Based on their own experience, Sam Keller and Pascaline Cure help other families get a taste of digital nomad life.
Work without borders
For 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 rush hour traffic. As long as there’s decent Wi-Fi, just pick a coffee shop, park or pool and go to work.
The lifestyle has become more popular in the wake of the Covid pandemic, which accelerated the trend of telecommuting. The number of US digital nomads increased by 9% in just 12 months from 2021 to 2022, to a total of nearly 17 million, according to job platform MBO Partners.
But one factor deters many from the lifestyle: children.
Whether it is schooling, health and safety concerns, or the question of a child’s ability to develop lasting friendships, parents face several barriers.
But some have taken the step nonetheless. 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 to offer coworking retreats for families with culturally immersive programming for children and teens.”
He is also the father of two children under the age of 12.
Sam Keller, founder of Working Without Borders, which organizes coworking retreats for families.
Work without borders
“My wife and I had experiences living abroad, but we couldn’t figure out how to make it happen” again, he said. – Then we had children.
The couple scouted a school while on vacation in French Polynesia, thinking it might be “the place for us to 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 anytime – they moved during the pandemic.
“The stars aligned, we got on the plane and decided to make lemonade out of lemons from this pandemic.”
Sam Keller with his family in Bora Bora.
Work without borders
Education is regularly mentioned as the biggest challenge for digital nomads with children. Navigating an unfamiliar school system, often in a completely new language, can be a struggle.
“We found that (in French Polynesia) there are a fair number of private schools that will accept children for as short a time as a couple of weeks or a month. Then there are many 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 school,” which he says “embraces this notion of looking at 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 paddle outrigger canoes in the lagoon, 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 allow families to “dip their toes in the water,” and some world school Facebook groups have more than 50,000 members — so there’s always someone to answer a question, he said.
The beautiful Indonesian island of Bali, known for its laid-back lifestyle, 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 that our world in Seattle had kind of shrunk,” 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 children, 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 it has really changed and many families have realized that this is an option, which goes further and deeper.”
The family of five has had a number 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 take in a shadow puppet show in the Cyclades in Greece – even if 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 “like a hit list of travel highlights.”
Martin Penner goes with two of his children in Japan.
But it’s not all fun and games. There are also practical things to take into account, said Elledge-Penner.
“One of the challenges has been finding a balance of time and space on my own — and away from each other and the kids,” she said. “We’ve been together for such long periods of time, every waking moment of the day.”
“We all need a break and space, normally by going to work or school. Even if this is what we choose, it still requires a certain balance and it can be hard to find and that can lead to tension.”
The pre-teen marker is a natural point when the pressure increases.
She also touches on what she calls “decision fatigue”.
“The time to plan the logistics, getting from A to B, where to live, it can literally be a full-time job and really exhausting,” she said.
Once again, education is one of the biggest issues for global nomads with children, but — like Keller — Elledge-Penner said there are plenty of options.
“Things have changed a lot from when we first posted. There are tenfold the number of options you can find and connect as a world school family,” she said.
“We’ve dropped into schools in different countries around the world. There are also accredited distance learning programs and homeschooling modules. For literally anyone looking to disconnect from their current school system, it’s entirely possible to find what 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-term friendships, while the idea of having a dog — and a bedroom she doesn’t have to share with her brothers — is a big duct tape.
“The pre-teen marker is a natural point when the pressure increases. A lot of families we see stop traveling when (children) are at that age. Now they want to spend more time around friends (which is a big shift from when we started). .”