For many, the “digital nomad” lifestyle is an ambitious one – you can live anywhere in the world, visa permitting, with your laptop as your office.
Forget the daily grind of commuting during rush hour. As long as there’s decent wifi, just pick a cafe, 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 US digital nomads has increased by 9% in just 12 months between 2021 and 2022 to a total of nearly 17 million, according to job platform MBO Partners.
But one factor holds many back from the lifestyle: children.
Whether it’s about education, health and safety, or the issue of a child’s ability to develop lasting friendships, parents face multiple barriers.
But some have taken the plunge. Two families tell CNBC Travel how they managed it.
Keller Family: French Polynesia
Sam Keller is the founder and CEO of Working Without Borders, calling itself “the world’s first company to offer coworking retreats for families with culturally immersive programs for kids and teens.”
He is also a father of two children under the age of 12.
Sam Keller, founder of Working Without Borders, which organizes coworking retreats for families.
Working without boundaries
“My wife and I both had experiences abroad, but we couldn’t figure out how to do that,” he said again. “Then we had children.”
The couple looked at a school while on vacation in French Polynesia, thinking it “could be the place we could go and live,” he said.
Another factor worked in their favor: Keller’s wife Pascaline Cure works for Airbnb, which allows her to work wherever she wants.
So together they made a big move from California to French Polynesia. And not just like that: they moved during the pandemic.
“The stars aligned, we got on the plane and decided we’re going to make lemonade from lemons from this pandemic.”
Sam Keller with his family in Bora Bora.
Working without boundaries
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’ve found that [in French Polynesia] there are quite a number of private schools that accept children for short periods of a few weeks or a month. Then there are plenty of schools set up to provide online support, or just online schools with really good teaching and instruction and curricula,” Keller said.
Homeschooling is another option for some, but Keller prefers to call it “world education,” which he says “embraces the world as your classroom.”
“You could see stingrays swimming by from the playground,” he said. “Kids are outside as part of the curriculum, so we paddle in canoes in the lagoon and see sea turtles and dolphins. It was just magical in so many ways.”
He added that there are now more resources to help people learn about the digital nomad lifestyle, thanks to its growing popularity. Companies, like this one, let families “dip their toes in the water,” and some world education Facebook groups have more than 50,000 members — so there’s always someone to answer a question, he said.
Elledge-Penner family: 20 countries
Famous for its laid-back lifestyle, the beautiful Indonesian island of Bali is a popular destination for digital nomads.
Martin Penner and Taryn Elledge-Penner of 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 for a few weeks, but usually they stay 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 like the world was this big, wild place — and our Seattle world had shrunk in a way,” he said. “We had to show them the world and didn’t want to miss out on this connection to something bigger.”
Elledge-Penner said they wanted more time with their children, to make their journey sustainable and, crucially, to connect with other families.
“When we left it was lonely for families like ours on the road,” she said. “Now that’s really changed and a lot of families have realized that this is an option, going longer and deeper.”
The family of five has had a variety of experiences: living on a farm in Japan where they slurp soba noodles from a 30-foot hollowed-out bamboo stick; making pottery in Mexico; and attending a shadow puppet show in Greece’s Cyclades – though they didn’t understand a word of it.
Penner said the key to making the lifestyle work for them is “connecting with people” and not approaching places “like a hit list of travel highlights.”
Martin Penner walks with two of his children in Japan.
But it’s not all fun and games. There are also practicalities to consider, Elledge-Penner said.
“One of the challenges was balancing time and space on our own — and away from each other and the kids,” she said. “We’ve been together for so long, 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 choose, it still requires some balance and that can be hard to find and that can lead to tensions. “
The pre-toe marker is a natural point when pressure builds.
She also touches on what she calls “decision fatigue.”
“The time to plan the logistics, getting from A to B, where to stay can literally be a full-time job and very exhausting,” she said.
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 since we first left. It’s ten times the number of options you can find and use as a world education family,” she said.
“We have gone to schools in several countries around the world. There are also accredited distance learning programs and homeschooling pods. For literally anyone looking to break free from their current school system, it is very possible to find what you are looking for .”
The couple notes that family dynamics have changed since they started traveling in 2018. For example, their daughter now wants more long-term 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 the pressure builds. Many families we see stop traveling when [kids] are that age. Now they want to spend more time with friends [which is] a big shift from when we started.”