Working overseas

What I have learnt about working holidays

The cases are unpacked, the power connectors stored and the receipts organised ready for the taxman’s scrutiny. All that’s left is to plan next year’s adventure.

Each year we get better at the planning and more adventurous in the execution. Here’s a checklist of what we’ve learnt about working abroad so far:


  • Choose accommodation wisely. If you are serious about outputting a decent amount of work, balancing a computer on your knee is really not viable. I need a space where I can set up and leave my computer and hard drives so I can work early of a morning before others wake or work late during the night. Many apartments have a small round breakfast table or just a breakfast bench – neither really work, but in the same way, you don’t need a full blown study. A narrow hall table could be stripped of adornments and moved next to a power point for use as a desk. In Paris we used one end of a dining table as the ‘studio’, leaving the other half for dining. The aim is to avoid having to pack everything up each day. (For the same reason sofa bed living is out of the question).
  • Choose a country with good WIFI. It seems most of the rest of the world has free WIFI, but the strength of the signal varies. Rome was shocking the whole two weeks we were there. Florence not a lot better. That said, we lost internet connection in downtown New York for a whole day and missed a deadline on one trip – who’d have thought? Paris worked a treat, but we needed to buy an ethernet cable in San Francisco to speed up the connection and avoid staring at the beach ball of death.
  • Always have someone local you can contact about your accommodation. We’ve needed backup in each country. In New York we rented a long stay executive apartment, and needed to call concierge a couple of times to help with the internet. In Paris the ‘free’ international phone calls didn’t work and since the recorded message was in French, we needed help. Luckily the rental agency had an English-speaking manager that quickly resolved the situation. In San Francisco the home owners lived in Colorado but called twice. Firstly to make sure that we had settled in, and then again in the third week, just to check all was well. Having that backup has made each trip easier – especially when you put technology and a foreign language together.
  • Check the laptop. Sounds basic, but we’ve learnt the hard way to make sure our laptops are fully loaded before we go. If you don’t use them regularly, it’s easy for them to be a step behind your desktop computer. My solution is to work on my laptop for a week before I leave. It soon highlights any issues — like missing fonts, a recalcitrant mouse, or a missing plug in.
  • Hard drives. Take as many archive hard drives as needed – they are so small now it’s silly to scrimp. In my case it meant packing three mirror archives – an older one (that in the end I haven’t needed), the current archive (that includes my WIP) and my photolibrary. Yes, I do use Filecamp, and some of my client’s use Dropbox but I’ve found accessing hard drives quicker than downloading large files over WIFI.
  • Minimise risk. Make sure someone has access your studio, and your desktop computer just in case something goes wrong. My main concern was our server needing a reboot, or a hard drive deciding not to mount. (Thankfully neither have happened.) We also leave photocopies of our passports/credit cards and other documents in the studio, just in case.
  • Research options. Sometimes we get stuck on doing the same things in the same way at home, but that way won’t necessarily work remotely. We used Skype but I’ve kept a note that Tracey Allen, from Liminal Graphics who contacted me after our Paris trip to say that even though her studio is in Hobart, she works from London. Tracey uses Zoom to talk to/present to her studio/clients. You can use it with video and audio, it has a shared screen which makes it perfect for presentations, and it’s more stable that Skype with a lower bandwidth. Tracey said she’s even used it from the back seat of a car while traveling through Turkey (in Europe they have mobile WIFI that you can rent when you rent a car). We’re aiming to use it on the train network through Europe.
  • Contact local designers. It’s not just about work, it’s about meeting people with whom you instantly have a lot in common. Challenges with technology, clients, colleagues and finance are common right across the world, and it’s great to hear how others think/solve/consider their options. Of all the times we have emailed a request to meet we have only been refused once, and that was by an Australian designer working in Paris. (As an aside, it was interesting to talk to Rob Duncan of Mucho design in San Francisco – he had worked in Paris for 12 months and said the reluctance to meet was no surprise to him.) We usually try to have one meeting arranged before we leave Australia, and then ask that designer to suggest a colleague that they think might be interested in meeting us. That’s worked a treat, as has asking designers for out-of-the-way galleries/attractions/shopping that they think we may be of interest.
  • Be flexible. In San Francisco there were some days that I just had to work, in fact I had so much work I had to hire Greg as a (recalcitrant) assistant! On those days, we started early and over breakfast chose a part of San Francisco that we’d not visited previously. We worked in the morning, then made a beeline to the suburb (by public transport rather than walking, because of time) and found a place to spend a leisurely lunch. In good weather a picnic, in bad a pub/restaurant/café, and then we returned home a different route to resume working. We felt like we’d still done something ‘holiday-ey’ while meeting a deadline. It highlighted the value of working in a different time zone (4pm San Francisco was 9am Melbourne time) and hanging out in one place for five weeks.
  • Think domestically. Best case scenario is to find a place that has a washer and dryer, then pack lightly. Greg and I lived in jeans, tshirts and leather jackets in San Francisco. Having a washing machine makes traveling easy – we both travel with a small case and a computer bag, (which I think is pretty impressive for 5 weeks). In New York the laundry was in the basement of the building but other apartments have had either a combined washer/dryer (London and Paris) or both (San Francisco). That said, where Melbourne has nail bars, San Francisco has laundries. There is literally a ‘wash and fold’ laundry on almost every corner, which makes me think most apartments don’t have facilities inhouse.

That’s it for me. I’d love to hear your tips – drop me a line if you’ve got a tried and tested model of traveling for working holidays.


Carol Mackay

Carol is the owner of Mackay Branson, a design studio currently celebrating 31 years in business.  Her expertise is in the use of design to package complex content into bite-sized chunks of information that are easy to understand and digest. She does that with clients in the corporate, cultural, government and not-for-profit sectors. More at