In this interview, I sat down with Matt Kepnes, otherwise known as Nomadic Matt. Matt is the founder of NomadicMatt.com and the author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day: Third Edition: Travel Cheaper, Longer, Smarter.
Matt has been to over 90 countries and is a true travel expert. He’s also an introvert.
He traveled to Costa Rica at the age of 23, one of his first international trips and decided to do a formal tour group, specifically so he wouldn’t be alone. According to 23 year-old Matt: “Traveling alone? That’s crazy talk!”
On this trip, Matt had an aha moment: Travel creates an opportunity for a fresh start and to break away from the weights, perceptions and history of home.
“In Costa Rica, I became the man I always wanted to be.” –Matt Kepnes
The Travel Reset Button
Matt adopted a new mindset when he started traveling regularly. He was still an introvert on the inside, but he started behaving more like an extrovert.
Each day was something new—a new activity to try, a new food to eat, a new person to say hello to.
Traveling was like hitting the reset button for Matt and with each new location he traveled to, he was able to embody a new first impression and become his best self.
The People Part of Travel
When Matt first started traveling, meeting people wasn’t as much of a goal as it was a byproduct. During his trip to Costa Rica, he roomed with a guy who he’s still friends with 15 years later.
I personally resonate with Matt’s travel bug, as my husband and I urban-nomadded for 2 years, meaning we lived in different cities, each city for 1-2 months at a time. Interestingly, most people didn’t ask what cities we lived in after the big adventure, but instead: How did you meet people??
How do you even begin to make friends while you’re traveling? How do you build those relationships?
Matt shared a story when he stayed in a hostel by himself, went out for a drink, sat at the bar alone and was approached by a girl from his hostel. “Wanna hang out?” she asked. Matt’s reaction: “Boom! I had friends!”
Matt’s advice for us here is to remember that a lot of travelers are in the same boat as you—adventuring solo and looking to make friends along the way. And many of those people may also be introverts. Your context is your first similarity!
#1 Put yourself in a travel context where everyone is in the same boat:
Where you stay
Type of transport
#2: Take advantage of the travel bubble. The beauty of traveling is that many social barriers from home are gone.
Building Friendships While Traveling
So you’ve taken the mental leap of meeting new people on the road. How do you build on those commonalities and build real relationships?
Matt suggests choosing a hostel with a big social calendar. He’s stayed in ones that have a new activity planned each night for travelers staying there including nights out on the town and barbeques.
He offers a ton of starter guides for traveling on his blog, including:
Locations to visit
His favorite places to stay
Matt lived in Bangkok, Thailand for 8 months. You may envision his first month in a new city to be filled with a bursting travel schedule filled with explorations and activities. Instead, he spent it inside on his computer playing World of Warcraft.
“Moving to a new city doesn’t automatically make stuff happen. You have to go out and make things happen.” –Matt Kepnes
#1 Look for Expat groups in the city you’re traveling to. This will help to connect you with other travelers.
#2 Check out services like Meetup.com, AirBnB and CouchSurfing.com for places to meet other travelers and a bed to rest your weary head at night. Don’t want to stay on someone’s couch? You can still attend the Couch Surfing Meetup in your new city. These Meetups tend to draw an international crowd and it’s almost guraranteed someone will speak your language.
Use Your Existing Interests to Find Friends
During my time in South America, I used my interest as an entrepreneur to meet other entrepreneurs in the area. This common interest gave me conversation topics and when I met someone new, I already knew they too were interested in entrepreneurship, so we weren’t starting at ground zero. After one month, I had a bigger network in South America than I did in Los Angeles where I’m originally from.
Other commonalities you can use to build relationships with new friends:
A story from Matt: “ I came back from a trip, went to a bar and saw a guy wearing a red shirt with a yellow star on it. It’s the flag of Vietnam. Anyone that backpacks in Vietnam owns this shirt, it’s the quintessential clothing item of the country. I went up to him right away and talked to him about it. Everyone I was with thought it was weird, but my traveling social norm became my standard social norm.”
#1 Wear an identifier on your travels. This can be a flag, a funny hat, a shirt featuring your favorite sports team. This will open up conversations with new people if they recognize something on you.
#2 Bring home identifiers from your countries of travel to spark conversation with new people while at home.
Lie to Yourself
What would the most interesting man in the world do?
Well according to Matt, he would travel.
Matt’s recommendation to introverts and all travelers is to pretend and lie to yourself until you start to feel comfortable. For Matt specifically, he pretended he wasn’t a shy introvert until he felt more conversational and open to making new friends.
“Live as your best self until you become it.” –Matt Kepnes
Action Step: Be playful with your identity, personality and even the answer to the question, “what do you do?” When you’re traveling, you can reinvent yourself.
Maintaining Travel Friendships
Facebook? A database of new friends? How exactly do you maintain the friendships you’ve made on the road?
Matt says, “When I first started traveling, Facebook wasn’t really a thing; You wrote down email addresses.” Now, staying connected with travel mates is easy with Facebook, WhatsApp and other forms of social media.
“You realize you may never see these people again, but if I do, it’s like catching up right where we left off as we shared this snapshot in time where we were the best of friends.” –Matt Kepnes
In the travel life, you may say goodbye more than the average person, but the opportunity to have friends and a network all around the world is exciting. For example, I’ve met people from Australia all over the world. I have a folder in my Gmail of all the correspondence I’ve had with my Australian friends so the next time I go back, I can reply and see if we can get together.
Action Step: Create the location folder in your inbox based on where people are based.
On your next trip, Matt and I challenge you to do a couple of days by yourself and practice your social skills.
Parting words of wisdom from Nomadic Matt: “Put yourself out there. Remind yourself everyone is in the same boat. There will be a lot of receptive people as they’re likely feeling the exact same way as you.”