Digital nomads: What to do if your parent is facing a terminal illness

I started this travel blog, in part, to counter the sad and depressing stories that were overwhelming my news feed. Because of that, I’ve been hesitant to write about some pretty intense stuff that I’ve been dealing with over the last year – mainly, my father being diagnosed with a terminal, aggressive form of cancer.

It’s, of course, never easy when a parent receives a diagnosis like this. And while a lot of your energy may go to helping your parent and other family members out, it’s also completely normal to be concerned about how a diagnosis like this could affect your work.

For digital nomads, there are unique concerns. For example, some digital nomads only plan on living that lifestyle temporarily before having a family and settling down, so even taking a year or two away from that could change their career trajectory and life experiences entirely.

Below is a list, based on my experience, of some tips that I hope will help fellow digital nomads who have a parent that is facing a terminal illness diagnosis:

1) Talk openly about it with your parents and family members

Because you are able to work from anywhere in the world, you may decide that it’s best to move back home to help take care of your parent. Alternatively, the freedom to work wherever you want may make you feel even more guilty about not returning home.

For those who want to continue traveling, the truth is that it’s unlikely that your parent would want you to stop living your life because of a diagnosis like this. It’s worthwhile to have an open, honest conversation with your parent about your plans, get their thoughts, and also discuss it with other family members who may be helping provide care for your parent. It’s also important to think about if you’d regret not spending the limited time with your parent.

Based on the conversations you have, and your own personal reflections, you can update your travel schedule accordingly.

2) Make the city your parent is based a travel hub

My father lived in Philadelphia, which is where I grew up and went to law school. Before my dad was diagnosed with cancer, my plan was to never visit Philly again. But with the diagnosis and my dad’s limited ability to travel, that plan went out the window.

One positive that came from flying to Philly often was being able to use it as a travel hub, particularly as it’s a big American hub and I had a significant number of miles to spend. As I’m based in San Francisco, traveling to Philly made Europe much more accessible, and there was even a direct flight to Budapest from there.

Despite all the bad stuff that was going on, I was able to go on some adventures that I otherwise would have missed thanks to using the city as a travel hub.

3) Set clear limits on when you’ll be working when you go back to visit

Some people assume that being a digital nomad is the same thing as being on a permanent vacation. But the reality is that digital nomads, particularly those with a side hustle, are often always working.

This presumption that digital nomads don’t really work can make visiting a parent more difficult. If you are freelancing, it’s important to explain to your parent that you don’t have paid time off, and that you need to ensure you’ll maintain a steady income. If you are an employee with PTO, it’s still okay to let your parent know that while you’re in town, there are days that you will be working and times that you won’t be available.

4) Book refundable tickets and hotel rooms

If the prognosis is bad, you may need the ability to change your travel plans on a whim. As a result, when looking into airfare and lodging, you may want to prioritize reservations that are fully refundable, or that can be changed for a small fee.

With the airfare, because refundable tickets can be quite expensive, the best thing to do is to book travel using miles, which can usually be redeposited into your account for a fee (ranging from $50-$200+).

For lodging, there are tons of hotels and Airbnb’s that have very reasonable cancellation policies.

5) Use points for business class flights to visit 

I hate, hate, hate spending points on domestic travel. For most airlines, the redemption value on domestic flights is very low, particularly compared to international awards. So, it goes without saying that I especially hate using my hard-earned points to book domestic business class flights.

That said, traveling home to visit a dying relative is very stressful on its own, so if you have enough points, it’s definitely worth considering using them to book business class flights home, to make the journey a bit less stressful.

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