Welcome to Influencers!
Everyone says they want to be a travel writer, exploring the world seeking out new cultures and running a nomadic business but Matt Kepnes is one of the few people who have actually been able to do it. Discover his approach to living life on the road, and how you can see more of the world for less.
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Exploring the world on $50 a day
The World’s Most Famous Nomadic Traveler And Writer Nomadic Matt
Welcome back, listeners. For those of you who’ve figured it out, we are sitting with Nomadic Matt, the incredible travel expert and author of a New York Times bestseller. Matt, tell us all about yourself.
Thanks for having me, Jon. It’s good to be here. About me, my name is Matt Kepnes and I run the budget travel website, NomadicMatt.com. I am author, CEO, writer, webmaster, jack of all trades guy for the website. I’ve been doing it since 2008, so nine and a half years now. It’s been pretty good. I got into it accidentally. I didn’t grow up in a very travel-exciting household. My dad, even though he was a hippie backpacker in the ‘70s, didn’t really travel much when he had me and my sister. Our most exciting trips were to see my grandmother in Florida. I saw a lot of road trips to Florida. Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens and Disney, that’s about as crazy as it got. We did go on a cruise once when I was in high school. Growing up, my family was never really into travel and I didn’t get into travel until I was 23, recent college grad, 9 to 5 job working in healthcare in a hospital with two weeks’ vacation a year. I was like, “Now I’m an adult. I have a 401(k),” which still is empty, “I have two weeks’ vacation, I have sick time. The American Dream tells me that I should go somewhere.” I tried to call a buddy of mine to go to Australia. He eventually backed out. I ended up in Costa Rica. While I was in Costa Rica, it was really where I developed a passion for travel because there, every day was different. My life in Boston was so regimented: commuting, office, gym, TV, dinner. Costa Rica was a wake-up call. Every day was different. I was doing exciting things, meeting people from around the world. I loved every moment of it and I never wanted that to end. From then on, I was just hooked on travel. I’ve been a nomad ever since.
When people hear your story, what’s the most common question they ask?
There’s always like a tri-factor. It’s, A) What did your parents think of this? B) How did you save money for this? C) How did you organize such a trip? They usually say this in rapid succession.
What are the answers?
My parents hated it. They didn’t want me to go. There was, “Are you going to be safe? What are you going to do? Are you going to live? This is terrible. We’re going to miss you. What about work, your career?” Eventually, they stopped pestering me about it thinking that I probably forgot. A month later, before I was going, I was like, “One month to go, yes, I’m leaving,” and then there was like, “No, no, don’t go.” For many years, my parents still felt that way. Now they’re excited that I have a real job but still wish I lived at home for the rest of my entire life. It’s always like, “When are you coming home?” “I am home. I live in New York now.” “No, home-home, Boston is your home.” That’s what they sell me. My parents are really good at Jewish guilt.
I was going to ask if you have a Jewish mother because it sounds that way, if she wants you to live at home for the rest of your life.
I have a Jewish mother and a father who has become more like an old Jewish mother the older he gets.
When people hear this, I’m assuming what they’re really asking is, “How do I do it?” Everybody always talks about like, “I want to be a travel writer. That sounds so exciting.” I wrote a book while traveling called The 2 AM Principle, so I actually know it’s not nearly as sexy as people think it is. It’s interesting. First of all, if people actually want to do it, what are your recommendations?
I started this for the same reason a lot of people want to do it. It sounds sexy. Here I was, a backpacker traveling the world. Then it was like, “I’m running out of money. I want to get paid to travel, what’s a good job that I could do that? Travel writer.” Sounds pretty good. I will become a travel writer. All it takes is just say you are one and you are one, but to succeed, it’s a lot harder than it looks because everybody wants to do it, so there are tons and tons of competition. Nowadays, with everybody Instagramming and YouTubeing and blogging, to really become successful in this new internet economy environment, you really need to go deep. You need to be an expert in one part of the globe. Be an expert in New York City, be an expert in Saskatchewan. It’s not enough to go wide. You have to really focus and go deep.
I’d also say that it’s a lot more work than you’d think. If you want to be a guidebook writer, it’s not just like, “I’m going to go check out this stuff and write about it.” It’s, “I have to find five hotels,” and you’re sleeping in a different place every night. Sometimes you don’t even sleep at the place. You just book a room to see what it’s like and then sleep somewhere else and then you leave the next day to go to a different city. A lot of what I do is going into grocery stores and then writing down prices. People don’t think of a travel writer as going to Whole Foods and copying down how much is a pound of tomatoes.
It’s so funny because people are always like, “You were in thirteen countries this summer?” I’m like, “Yeah, and I ran a company and I have a full-time job.” It means that when I wake up, I’m not going sightseeing. What I’m doing is answering 100 emails, writing another article or designing an experience, making sure that my team has all the answers they need to do their job. Maybe for lunch, I get to hop out for two hours to see some place. Then because of the nature of what I write about, I end up having to go out until 2, 3 in the morning and then be up at 8:00 again the next day completely exhausted. It’s fun and it’s engaging, but my hunch is you’d agree with this, it’s not nearly as sexy as people think it is.
Definitely not. The grass is always greener on the other side. We think of travel writer as like always an Anthony Bourdain kind of experience, but nobody sees the side of that where Bourdain is hustling and setting up video shoots. We only ever see the finished product. We don’t see how the sausage is made. It’s not nearly as sexy. It’s still freaking awesome and I’d rather have this than another job.
It seems that there’s a certain collection of people that are actually really built for it. You have to be willing to wake up at absurd hours to catch flights, end up traveling for sixteen hours on a plane where the seat doesn’t recline and there’s a baby crying. You show up in a different time zone, it’s near impossible to adjust but you need to go cover something. The complexities are crazy. Then there’s this privilege of being able to see the entire world and being exposed to new cultures. Do you have any moments where you were just like, “This is incredible. I wouldn’t give this up for anything?”
I have those moments all the time. I was recently in Madagascar. At night, when there are no lights because you’re out in the bush and just the sky is lit up, you can see the Milky Way and you just have these moments you’re like, “I’m in a whole different part of the world right now.” It’s just amazing.
It’s a moment of awe. All of a sudden you were just struck by, “How is this my life? How do I get to be the one to see this because it would be so easy to be leaving the gym right now on my way home to go watch The Bachelor, and that just wasn’t the life that I was willing to live.” In fact, I right now am recording this podcast while sitting on the beach in Brazil. I landed at 3:30 in the morning in São Paulo and somebody picked me up from the airport, drove me two and a half hours out to the beach. I woke up in the middle of a forest. I was like, “This is the perfect setting to be interviewing Nomadic Matt.”
It’s usually me that’s doing an interview from somewhere else, “Where are you today?” “I’m walking down a beach in Fiji.” For once, I’m actually doing an interview from home.
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the things that everybody always wants to know. We talked about if you want to be a travel writer, become a niche travel writer. Focus on something really specific and become the expert on it. Are there any topics or areas that you feel like having been in the industry for a while that are real openings and opportunities for people?
I always view this as like the restaurant industry. There is a plethora of amazing restaurants. Let’s use New York for an example. Thousands of thousands of amazing places to eat. Places open, places close. If you really want to be a chef and open a restaurant, you don’t go, “I can’t do it because there’s already too much competition out there.” You go, “Screw it. I’m going to open up my restaurant and it’s going to be better than anybody else.” I think a lot of people look at the travel writing industry and go, “There’s just so much out there. There are so many YouTube stars and bloggers and Insta-famous people. How can I ever compete?” To them, I say, “You already have a defeatist mentality so you’ve already lost.” If you change that mindset and say, “I’m going to do this better. How do I do it?’” What is really needed is not another general travel website like Nomadic Matt. What is needed is a local expert because thanks to the power of the web, every destination is searched for. Paris is searched more than, say, Anchorage, Alaska but there are still people that visit Anchorage, Alaska. Be an expert in a local area or even better if it’s a style of travel in a local area and then you’re much more likely to succeed because you’re going to use the power of the web to really narrow in on your traffic. Plus, not everyone can really travel the world. If you’re like, “I really want to do this but I don’t really leave Alaska a lot, my little neighborhood. What can I do?” Just be an expert on your neighborhood. Someone’s going to visit sometime.
Of all the places you’ve gone, what are some of your favorites? People ask me that question a lot. I often separate things into, “This is my favorite place to go for night life. This is my favorite place to go for food. This is my favorite place to go for the people.” What are some of your absolute favorites?
For food, I don’t think you can ever beat Thailand. The street food is just beyond belief there. Though Japan probably comes a very, very close second. Night life, also Bangkok, Hong Kong.
I actually really like Barcelona night life more than I did Southeast Asia.
I love that craziness. Don’t get me wrong, Barcelona has amazing night life. It just starts too late for me because I’m usually in bed by 1:00, 2:00, where that’s just when Barcelona gets going. Maybe because Asia starts so early that I get to see more of the night life.
What is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been, most Instagram-worthy?
Torres del Paine in Patagonia is pretty ridiculously beautiful. You go to the little spires and the W. I stayed up there for hours just marveling at these majestic grand mountains and these glaciers and this lake in front of me. It was just mind-blowing.
I really, really loved going to Antarctica. I don’t know if you’ve gone yet. The fact that it really might not exist in X number of years, I felt like it was one of these must-go destinations to see the ice and enjoy an eighteen-year-old whisky with 100,000-year-old ice. That was a total treat.
I have not been there yet. It’s the last continent I need to see. I hope to get there really soon.
You’re an expert on traveling on a shoestring essentially, $50 a day. What are the biggest tips you have for either getting flights, booking travel, selecting a place that have really worked for you in terms of keeping budgets low?
I would say a lot of budget travel really boils down to traveling like you live back at home. When you’re at home, you don’t eat out every meal. You use local transportation. You go look for happy hours and you try to find deals. You go online and you search for stuff. Follow that same philosophy when you go to a destination and you’re going to be able to travel a lot easier and a lot cheaper, because a lot of people go and they eat out every meal. It’s like, “Why don’t you just go to the market and buy some stuff for breakfast and lunch and then only eat out at dinner or only eat out at lunch when you can get lunch specials and then cook your dinner food?” Hostels have kitchens, Airbnbs have kitchens. It’s a lot easier to cook your own meal now. You have websites like VizEat and EatWith where you can actually go to someone’s house as a group dinner kind of thing for travel as cultural exchange. One big thing there is just, how do you travel? Not so much specific tactics. It’s like a strategy.
Tactics-wise, I always go visit the local tourism office when I get into town. They know exactly what is going on right then and there. They know what festivals are happening, where the deals are, where the markets are, where to find the cheap stuff because they deal with travelers every day. Their whole job is to tell you what to do in the city. They really know stuff. They often have deals and discounts that you’re not going to find elsewhere. I’ll close this with a third tip, is that I never eat within six blocks of a major tourist site. Let’s say I’m at the Eiffel Tower. I wouldn’t eat within six blocks from there or the Louvre, because usually there is always this invisible line when you travel. You probably have seen it too where once you cross it, it’s like all the tourists disappear. You go back one block and there are all these tourists around. Once I cross that invisible barrier, then I start looking for food.
You could easily tell based on the number of places that sell cheese sandwiches. I’ve noticed that in the US and Asia, every tourist location is full of sandwiches with some version of meat and cheese that’s excessively overpriced and right by a tourist attraction. New York, it’s like Hot & Crusty’s and Europan Café or whatever. Anytime you see any of these, you know you’re stuck in a tourist trap.
Or if the menu is in sixteen different languages, that’s another bad sign.
Especially if you’re like, “No, I don’t want to eat at this place,” the next place that you walk into is probably identical because any place that’s in a tourist location knows the specific meals that will appeal to the broadest audience that they can charge the most money for. All the menus end up looking almost identical anyway. You’ll end up with a place that sells crêpes and rosée. Every single place is like that. I have two questions for you. One is, if a complete stranger approached you for a meeting, what would have you accept?
If they wine and dine me with sushi and whisky, I’d probably go, just to hear them out.
The last question is, I often ask guests to share something very human about them, something maybe embarrassing or some people have shared either awkward stories or things like they deal and struggle with anxiety. The objective is to just show how human all of us are and that even though some people are really successful, they deal with the same things that everybody else does. What would you feel comfortable sharing?
I had a lot of really bad anxiety because I was trying to take on too many projects. I was working. I was traveling. I was preparing for conferences. I was actually in Argentina, which I had never been to, so I was trying to see as much Argentina as possible. It just became too much. I started having panic attacks. I was like, “I can’t do this anymore.” I got eye stress, like a twitch and having panic attacks. I just stopped. I mute my inbox, put it on an out-of-office and went hiking in Patagonia. I think for me, anxiety really comes from the ‘go, go, go, go, go’ attitude. I have a really hard time slowing down. I don’t mind that. It’s just I have to really work hard at scheduling my life very specifically so that I make sure that everything has time in the day. That means I schedule breakfast, I schedule reading time, gym time. My calendar is just full. It’s often just full of stuff that reminds me to breathe like, “From the hours of 5 to 6, do stuff you like. Don’t do work.”
First of all, thanks so much for actually sharing that. Second, I know how you feel. If I don’t schedule my meditation time, I do TM, it will not happen. I have to block it off. Otherwise, there are always more emails to answer. There are always more requests from the team or staff. There are always more things to look at. It’s not like I’ve seen every YouTube video. Somebody has to watch those cats be cute. If not me, who will? It’s easy to get pulled into all these things. Matt, thank you so much for coming on. If people want to discover more, where can they find you on the internet?
I’m sure people can find incredible content. For those of you who are traveling on a budget, I really recommend you pick up Matt’s New York Times bestseller, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. Matt, thanks so much for coming on. Listeners, stay tuned. We have the anonymous interview next.
About Nomadic Matt
Matthew Kepnes is the founder of nomadicmatt.com and NYT best selling author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. He teaches people around the world to travel more for less.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Listeners, I hope you’re ready for my favorite part, the anonymous interview. We have somebody that a lot of my youth, I actually was incredibly interested in meeting him. Then in my adulthood, I actually get to hang out with him a bunch of times. Robert, thank you so much for coming on. I’m so excited to have you.
It’s my pleasure, Jon. Thanks for inviting me.
Let’s give the listeners a few hints about who you are so that they can figure out. Where did you grow up?
I grew up on the East Coast in Philadelphia, PA.
Then at some point, you obviously moved to pursue your career?
Yes. After college, I moved to New York for a few years and then on to Los Angeles.
Was there a certain incident or teacher that inspired you to go down the career path that you chose?
Yes. I had a high school English teacher improbably named Shakespeare. I don’t know if you’re going to believe that or not, but it’s true. His name is Ted Shakespeare, not William. He taught English and also directed the school plays. He helped get me interested in performing and kept giving me bigger challenges. At first, I only like performing in comedies and then of course he forced me into a major dramatic role and that started to turn my head around a little bit about what I wanted to do in life.
Did you start off in theater or is it always television?
No, of course it was theater. After I graduated college, I did what all aspiring actors do. I’ve got a job waiting tables in a New York restaurant. Actually, I’m convinced I’ve learned as much waiting tables as I did studying acting because every time you wait on a customer successfully, it’s not only a performance but it’s got a beginning, middle and an end. You have to suss out the people you’re serving, figure out whether it’s a date, whether they’re married forever, whether they want you to talk and be amusing or whether they just want to be left alone. You figure all that out. You do your best job and you look at immediate gratification in the form of how well they tip you. Also, it teaches you to stand upright. The most important skill I learned as a waiter was to open a wine bottle in nine seconds which has served me throughout my dating life and made me popular in parties.
Was there a certain accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of? A certain moment that you felt, “This is incredible.”
I sometimes think I peaked at age 24. I’ve got a very coveted role in a Broadway season. I made my Broadway debut a year before at age 23 in a lead, in a small show that ended up running on Broadway for nearly four years. I was in the first ten months. The play, if you look it up, is one of the ten longest running, in fact I believe it’s the fourth, non-musical in the history of Broadway. I opened that show in the lead role. After that, the coveted role that I got was playing Jack Lemmon’s son in his return to Broadway in 1978. I played his 21-year-old son. I was at the right bold age of 24. That was an extraordinary experience for a young actor to work with someone of Jack Lemmon’s amazing talent and graciousness. He was just a first class human being. In addition to that, there was a sad clown thing going on. You always got the feeling that there was always a private side of Jack that he didn’t show other people. He seem to have a bitter sweet affect about him maybe with all of his success that never really fully made him happy. He was just a wonderful human being. I learned so much from him. He treated me as a mentor and as a surrogate dad because I lost my own father when I was nine. He was a lot of great things to me.
As an odd aside, in this moment in history where it seems that so many terribly sad and negative revelations are coming out of so many people in our industry with regard to sexual harassment and sexual predation, either between people in power and younger people. To be able to reflect upon a mentoring relationship I had as a young man that was just 100% positive and good, my message is that not all of show business should be tainted by these present revelations that are a lot of really wonderful people in our profession. I want to remind the rest of the world. I guess I’ve given away the secret that I’m in showbiz.
Besides yourself, who would play you in a movie? I want people to get a sense of what you look like.
David Cross would probably play me in a movie. Not that I have against David Cross, but I would also like Paul Giamatti to have a crack at it, unless Meryl Streep could do it because I think she could do anything.
I think everybody thinks she can do anything. If she published a paper, she’d probably win the Nobel Prize even if it wasn’t very good. Your background wasn’t always in the theater. If memory serves, you have a degree in Biology.
Not a degree but I was a Biology Major at Yale. I eventually switched out my major into Theater. I was in the pre-med program. My childhood ambition was to be a doctor. I have really a life-long passion for science particularly life science. I love science. I consider myself a cheerleader for science, more recently specifically for space science and exploration.
Was there a moment or experience that you felt like you had made it or arrived to some degree?
I had a great deal of good fortune in the New York Theater to do leading roles on Broadway two successive seasons in the late ‘70s at age 23 and then 24. I felt very blessed and lucky but I guess I felt I had arrived as well. I had met the challenges and was doing well as a young actor. The second role, the role with Jack Lemmon took me to Los Angeles for what was supposed to be a ten-week or a twelve-week run in the play at a major Los Angeles Theater venue. I planned to come and do California for a total period of about six months and then about 38 years went by. Your life doesn’t always progress the way you originally envisioned it. I thought I’d go back to New York and continue to work in the theater. At the time I realized there was very little television shot in New York. It seemed that unless you were a movie star, unless you were one of that blessed handful of actors and actresses who get to live in New York and the East Coast and work in movies and theater, then California at the time offered many more opportunities in television and also of course in film. It seems like the other opportunity for actors were soap operas. As a young actor, I just didn’t see myself working in soap operas. It’s very hard for me to deliver lines that I felt were trivial and self-absorbed with the kind of sincerity and commitment for me to be convinced. I didn’t have that skill.
Instead, you managed to spend a career pronouncing unpronounceable medical terminology for show after show.
Yes, I did. There’s an interesting coincidence, I think not, that I played doctors in two different television series for a grand total of about eleven years. I guess my childhood ambition to be a real doctor had at least some vicarious fulfillment in being a make believe one. My first major role as a doctor took place in the past, it was a little retro, not very far in the past. Then my second role took place in the future. I basically played a doctor in everything but the present.
Last question, what hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are? It might be a little obvious at this point.
I think it’s a little obvious who I am. I would say probably, please state the nature of the podcast emergency.
Robert, thank you so much for doing this. Listeners, you have between now and next week to figure out who Robert is. If you guess on our site, you can win an invitation to me or The Salon Series that we host.