Best Apps and Tools for Digital Nomads

If someone tells you you’re leaving for a new country tomorrow, what do you grab? If you’re a digital nomad, you’re probably already pretty close to packed. All you need to set up shop is a carry-on bag, an unlocked smartphone, and a lightweight laptop with good battery life. Add in a few luxury items—noise-canceling earbuds, a notebook, and a pen—that can double as productivity tools and eliminate the need for bulkier and less elegant solutions, and you’re set.

While other people might debate that third pair of shoes or a hardcover book, digital nomads are more likely to spend those final moments before takeoff optimizing their tech suite—calibrating it for the most power, least clutter, and lightest load. Digital nomads new and old can benefit from the tools highlighted below.

These are low-cost, multi-functional, resource-light options you can use across the globe. You probably already have a few, but you may end up using them in new and more impactful ways, serving to reinforce the minimalist trend that exists in digital nomadism. As many will tell you, the trick isn’t figuring out what you need as much as figuring out what you already have and what you can do without. So do yourself a favor and ditch that redundant pair of shoes and clear some mental space at the same time by checking out the wider capabilities of the tools below.

Apps for Remote Work

G-Suite

Unless you’re prone to paranoia and conspiracy theories, Google’s suite of work apps is likely to be both your best friend and hardest working colleague on the road. With apps like Docs, Sheets, Drive, Gmail, Calendar, Hangouts, Slides, and Forms, this is a business-in-a-box solution designed by geniuses.

The cloud-based storage feature is critical when you have a hardware failure, and keeping mission-critical items in organized folders comes in handy for both work and travel. The consumer version is available for the competitive price of absolutely free.

Slack

Working across time zones and with multiple people usually means a mess of email chains that causes nearly as many issues as it resolves. Slack fixed that.

Slack stands for “Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge,” and that’s a pretty convenient thing for remote workers to have at the click of a button. Having all of a team’s asynchronous communication logged into one searchable place cuts down on the clutter and keeps everyone in touch and on task.

Trello

Being a digital nomad often means being your own boss: managing your time between different projects to meet deadlines and client expectations. If you are your own boss, then consider Trello, your personal secretary. With it, you can create “boards” for various projects that detail what needs to be done, when, and by whom. You can easily share boards with colleagues and clients and sync up your work or delegate tasks as appropriate.

Team coordination apps like Trello and Asana can go a long way to mitigating the effects of distance between colleagues. Trello, in particular, is useful even for the solo operator juggling a variety of multi-step projects.

Workfrom

A good idea that should only get better, Workfrom helps nomads discover the best places to work from in many cities. While the current range of cities isn’t quite as wide as most digital nomads would like, the website is attuned to their needs to provide granular information on Wi-Fi quality, food and beverage pricing, and even the best table.

Part of the joy of being a nomad comes from the random discoveries one makes while looking for a place to sit and work, but sometimes it’s more of a hassle than it needs to be, and in those instances Workfrom can be a welcome cheat code—and you never know what you’ll find on the way to the place you scoped out on your phone.

Apps for Traveling

Airbnb

It is not the end-all tool for housing, but it’s helpful for that first booking. While Airbnb provides more luxurious and more expensive accommodations than you’re likely looking for in the more medium-term, it can be nice to know you have a safe bed and a pseudo-guide upon landing in a new country. It can at least give you an idea of what housing is going to cost in a ballpark sense.

In certain areas, you might have better luck through Booking.com, Agoda, or Couchsurfing, but as an easy first stop, Airbnb works well. Weekly and monthly discounts can take out some of the sting of a rental price, while you search expat groups on Facebook and local contacts for more amenable options.

Duolingo

A little language goes a very long way. Duolingo’s gamification system takes the downtime you would have spent scrolling social media and turns it into easily digestible language lessons. While you’re unlikely to hold deep conversations in the new language you’re studying through Duolingo alone, you will gain the ability to handle transactional interactions pretty quickly.

Completing the first run-through of a language tree can get you to A1 level long before your tourist visa runs out, and that will give you a real head start if you ever choose to take traditional lessons. The base version is free, but for a small monthly donation, you can download lessons offline, which comes in handy on international flights.

If Duolingo does not click for you, solid alternatives like Memrise and Lingvist can produce similarly beneficial results through a different approach. If you do end up finding yourself hooked, these apps stack well on top of each other.

Google Maps

Google Maps is so much more than your typical map. Offline maps and step-by-step directions are obvious, but saving and organizing favorite locations is something you might not use much until you spend some time on the road. Once you get in the habit of logging specific places—both that you want to go to, and have already been—you’ll be able to look back at the digital version of a push-pin map: one that tells you not only which cities you’ve been to, but also which cafes, hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites you liked the most.

That level of specificity becomes incredibly useful when one of your new friends is on the way to a city you’ve been to before and asks for advice. You’ll be able to tell them with precision which part of downtown Minsk has the best street art, and how to get from there to that incredible underground jazz bar that has no sign, even if the details are, in your mind, a little hazy.

Google Translate

Sometimes you’re in a country for a short amount of time and can’t invest energy in anything more than the bare essentials. Open up Google Translate and download the offline version of the language spoken in the country you’re traveling to. At the very least, it’s your cheat sheet to knowing your please from your thank you.

Depending on the target language, features like camera integration can allow you to read a menu, document, or street sign simply by hovering your phone over it. You never know when you’ll need a word until you do, so having an offline dictionary at your fingertips is probably worth the single click of effort that it takes.

Nomad List

Nomad List is the first stop for many digital nomads when scouting their next location. The crowdsourced repository provides data points for the cost of living, quality of living, and workability of countless destinations. While the accuracy of data varies with price fluctuations, it is a great place to get a baseline idea of how feasible a certain location is for your budgetary constraints and personal requirements. The attached discussion forum allows for more contextual questions and experienced responses between nomads.

Private Internet Access

The inconveniences presented by the balkanization of the internet are something you’re unlikely to notice until you start to work and travel with some frequency. They can range from discrepancies in what content is available to outright denied access to otherwise innocuous websites. Having to explain to a client why you need their IT department to allow your Thai IP address to access their file server at odd hours of the night is a situation you don’t want to face.

A virtual private network (VPN) like the one by Private Internet Access circumvents a lot of these issues, with the bonus of protecting you against certain cyber-threats better than antivirus applications do. This is the only tool on the list that requires a paid subscription, and with good reason: free-to-use VPNs are almost always selling their clients’ data, which they have practically unfettered access to. Do your research before you decide who to trust with this information.

Thorn Tree

Getting information about when the Eiffel Tower opens isn’t very hard to find. But if you’re instead looking for the most up-to-date visa and travel permit information on the border regions of Central Asian countries, for example, then you’re probably going to Thorn Tree.

An offshoot of Lonely Planet, this discussion forum is split into regions, with sub-forums for every area you can think of and answers to the most specific questions you have in mind. While sites like the digital nomad subReddit are great at giving subjective and wide-ranging advice, Thorn Tree is more targeted towards the hardcore traveler and their needs. The longer you travel, the stranger your destinations are likely to become, and the more likely you are to be navigating to Thorn Tree for advice on planning your next trip.

Apps for Socializing and Recreation

Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn

Seriously. Don’t be the person that carries business cards to social events. When traveling the world, you’re hopefully looking to make friends more than recruit clients. Many first encounters in foreign countries end with the following interaction: one person hands over their phone, and the other adds themselves on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. It takes about 30 seconds, makes following up easy, and establishes trust between strangers.

When you’re making friends from all over the world and who travel all over the world, social media is not so much about cat photos and political opinions as it is a 21st century Rolodex. Expat groups, local restaurants, new friends, and coworking spaces—it’s all here.

Home Workout

If you think going to the gym is hard at home, wait until you try to go to a gym in a country where you don’t speak the language and aren’t able to read the street signs. Sometimes that can lead to a valuable experience, but other times you need to make physical exercise as easy as possible. It’s easiest if you can carry a gym in your pocket.

There is a host of apps that can do this for you, but Home Workout does it for free, has the least frills, and what it lacks in aesthetic presentation it makes up for in impact. These exercise routines take 30 to 45 minutes to complete, require no equipment at all, and target either your lower body, core, arms, chest, back, or shoulders. The military style body-resistance workouts are presented at a beginner, intermediate, and advanced level, and their one-month challenge will make a significant dent in that travel weight one often gains in the first few weeks in a delicious new country.

Lichess

Football may be the world’s game, but chess could very well be its second language, and especially when traveling outside the United States, it’s a useful skill to have in your back pocket. You don’t have to be a grandmaster to have a thrilling and meaningful chess exchange in a cafe or bar—and lifelong friendships can start that way, without ever saying a word.

With the Lichess app, you can learn the rules, train your tactics, and play or chat with people from all over. It’s another performance-boosting tool that can turn your mindless downtime into something productive and mentally useful. Just don’t be surprised if you get hooked.

Spotify

While new and expensive apps like Headspace and Calm market themselves as powerful tools for meditation and self-care, you probably already have apps that do this for you, at a lower price. Spotify, Soundcloud, and YouTube all have more options for guided meditation and ambient noise than their more trendy competitors, and also double as a form of cultural exchange when you’re in a new environment. If you find a newfound passion for the benefits of regimented inner peace, by all means, give more dedicated options a try, but do it with intention and mindfulness—not out of hype.

WhatsApp

It’s the most widely used chat app in the world, so it’s probably worth having it installed. Those who change SIM cards regularly depend on WhatsApp to stay reachable. The Facebook-owned messaging service is encrypted and also available as a desktop app, making staying in touch even easier. While WhatsApp is the industry standard, in some cases certain countries will have a different favorite app like Viber or Telegram that you’ll want to have installed, so do a little research first.

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog
Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.

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