This is an interview with Nora Dunn from The Professional Hobo.
Hey, Nora. Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
Hiya! I’m Nora Dunn, aka The Professional Hobo.
In 2006, I sold the lot in Canada (including my financial planning practice) to embrace my lifelong dream of traveling the world on a long-term and immersive basis. Since then I’ve traveled through and lived in 55+ countries.
To keep my travels financially sustainable, I established an online career as a freelance writer and blogger. While I don’t make a ton of money (we’ll get into that later), I make more than enough to live, taking into account some pretty awesome tricks I have up my sleeve that have saved me money in the 6-figure range, and allowed me to travel and live in serious style!
I traveled full-time for 12 years (with a few home bases in a collection of interesting countries), and now my latest home base is back in my home town of Toronto, where I am experiencing familiar haunts with new eyes, and I continue to travel for about half of each year.
What made you sell your financial planning practice and start traveling?
It all started with a dream that was kindled at a young age; a dream to understand various cultures from the inside out.
Over the years I took vacations, but I rarely achieved more than a chance to defrost from Canadian winters for a week or two at a time. Hardly a culturally significant experience!
My last traditional vacation before I sold everything was in December 2005; I spent a month in South Africa. While I thought a month would be long enough to “crack the code” on the place, of course it wasn’t, and I returned frustrated, with more questions than answers.
The trip was followed by a few “Universal signs” that I needed a life change, which I duly ignored (I was busy). Two car accidents in a week, you say? Meh. I implored the Universe to use a language I could understand if it had something to say, because car accidents weren’t slowing me down.
So I got slapped with a few bouts of bronchitis that devolved into walking pneumonia, and brought me to my knees, forcing me to stop everything and take stock of my life.
Somewhere in there, I realized I wasn’t willing to “put in time” for the rest of my working life – another 30 years – before realizing my lifelong dream of long-term immersive world travel.
I realized the stuff I wanted to do was best done in my 30s, not my 60s and beyond. So I took a leap of faith, and sold the lot.
How did the first few months of hitting the road look like?
The first few months of my travels set the stage for the following 12 years.
It started with an idea to go to Costa Rica, but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to book the tickets. Then, my boyfriend at the time (who accompanied me for the first few years) got a call from his brother in western Canada, who was getting married and wanted him in the wedding party.
So, instead of going south, we went west, for an opportunity to stay with my boyfriend’s family near the Rocky Mountains for six months.
From there, I chanced upon a listing for a volunteer position in Hawaii that involved working a few hours per day in trade for free accommodation. While Hawaii wasn’t particularly on my list of places to go, I was intrigued by the position (which was a chance to live off the grid and in an environmentally sustainable way), and off we went.
I went from Financial Planner to Resident Goat Milker in a pretty short space of time; a change so absurd that even today, it makes me giggle.
From there on, I learned not to choose my destinations, but rather, to let them choose me.
Usually, the opportunities came in the form of unique free accommodation gigs. To volunteer, house-sit, live on boats, stay with locals, and more.
This was how I managed to save over $100,000 in the course of my full-time travel career, often while staying in some pretty spectacular places. I wrote a book on the topic so others could follow in my footsteps: How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World.
What is slow travel and what do you love about it the most?
Slow travel is both a necessity and a privilege for full-time travelers and digital nomads.
First of all, slow travel offers the chance to explore more than just cursory experiences by staying somewhere for months at a time. It offers cultural insights through living with – and like – locals.
Second, if you’re running a location independent business concurrent to travel, slow travel is the only way you’ll actually experience much of anything of your destination.
One of the most common misconceptions about the digital nomad full-time travel lifestyle is that it’s a permanent vacation.
It’s not. It’s a job!
But a job that affords us the chance to live and work from anywhere in the world. Thus, when our work is done for the day, we can close our laptop and explore whatever world exists on our doorstep du jour.
It’s also worth noting that lifestyle travel is a job unto itself, and one that doesn’t pay. It takes a huge amount of time to research a place, make travel arrangements, travel, and settle in at a new destination.
Daily tasks that most people don’t think twice of – like grocery shopping – is a different thing entirely with each new location.
In 2010, I traveled at a frantic pace. The longest I stayed anywhere that year was two weeks. On average I slept in a different bed every five days. I spent the first six months of 2011 recovering in a near-comatose state in New Zealand!
And it’s not the only time I got hit with travel fatigue.
In 2017/18 I spent a 10-month period bouncing around as many countries in Asia, and it took a huge toll. And that was spending almost a month in each place! Still, it was too fast, and was one of a few catalysts for me to get a home base in Canada.
How do you make a living on the road?
I earn a living as a freelance writer and blogger, on the topics of travel, personal finance, and lifestyle design – usually a combination thereof.
I also run my own website – The Professional Hobo – which generates a few different types of income.
While I make a fraction of the money I made as a financial planner, I also discovered that my cost to travel full-time has consistently been less than it ever was to live in one place.
Not only that but I realized in the last few years of running my financial planning practice that earning more money doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness, and that lifestyle inflation can suck the life outta you.
How long did it take you to earn a full-time income while traveling?
When I started traveling full-time, I had a small income from the sale of my financial planning practice (about $2,000/month CAD).
While I also had savings, I challenged myself to learn to live and travel full-time on this income – something that was made possible by my free accommodation endeavors.
Shortly into my travels, I connected the dots and realized that my lifelong penchant for writing along with a laptop and internet connection could give me a viable source of income that could continue to sustain my travels.
Keep in mind that in 2006, travel blogging wasn’t “a thing”, and terms like “digital nomad” and “location independent” were years from being coined.
So monetizing my blog wasn’t yet a consideration or possibility. But freelance writing was, and it was something that ended up going hand-in-hand with my blog over the years.
I gave myself two years to develop a freelance writing career that could replace the income I was getting from the sale of my business, and I was successful in that mission.
When and why did you start The Professional Hobo?
Travel blogs in 2006 were glorified online travel journals, and that’s exactly what mine was too! Though at the time, while hosted on a free Blogger platform, it wasn’t even called The Professional Hobo.
The official (self-hosted) website The Professional Hobo was born in 2008, in the aftermath of accidentally starting an international NGO that attracted a global audience to my (crappy) Blogger blog. Now somebody other than my Mum was reading!
That was around the time that blogging was starting to take shape as an industry, so I bought my domain and the rest is history.
How has the blog grown ever since in terms of traffic and income?
Because I was one of the first travel bloggers, my site grew quickly as the industry grew.
This is partly because there was a much smaller pool of travel bloggers, and I had achieved some recognition. As such, I got a lot of features – which in turn, got me a lot of backlinks.
So I did pretty well in the initial years, all the while ignoring many of the business-y things that were becoming increasingly important to running a blog, such as SEO and analytics and other things that felt mind-numbing to me.
Somewhere around 2014, the industry was REAL, and I was losing traction. I felt like I was dancing to stay atop a snowball I was no longer interested in being on.
Enter from stage left: a Peruvian shaman. I ended up taking a sharp turn with my life and apprenticed with a shaman in Peru for two years, after which I spent almost a year in Ecuador, six months of which I worked as a shaman’s assistant.
During this time, I basically put my online business on the back burner, doing only what was necessary to keep my base of traffic and income alive.
So between 2014 and 2017 my traffic and income didn’t grow. But I didn’t realize until mid-2017 how much the rest of the industry had grown, and how much traction I’d lost.
So I’ve spent most of the last two years getting back in the saddle, and embracing my blog as a bona fide business and not just a job or passion project.
I’m pleased to say that my traffic and income is steadily increasing, and in turn, allowing me to outsource various projects to people who can do stuff a whole lot better than I. This, in turn, is growing my business more and more.
What are your income streams as a travel blogger?
My main income streams are ads, affiliate sales, and freelance writing.
I publish my income and expenses annually; my income reports in particular break down the various sources of income, along with detailing my business practices and plans.
What strategies do you use to get more traffic to the blog?
At the moment, I’m doing something I never wanted to do in the past – SEO! And you know what? It’s not as soul-destroying as I had thought it would be. There’s great satisfaction in optimizing a post and tangibly measuring the results of my efforts in the form of increased traffic -and thus, income. (It’s also a chance for me to revisit some of my earlier writing and make it much – much, much – better).
My SEO adventures started last year when I hired a consultant to take dozens of older posts that weren’t getting views and to consolidate them into SEO-tastic resources that have become the meat & bones of my site, and well worth perusing: Travel Lifestyle Guides.
I also recently started a Pinterest account – late to the party, I know!
While it’s still relatively new, I am hoping that it will become a big source of traffic, as it seems to be for other bloggers. (Please follow me and do Pinterest-y things on my page)!
How have you found free accommodation around the world?
My journey to free accommodation started with the woman who bought my couch when I was selling everything. She told me about WWOOFing, which on further research, turned out to be just one of many resources for travelers to find free accommodation in exchange for volunteering.
A few years into my travels, I was struggling with the volunteer hour requirements as well as running my online business. So I started house-sitting – which generally is a better fit for digital nomads and offers a chance to enjoy the comforts of (somebody else’s) home while living around the world.
And while I was house-sitting in the Caribbean, I stumbled on a whole world of free accommodation of the nautical variety. I lived on five boats spanning three countries for almost three months, without a night on land!
These are just three of five viable ways to get free accommodation around the world, all of which I discuss in my book How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World (mentioned above).
How has your travel style changed over the years?
Gosh. How hasn’t it?!
I’ve traveled with partners, and solo. I’ve gone quickly, and slowly. I’ve done sponsored trips, and had home bases in half a dozen countries from New Zealand to Peru.
Most recently, I’ve hung up my “full-time travel” hat after 12 years, and I’m embracing an easier style of travel. One that doesn’t necessarily require living on the side of a mountain in an obscure area of the world in the name of cracking the code on local culture (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).
Now, I’m not afraid of “the beaten path” and more organized travel experiences. I figure the beaten path exists for a reason – because there’s something worth seeing and experiencing!
And because I have a home base, I no longer need to carry everything I own from place to place.
This allows me to take on some different types of trips that might have been difficult with everything in tow. Stay tuned for some interesting adventures to come!
How do you keep your travel expenses low?
In addition to getting free accommodation around the world, I like to fly long-haul in business class for less than price of an equivalent economy ticket!
I started my frequent flyer mile “travel hacking” journey back in 2010. And while I’m still learning, I share my tips in tricks in my (free) Beginner’s Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles and Travel Hacking.
How many hours do you work per week?
I’m a creature of habit – which is ironic given my travel lifestyle.
But when I have the freedom to engineer my day, I like to enjoy my morning routine (which includes exercising and a healthy breakfast), then get right to work, when I’m most fresh and productive.
At some point in the afternoon when I’m cross-eyed from sitting at my computer, I’ll embark on the next part of my day. It often involves exploring my destination in some way – even if it’s just going for a walk.
All in all, I tend to work 20-30 hours per week – though it often feels like more (but I track my time, and the timer doesn’t lie).
What’s next for you and the Professional Hobo?
Despite having a home base, I continue to travel for about half of the year (cumulatively), including through the winter. (I may be Canadian by birth, but I can’t stand winter, so will do my best to avoid it always and forever).
I’m also looking forward to exploring some parts of Canada that I’ve never been to, like Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories (both summertime trips for sure), as well as some parts of eastern Europe.
But as usual, I’ll let my destinations choose me in the form of unique opportunities. Along the way, I’ll continue to amuse and delight readers of The Professional Hobo with a combination of cultural insights, personal observations, and instructional Travel Lifestyle Guides.
Stock Photo from Day2505 @ Shutterstock