Matthew Kepnes runs the award-winning budget travel site Nomadic Matt. After a trip to Thailand in 2005, Matt decided to quit his job, finish his MBA and head off into the world. His original trip was supposed to last a year. Over a decade later, he is still out there roaming the globe. His writing and advice have been featured in The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian UK, BBC, Time, and countless other publications.
He has also launched a non-profit called FLYTE, which sends students abroad to bring their classroom experience to life. Additionally, he is the founder the travel media school Superstar Blogging and the TravelCon travel media conference.
When not traveling the world, Matt can be found in Austin, Texas.
Here’s an inspirational interview revealing the ups and downs of Matt’s journey—from leaving home as a rookie backpacker to becoming one of the most famous and highest-paid travel bloggers. Matt’s blog and book inspired me to completely change course in life back in 2015, so it’s an honor to have the chance to finally interview him. If you’re looking for insider advice on how to escape the rat race, explore the word, and build a location independent life, this is for you.
How long have you been traveling? Where have you traveled?
I’ve been traveling for over a decade now. I got the travel bug after a trip to Thailand back in 2005 when I met a group of backpackers for the first time. They opened my eyes to the world of long-term travel, something I had not even thought possible until then.
In the many years since that trip, I’ve been to something like 100 countries so it’s hard to list them all. Some countries I was in for just a few days, others for a few months, and some for a few years.
I’ve been on a safari in Africa, led tours around Europe, hitchhiked in Central America, seen most of the wonders of the world, and spent time backpacking New Zealand. While I haven’t been everywhere or done everything, I’ve had my fair share of adventures (and misadventures) over the years.
What was your life like before you started your adventure? What inspired you to start your life of travel?
To be honest, my life was pretty normal. Like many people, I went to college, got a job, and started to work the 9-5. I worked Monday-Friday, relaxed on the weekends, and then did it all over again.
It wasn’t until I finally used my holiday time for a trip to Costa Rica that I realized there was more to travel than just taking a quick vacation.
My next vacation was to Thailand. It was on that trip when I realized long-term travel was a real possibility for me. When I got home I started saving money immediately. I worked as much overtime as possible and saved every cent that I could. After over a year of saving money, I went to travel for what was supposed to be a year. But once I caught the travel bug there was no turning back. One day just turned to another and a decade of traveling went by.
What struggles did you face when deciding to leave the security of your old life behind?
When I first started traveling, my challenges were two-fold.
First, I had to figure out how to travel long-term. This was back when there were no blogs or travel websites to rely on. All we had were guidebooks and a few online forums. That was it. If you wanted to find the best travel insurance or the best travel backpack you had to figure it out yourself — there were no blogs to help you. There were no smartphones or Google maps or Google translate either so you really had to figure things out yourself and be willing to put yourself out there.
My second challenge was dealing with the social aspect of my trip. All of my friends and family thought I was crazy for quitting my job to travel. People didn’t really do that back then (at least not in the US). But after meeting that group of backpackers in Chiang Mai I knew long-term travel was what I wanted to do. So, I had to spend some time and energy getting people on board. Honestly, that was probably the hardest part.
Without a community to support you, it can be hard to get your feet off the ground. That’s why I started an awesome new travel community called The Nomadic Network. I wanted to create a community to help travelers connect with one another so they had the support they needed to make their travel dreams a reality. To help travelers connect with one another, we host meet-ups in cities all around the world to bring people together so they can share their tips, get their questions answered, and meet awesome travelers in their own community. We’ve launched in a few cities already so I’m excited to see it grow.
How have you supported yourself financially throughout your journey?
After my first trip around the world (which I paid for with my savings), I started to teach English abroad. I got a job teaching English in Bangkok and then later started teaching in Taiwan. These jobs helped me make ends meet and allowed me to live in Asia so I could travel more.
While teaching English, I used some of my free time to start my travel blog. Eventually it started to get traffic but it wasn’t until after I was blogging for a few years that I was able to really rely on my blogging income. But, before I figured out how to become a digital nomad, I just taught English and relied on the cheap cost of living in Asia to keep me afloat.
How has your life improved since quitting your “normal” job?
I mean I’ve also been able to turn my passion into a career so that’s pretty awesome! Starting a blog was a huge challenge for me and there were definitely a lot of bumps along the way. As an introvert, I wasn’t used to putting myself out there. But, over the years, I’ve learned what it takes to succeed and have been able to create an exciting, challenging, and rewarding career. That alone is a huge improvement.
I get to travel, meet people around the world, meet my writing heroes, and be the master of my own ship. I love everyday of my life!
Note from Mitch: “Be the master of your own ship” ← Write that one down! One of the biggest things long term travel teaches you is that you don’t have to follow society’s mold. You are the master your ship. You are the driver of your bus. You decide where your life goes!
What’s one thing you know now that you wish you would’ve known first starting out on your adventure?
Slow travel is the best travel. I think most new travelers (especially those on a budget) make the mistake of traveling too fast, rushing around and spending just a few nights in a destination before they move on.
While you get to see a lot that way (which might make sense if you only have a short holiday) you only get to see the surface of things. You’re never able to go deeper and see beyond the main tourist sites. After a while, everything becomes a blur and you get burnout.
So, if I could go back and tell myself something for my first trip it would be that: slow down. Spend more time in each destination, meet more locals, and try more foods. Don’t just rush around from sight to sight. Instead, aim for quality, not quantity. In the end, it’s much more rewarding — even if you do get to see “less.”
Note from Mitch: This is so true! But it’s easier said than done. FOMO is a real thing, and it’s something I still struggle with today. Just remember, no matter how fast you travel, you’ll still never see it all. So why not slow down and enjoy the ride? Less is more. Instead of worrying about all the places you still need to see, be present and fully enjoy the place where you are.
Anything you would’ve done differently?
I would have started sooner. Life is too short to wait until you’re 65 to make your travel dreams a reality. You might not even make it to 65 and even if you do you may not have the money to travel or you may have health problems that prevent you from doing certain things. I’ve seen far too many people keep their travel plans on the backburner only to leave them there until it’s too late.
Note from Mitch: Agreed. If I could go back in time, I would’ve left straight out of high school (and skipped that $50,000+ college degree I never use). I honestly think it should be mandatory to travel before starting college. Before dedicating your life to a career path, at least go out and explore all your options! It’s crazy the amount of unexpected opportunities that pop up when you step out of your comfort bubble and start meeting people from around the world.
What’s the biggest life lesson travel has taught you? How has it affected your life?
The biggest lessons I’ve learned from travel is that, at the end of the day, we’re all more alike than we think. Once you get past the different languages and clothing and traditions, we’re all just people trying to live the best life we can. We all want to be happy. We all want to take care of our families and spend time with our friends. The differences are just surface level; we’re all much more connected than we think.
What one piece of advice would you give readers thinking about leaving behind the 9-to-5 to build a location independent lifestyle?
Learn the skills you’ll need now, while you have the security of a job. Start preparing, start laying the foundation by planning. Sure, you can just quit your job and dive in but it’s never a bad idea to research, prepare, and have a plan in place. Success will be much more likely that way. You’re starting a business, remember. Businesses need plans if they are going to succeed.
Invest in yourself now so that, when you do take the leap, you’ll be much better positioned to succeed.
Additionally, make sure you know that nothing happens overnight. Consistent, sustained effort is what leads to success. It took me years to make a living from my blog. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Be ready to commit and you’ll be much better prepared for the inevitable ups and downs of the journey.
Any final words of wisdom?
Get out there and see the world! I don’t care if it’s for a day or a week or a year — just travel. See new things, have new experiences, meet new people. Challenge yourself. Get out of your comfort zone. Life is too short to waste it sitting around dreaming. Get out there and make those dreams a reality. I promise you won’t regret it.
⚠️HOLD UP! Before you peace out to explore the world—are you protected? Don’t leave home without first reading my long term travel insurance guide ⚠️
***Do you have a successful “escape the rat race” story? Wanna be featured in an upcoming case study? Shoot me an email for more information.***
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Mitch is your typical nomadic backpacker. Or at least, he was. But after stopping in Colombia to take “one week” of salsa lessons, his life took a sharp left turn. He met a cute Colombian girl in dance class, fell in love, and got married. Over half a decade has passed since he left his career to travel the world as a digital nomad, and he’s never looked back.
Nowadays, he’s the blogger behind Project Untethered—where he runs an awesome email newsletter and Youtube channel teaching adventure-craved wanderlusters how to escape the rat race, earn money from anywhere, and build an “untethered life”.
Mitch's Travel Recommendations:
Travel Planning Resources - Everything you need to plan your trip on one convenient page.
Safetywing Insurance - This cheap travel insurance has saved me over $15,000 in medical bills.
Booking.com - Book accommodation without adding your credit card (in case you need to cancel).
Skyscanner - Find cheap flights.
Trusted House Sitters - Take care of pets in exchange for free (sometimes luxury) accommodation.
Flexjobs - Find remote jobs without having to sift through crappy ones.
Skillshare - Free trial to take unlimited classes that teach digital nomad skills.
Anytime Mailbox - Virtual mail service that can handle your mail while you’re away.
Wise - Send and receive money abroad cheaply (great for freelancers).