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Back in 2015, I remember planning my third trip to Europe, only this time with my best friend. While at the time the only research I did was the weather, where to stay, and flights, my friend combed the internet for details on fashion, budget travel, and more. She stumbled upon sites that I still love and refer back to this day such as The Blonde Abroad and Nomadic Matt. She kept talking about this book called How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, that the founder of Nomadic Matt, Matt Kepnes, wrote for budget travelers. If I had known then that in 3 short years I would’ve changed my entire career path and actually met the people behind these blogs, learned from them, and started my own blog and business, I would never have believed it. And yet, here we are.
Back in September, I had the pleasure of meeting Matt Kepnes, aka Nomadic Matt, while attending his conference in Austin, TravelCon. Matt has been traveling the world for over 10 years, blogging about his adventures, teaching others how to do the same, and even creating and fostering a community of bloggers, vloggers, and more. He’s an author, travel expert, and has been featured on several publications such as the New York Times, CNN, National Geographic, Huffington Post, and more. So today, I’m getting an insight into his life, advice, business, and travels that I hope you will use and enjoy as well.
1. Tell us about yourself. What is your background, and how did you get started?
Hey everyone! My name is Matt and I run the budget travel website nomadicmatt.com, a site that is dedicated to helping people travel cheaper, better, and longer. I started blogging 10 years ago as a way to get my foot into the travel industry.
After going to college and grinding away at the 9-5, I needed a break. I booked a trip to Thailand with a friend for a short getaway. It was there that I met a group of backpackers who gave me my first introduction to long-term travel. They showed me that you didn’t need to be rich to travel the world — you just need the right mindset and the courage to take the leap.
After finishing my MBA, I quit my job and headed out to travel the world. I started my blog as a way to showcase my writing and keep my friends and family up to date on my adventures. I had hoped that my blog would act as a sort of resume, helping me secure travel writing jobs as I globetrotted about. I wanted to work for Lonely Planet back then, envisioning myself as the romanticized travel writer. I figured I could find a way to get paid to gallivant around the world while I shared stories of places far and wide. While that didn’t exactly pan out, my website started to become popular and so I gave up my Lonely Planet dreams and focused on building my own business. It wasn’t easy, but being my own boss gave me the freedom to see the world on my own terms. And while I never did get to write a travel guide for Lonely Planet, I have written over a dozen of my own books and travel guides. So, while things didn’t go as planned they nevertheless worked out for the best!
2. What is your biggest travel hack?
I think my biggest travel hack is actually learning how to travel hack! Sure, I could share some travel tips about how to pack or how to find cheap flights but the best way to level up your travels is to start collecting points and miles. There are some amazing travel rewards credit cards available these days that can help you earn free flights and free accommodation — all without any extra spending. All you need to do is apply for one of these travel credit cards and start putting your daily spending on them. Going grocery shopping? Use the travel credit card! Need a new phone? Use the travel credit card!
Not only that, but many cards come with some additional perks, such as access to exclusive events, lounge access at airports, free insurance, and much more! So, whether you’re an avid traveler or just someone who travels once or twice a year, you should start collecting points and miles. Because who doesn’t want a free flight?
Even if it takes you a year to earn the points, cutting the costs of a flight is the best way to travel more often!
3. What, in your opinion, is the most romantic destination you’ve ever traveled to?
I think this is a very subjective question, but if you ask me I think I would have to say Paris. I know, that’s the stereotypical answer but it’s like that for a reason! Paris is one of my favorite cities in the world. The history, the food, the culture — Paris has it all. Wondering what to do in Paris as a couple? You can spend some time strolling along the Seine and then have a picnic in the grass underneath the Eiffel Tower. To end the evening, head up to Montmartre and watch the sunset or enjoy a bottle of wine in a candlelit restaurant. And if you’re feeling extra romantic you can sip champagne at the top of the Eiffel Tower itself (it’s not cheap and it’s a bit touristy, but it’s still a fun, romantic activity!).
Of course, you can do all this as a solo traveler or with friends too (I certainly have!).
4. What areas would you recommend traveling to for the best value?
I think one of the best places for budget travel is Southeast Asia. It gives you the most bang for your buck out of any place in the world. It’s cheap as hell! Not only that, but it has everything you’d want in a destination: delicious food, tons of activities, great beaches, and an awesome nightlife. To top it all off, it’s generally safer than other budget travel regions and super easy to get around so it’s a great place for new budget travelers to test the waters.
To narrow it down even more, I’d have to say the best budget travel destination is Thailand. I’ve loved the country since I first visited years ago. I’ve been back more times than I can count, and I even lived there for a while. If you’re looking for value, this is my top pick!
5. Why do you travel? Has that changed from when you started? If so, how?
I don’t think my reason for traveling has changed much over the years. At the end of the day, I still travel to experience different cultures, meet new people, and to try new things. I travel because it offers endless new opportunities as well as a chance to grow and learn. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good routine. Routines give me a chance to be productive and offer up a greater sense of security. But after a while, I feel that desire to get back on the road. I think that’s a feeling many people share, which is why travel (and long-term-travel) has become a big part of many people’s lives. Sure, from time to time I might also travel somewhere new because it’s a destination my readers want to learn more travel tips about. But at the end of the day, my why is still the same: I travel because I love it!
6. During TravelCon, you mentioned that you only try to work 40 hours a week. How do you keep work and life separate and balanced as a business owner?
When I first started out I was working far more than 40 hours a week. When you’re your own boss it can be really easy to overwork and constantly be on the clock, grinding away at your laptop until the middle of the night. And while you might get a lot done, that’s just not a sustainable way to live. Sure, you might make more money but at what cost? You’re far more likely to get stressed and burn out — and I can tell you that from experience.
Having dealt with anxiety myself, I eventually realized that I had to make a more conscious effort when it comes to balancing my work and my personal life. These days, I make a conscious effort to make sure I have time off, that I get enough sleep, and that I eat well. Because all of these factors will contribute to a higher quality of work. When you’re rested and refreshed, you’re going to be much more engaged in your job and much more passionate about it. If you’re constantly exhausted and running on empty you’re just going to burn out and the quality of your work will drop significantly.
So, when it comes to balancing your work and life, think long term. Think sustainable habits. Because if you want to start a blog you need to be in it for the long haul. Success doesn’t happen overnight. It comes gradually. And the only way you will make it to the finish line is if you’re able to balance your work and your personal life.
7. Now knowing that there are thousands upon thousands of travel blogs out there, how do you recommend standing out in the crowd? What are other great mediums of relaying travel stories and information that you would recommend?
While there are a lot of travel blogs out there, there is still plenty of room for new bloggers. Think of the blogging industry like you would the restaurant industry. There is always room for another great restaurant because a new restaurant means more options for you to explore. Sure, you don’t want another boring old restaurant but if it’s something new that offers unique food or a unique atmosphere then everyone is happy. The same applies to blogging. You need to offer something unique, something fresh. Nobody wants just another boring and generic blog, but if you can offer your audience a unique perspective then you will be able to grow and flourish. It won’t happen overnight, but there is definitely still room for new travelers to start a blog.
8. How has your blog and business evolved from a travel blog to a resource for many other travelers and bloggers? Did you envision this from the beginning?
I definitely did not envision that from the beginning! Back when I was learning how to start a blog, I did so because I wanted to be a travel writer. My goal wasn’t to run a blog — blogs were still brand new back then — but to use my blog as a platform to highlight my travel writing. I wanted to write guidebooks for Lonely Planet so I figured a blog might be a good place to collect my writings. I had hoped to one day become something of a cross between Bill Bryson and Anthony Bourdain, but that didn’t exactly pan out!
As my blog became popular I started to realize that I didn’t need to become a travel writer in the traditional sense. I could simply grow my blog into a resource and platform of its own. I started to focus more and more on my website, and after a couple of years, it became my full-time job. Fast forward 10 years later and not only do I run a budget travel website but I also manage an online school that teaches people how to start a blog, I’ve started a charity, and I host a yearly travel conference. So while I never ended up being a travel writer for Lonely Planet, I was still able to carve my own path and get to where I wanted to be.
9. What is the biggest piece of advice that you can give to travelers?
While there are a ton of important tips travelers need to be aware of, from learning a bit of the local language to making sure they buy travel insurance, at the end of the day my biggest piece of advice is just to remind people to get out there and actually travel! Far too often we will talk about all the places we want to go and the things we want to do, yet too many people leave their travel dreams on the backburner. We have all these ideas and dreams, but too often they remain just that: dreams.
My biggest piece of advice to people is to get out there are make those dreams a reality. Figure out where you want to go, make a plan, create a budget, and start preparing. Travels don’t just happen — they require effort. If you’re serious about traveling, don’t just tell yourself that you’ll travel someday. Get specific and set a date. Where do you want to travel? How long will you travel for? How much money do you need? If you don’t create an actionable plan then there is a good chance you’ll never make those travels a reality. So, start planning today! Ask yourself, “What is something I can do TODAY to bring me one step closer to my travels?” Because the sooner you start preparing, the sooner those travel dreams will become your reality!
10. What is your biggest travel mistake? What did you learn from it for future travels?
I’ve made tons of travel mistakes over the years — and continue to make them to this day! I think no traveler is immune to them, no matter how experienced. To err is human, after all!
Some of my travel mistakes include booking plane tickets for the wrong day, almost going to the wrong airport, not bringing shorts on a trip to a tropical destination, forgetting to book accommodation during the busiest season of the year, and almost forgetting to buy travel insurance before my trip.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! I’ve also been lost in the jungles of Costa Rica and I blew my eardrum scuba diving due to a rookie mistake. So travel mistakes happen, they are unavoidable. The best you can do is roll with the punches, learn your lessons, and keep on traveling!
11. If you could redo any experience again, what would it be and why? Would you change anything about your past travels?
I don’t think I’d change anything about my past travels, to be honest. While there were plenty of frustrating experiences, misadventures, and even some injuries I think those have all helped shape me into the traveler I am today. I’ve learned a lot of lessons during the course of my travels — many the hard way — but it was those tough experiences that also made me appreciate my travels a lot more.
More often than not, it’s in those challenging experiences where we learn the most about ourselves. Social media has a tendency to paint travel as some non-stop series of amazing, uplifting experiences. But that’s not realistic. Just like in your everyday life, travel will also bring you frustration and irritation and complications. You will get lost, you will get scammed, you’ll miss flights — this is all par for the course. While getting a chance to re-do some of these things might be nice, at the end of the day we only appreciate what we have because of the struggles we have overcome to get where we are. Without the challenges – without the journey — how can we appreciate when things go right?
So embrace the challenges. Learn from them. Grow from them. Travel is an amazing personal development tool. It’s a great teacher. All you have to do is pay attention!
I want to thank Matt Kepnes for being so kind and participating in this interview. You can follow along with his adventures at nomadicmatt.com as well as learn more blogging resources!
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