Unpacking Budget Travel With Nomadic Matt

Budget travel © Surasaki/Shutterstock
Budget travel © Surasaki/Shutterstock
Photo of Nikki Vargas
Travel Editor22 June 2017

The internet is saturated with advice on travel hacking—from snagging luxury hotels at a cheaper price, to booking budget flights at optimal times—but how does one actually afford to travel? To find out, we reached out to author, blogger and budget travel expert, Matt Kepnes of Nomadic Matt, to unpack this year’s best budget travel tips.

Culture Trip: How did you first start your site, Nomadic Matt?

Matt Kepnes: After my first ‘round-the-world trip’ back in 2008, I returned to my same job (actually, my same cubicle!) and immediately hated it. I wanted to be back traveling. Well, I knew I wanted to get out of the cubicle, and I knew I loved to travel. I wanted a job that would let me do that. “Maybe I should become a travel writer,” I thought. “I bet writing guidebooks would be pretty cool and that would get me out of the house!” It sounded perfect.

Budget Travel | © Annie Spratt/Unsplash

But how would I get started? I had no idea. I had no established writing résumé or any experience. Being the Gen Y-er that I am, I thought—the internet can solve this problem. I’ll create a website, write for some other websites, and then I can submit to Lonely Planet when I have some experience.

It was a foolproof plan. Everyone has a website these days anyways. So I started Nomadic Matt as a resume for my writing. Soon, I thought, I would be writing guidebooks. My name would be in Lonely Planet, and all would be right with the universe. But that never happened. “Matt Kepnes, Lonely Planet author” was slowly morphing into “Nomadic Matt, budget travel blogger.” I wound up as a budget travel expert…and the rest is history!

Iceland | © Matt Kepnes

CT: In your opinion, what are this year’s best budget destinations for travelers?

MK: With summer almost here, that means a lot of people will be flocking to Europe. Most will go to London, Paris, Berlin—the major Western European hubs. I think if you are heading to Europe, you need to head further east. Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria are great budget destinations within Europe and see a lot less tourists. Your dollar will go a lot further there, and the countries are just as interesting and safe.

For budget travelers looking to get a bit off the beaten path, certain countries in Africa, like Namibia, are also incredibly budget friendly and a lot safer than we tend to assume. Additionally, use sharing economy sites to help you cut the costs of traveling and meet locals along the way, anywhere you go.

You’ll find car sharing sites, home sharing sites, meal sharing sites, stuff sharing sites (need skis or diving equipment?), etc. Definitely give some of these a try on your trip. Not only will you be able to access the things you need for cheaper, you’ll be putting money into the pockets of locals, and having unique experiences as you go. Win-win-win!

CT: Budget travel may vary depending on who you ask. For college kids, it can be about staying at a hostel; while for an adult it can mean finding an affordable albeit luxury place to stay. How do you personally define budget travel?

MK: While it can be tricky to define, I consider budget travel to be anything in the realm of $50 per day. Obviously, if you’re making a lot of money then “budget” will mean something different, but for the most part I’ve come to find that $50 per day is a safe bet for budget travel—that’s why it’s the basis for my book!

Can you spend more on a budget? Absolutely! You can even spend less if you travel on a shoestring, but an average of $50 lets you keep expenses minimal while still allowing the occasional comfort. Now the challenge is how do you afford luxury travel on a budget? You can travel hack to fly first class or stay in five star hostels for only a few dollars in fees. You can visit destinations where your dollar goes far. You can house sit so you can stay in homes around the world for free. If you’re creative, budget traveling can actually look like luxury traveling!

Southeast Asia | © Matt Kepnes

CT: What are some quick tips to save on travel in the planning phase of a trip?

MK: The tip I wish someone had told me when I first started is to sign up for a travel credit card. Cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Starwood Preferred Guest are great ways to rack up points before you travel to cover the cost of your flights or accommodation.

Additionally, while you’ll want to check flights regularly for deals, there is something more important to consider. In order to get the best deals, you’ll need to be flexible with either your destination or travel dates. By being flexible with one or the other, you’ll be able to base your trip around the best deals available and avoid paying more than you have to. This isn’t just an American tip, you can use this to find cheap flights from any country in the world!

CT: How about ways to save money when traveling?

MK: Avoid bank fees! Make sure your credit card doesn’t charge foreign exchange fees. Most cards will add a 1%–3% fee to any spending outside the country. If you’re going to be gone for a while, this will really add up. Be sure check if your card is free of foreign exchange fees before you go. Another consideration is your ATM card. Find out if your bank has any arrangements with international banks. This can help you reduce those unnecessary ATM fees.

CT: What is your favorite tried-and-tested budget travel tip?

MK: Be flexible. The more rigid you are with your plans, the less ability you have to find the best deals. If your dates are firm because of work or school obligations, be flexible with your destination. If you really want to go to a specific country, be flexible with your dates. Even just shifting things around by a few days can drastically drop the price of your flight, potentially saving you hundreds of dollars.

Bermuda | © Matt Kepnes

CT: Do you have any favorite travel booking sites that you recommend our readers use?

MK: When it comes to booking flights, Momondo and Google flights are my go-to websites. They generally have the cheapest fares. Another must-visit site before a trip is World Nomads. I’ve been using them since 2006 and never travel anywhere without insurance. While it is an added expense, it’s better to be safe than sorry!

Also, I’d highly suggest using a sharing economy site like Vayable on your trips. It allows you to connect with local guides and hire them for unique experiences. I enjoy this site because it allows you to experience niche, offbeat, and interesting tours that bigger tour companies might not run (like a street art tour in Los Angeles). Plus, the groups tend to be very small, making for a more intimate experience.

CT: There is always debate about the best day to book a flight and the best day of the week to fly in order to save the most money—what do you recommend?

MK: Every year there always seems to be a new study saying one day or the other. I never pay it too much attention. There are SO many variables, it’s best to just ignore those and book your flight when the price looks reasonable. Buying your flight 2–3 months early is generally a good rule to consider, but I would just suggest checking the prices regularly and not worrying too much about whether you are going to buy on a Sunday evening, Tuesday morning, or whatever else people say.

Patagonia | © Matt Kepnes

CT: What’s next for Nomadic Matt?

MK: I’m presently juggling a few different projects (in addition to my own travels). I’m currently launching a global travel (in-person) community called The Nomadic Network. It will be a meet-up group for travelers, where people can share ideas and experiences and meet other locals who share their love of travel.

I’ve also built a non-profit called FLYTE (Foundation for Leadership and Youth Travel Education), which sends students from underserved American high schools on international trips to help expand their cultural, academic, and social horizons. Lastly, I’ve also got another book in the works, so I’m keeping busy.

CT: Where are you off to next?

MK: I’m just wrapping up a few weeks in France, and my next stop is Austin, to lead a tour for some of my readers. After that, I’m going on a six-city tour across the US and Canada to host a series of travel meet-ups for The Nomadic Network. Later in the year, I’ll be heading back to both Europe and Africa. After that, who knows!

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