An Interview with Nomadic Matt: In Depth with One of the World's Top Travel Bloggers
As I've continued to grow as a travel blogger, I've recognized the value of looking to others for advice, and of hearing other people's stories of success and determination. I've just come from TBEX Ireland in Killarney, where I spent three days networking and learning from others in the industry, something I personally found very fruitful. In my opinion, It's really about the passion that these people bring to what they do, and how you can use that to light your own respective fire. However, even before that event, I'd been reaching out to others in travel and adventure who force me to think about how I can be a better me. This thought process resulted in my interview with Scott Wilson of Departures fame, as well as my interview with famous adventurer Ellis Emmitt (and Andre Dupuis) about their new project, "Over the Horizon."
However, I've also been looking towards those in the travel blogging industry for interviews, and Nomadic Matt is a household name in this sphere. We've interacted here and there in the past, so I was pleased that when I shot him an email about doing this interview, he happily obliged (from his hotel room in the Galapagos Island I might add). And so, without further adieu, here's my interview with Nomadic Matt, one of the most famous people in travel.
An Interview with Nomadic Matt (Matthew Kepnes)
1. Many would consider you to be the most famous travel blogger in the world. Was this something you aimed for, a childhood dream perhaps of travel-related career, or did things sort of unfold naturally before you?
Being a famous travel blogger is not something I aimed for at all. I started my career as a high school history teacher. I went to Costa Rica in my mid-20s and that was my first foray into "really" traveling (not with my parents or on a family cruise). The next year, I went to Thailand and I met some nomadic backpackers on the beach and I thought, "I want to live like this." How would I do that? I'd become a guidebook writer! And before I could be a guidebook writer, I figured, I'd need a writing portfolio. That's when I created nomadicmatt.com. I never wanted to be a travel blogger, but once I started showing up at conferences and people called me "Nomadic Matt", I knew I was on to something. The rest is history!
2. Your site, in many ways, is really all about helping others get on the road and discovering the world. Why is this so important to you?
I've seen how transformative traveling has been for me. If I look back at who I was before I began traveling and compare that to who I am now, I would have to say that travel has made me a better and more well-rounded person. I’m way cooler now than I was at 25 when I first left to explore the world. Simply put, I’m a lot more awesome now than I used to be. In fact, I think travel makes everybody a more awesome person. We end our travels way better off than when we started. I’m not saying this to be conceited or egotistical; I’m saying it because I believe that travel is something that makes you not only a better human being but a way cooler one too. The kind of person people gravitate toward and want to be around.
3. You've produced an enormous body of content, including a New York Times Bestselling book. What's your proudest accomplishment thus far? What's the next big goal on the radar?
Yes, my New York Times best-seller, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day was a great accomplishment. But I think two other achievements stand out as the ones that make me the most proud. In 2006, I spent a month on the Thai island of Ko Lipe. During those days, my friends Paul and Jane and I would talk about opening a hostel called The Greenhouse in New Zealand. We never did. Though as the years passed, I never forgot about those conversations nor my desire to open a hostel. After having stayed in close to a thousand hostels since I started traveling, I’ve seen what makes a good (and bad) hostel…and I’ve also seen what makes for a truly mind-blowing one. Then in 2015, I finally opened a hostel of my own in Texas called HK Austin. It quickly became the highest rated hostel in the US and I'm really proud of it. I love the feeling of bringing a good budget hostel to America. It's fun to get to build something for others that I would have definitely appreciated myself during my travels.
Secondly, I'm really proud of the non-profit I created not too long ago too. It's called The Foundation for Learning and Youth Travel Education. I noticed that traveling really does open your mind up to so many possibilities and you get such a broader view of the world around you. My foundation sends high school classes from the US on teacher-led learning trips overseas . Most of the 66 people that have been to Cuba, Mexico, and Ecuador have never been out of the country before. Most of them need to get their passport for this trip with their class. And all of them come back after their journey with a new, refreshing outlook on the world. I'm really proud to say that I've created the kind of project that I had hoped to see in the world.
"I never wanted to be a travel blogger, but once I started showing up at conferences and people called me 'Nomadic Matt', I knew I was on to something. The rest is history!"
4. What role does travel play in your life, and what role do you think it can play in a person's life in general?
I use traveling to broaden my horizons. When I was working at my desk job, my world was so small. I would go to work, go out with my friends, and go home. I didn't have huge dreams. I hoped to make money and have a family one day. But after traveling, I realized there was so much more that I wanted to accomplish in life. It opened the door to so many different things that I didn't even know I wanted to do. What I get most excited about these days is spreading the word and making sure that door opens for as many people as it can.
5. What do you think that "Nomadic Matt" brings to the table that others don't? What sets you apart?
Nomadic Matt is both and informational and inspirational site. I write articles to get people inspired to travel, and then I teach them how to do that - no matter what their budget is.
What sets me apart is that my travels are all my own. I pay for them. If I want to travel in luxury, I travel hack to collect the points and miles so I can fly first class on a budget still. I'll never pay thousands of dollars for an airline seat somewhere. I also don't take sponsored trips. It's easy to "travel for free" if you're an influencer who is getting paid to stay for free in a over-the-water bungalow in the Maldives. But how is that realistic for the normal budget traveler? It's not. My website focuses on how to get normal people on the road quicker, with less money, and for longer periods of time.
6. Based on your extensive travels, what are three countries you feel are left off the itinerary far too often, and what makes them worth visiting?
Eastern Europe. One summer, I left the popular European tourist trail and saw three of Europe’s lesser-visited countries: Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine. They’re located on Europe’s far eastern edge and see few tourists. While Bulgaria sees a few more tourists because of its proximity to the Balkans and acts as a stop on the overland route from Turkey to Budapest, the farther north I went, the fewer travelers I saw. In Ukraine, I only encountered US Peace Corp volunteers and a handful of Europeans.
"My website focuses on how to get normal people on the road quicker, with less money, and for longer periods of time."
7. I can't tell if I'm asking this for myself or my readers, but, seeing as you must be juggling about a million things at once, how do you do it? Are there specific apps or software that you use, or is it more about mindset?
It's about mindset. I read a lot of books on business. Then I implement those strategies. I also invest a lot of time and money into Nomadic Matt because it's my passion and it's helping people get where they want to go. So I'm making sure it's where it needs to be.
Sometimes it's hard to find that perfect work/life balance. However, I have a few strategies that help me out a lot. I write many lists and use a social media blocker when I need to concentrate. I also hire help to do the things I don't want to do, because I only have to much time and energy to expend in my day. And when I get overwhelmend, I plan out my days hour by hour and follow it strictly. Then when I feel more in control of my work projects, I can go back to normal.
8. I have a hard time staying in a city for more than a few days or weeks at a time, and I can imagine you're not far off from that. Do you think the "travel bug" is something that folks like you and I carry with us for life? Do you think it's a burden or a gift?
I like to think of it as a gift. I never knew how amazing the world was, or how great I was until I started traveling. Traveling and moving from place to place opened me up and I became a different person. No longer was I the shy kid who was afraid to start a conversation. I became the kind of person that met someone in a hostel and spent a week traveling around Cambodia with them! It was a version of me that I didn't recognize, but I definitely loved.
Do I sometimes wish I wanted to stay in one place more? Sure. That would be easier (especially will all of the time changes)! However, I wouldn't trade my lifestyle for anything. I love what I do, and I love how much I travel.
"I never knew how amazing the world was, or how great I was until I started traveling."
9. What's one city or country that you haven't visited yet that you're just aching to get to?
I'd love to spend a few months in India because it’s too big and interesting to spend any less time here. I just don’t feel a short trip would do the country justice. I'm planning to live for at least a month in the Seychelles. These islands are what my version of heaven would look like, so why not spend a cold winter month there soaking in the sun? Sounds perfectly fine to me. And - obviously - I'd love to step foot on Antarctica! Penguins, glaciers, and whales, oh my!
10. I've often heard you talk about the notion that while there are many, many travel blogs out there, that shouldn't deter new travel bloggers from starting out and trying to break through the noise. How would a new blogger go about doing that?
It's true. The market is saturated with bloggers - there are two ways to stand out: be different and be better! There are lots of mediocre travel blogs out there, but there is always room for a star travel blog that tackles a niche that is different than the rest.
Think of it like the restaurant industry - there are tons and tons of restaurants but new ones open and succeed all the time? Why is that? Because there's always room for quality! Make something great and don't worry if there are too many other blogs. Strive to be better!
11. Travel blogging is complicated because you want to bring certain places to the attention of your readership, but you also don't want to spoil what made that place great by overcrowding it. How do you balance that?
I'm not sure I have an answer for this. I just know that the world would be a very different place if everyone traveled to a place that was seemingly "too hard" or "too different" to go to at least one time. So I strive to get people to just go anywhere. I don't think because I write a blog about the best prohibition bars in NYC that they're going to be overrun with tourists. I'm not Oprah, after all!
However, I hope that some people will listen when I say to go help the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand or when I tell them where to get the best Thai food in Berlin. Blogging can definitely help get people to know about cool places around the world. But I don't think we're at the point yet where everyone is dying to go to Mozambique, just because you wrote a blog post about it. Maybe one day!
"It's true. The market is saturated with bloggers - there are two ways to stand out: be different and be better!"
12. What does it mean to you to have been a resource for so many travellers and bloggers? Does it mean as much to you as it did at the beginning?
Yes, it definitely means so much to be a resource to travelers (and travel bloggers) from all over the world. I built the kind of website that I wish I had when I started traveling the world. I wish someone was out there telling me how to do it on a budget (I would have been able to save a lot more money that way!)
13. In the communication I've had with you in the past, through newsletters, emails and so on, you've really taken a frank, personal, and approachable tone. How much of an impact do you think that relatable tone has had on your success at large?
First of all, thanks! Secondly, I think my readers like my writing because it is so frank. I don't fluff things up. I like to tell it how it is and let people know that it's okay to travel the way they want to. After all, traveling is a really personal experience.
14. What's the one piece of advice you'd give to someone who has never travelled before, but is ready to change that?
When it comes to travel, people think what’s holding them back is money. They imagine they can’t travel because, unlike me, they can’t tap the Bank of Mom and Dad, are burdened by their debt, and simply assume I’m just lucky and special. People with this mindset remind me of Bob, who dismissed this website a few years ago because he didn’t believe I could travel the world without parental help. People like Bob shoot the messenger because it allows them to ignore the message and keep their worldview unchallenged.
By believing that everyone else is special, unique, or rich, they put up a psychological barrier that lets them ignore all the reasons why travel is possible. Nothing about their circumstance prevents them from traveling except their own mindset.
Millions of people from all walks of life, circumstances, and age groups find a way to travel. When I started traveling at the age of 25, I believed I was doing something challenging and unique. Then, when I got on the road and saw 18-year-old English kids embarking on similar adventures, I realized I wasn’t as special as I thought. That realization made travel actually seem a lot easier and more attainable because if they could make it happen, someone older and with more experience could manage it too.
I understand there is some monetary requirement to travel. There’s a limit to how cheap it can be and how many free flights you can earn. There are always circumstances such as health, visa issues, debts, or family that will keep someone from the road. Not everyone can (or wants) to travel the world.
But, in my experience, what keeps the vast majority of people home is not money but mindset. It is a false belief that their circumstances are different and everyone else who travels has money or privilege they don’t. They have bought into the belief that traveling is a luxury for those with means and, unless you’re on the inside, you’ll never be able to make it happen. Everyone and everything else that tells them otherwise is dismissed as “too easy” or “too good to be true.”
But let me tell everyone who believes the “I’m too poor/unspecial, etc. to travel” mindset: You’re not.
If you truly desire to travel, you will find a way. For some, it will take more effort and time (maybe years), but you can do it.
"In my experience, what keeps the vast majority of people home is not money but mindset."
15. From writing your book, travel blogging, travelling and everything in between - what's the most important lesson you've learned?
"Relationships are the most valuable thing to collect in the world. For, without them, we are nothing."
Thanks for tuning into my interview with Nomadic Matt. I very much appreciate his time in catching up with me! What did you think of the interview? Have you met or heard of Nomadic Matt before? Do you read his site? Did you learn anything new from this interview or find out some new awesome information? Any and all comments are welcome below and, as always, I'll respond to each and every one individually.
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