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Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt

Photo of the book How to Travel the World on $50 a Day.
© Laura Martone.

If you tend toward budget-friendly travel experiences, then you’ve no doubt already heard of Matt Kepnes—an award-winning blogger and well-known globetrotter otherwise known as Nomadic Matt, whose personal and professional mission is to “travel better, cheaper, longer.” While, by his own admission, he didn’t do much traveling as a child, this Boston native and occasional Big Apple resident has, as an adult, certainly made up for lost time. During an eye-opening trip to Costa Rica in 2004, the travel bug bit him hard—and apparently hasn’t released its grip yet.

Following a 2005 trip to Thailand, in fact, Matt quit his job back in the States, finished earning his MBA, and set off to see the world. Although his original trip was only supposed to last a year—long enough to expel this newfound passion for travel from his system—12 months soon turned into 18, and he’s rarely stopped traveling since. Roughly seven years later, he’s still exploring the world and embracing a plethora of unique experiences, from scuba-diving in Fiji to hiking the Grand Canyon to getting lost in a Central American jungle—yikes!

After his first round-the-world adventure, it didn’t take Matt long to start helping others realize their own travel dreams. Through his comprehensive website and popular blog (which he began in 2008), he’s not only shared his passion for travel with others, he’s also spread the belief that everyone should—and can—travel whenever he or she wants to… and not just wait for the perfect convergence of time, money, health, desire, and other favorable circumstances—a convergence that, for most of us, never happens—unless, of course, we make it happen.

As he states in the introduction of his recently released book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day: Travel Cheaper, Longer, Smarter (New York: Perigee Books, 2013, $15), “The greatest lie ever told is that travel is expensive.” He wrote the book, in fact, in order to dispel this widely-believed myth. “I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to tap a trust fund, have your parents pay for you, or win the lottery to travel. Anyone can travel cheaply and comfortably if that person knows the secrets to saving money on the road.”

As a fan of budget travel myself, I can certainly appreciate his belief—and expertise—and I can definitely understand why he’s been quoted by a variety of major media outlets, from National Geographic to the BBC. I have such respect for what he does, in fact, that I’d hoped to interview him for this very blog. I’d wanted to ask him about a variety of things, such as why he decided to get an MBA before embarking on his global adventure, what he considers the advantages and disadvantages of solo travel, how long he plans to be a globetrotter and how supportive his family and friends have been about his nomadic lifestyle, why he chose to share his expertise with others, how many people he’s inspired to travel the world, and what his favorite place is. Given my focus on domestic travel, I was also hoping that he’d be willing to share a few budget-friendly tips for traveling in the United States, as his new book only focuses on Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, Central America, and South America.

But, sadly, he declined my request for an interview. Although I realize that he’s a pretty busy guy these days, I was naturally disappointed. I’d been looking forward to our chat, from one Nomad to another, but I have no doubt that most of the answers to my questions can be found somewhere on his comprehensive website.

In fact, I did discover some helpful advice there pertaining to U.S. travel, which Matt admits isn’t terribly popular among foreigners. For one thing, he says, “it’s a large country without a real tourist infrastructure. Hostels really aren’t big in the United States, trains don’t go a lot of places, and unlike a lot of places, we don’t offer working holiday visas. Moreover, round-the-world tickets only stop in L.A. or NYC.”

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for taking a road trip across America, a country that boasts, in Matt’s words, a “lot of national parks, a diverse geography, culture, music, and great regional food.” As someone who’s lived in New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, South Padre Island, northern Michigan, the Florida Keys, and many other wonderful places throughout America, I can attest to Matt’s perspective. According to him, bargains are also easy to find here, from urban hostels and couchsurfing opportunities to cheap food and money-saving national park passes. Happily, he also recommends several of my favorite destinations, including Boston, New York City, the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Lakes, Chicago, California, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans, the Florida Keys, Disney World, and, of course, Washington, DC.

Even though Matt’s new book doesn’t cover U.S. travel, I still consider it useful for domestic travelers—if only for the inspiration that he provides as well as his assurance that anyone can travel, no matter how small the budget in question. In the first chapter, “Getting Over Your Fears,” Matt even dispels many travel myths with the following words of encouragement:

You aren’t the first person to travel abroad.

You are just as capable as everyone else.

The world isn’t as dangerous as the media says.

You will make friends.

You are never too old.

You can always come back.

Beyond the introduction and three helpful appendices about travel companies, packing suggestions, and vaccinations, the book itself is divided into three major parts: “Planning Your Trip,” “On-the-Road Expenses,” and “Breaking It Down by Region.” In essence, it’s a more compact version of his blog, with so many handy travel tips that I’d have to write my own book just to list them all here. Suffice it to say, though, I highly recommend this book to novice travelers and veteran globetrotters alike, and I’m extremely grateful that I was given the chance to review it for you. After all, it’s almost guaranteed to teach you a few new tricks for saving money—before and during your next big trip.

I, for one, learned lots of things while reading Matt’s book, including how to use money-making credit cards, find cheaper airline tickets, secure reputable travel insurance, avoid money-sucking pitfalls such as traveler’s checks, and save money on accommodations, food, transportation, and activities in a variety of countries, from France to Thailand to Costa Rica. I also appreciated his inclusion of other travelers’ advice and experiences to help illustrate and validate his own tips; after all, the world is filled with equally knowledgeable bloggers (such as Sean and Dawn Lynch of WanderingWhy, Nora Dunn of the The Professional Hobo, Michael Hodson of Go See Write, and my fellow SATW member Gary Arndt of Everything Everywhere) who are more than ready and willing to dispense useful tips to the masses.

Admittedly, though, not all tips work for all travelers. An older couple, for instance, might not feel comfortable sleeping in a hostel filled with rowdy teenagers, and I, for one, would probably never feel at ease about hitchhiking, just to save a few dollars. But, overall, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day is quite a beneficial resource—filled with humor, enthusiasm, and oodles of practical details. Within its pages, Matt also clarifies that not every place will cost only $50 a day. As he explains throughout the book and reiterates in his “Putting It All Together” chapter, you’re likely to spend an average of $25 daily in Southeast Asia and $100 daily in Scandinavia, but if you follow Matt’s money-saving advice, the presumption is that it will all even out in the end. Of course, one of his most enlightening observations is that we often spend a lot more than $50 daily at home—which is why putting your stuff in storage and traveling the globe for a year might not be as farfetched as you may think.

Lastly, I should point out that his suggested packing list—culled from years of experience—has proven to be fairly helpful, although there are, at least for me, several items missing, such as sunglasses, a hat, my favorite hoodie, and a notebook. Of course, to keep my luggage light, I could always do what Matt suggests and “simply buy what I need on the road.” It seems like my husband, Dan, has been dispensing that same advice for years; after all, he’s a light packer, too.