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Can Matt Kepnes Really Show You How to Travel the World for Less than $50/Day? [Book Giveaway]

matt-kepnes-coverYa’ll are about to be sold a book, folks.

If you’ve read Riskology.co 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!

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What smart people are saying about this...

  1. I’m going traveling in a little over 5 weeks. The plan is to road trip across America and visit every state (fly to Hawaii and Alaska). Current budget is allowing a very high, up to $150 a day but realistically looking at $100. What advice can you give for doing this as best as possible for as cheap as possible?

    • Hi James,
      It sounds like you have a wonderful adventure ahead of you. My wife and I have been traveling for 2.5 years and have found the biggest expenses (and thus ways to save) are around accommodations and food.

      I would suggest looking into both Couchsurfing (which is very big in the US) and housesitting, which we’ve found is great for our slower travel speed but may not fit here.

      As for food, cook as often as possible and focus on eating your biggest meal out at lunch. Prices are considerably less and we found it also helped us lose a ton of weight in the process.

      These 2 tips have shaved thousands off our expenses and extended our trip considerable.

      Good luck and have a great adventure.

      • Thanks Warren. Couchsurfing is something me and my travel partner are looking into. That’s good idea with food.

        We’re currently looking at 6-9 months (assuming we can get a visa extension) in the USA. But the more I read the more I want to travel… forever! It sounds amazing and exactly what I’m after in my life.

        • $150/day is a huge budget for just traveling within the U.S. I have to assume that includes staying in hotels and eating out.

          Even just cutting down to private rooms in hostels could save a lot. Anywhere you can stay that has a kitchen will help tremendously also.

          • Hey Tyler. Yeah it’s a huge budget. I was saving up to buy a house so I’ve got a lot of cash and $150 per day would spend it all. By no means do I actually plan to spend all that. It’s looking more like $100/day budget but the less we can spend the better (more traveling). As I’m travelling with a friend that really drops costs (fuel & accommodation). For the two first week we’re hitting Spring Break (Panama City Beach) so that’ll be a big expense but it’ll let us get settled. After that it’ll be a mix of hotels, motels, couch surfing, hostels, and maybe some nights camping. We’re up for trying anything really.

    • When I drove across the country, I spent about $60 per day by staying in hostels, couchsurfing, or staying in cheap motels. I always filled up my tank in cheap gas states and I tried to avoid eating in nice restaurants.

  2. I’m actually just beginning to plot out a long term, multi-continent trip, so this post comes at an incredibly helpful time for me. I’m trying my best to budget for the trip, but since I’m in the service industry I know I won’t be able to save nearly enough to sustain me for as long as I want to be away for.

    So, my question is: what tips and advice do you have for finding and acquiring work abroad to prolong travel, particularly if I probably won’t have a work visa for any given country?

  3. I tend to visit places where friends are at the moment, usually because they offer their place for sleeping and we like the mutual company (I think :P).

    Sometimes, they’ll recommend a place that would break the $50/day rule – a restaurant for dinner, a local extravagance they liked once, something touristy that they know to take you to because ‘you’re not from here’.

    I know Matt talked about enjoying the trip regardless…but I would like to extend the $50/day mentality further where its often hardest for me to say no.

    So Matt (and Tyler if willing): if you’re with a friend/relative/distant relative, how do you get around their recommendations without hurting their feelings? Or do you avoid it mostly?

  4. Hi I’m planning a big trip around Europe this year – I’ve put it off after travelling through other amazing (and cheaper) parts of the world – but I’m keen to get there now and saving for this part of the world is daunting. I am part of couchsurfing & I’m happy to find local eats etc. but how can I budget on $50/day when the exchange rate gets me so little pounds/euros? Is there a way of getting a European bank account from home and making you dollars go further? Do you really mean you can budget 50 DOLLARS a day in Western Europe?

    • A European bank account won’t really help you if you’re still earning U.S. dollars to put into it. Otherwise, you’re just speculating on currency values, which may or may not work in your favor.

      If you’re staying for free and eating in, $50/day in Western Europe is still totally doable, but you’ll have to skip expensive tourist attractions.

      If you’re going in order to do those touristy things, though, then you’ll have to spend more.

      Also, the cheapest way to travel in Western Europe is almost always budget airlines. You can often get fares ahead of time for nothing but taxes. Act fast and plan ahead, though.

  5. My parents want to come visit me in Korea this summer, but the flights are so expensive. What is the best time to look for international tickets, or what are some tips for finding less expensive flights?

  6. Hi Matt, any pearls of wisdom on being frugal but not cheap? Also, do you have advice on ways to travel light? I recently had back surgery for a ruptured disc and don’t know if I’ll have trouble backpacking!

    • Matt will have a better answer, but I did 2 months in Europe and 1 month in Africa/Europe with nothing but a small daypack.

      You have to wear the same clothes every day and do your washing regularly, but it’s actually quite easy to get by with nothing but a small pack.

    • Hey Elizabeth. I’m travelling to America (from UK) light. I’m only taking an average backpack. With that I can fit enough clothes for a week (several tee shirts, 2x jeans, 2 shirts, 7x socks & underwear, travel towel, and some other things I can’t think of) with enough room for a Mac Book Air and other electrical chargers. One of the best things I’ve found is a microfibre travel towel. They take up such little room in the bag. You can also buy things like fast drying underwear that dry fast. Going minimalist for life and travel is great.

    • That’s my whole philosophy – be frugal not cheap. Budget for what you love and cut expenses elsewhere. I’ll gladly sleep on the floor if I can then eat a nice meal. I’ll walk instead of taking a taxi. Don’t overspend for convenience but don’t penny pitch either.

  7. Hello. Where can I find affordable and safe hostels that would fit into the $50/day expense plan? What factors should I consider when choosing a hostel? Thank you.

    • Totally depends on where you’re traveling. Where do you want to go?

      Generally, though, the cheapest hostels will often be on the outskirts of town or in a suburb. Best to calculate transit fare to downtown in these cases to compare accurately.

  8. How hard is it to find inexpensive places to stay if you are traveling with a toddler or should I just give up and wait until she is grown?

  9. If you want to teach English in a foreign country, how do you get around the legal requirement of working as a tourist? Do you pay taxes on these earnings?

    The other question is: have you tried purchasing a ticket for you and a friend with your frequent flyer miles? Does that purchase for 2 tickets land on your account?

    • You get a working visa and you legally teach in the country. Very few places will allow you to work under the table, though it can be done.

      And yup, the mileage would come out of your account.

  10. Matt will have to answer the first question—I’ve never worked abroad.

    As for your second, I don’t totally understand the question. If you buy two tickets on your account, then two tickets will appear as having been purchased on your account. That seems obvious, so maybe I misunderstand the question?

  11. What are the best airlines, and methods to fly inside of South America inexpensively? I’ve gotten pretty good at getting around S.E. Asia, and even much of Europe with reasonable airfares. Still having difficulty going between countries in South America. Thanks! John R.

  12. In your personal opinion Matt (and Tyler) what is your favourite part of travelling and has travelling cheaply enhanced your experience (regarding safety, security, credible resources and organizations) ?

    I really want to get this book. I look forward to learning more about how to get the most bang for your buck.

    • Traveling super cheap *greatly* enhances my travel experiences, because it adds all kinds of hiccups and roadblocks to be overcome—which is how I like travel to be, nice and complicated. :)

      Anyone can make most travel problems go away with a stack of cash, but it takes a true Riskologist to overcome them with creativity.

  13. Great tips so far! I haven’t traveled extensively or for long periods but I do take a 2-3 week vacation abroad every year. When I travel, my biggest expenses are food and transportation, like cabs/taxis. I feel that once you have a “foreigner” look on your face, cab drivers try to charge you a higher price and are very stubborn when negotiating cab fare. I had this trouble in Brazil, Morocco, Vietnam, and most recently Costa Rica. My question is: say there isn’t public transit available (includes trains, buses, collectivos, etc.) and you have to hire a cab driver for long distance travel (when you don’t want to fly or are not comfortable with renting/driving your own car)–what’s the cheapest way to get around (please don’t say hitchhiking)? In other words, what’s your best strategy for negotiating with cab drivers in other countries (especially when you may not know the language)?

    • In a situation like this, it’s always best to negotiate your cab fares where other cab drivers are available. Basic supply and demand.

      The fare for a cab in a foreign place can be *shockingly* different if you’re in the town square compared to just a few blocks away. If the driver knows he/she is your only choice, there’s little room to negotiate. If there are cabs everywhere, though, you can test prices with several of them to get an idea of what a fair rate is, and there’s more room to negotiate.

      Supply and demand…

  14. Here’s my travel question: It sounds great to travel on the cheap and visits tons of countries. But how does one do that when one has limited vacation at work? I’d love to go see South America for 2 months, but I get two weeks off per year? If I quit outright, I don’t have the income to even get started on such a journey. Sounds like the big travel Catch 22!. *sigh*

  15. Do you have any tips for travelling frugally with kids? Not always well behaved but at least
    appealing kids?

  16. I would like to see more on world wide cruises if possible of + the flights to the starting points… Thanks

    Tom Haley

    • I haven’t ever taken a cruise, but I do subscribe to all the major airline newsletters, and I regularly see deals published there that are much better that what you find directly from the cruise lines.

      They’re typically last minute and low season deals. So, I’d at least start your search there.

  17. Hey Tyler,

    What five places would Matt recommend most for someone looking to gain the kind of exciting real-life experiences so lauded in advice for fiction writers?

    • If you count Western Europe (I do, because I don’t think it’s that hard to stay under $50/day), then definitely there.

      I was also pretty impressed with the affordability of Greece, which has an excellent public infrastructure and is a beautiful country. Urban China too, but the smog factor knocks the score down a bit.

  18. What sort of safety measure should I take if I’m traveling alone through areas with potential civil unrest (northern Uganda, post-election Kenya, southern Ethiopia)? Do you budget for bribes?

    • Just in case it wasn’t obvious, I was totally joking about saving money by traveling to areas of civil unrest. Usually the opposite happens—you spend a ton of money because the uncertainly destroys the economy which is often accompanied by extreme inflation.

      But if you’re going there anyway, I’d hire a guide… The rules for “getting by during civil unrest” are completely different depending on the situation. It’s always unique.

      And I’ve only been asked once for a bribe. It was in Russia, and I just pretended like I was a stupid tourist who didn’t understand until the officer got frustrated and sent me away.

  19. Haha, no, I’m not headed to those parts just to save money. I’m making a trip to Uganda in June to help build some schools for a few weeks, and then I want to take a bus over to western Kenya to take some materials to an ongoing clean water initiative I started outside of Kitale. The general election is on March 4th, so hopefully the violence will have subsided by late June.

    One of my Ethiopian brothers has a living grandfather in a remote village in the southern region, so I’d really like to go north from the projects in Kenya to visit him and take him some photos and letters.

    Dreaming big, it would be pretty epic to trek all the way up into Europe… I have two free international flights, so I want to make the most of it.

    I know a few trustworthy guides in Nairobi. Might be able to connect with them. I’m still looking for a travel partner, which would make things a lot safer and easier.

  20. I’ve been trying to save up for a while now to leave on my own adventure, but as someone who works in the service industry, it’s definitely slow going and I’m starting to wonderful how much is enough. I know everyone is different so I don’t need a number, but HOW did you guys decide how much to save up before you hit the road?

  21. What are your suggestions for travel for someone with a US Government ID … Military Department of Defense, Retired or Active Duty.

    Do you believe having an ID would impead the experience of such travel, I know there are books about housing on military locations even recreational … however I believe they exceed the actual cost you have experience, these types of locations are limited to not existent in Central/South America.

    I am interested several trips the first is a trip across lower Canada(2013), then a trip south From NM to Mexico continuing south to Chili (2014-2015).

    I know the trip across Canada the ID will be no issue … the trip south to Chili… that could be a little different.

  22. Hi all. I’ve randomly selected a winner (using the random.org number generator), and our winner is Alicia!

    Congrats, Alicia. I’ll be in touch soon to get your address so I can drop your book in the mail.

    Thanks to everyone for the great travel questions, and thanks to Matt for answering all them!

  23. I know that many cards have no foreign transaction fees, but which card gives the best exchange rate on purchases? Also, what have you found is the best way to exchange currency? And what about keep your personal belongings safe in hotels, or hostels? I have friends who have had cleaning staff with sticky fingers, and even had money missing from a hotel safe.

  24. Thanks Charlie; the most important take away for me: “To be trusted, be trustworthy. And if you think others are not trustworthy as you – try trusting them first.” It’s not hard to do and what a difference it can make.

  25. hi i came across this article through International Magaizine and seriously making a change from cubicle to travel writing. I am not sure if anyone else has this question/issue but have you heard of people getting extreme earaches when flying and if so is there something that can be done ?
    A bit unorthodox but cannot seem to find answers on the net :( Would love to get a copy of the book as well :) Thanks in advance

Founded with love by Tyler Tervooren

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