Matt Kepnes (otherwise know as Nomadic Matt) has been travelling the world and writing about his escapades since 2005. Although a self professed Japanophile, he's travelled to over 40 countries and has ammassed a wealth of knowledge about not just travelling on the cheap, but how to get the most out every country he travels to. Matt has just launched a new book "How to travel the world on $50 a day".
Kate Hoffman, our Editorial Producer, sat down (albeit virtually) to ask this Nomadic fellow about what he's learned over the years and how he's trying to support other travellers.
What came first, a passion for writing about travel or a need to find a way to sustain your travel desire?
My passion for travel drove me to writing. I wanted to find a way to keep traveling and becoming a travel writer seemed like a good way to do that. So I started my blog in hopes of becoming one. It was more of an afterthought. What could I do to keep myself on the road and guidebook writer seemed like a good one. Then the blog took off and I could sustain myself that way. I'm happy it worked out.
Do you think independent travellers focus too much on tallying the countries they've been to, as opposed to travelling more slowly and getting under the skin of a destination?
I think that really depends on the person. Some view the world as a checklist, some don't. Most don't. I think most people who go out traveling for awhile want to get to know places deeply not just check off some list. For me, I don't have a right speed. I travel at the pace I want to go. Sometimes that means I'll be in a city for two days, sometimes two weeks. I stay in a place until I feel I've seen enough and am ready to move on. I think that's the best way to do it. That way there's no pressure and you go at a pace that makes you happy.
That being said, in travel less is more and the ones that get travel for what it is tend to travel slowly, not just take photos of places and check places off some list.
What is the longest you've spent in one place while travelling? What kept you there?
I spent about 9 months in Thailand teaching English in Bangkok. I was originally there to learn some Thai but then I decided I wanted to travel longer and I ended up getting a teaching job and staying there. I hated the city at first but I grew to love it the more I stayed there and I just never wanted to leave. Now I go back to the city every year for months at a time. Bangkok has a hold on me.
How important is it for you to connect with locals when you travel?
Connecting with locals is the reason to travel. For me travel is about getting to know how the world works and how people think. I want to understand other cultures and the only way to do that is to meet the locals. The more I can do that, the better I can understand the people and places I came to visit.
Independent travel can sometimes be a lonely experience, what advice could you give to someone on how to best make local connections when taking the slow travel approach?
There are many great ways to meet locals. I never feel like I am alone because there are so many people traveling on the road. I never really find myself lonely. Lonely means depressed. I'm never lonely but I am often alone and when I need to find people there are many ways to meet people. My three favorite are: Couchsurfing is a great site for this. This site has meet-ups, group events, and people who might not give you their couch but will gladly meet you for coffee and show you around. The Ghetto Gourmet is a place where people have underground restaurants and group dinners. Essentially, strangers get together and eat dinner at someone’s home “restaurant.” Meetup.com is another great site for meeting people. This site where you can meet people with the same interests as you but in a foreign country!
What personal skills do you think you've developed over the years from travelling and connecting with different cultures?
I've definitely grown as a person. Traveling has definitely changed me. Over the years, I've become more confident, better able to have a conversation with strangers, and especially the ability to read people. When you can't speak the local language, you have to learn to read non-verbal cues and get by without language. That's been one of the greatest skills travel has taught me - how to communicate without speaking the local language.
Do you think you'll ever settle into a "fixed life"?
Well, I have settled down. I now have an apartment in NYC and I'm traveling less. I'm more semi-nomadic at the moment. I'm ready for that though. After 6.5 years of being on the move, I look forward to having a place to come back to, regular friends to call, a gym, and a fully stocked kitchen. After so many years traveling solo, I'm ready to move on to the next phase of my life. We all grow up eventually.
Your book "How to travel the world on $50 a day" has just been published. How much does money impact on the experiences you have when you travel?
The important thing is value. It's not about about the price you pay but about the value you get. Too many travelers are worried about the absolute dollar amount of what they are purchasing and don't look at value. I don't want to spend money and the book is about finding ways to avoid spending money but more importantly, the book is about finding value. It doesn't if something is 10 cents or 10 dollars if that's the maximum reward you can get at that price. A tour may cost 200 dollars but if it's the cheapest available option, it will be lots of fun, and everything is included in that price, then that's a good value tour. Similarly a hostel that is 10 dollars might be worse than a hostel that is 15 if you have pay for your sheets, there is no breakfast, and the beds are uncomfortable.
Do you think you can travel cheap and not be a cheapskate? Have you haggled with someone over 50 cents and felt shitty afterwards?
Traveling on a budget isn't about being cheap, it's about finding value and getting the most for your money. It's about being frugal. You need to think about the big picture and budget according to what you want to do. Is saving a few dollars worth that 3 hour extra long bus ride? Probably not. I don't haggle with people over small amounts of money. If I'm at a market, I'll haggle per local customs but the local needs that extra dollar more than I do and so I don't get too caught up about overpaying. I'm not a local. I'll always overpay.
Whats the best travel experience you've had for free?
I've had many great "free" experiences. The best travel experiences are always the ones in which you are interacting with people and doing what you love. There was that time I got to go to a Greek festival in a tiny village, the Cambodian birthday party I went to, or the month I spent living on an island in Thailand. I don't think I can pick just one experience that stands out from the rest. All these experiences stand out because they allowed me to step off the tourist trail and see the local way of life.
What's next for Nomadic Matt?
I'm currently living in NYC. This summer I plan to start offering tours and a blogger business course. And of course, more travel! But for most of the summer I'll be staying put in NYC and just enjoying my new home. I haven't been home in a lot because of my recent book tour promoting the book.
If you're keen to learn more about stretching your travel dollar further, head on over to Nomadic Matt and check out his book.