interest? It just doesn’t get better than having a debit card that works all over the world for free.

Capital One Venture Credit Card

digital nomad“I’m a big fan of the Capital One Venture Card when I’m traveling. There are no foreign transaction fees and you get 2 miles for every $1 spent. Moreover, whenever I’ve had issues on the road with the card their customer service has been absolutely amazing. If you use the card frequently and pay on time they’re also pretty lenient about waiving the annual $59 fee.”

Jessica Festa, Jessie on a Journey, Epicure & Culture, NYC Tours

Jessie Beck, Packsmith“Capital One has been great for international usage so far. I have two credit cards with them, which makes managing them both super easy.”

Jessie Beck, Tortuga writer, Beat Nomad

Chase Sapphire

“The Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card is hands down the best all-around credit card out there. They are currently offering 50,000 points when opening a new card and spending $3,000 minimum within the first 3-months, which will easily provide you with some free travel/accommodation.

 

Add in 2 points for every $1 spent on travel and dining, no foreign transaction fees and the huge network of partner airlines and hotels with the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, we’re sold. Icing on the cake is the sexiness of the card being made out of metal rather than plastic.”

—Sean Harvey & Nathan Yates, WeRoam

“Plastc” Digital Credit Card

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It’s a little “all your eggs in one basket” for most travelers, but the Plastc digital credit card (vowels are so 2000) lets you store up to 20 cards in one convenient place. This makes Plastc ideal for keeping work expenses and personal purchases separate yet always at your fingertips.

Another solid feature is that you can store gift cards on it and use them while you travel without carrying the extra bulk. It even has a chip reader, which is a big deal in Europe & Canada.

The e-ink touch screen (with security code) makes this a risk free travel companion if it’s ever lost or stolen, but if you ever do lose it, or leave it behind, it alerts you via your phone and automatically wipes itself until you return and reactivate your information. That’s awesome. Trust me, canceling all your cards from Colombia isn’t as much fun as you might think it is.

TL;DR

Every digital nomad is different—really. Some travel professionals are writers, others are developers, or podcasters. Some digital nomads lug expensive camera gear for beautiful landscape photos, while others thrive on constant connection, up to the minute social media posts, and kitschy snapchat diaries for millions of fans.

Whatever your digital workspace looks like, make sure you set off on your next trip with the tools you need to get the job done and keep your travel dreams alive and thriving.

  • MacBooks really are that good, but Samsung has decent cheaper laptops
  • Jesus saves. You should too, invest in the right HD, thumb drives, and cloud storage
  • T-Mobile is all you need to use your phone anywhere in the world
  • The best travel battery charger might just be a portable internet router
  • Don’t cheap out on your bag, consider what you really need
  • Good headphones are a game-changer. Splurge.
  • Bank without fees: Charles Schwab, Chase Sapphire, and Capital One

Image Credits: MacBook Air, Toshiba Satellite, ChromebookPassport Ultra HD, Seagate Slim HD, Samsung SSD HD, LaCie RAID HD, SanDisk 256GB USB Drive, D-Link Travel RouterHooToo Travel Router, Satechi Travel Router, Karma Wifi Hotspot, iPhone 6, KnowRoaming SIM Card, Ampl Backpack, BlueSmart Luggage, JBL Headphones, BOSE Headphones, Roland Sound Recorder, Plastc, Header Image:  VIKTOR HANACEK