Ya’ll are about to be sold a book, folks.
If you’ve read AR for any length of time, you know that I shill for no man! Except myself—I shill for myself all the time and do so quite shamelessly.
Last week, though, my friend Matt Kepnes sent me his book about budget traveling and, before I threw it in the trash without even reading a page, I looked on the back cover…
Published by Penguin!?! Okay, I guess this is legit.
It’s called How to Travel the World on $50 A Day, and it’s something Matt’s been doing with great success for the last six years. When I travel, I typically do it for much less than $50/day as well. So to pre-empt any doubts: Yes, this is possible. And it’s not very hard either.
Now, Matt and I see each other about once a year, during which time he makes fun of my mustache, I make fun of his inability to grow one, and we trade Okcupid stories.
Since his book is actually really good, it’s useful, and it’s being released tomorrow, we tried to have a more productive conversation about the life of a budget traveler—one that would make you foam at the mouth to buy his book.
The transcript (edited to make me look smarter) is below.
Tyler: I know your tale well, but—for the readers—how long have you been a full time traveler; how many countries have you been to; and why should I listen to you when you don’t even have a mustache?
Matt: I’ve been a full time traveler since 2006 and have been to over 70 countries. I try to add 10-20 new countries per year while visiting some of my favorites over and over again (Sweden, Thailand, France). And a true man doesn’t need facial hair to prove his worth. Look at James Bond. Or Jason Bourne. Go ahead and tell them they need to grow a mustache. I dare you!
Tyler: Somehow, you convinced one of the biggest publishers in the world that you can spend your whole life traveling for just $50 a day. But everyone knows that’s impossible. I mean, I spend $50 just to get a pack of peanuts on the airplane out of town. What secret are you hiding?
Matt: I hate to use this cliche, but the truth is: if you want to travel on the cheap, you need to travel like a local. Do what they do, eat where they eat, travel how they travel. That means staying in hostels or home stays, taking public transportation, avoiding touristy restaurants, and visiting local food markets. Once you do that, your costs drop dramatically and any place becomes affordable.
Tyler: Okay, so I’m actually a frugal son-of-a-gun, and I lied about the peanuts.
And I like traveling on the cheap because I get to explain how to do it to some of my complainypants friends who insist they have to cash in their 401k just to take a weekend trip to Grandma’s. What do you tell someone who gives you that canned response, “Oh, I’d love to do what you do, but I’m not a millionaire”? How do you get them to realize their travel dream is actually achievable?
Matt: The travel industry does a good job of hiding deals and affordable ways to travel; they prefer to paint the image that travel is very expensive because big, expensive vacations means more money for them, and it’s the big hotels that have advertising budgets, not small mom and pop shops. That’s why we only ever see ads for expensive holidays and vacations. Small tour operators, mom and pop hotels, and companies don’t have big advertising budgets so you never hear of them. Media for the most part ignores budget travel.
Tyler: How did you get started with your own adventure? Did you just wake up one morning and say, “I wonder what the rest of the world looks… Hey, an airplane! Here I go!”? Or is there more to it than that? Did you watch the Indiana Jones trilogy on repeat for a week? That’s how I ended up in Africa.
Matt: I went on a trip to Thailand in 2005. In the wonderful city of Chiang Mai, I met five backpackers who showed me that I didn’t have to be tied down to my job and that I didn’t need to be rich to travel. I was amazed, as I had never met people like them. After that trip, I went home and knew with utter certainty I wanted to backpack the globe. I finished my MBA, quit my cubicle job and, in July 2006, set out on an adventure around the world.
Of course, growing up, Indiana Jones was a big part of my life. But I wanted to be an archeologist after I saw his movies. I still want to go to Petra and walk across the seal with a cup. Want to be Elsa?
Tyler: I’ll ask the questions, thanks.
Is travel insurance really worth it? I bought it one time while I was climbing mountains. Somewhere around 18,000 feet up Kilimanjaro, I read the small print: “Does not apply on mountains.” Another time, I was going to go home rather than climb a mountain in the middle of a mini-civil war, but the insurance company wouldn’t cover my ticket, so I went climbing anyway. Do you recommend going to places of civil unrest? Can you save money that way?
Matt: Travel insurance is emergency insurance. It’s there for when something goes wrong. I don’t know what kind of insurance you had but insurance does come with some stipulations so it’s important to read them. For example, not all insurance will cover scuba diving or social unrest. Most do cover social unrest so long as a government has declared that area unsafe. Until there’s an official statement, most won’t consider the place unsafe. But to me, travel insurance is worth it. It costs only a few dollars a day. It’s been there when I lost my luggage, when my friend broke his leg, when a reader of mine broke a camera, and when another friend had to go home because of a family death. I firmly believe it’s worth it, especially if you are going on a long trip.
[Side note from Tyler: Good travel credit cards also offer limited travel insurance. Insurance can be a good investment if the likelihood of something going wrong on your trip is high, but make sure you're not buying something you already get for free from your credit card.]
Tyler: Do you remember that kid’s game show, Carmen San Diego?
Matt: Loved that show.
Tyler: What do you do when you’re 15,000 miles from home and you run out of money? Start turning tricks? Sell a kidney? Become a stowaway on a freight liner home?
Matt: First, kick yourself for being dumb with your money and not keeping track of how much you spend. After you’ve done that, there are many ways to earn money on the road without selling body parts—teaching English overseas, working on a cruise ship, doing farm work, dealing black jack at a casino, working in a bar, waiting tables. None are nearly as exciting as being a stowaway, but they won’t get you thrown in the brig, either.
Tyler: I have a poodle that costs $20/day to take care of (nothing but the best for Princess Fluff). Where do I go if I can only spend $30/day on my trip? I need to go super cheap skate here!
Matt: Some good places where you and Princess Fluff can live on the cheap are: anywhere in Southeast Asia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Bulgaria, India, Ukraine.
And when did you get a dog? Did you do it to get more girls on Okcupid?
Tyler: I made that up; I don’t have a dog. But now you’ve given me an idea…
Okay, so I have a small brain, and I need you to explain this to me very carefully: How can it be cheaper to travel full-time than for just a week or two?
Matt: Traveling long-term allows you to cut out a lot of life expenses at home. Think about all your expenses—housing, car insurance, cable, Internet, utilities. When you travel long-term, you have none of those expenses. A round-the-world trip can cost between $10-18k (depending on where you go) but if you think about all your everyday living expenses, you probably spend a lot more per year than that. Long-term travel is cheaper than living at home! There are plenty of ways to cut the cost of short, two-week vacations, but you’ll still have those sunk costs you’re paying for but not using!
Tyler: Okay, it’s time to get serious. I’m gonna nail you now. Is it possible to go too cheap when you travel? Have you ever skimped too much on a hostel and ended up sleeping on a mattress made of toenails in someone’s backyard sharing a toilet with the entire Ukrainian wrestling team?
Matt: I think a lot of budget travelers miss the point. They focus so much on cost they don’t see the forest through the trees. They miss out on tons of activities so they can stay somewhere longer. Enjoy your trip, do what you want. If that means two months instead of four, so be it. For me, it’s about value. There’s no need to overspend when you travel, but there’s no need to be a total cheap skate, either. Be frugal not cheap.
That means you Tyler!
Tyler: Hey, you can’t talk to me like that. I happen to like toenail mattresses.
You know what pisses me off, Matt? Ants. I hate it when ants get into my cupboard. Also, I hate paying bank fees when I travel. How do you get around them? And if you have any ideas about my ant problem, I’m all ears.
Matt: First, to solve your ant problem, use Raid. Kills everything—maybe even you—but it’ll solve your ant problem. To avoid bank fees, do two things that even someone who says he’s simple-minded can do: 1) Use Charles Schwab Bank for your ATM withdrawals. They have no fees and reimburse fees from other banks. You can sign up online. Next, use a Capital One credit card as they have no foreign transaction fees. Between those two pieces of plastic, you’ll never pay bank fees again.
Tyler: I just read on Twitter that you leased an apartment in NYC. Are you jumping the shark, Matt? Is this some kind of trick—sending us off on an affordable adventure of a lifetime while you sit, laughing maniacally from your full-time residence?
Matt: Yep. I’m actually a 45-year-old geek living in my parents basement. You got me! It’s a scam. I’ve actually never been anywhere in the world.
Ok, that’s not really true. I settled down because, after 6.5 years of travel, I’m ready to only be semi-nomadic. I want a kitchen, I want to cook, I want to join a gym. I look forward to the routine.
Tyler: Okay, so how much do I have to pay get this book that’s going to save me, like, a gazillion dollars on my next trip? And what else am I going to learn when I read it? (I’m asking as if I’m a reader. It’s a trick because I’m not a reader—I’m the interviewer—and I already read the book. You gave it to me for free, remember?).
Matt: The book lists for $15 but can be found on Amazon for $10. In it, you’ll learn how to travel on a budget, save money, travel cheaper, longer and better. I’ll show you how to reduce your costs and save money regardless of how long you are going away for by helping you get cheap (or free) flights, use tourism cards to get free entrance into attractions, tell you how rail passes can cut your train costs in half, and much, much more.
You’ve read the book. What did you think about it? Worth more than $10 right?
Tyler: I’ll give ya $6.50 and a bag of airplane peanuts. Honey roasted.
I’m giving away a copy of Matt’s book to someone who asks a budget travel question in the comments below.
Matt will be monitoring the comments and answering your questions. He doesn’t actually know that yet, but I’m going to make him do it, so if you leave a comment, be sure to subscribe to receive updates.
Go forth and travel cheaply, like a true Riskologist.
Update 2/14/13: Congratulations to our winner, Alicia, in the comments below (selected at random using the random.org number generator). Thanks to everyone for submitting your great travel questions, and thanks to Matt for answering them!