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Traveling the World on $50 a Day: On the Road with Matt Kepnes

This is a traveler case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Popular traveler “Nomadic Matt” is no stranger to most of our community. For the past nine years, he’s been traveling the world, reporting on budget strategies from dozens of countries. This week he has a new book out, and I thought we’d check in to see how he got started.

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Matt and I’ve been traveling the world since 2006. I wasn’t a big traveler growing up—I never even took an overseas trip until after college. My life was very regimented before that first trip to Costa Rica: commute, work, gym, TV, sleep, repeat.

Costa Rica was the exact opposite of that life. Everyday was different. I was trying new things, meeting new people, and exposed to lifestyles I had never encountered before. And I was free. Before I started traveling, I was undecided: I went to school to be a teacher, ended up in working in health care, went on to earn an MBA. After a trip to Thailand, it became clear that the cubicle life was not for me. I was suddenly quite decisive, and I hit the road.

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What inspired you to travel full time?

I took a trip to Thailand in 2005. While in Chiang Mai, I took a shared taxi up with five backpackers and as we started talking, I realized they were living my dream. They had the lifestyle I wanted. A week later, on a beach in Ko Samui, I turned to my friend and said, “I’m going to go home and quit my job.” That night I walked to the English language bookstore and bought Lonely Planet’s Guide to Southeast Asia. Buying that book was the “no going back” moment for me.

How do you pay for your trips? Are you a travel hacker? 

I’m an avid travel hacker and a lot of my travels are funded via the art of getting and spending points and miles. I earn points through credit card sign-ups, online shopping portals, and manufactured spending. I’ve earned millions of points and miles over the years, though since I just spent 500k I only have a couple hundred thousand banked at the moment.

I also earn money as a travel writer, and as Chris mentioned, I just published the second edition of my book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day.

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Tell us a bit about traveling on $50 a day.

Traveling the world on $50 is as much a philosophy as it is sticking to a number. You want to aim for getting more for less: maximize value through using the sharing economy for free travel, finding flight deals, and using the plethora of information out there to save more.

Smart travel includes everything from picking the right credit cards to avoid bank fees, getting city passes to save on accommodations, and unearthing local only websites where you can get up to date lists of cheap activities.

Do you have an encounter from the road that sticks out in your mind?  

In the British Virgin Islands, I hitchhiked around on sailboats for a month. On the island of Jost Van Dyke, a friend and I met two guys at a bar. They were sailing down from North Carolina. Many rum drinks later, the guys offered to give us a lift to the next island. We ended up spending a whole week with them. They taught us how to sail—and in return, we bought the beer and cooked dinner.

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The great debate: aisle or window?

Window.

What has surprised you on the road?

I’m not special or unique in my nomadic lifestyle. I had envisioned myself as a modern Indian Jones doing something few people ever did and trying hard to navigate unknown cultures where I’d be the lone foreigner.

But the opposite is true. There was a well trodden tourist trail all over the world and, while some destinations are harder than others, there’s always a way to get to your next destination and someone to help you out. The commonality of what I’m doing is very comforting. It’s made my lifestyle seem not as crazy.

Best travel tip. Go!

Be flexible in where and when you want to travel.

The more flexible you are, the easier it is to get deals and travel cheaper. If you’re stuck on going to only one place on one set date, you’ll have to pay the price. If you’re willing to go anywhere, you can explore wherever has a deal.

Where are you headed next?

With the release of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, I will be driving across the country on an epic road to do a multi-city book tour over five months (come say “hi!” if I’m in your town). I’ll be visiting over 40 cities in twenty-two states. I’m excited to see the country, share my story, and meet other travelers!

Follow Matt’s journey at Nomadic Matt or via Twitter @nomadicmatt.

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