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BUMP IN THE ROAD

‘Nomadic Matt’ Kepnes on being grounded and setting up roots

Winthrop native has made a living showing the world how to travel on a budget

Matt Kepnes, founder of the website Nomadic Matt.
Matt Kepnes, founder of the website Nomadic Matt.Lola Akinmade Åkerström/Courtesy

Growing up in Winthrop, Matt Kepnes wasn’t around people who traveled and didn’t think much about it. He graduated from UMass Amherst in 2003 with a degree in history, planning to teach, but ended up with a desk job at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The next year, at age 23, Kepnes took his first international trip, an eye-opening two-week vacation to Costa Rica. He was hooked. During a visit to Thailand the following year, a group of backpackers showed Kepnes how he could travel on a small budget. After returning home, he finished his MBA at Suffolk University, left his job, and in 2006 set out to travel the world. Since then, Kepnes, 39, has visited more than 100 countries and established a thriving online business at NomadicMatt.com. Focusing on budget travel, it’s become a leading travel blog. Below are edited excerpts from an interview with Kepnes.

Q. In your book “Ten Years a Nomad,” which came out last year, you wrote about how you were tired of constantly being on the road and wanted a home base. Where did you end up? And where are you at this moment (in early August)?

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A. In 2016, I just realized that I didn’t enjoy being on the road all the time. I think it’s true of a lot of long-term travelers, after a few years or as you get older, you tend to want a base. I settled in Austin. Nowadays I can take about five weeks of constant travel before I want to go home, unpack and cook. I’m now at Moosehead Lake, my first time here, after visiting family in Boston for a couple weeks. I’ll be going to Burlington (Vermont) and the Fingers Lakes (New York) on the way back. I’ve been out of Texas since mid-June and I’m ready to go home.

Q. Is this a COVID-inspired road trip? Where else did it take you?

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A. It is. My original plan was to backpack in the Balkans all of August. I bought a car early this year to do more road trips, so that was lucky. I first went to Memphis and Nashville, Kentucky and Ohio, before Boston. I hadn’t been to Kentucky before. I liked Louisville a lot. I love whiskey, so that was awesome, and there seems to be a great artist and microbrew scene.

Q. How are you feeling about the travel blog business right now?

A.. In mid-March, we saw an immediate drop in revenue and traffic, but then more people looking for travel advice, especially with cancellations. But we were all so naïve, thinking we’d be fine by the summer. Now I don’t think there will be a real return to travel this year. Business certainly isn’t as a good as it was, but with the government aid we got, along with some returning revenue due to some people traveling again and our internal cost-cutting measures, I feel like we can weather the storm.

Q. How has your content and coverage changed to address the new normal?

A. A lot of the content we’re putting out is road-trip based, so we’re pivoting to that kind of short-term local content. Last fall we’d started the Nomadic Network, a global travel club with local chapters. We had 30 chapters and more than 1,000 people had attended our events, then we had to move events to virtual. We get 30 to 80 people depending on the topic, so it’s a good turnout, but we are looking forward to when we can get together in person again.

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Q. Some people say that it’s irresponsible to travel now. What are your thoughts?

A. I think you can responsibly travel, with social distancing and face masks. If I’m being careful with myself, I’m being careful for others. I do think it’s important to get a COVID test before you do something like a road trip. I did and it was negative.

Diane Daniel can be reached at diane@bydianedaniel.com.