9 Life Lessons I Learned From Being a Nomad for Ten Years

Matt Kepnes traveled constantly for a decade- never hanging his hat in one place - learning some valuable lessons along the way.

Ten years a nomad. Over the course of 3,000 nights on the road, I slept in thousands of hostels, visited close to 100 countries, and interacted with more human beings than I can keep track of.

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Matt Kepnes traveled the world constantly for 10 years. Here he is in Africa. Matt Kepnes

And, throughout those years of being a nomad, I learned a lot about our world — and my place in it. Not everyone is going to become a nomad. Not everyone wants to spend a decade on the road. Heck, most people don't want to spend more than a few weeks on the road.

But, in those years of peripatetic traveling, there were lessons I learned that could apply to anyone. They are insights into the world that only travel – no matter how long you do it – can give you.

People are essentially the same.

Travel taught me a lot about our shared humanity. Interacting with people, watching them commute, pick up laundry, go grocery shopping, and do all the other everyday things I did back home, allowed me to understand that, fundamentally, we all just want the same things: to be happy, to be safe and secure, to have friends and family who love us. We may speak different languages and do things differently, but the why of what we do is universal.

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Matt with some friends on the road. Matt Kepnes

Always expect the unexpected.

The longer you are on the road, the more likely something will go wrong. You'll miss a train or a bus will fail to arrive. You'll get sick, lose something, or possibly get robbed. I never expected to get food poisoning in Costa Rica, break my camera in Italy, or pop an eardrum in Thailand. My friend never expected to break his back in the Amazon. Another never expected to need surgery in Peru. Another never thought she'd get dengue in Indonesia.

Problems — big and small — will arise when you travel.

So always bring a first aid kit and get travel insurance. You never know when a bandage or some antibacterial ointment will come in handy. And you never know when you'll need help covering the bigger bills or getting home.

Expect the best — but plan for the worst. And, in doing so, you learn to go with the flow because you know that, while things may be going wrong now, it will all work out in the end. There's always another bus.

Travel helps you understand on an emotional level what you know intellectually to be true.

It's one thing to know that poverty exists in the world. It's another to see it firsthand. It's one thing to know that people are the same. It's another thing to interact with them and really understand that. While we can "get" things on an intellectual level, no book, newspaper, or documentary will help you fully understand something. To do that, you need to experience it firsthand. Until you've been to a place — smelled it, looked at it, interacted with it — you'll never understand it on a deeper, emotional level.

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Matt in Madagascar where, according to the Borgen Project, more than three out of every four citizens of the country live on less than $1.90 a day Matt Kepnes

People are helpful.

We grow up in a culture of fear where we're taught to be wary of strangers. I was. But the world is not actually filled with dangerous strangers lurking around every corner.

It wasn't until I met some locals at a poker table in Amsterdam who then invited me out that I begin to let my guard down and realize people are generally good and helpful and want you to see the best in their country and its people. If you just give them a chance to help, they will.

Plans are great — but don't be married to them.

I love planning a trip. Even after all these years on the road, I still plan my trips. Planning gives you ownership of your travels. It allows you to imagine yourself in far-off lands doing cool things. But don't be married to your plans as things will go wrong (see above) and you need to be flexible. Also, being married to your plans doesn't allow for the serendipity that travel gives you. It doesn't allow you to wander into that cute café, linger in the park, or explore that random museum you happened across. Just plan two or three things to see or do during the day and let the rest fill itself in. When you go with the flow and let the day lead the way, you get the magic of travel.

Travel is cheaper than you think.

We are taught that travel is an expensive escape that can only be done a couple of times a year — but that's not true. Think of all your bills. How much do you spend a month when you add it all up? Once I started traveling, I realized how much cheaper travel was than I was taught. I mean, imagine if you spent only 18K a year on everything! For most of us that would be huge savings. And it's never been a cheaper time to travel, thanks to all the cost-saving information and travel deals out there.

However, money management is important.

Money management is key to success when you're traveling long-term (or just in general). You have a seemingly infinite amount of time but not an infinite amount of money, so backpackers who fail to keep track of their spending are going to find themselves going home early. When you aren't working, it's easy to spend money, what with all the free time you suddenly have — meals, tours, and nights out all add up pretty quickly.

So if you're not keeping track of where that money is going, you aren't going to know how to pace your spending. I still keep a budget journal, so I know. It allows me to go, "OK, I've been spending too much on alcohol/Starbucks/tours/taxis/whatever; time to cut down so I can get back to what my daily spending needs to be."

You are more capable than you think.

All that worrying and fear I had before my first trip was for naught. This traveling thing is a lot easier than people make it out to be. You're not the first person to do it, and there is a well-worn trail that makes it easy for first-timers to find their way. Every day, people get up, go out the door to travel the world, and survive and thrive. Kids as young as 18 years old make their way around the world without any problems. If an 18-year-old can do it, so can you.

It's never too late to change.

Even if you aren't the person you want to be in your head, it's never too late to change. Travel is all about change. Traveling has shown me aspects of my personality I wish I didn't have, like: I'm really lazy. I've always sworn by the phrase "carpe diem," but sometimes I don't actually do it. It's never too late to change, though, and realizing that has made being more proactive a lot easier.


Travel has shown me a lot about the world and myself and over the decade I've been a nomad. I was scared to travel the world alone. I was worried I might not have the skills to survive on my own. But while there was a bit of a learning curve, I came to realize that the well-trodden travel trail out there, and, combined with the goodness of people, found the skills and confidence to travel as a nomad for a decade.

And if I could make it around the world, you can too!

Matthew Kepnes helps people travel the world on a budget at his website, Nomadic Matt. He's also the author of the New York Times best-seller How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. His writings and advice have been featured in The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian UK, Wall Street Journal, Budget Travel, BBC, and Time. He also regularly speaks at travel trade and consumer shows. His new memoir, Ten Years a Nomad, is about his decade of world travel and is on sale now.

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St. Martin's Press