Matt Kepnes runs the award-winning travel site nomadicmatt.com, which helps people travel the world on a budget. He’s the author of the NYT best-seller How to Travel the World on $50 a Day and the travel memoir Ten Years a Nomad. His writings and advice have been featured on CNN and the BBC and in the New York Times, The Guardian, Lifehacker, Budget Travel, Time, and countless other publications. You can follow him on Instagram at @nomadicmatt. When he’s not on the road, he lives in Austin.
Many people think of traveling the world but are hesitant about it. What drove you to quit your job and travel the world instead?
Originally, I started traveling sort of by accident. I was working in hospital administration and had a two-weeks holiday I needed to use.
I booked a tour to Costa Rica and ended up having an amazing time. That trip opened up a whole new world for me. For my next trip, I went further afield and visited Thailand with a friend. Thailand travel was a bit more challenging since we went by ourselves but it was there that I met “backpackers” for the first time.
While in Chiang Mai, we met some backpackers who were traveling the world full time. I didn’t even know that was something you could do! By the time I got back to the US, I had decided I wanted to do what they were doing: I wanted to travel the world.
So, I quit my job to take a gap year that never ended!
You started as a budget traveler, has your travel style changed since you are older now, and run a successful business that can be operated from anywhere?
Generally speaking, my travel style hasn’t changed much. I still backpack and I still travel on a budget. Here and there I’ll stay in hotels instead of hostels since I have lots of free points from travel hacking, but I still mostly prefer hostels, though I now book private rooms instead of dorms. Since my blog is about budget travel, it wouldn’t really fit if I suddenly only stayed in four-star hotels!
The best travel credit cards offer all kinds of perks like lounge access, free flight upgrades and free hotel stays. So, I’ll take advantage of those when I can but budget travel is still the core of how I explore.
That said, I do need to do more research when I travel since I write about saving money in each destination. That means talking to locals, visiting the tourism office, and comparing prices everywhere I go. I take a lot of notes and photographs of prices for blog posts, but otherwise, I still travel the way I used to. The only real change is that I tend to splurge on meals more often since I’m not working on a limited budget but I’d rather street food than a four-star meal any day!
Our perspectives change as we age, but also when we gain new experiences. How has travel changed your perspectives?
Travel never fails to remind me that we are all more alike than we think. Regardless of language or culture, people are people. We all want to be happy and loved and enjoy our life with friends and family.
The majority of people out there are good, decent people who are willing to help you if you need it. Travel is a constant reminder of that.
What is the best and worst experience you have had throughout all your travels?
I can’t say there is just one single “best experience” as I’ve had so many amazing experiences over the years, but one of my favorite memories was when I spent a month on Ko Lipe. It was a quiet island where I met some amazing travelers. We just chilled out for an entire month, enjoying the slow pace of island life. It was incredible.
As for my worst, well, I’d have to say getting stabbed in Colombia takes the cake. Which is a shame because it’s such a beautiful country and I really enjoyed my time there!
What are your best travel tips for new solo travelers?
1. Start travel hacking right away. You can earn free flights and free hotel stays relatively easily — saving you a ton of money in the process.
2. Embrace the sharing economy. Airbnb, Couchsurfing, BlaBlaCar, EatWith — these platforms can connect you directly with locals, who have all kinds of insider tips and advice. Ditch the guidebook and go straight to the source. You’ll have deeper travel experiences and learn way more.
3. Take a free walking tour on arrival. Most cities offer free walking tours. They’re a great budget-friendly way to see the main sights, meet other travelers, and talk with an expert local guide who can answer your questions. Just make sure to tip your guide!
4. Visit the local tourism office. These offices have the most up-to-date information on discounts and deals, making them an amazing resource for finding out the best ways to save during your trip.
How do you balance between work and travel?
I don’t! I learned a long time ago that balancing long-term travel and working full time is a hassle — so I stopped.
These days, I usually don’t do much work when I’m abroad. I’ll do emails and maybe a bit of writing but that’s it. I save everything else for when I’m at home. That way, when I’m abroad I can focus on the experience itself, which then gives me better content for when I get home and start writing.
I’ve found that to be a much better system than trying to juggle both at the same time.
How has the travel blogging industry changed since you started and what will you do differently if you are starting today?
When I first started blogging, there wasn’t a “blogging industry.” There were a handful of blogs and only a handful of travel blogs. That was it. It was the wild west of blogging, which means you could get away with writing anything you wanted. You didn’t need to worry about SEO; you just had to write and share and be genuine.
However, there were virtually no resources out there for support so if you didn’t have the technical skills it could be a huge hassle (I broke my website numerous times).
These days, pretty much everything has changed. There are more blogs, lots of competition, tons of ways to monetize, and every niche imaginable is covered. There is a low bar to entry which means we have more diverse and interesting voices in the business now as well. Starting a blog has never been easier.
What do you think the biggest challenges are for new travel bloggers?
As in any industry, standing out can be a challenge. It requires planning, consistency, the ability to learn new skills, and a narrow niche.
But that has almost always been the case. There may be a lot of travel blogs, but there are not a lot of amazing travel blogs. There is always room for more amazing, talented creators so aim high. Don’t just settle for being another average blog — learn the skills you need to stand out and get noticed. Go narrow and deep with your niche so you can really highlight your expertise. There is plenty of room in the industry for more creators. You just have to find ways to really add value to your audience.
Nomadic Matt is still linked strongly to you as a person. How do you maintain your personal brand and remain authentic after growing from an individual operation to a team?
While I do have a small team helping me behind the scenes, at the end of the day, it’s still me writing the blog posts and newsletters. It’s still me posting on social media. While I have help with editing, scheduling events, and the tech side of things, I’m still involved in the day-to-day operations of everything and all the tips and advice are still based off my own travel experiences. I also don’t do any sponsored content, which keeps the blog firmly rooted in my own experiences and opinions.
You have tried branching into certain extension areas that did not work out ultimately, could you share more about them and the lessons learnt.
Years ago, I tried to sell t-shirts. There seemed to be a lot of demand but when I followed through it turned out there wasn’t as much demand as I thought. I ended up having boxes of shirts in my office for years to come.
I also created a budgeting app to help travelers stay on budget while abroad. It had a successful Kickstarter campaign and, while the app was well received, it turned out it costs a ton of money to keep an app updated. I ended up losing money and shutting the app down.
While these failures were frustrating and disheartening, they were also great teachers. They taught me about the importance of planning and research, about connecting directly with my audience to learn what they are willing to buy — and what they aren’t. Since those failures, I’ve made sure to survey my audience every year to learn what problems they have and where I can help. That way, any financial decisions I make are based on hard data. So far, it seems to be working!
What is your vision for the Nomadic Matt brand?
Before COVID, the team and I were transitioning to a more community-based platform. We were hosting in-person travel events all around the world as a way to connect travelers offline and build a close-knit community.
When COVID hit, we moved those events online. Over the past year, we’ve been hosting several events each week as part of The Nomadic Network. We also launched a Patreon community where members can get all kinds of awesome perks like exclusive photos and stories, free books and guides, and more.
The future of Nomadic Matt is community. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today so I want to do whatever I can to connect people and help them make their travel dreams a reality. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that community matters more than ever. We’re embracing that fact as we move forward.