To Kindle or not to Kindle: are ebooks worth the investment for travelers?

Remember how in third grade there were cheesy signs all over your classroom that said things like,"Reading is rad!" or "Dive into an excellent adventure: Read a book!"?

No? Well, maybe the Ninja Turtles and Bill and Ted weren't the height of coolness when you were eight...

But reading is rad!

And we should all probably be doing much more of it. 

So, if you are about to sell all your stuff (or shove it into a closet at your parents' home) and try to make it as a digital nomad in Southeast Asia, you should be considering where you are going to get your books.

Cause how else are you going to entertain yourself?

TV? Rooms with a TV are more expensive, and you need to keep to a budget!

Netflix? Contrary to what they will tell you, it doesn't work in every country!

Illegally downloading stuff? We thought we were nomads, not pirates...

Nope. You are going to be using books, otherwise known as those things that are the inspiration for all the best movies and shows.

And books come in four very broad categories:

-Paper books (the oldie but goodie)
-Kindle (everyone's favorite e-reader/subscription service)
-Other e-readers (no one's favorite e-reader, this includes your phone)

One half of us, Warren, loves him some Audiobooks. But unfortunately, they are usually a little too expensive for life on a strict budget. Besides, podcasts are free and there are some pretty solid ones out there.

Having a few backup books on your phone is always a good idea. Most major e-book providers will let you download some classics for free, and having something, anything, to read will come in handy at some point while traveling. But, can we all agree that reading a book on your phone (or ipad) isn't ideal for normal day-to-day reading? It wastes battery life, is hard on your eyes, and if you are in public place, the last thing you want to do is bust out your thousand dollar ipad in front of everyone.

If you love the Nook, then congratulations. Have fun with your betamax, minidisc player, and blackberry while you are at it. ;)

Before we dive into the meat and potatoes of this thing, we would like to quickly address one thing: We are not considering any sort of aesthetic or philosophical preferences. If you just "like the feel of paper in your hands," then cool! Absolutely nothing wrong with that, you do you. There are loads of forums and websites that have dealt with the question of which one is qualitatively better, and we don't think the internet really needs another. We are considering the two formats of reading, Kindle and paper, to be on equal footing in every regard except price and convenience.

The rest of this article is going to attempt to answer this one question:

Which book format is better while traveling? Paper or Kindle?

"So, why don't you compare price and convenience for Kindle with Kindle Unlimited, Kindle without Kindle Unlimited, and paper books obtained in Southeast Asia."

Alright, we were getting to that!

Note: All prices are in US dollars.

Kindle w/ Unlimited

$60-270 for the Kindle + $10/month for Kindle Unlimited service

Assuming 1 book read/week, not an unreasonable assumption while traveling, then:  

$180-390/1 year 
$300-510/2 years 
$420-630/3 years

There are over a million titles available to the Kindle Unlimited user. And that's a lot. Unfortunately, many of these titles are self-published books by authors that, while they may be very talented, are unlikely to appear on any bestseller's lists. Recently Amazon has added some more popular titles, with Harry Potter and the Hunger Games leading the charge, but most reads will still be picked exclusively on their cover/description and not good word-of-mouth or popularity.

Customers are allowed to download 10 books at a time, although they can still purchase books at full price and store the promised 1,000s on the Kindle.

Kindle Unlimited is country specific and does not exist in many countries. So, as an example, if you purchase a Kindle Unlimited plan in the US you would not be able to use it in Malaysia.
However, as far as we can tell, if you were to maintain your payment for the service from an American account and only online access Kindle Unlimited via a computer utilizing a VPN (Virtual Private Network) and then download books to the Kindle via a USB (as compared to utilizing the Kindle's wireless feature) from the computer, then it should work. This means that you need to have a computer while traveling, something many people do anyway.

Kindle w/o Unlimited

$60-270 for the Kindle, depending on type and whether or not it comes with ads
$1-16 for each book, with more recent and popular books generally on the high end

Assuming 1 book read/week, not an unreasonable assumption while traveling, then:  

$108-1,038/1 year 
$156-1,806/2 years 
$204-2,574/3 years

Owning a Kindle means you will never be without a book ever again. It can store thousands of books that are readily available to the user in a moments notice.

More and more, Amazon has attempted to diversify its Kindle program by adding magazines, comics, and attempting to combine its Kindle program to its Audible program. This last addition means that for one price a person can purchase both the ebook and audiobook of the same work, allowing the user to switch back and forth between the two editions depending on what is convenient at the time. Unfortunately, as commuting is the event in many people's daily life that is benefited most by this merger, allowing someone to listen to a book on the way home from work and then, once home, pick up a text copy of the same book, this convenience does not add too much to the process of traveling and working on a computer.

Easily, the biggest advantage to the Kindle is the availability to content. If money is no option, nearly every book, as well as an increasing amount of other content, a person could want is available.

Paper books

Free-$3 depending if found in a book exchange or purchased in used book shop

Assuming 1 book read/week, not an unreasonable assumption while traveling, then:

Free-$144/1 year
Free-$288/2 years 
Free-$432/3 years

The two biggest drawbacks to relying upon book exchanges and bookstores for your books are a lack of a variety of content and the potential infrequency in finding them.

We have seen book exchanges where all the books were in Danish, which we don't read, and others where all the books were only of one genre, one we weren't a fan of. However, these examples have been outliers and most book exchanges have had at least multiple, if not dozens, of books within our language limitations and in genres that piqued our interest.

Bookstores, even ones that primarily sell books in the local language, have reliably had at least some used books available in English.

If, on rare occasions, a nomad was staying in a location that did not have a book exchange in a city that did not have a bookstore, they could quickly use social media to locate other nomads willing to trade books. This assumes that the nomad is still being a nomad, thus living in a city that is large enough and on the beaten path enough to have the internet.

"Um... okay? How about some summaries?"

When we first started planning for traveling as digital nomads, we genuinely had no idea how much we were going to read. We knew it was going to be more than we had been reading, but how much more?

So, with that in mind, we decided to put off the decision of buying a Kindle until at least December 2017 (the month in which this was written), which was about the 6 month mark of our leaving Australia and beginning this new life. This decision was based on one, pretty irrefutable, fact: Buying a Kindle costs more than not buying a Kindle. And we were recently unemployed and looking to save those pennies.

As we started traveling, we did exactly what many people's instinct are going to be to do; we brought a lot of books with us.

These books were purchased at full price in the States (in one case, it was borrowed from a friend, which was nice!), and represented a large percentage of our baggage weight on the flight from LAX.

Once we arrived in Bali, our first place had three or four interesting books left by a previous guest. Not knowing if this was an anomaly or not, we eagerly switched all of our read books for as many of these new books as we could.

The next place only had books in Danish... but within a few weeks we had made friends with other travelers and their places had books that were in English! So, we traded out a few more (and added a few English books to our place as well).

After this, we became more and more comfortable with the abundance of book exchanges and stopped hoarding piles of books. Suddenly, our baggage weighed a lot less!

Once, on a whim, we purchased three books from a bookstore for about $2/book, but beyond that 100% of all of our books have come from exchanges.

Beyond the obvious benefit of having only spent $6 on books since last summer while always having a new book to read, we have also discovered a few other cool things.

1. Sometimes, when presented with a lack of options, you end up reading a book you normally wouldn't have read and find out you really enjoyed it! Classic French stuff (translated, duh) or historical works are just two examples of things we normally wouldn't have bothered with but have recently read.

2. When TV is not an option, we both read differently than we did before. Monica began reading in small chunks throughout the day and just before bed. Warren began to read in spurts, sometimes not reading for days at a time and then following that with a few days in a row of long, marathon length, reading sessions.

3. The weight of one book while traveling, taking a bus or plane, counts as zero. A book is something you keep on your person, not in your bag. Usually in your hand or the seat-back in front of you.

But, we are not a few things that perhaps you are!

To us, the value of a book becomes zero as soon as it is read. The value is found exclusively in the potential of unread information. Thus, when we are finished reading a book, we cannot get rid of it soon enough.

But to some others, the action of collecting the books is in itself something that gives pleasure. While reading them may still be very important to these people, having them available either as a resource or simply to be gazed upon and comforted by their very existence is paramount.

Also, we are not picky readers. Left to our own devices, we have our preferred genres, but we never minded much straying to other subjects. The key to a good book is that it is good, not that it includes dragons or murder or is based on real life.

But many people, often from years trial and error and many unfinished books, have learned they like reading to be a very specific thing. For instance, maybe a person has discovered that they only enjoy and give value to a book it if it is historical and true, and maybe someone else has learned that reading is best described as an escape from daily life that should be facilitated by some dragon fueled fantasy novels.

"Alright already, can you stop the rambling and actually get to some sort of point?"

Pushy pushy!

As we see it, there are exactly three reasons why a person should bring a Kindle with them while traveling as a digital nomad:

1. They already own one and it is loaded with books.

2. They need to collect things to be happy, and a digital book is one of the few collectible things that doesn't add weight to their packs.

3. They are especially picky.

If you do not fall into any of these categories, or even if you might but aren't 100% sure of it (remember, your reading habits will change in a world without TV), then we recommend...

"Wait, are you about to get to a conclusion?"

Chill with the interrupting!

Our Recommendation:

Don't get a Kindle.

Trust us, you will find plenty to read throughout your trips.


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