Travel mini-series: Nomadic Matt's travel hacks – Financial Times

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Lilah Raptopoulos
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This is an audio transcript of the FT Weekend podcast episode: ‘Nomadic Matt’s travel hacks’
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Lilah Raptopoulos
Hi FT Weekend listeners. Welcome to the final episode of our mini-series on travel.
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This week, I speak with Matt Kepnes. He’s better known as Nomadic Matt. That’s the name of his popular travel blog. He has been travelling the world for almost two decades on a budget. He’s written about it in his book How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, and his memoir, Ten Years a Nomad. And I invited him on to the last episode just to talk tips. All the tips, how to get good deals on flights, how to get points, how to choose a destination, how to save money when travelling. It’s full of great stuff. So this is FT Weekend, the podcast, special travel edition. I’m Lilah Raptopoulos. Let’s go.
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Matt, welcome to the show. Thank you for being here.
Matt Kepnes
Thanks for having me.
Lilah Raptopoulos
So you are the keeper of many best-kept travel secrets. I would love to learn your ways. But first, before we start, you know, this is like a huge question, but why should we travel?
Matt Kepnes
It just exposes you to a lot of new ideas. But I think more importantly, it shows a shared humanity. You know, everybody is like, oh, I wanna go to, you know, Berlin and do what the locals do. OK. Well, you know what the locals do? They get up, they eat breakfast, they go to work, they come home and pick up their dry cleaning and watch Netflix and go to bed. Everybody around the world is really the same. So I think it really provides a lot of perspective. But the how and the why change it, right? You know, how people work, how people construct meals and relationships and the emphasis on leisure time, you know, work-life balance, dinner. If you consider the world a puzzle, travel allows you to put the pieces together a lot easier than you would if you just never left your hometown.
Lilah Raptopoulos
So if you’re looking at the year ahead and you, like, know you wanna take a few trips, what would you suggest as a good way to think about it?
Matt Kepnes
Well, I would really think about when you wanna go, and then go the opposite of everybody else. Right? (Laughter) The number one way to get a cheap deal is to go where people aren’t going when they aren’t going. Like, if you really, you’re dead set. You’re a teacher. You can only go to Europe in the summer time, right? OK, well, you know, don’t go to Paris. Go to a smaller town somewhere else. I would also consider that putting more stuff in your schedule is going to detract from the overall experience. Travel is really at its best when you just sort of let serendipity take over. When you say, OK, I like, I have a couple of things I want to do today. Let me start off with wine and then see where the day takes you without stressing too much about it. So I think the best part of our travel is taking it slowly, being a little contrarian in the sense that you go where people aren’t going. And then just having this sense that you don’t have to do it all.
Lilah Raptopoulos
It reminds me of the time that I went to Stockholm in the middle of the winter. And actually it was, like, really a delight. When you say, “Be contrarian,” can you give a couple examples of what that means?
Matt Kepnes
We’ll go back to that example of Europe, right? You wanna go in Europe in the summer. OK. You wanna go to France. You’ve always wanted to go to Paris. I can’t stop you from going to Paris. Right? (Laughter) To say it’s super touristy is to say that one area of that city is very touristy. So if you look at big cities, the touristy stuff is usually all in one area. And that’s where the hotels tend to be. That’s where the crowds are. So if you pick a part of the city that’s just a little off centre, you’re gonna get to experience Paris like the locals do, away from the crowds. In fact you’ll have that Parisian experience without being like, oh, Paris is so touristy.
Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s a really good idea. Where do you think people make the biggest spending mistakes on trips? What are the unnecessary travel expenses that, like, a lot of us are wasting money on?
Matt Kepnes
For me, I would say accommodation, with the caveat that it really depends on the kind of trip you’re going on. If you really wanted just to sit around the resort, more power to you. But if you are gonna have a very active, you’re-gonna-be-out-all-day trip, you know, you’re sightseeing, dinners and all that stuff, yeah, you want a nice, comfortable bed and a decent place, but do you really need some resort or the Ritz.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Right.
Matt Kepnes
You’re not gonna be in the room all day, so you’re not really gonna, like, get the benefit of the luxury. I also think people really go wrong with food. They’re sort of like, oh, we’re in this city, let’s try everything. But they have just street food culture in so many places, right? You know, you go to Mexico City, get street tacos for $1.50. You know, standing around that street stall, eating with the locals is probably gonna be just as memorable as getting all these reservations at fancy restaurants. And additionally, I think where people go wrong with food is they’re not willing to be wrong.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Right. I think flexibility is good when, I mean, I tend to underplan, but I think flexibility is good when you’re travelling.
Matt Kepnes
Yeah. So if you are, say, one week in Sydney, you want every meal to be great. But what if it’s not? If it’s not, you’re gonna feel like a failure.
Lilah Raptopoulos
But it’s impossible.
Matt Kepnes
It’s impossible, right? And so what you really got to do is be willing to say some of these random places I go into might suck. And in this information age, we obsess over where the, you know, star rating on Google, you know, how many Yelp reviews does it have? We research. It’s like, you know what? Just walk down. If it looks interesting and there’s people inside, try it. And if it’s bad. Oh, well, whatever. That’s part of travel.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah. OK. All right. So let’s talk about booking a flight. You’ve said that one of the best things that you can do to get a good deal is to kind of go the opposite way that other people might be going, or not sort of taking the trip that everyone’s taking. But is there anything else we should know about how to get a good deal on a flight, how to get upgraded?
Matt Kepnes
I’ll answer the second question first — how to get upgraded.
Lilah Raptopoulos
OK.
Matt Kepnes
Every article you ever read online about the secret hacks to get upgraded from economy to business are all lies. You can’t get upgraded. Unless you have status, you’re unlikely to get upgraded.
Lilah Raptopoulos
And having status comes from just taking a lot of flights on the same airline.
Matt Kepnes
Yeah. Nowadays planes are really full and there’s lots of elites out there. And so really without elite status, it’s very hard to get an upgrade. In terms of finding cheap flights, there are always flight deals, OK. Always. A great website out there is Scott’s Cheap Flights, and then there is one called HolidayPirates, which focuses more on the Europe market. And every day they sort of track all these flight deals, right? Airlines you know will drop prices for, you know, an hour, flash sales. So really a lot about how do you get a good deal? One, be ready when you see a good deal.
Lilah Raptopoulos
So just grab it.
Matt Kepnes
Just jump on it, yeah. Because one good thing that happened out of Covid for travel was that airlines dropped their cancellation fees. So if you book a great deal on United to Cape Town, you can’t make it, they’ll give you that as an e-credit for next time. But it’s better to get the deal than not get the deal and then maybe use a flight credit in a different time.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah. Yeah. Matt, thank you so much. I have one last question. My last question is about points. I mean, people have various knowledge levels about points. And as sort of maybe an average person, I have a few credit cards. They give me different levels of points. I’d sort of cash them in for flights sometimes. It seems to be working fine, but I have this feeling that there are people who know so much more than me that are like living luxury lives for free. (Laughter) And I just, you know, don’t know something that they know. Is that true or is that a myth?
Matt Kepnes
I would consider myself above average in the knowledge of travel hacking, as they call it. And I watched some of my friends do all these crazy things and I’m like, wow, you’re living this, as you said, like, luxury lifestyle for nothing. But whew, it takes a lot of time. (Laughter) I mean, they say it’s a hobby thing, but I’m like, I feel like you’re working, like, more on that than your full-time job. (Laughter) Sort of like couponing, right?
Lilah Raptopoulos
Right. (Laughter) Right.
Matt Kepnes
It’s like, the people, like, who are really into couponing, they spend a lot of time doing it and of course, yeah, they save a ton of money but it borderlines on obsessive. And so I am a huge advocate of points so long as you’re not gonna get into credit card debt.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Right. And you’ll save more money the more obsessive you get. But that depends on how you wanna spend your time.
Matt Kepnes
Yeah. I’m pretty obsessive about it. But if you’re just, you’re average, you know, single person, couple, family taking one to two trips a year, do, just your everyday spending in, making sure you’re taking advantage of all the category bonuses for dining out or groceries or gas, you’re gonna kind of earn enough points to get you there and back on a free flight. For most people, they don’t really need more than that.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.
Matt Kepnes
I mean, my mom was like, I have, like, all these points. She doesn’t really, you know, travel that much, but she keeps racking them up. And I’m like, they don’t expire. Just use them when you need it. You’re buying those Christmas presents no matter what. Might as well get some, you know, free travel out of it.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Totally. Matt, this has been so useful, so informative. Thanks so much for your time.
Matt Kepnes
Well, thank you for having me. I always like talking about travel.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s the show. Thank you for listening to FT Weekend, the podcast from the Financial Times. I’ve shared links for where you could find Matt in the show notes. That’s also it for our travel mini-series, and I really wanna thank you for listening. We would love to hear what you think. You can email us at [email protected] You can say hi on social media and follow us. We’re on Twitter @FTWeekendPod. And I am on Instagram and Twitter @LilahRap. If you missed the other episodes, you can find them on our feed. There’s how to travel like a local from our friends at FT Globetrotter. There’s what it’s like to visit every country in the world from Jessica Nabongo, and a great episode on the latest trends in tourism with our travel editor Tom Robbins.
This show was produced by Zach St Louis, executive produced by Topher Forhecz and sound engineered by Breen Turner, with original music by Metaphor Music. Special thanks to Cheryl Brumley and Alastair Mackie.
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