Ever since I put out the very first edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations more than 10 years ago, I’ve been continually recommending other travel books that are more general in nature, with tips on planning, budgeting, and traveling well for less. I even wrote one called Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune, published by Travelers’ Tales. Apart from philosophical Vagabonding though, there hasn’t been a good current one aimed at backpackers except Rough Guides’ First Time Around the World, from Doug Lansky. All the others have gotten dated and less useful over time or were obscure titles written by people without much authority.
I’m happy to report that How to Travel the World on $50 a Day by Mat Kepnes is a different story. He certainly has plenty of authority, running the popular NomadicMatt.com blog, plus he’s been continually traveling on a budget for years. He also goes to conferences, meets lots of other travelers, and responds to feedback regularly. He knows the issues backpackers face and the mistakes they frequently make.
This book is a straightforward, sometimes opinionated guide subtitled “Travel cheaper, longer, smarter.” It lives up to the promise with sometimes hard-won advice based on screw-ups not repeated and lessons learned from others. The $50 a day pitch is an average, not something you can necessarily do in every country easily. As Matt admits, you can get by on half that much in Southeast Asia or India, but it’s hard to scrape by on $50 a day in northern Europe or Australia even if you’re Couchsurfing much of the time.
Cheap travel inclusions and omissions
It’s hard for me not to read a book like this and find flaws—even in ones I write myself—but the flaws here are minor. There’s no index, which seems odd, and there’s barely a mention of huge costs travelers get surprised by like vaccinations, visa charges, and airport exit fees. Some of the generalizations are overdone (“Trains around Norway cost about $70 USD” or for Sweden “Grocery shopping here will cost around $70 USD per week.”) The blog writing style of short, declarative sentences doesn’t work in a book as well as it does online when people are skimming and have short attention spans. It’s also squarely aimed at people who travel like Matt does: solo.
Quibbles aside, the book is organized well and covers most of the bases. It starts out with the argument that traveling is cheaper than just living at home and backs it all up with solid evidence. It then goes through how to do it all right in the planning stages, from getting the right credit cards and bank accounts (worth the book price by itself in money it will save you) to flights to buying the right backpack.
This section is followed by 28 pages of saving money on the road, solid advice from someone with experience on shaving the big expenses: accommodation, food/beverages, transportation, and activities. I especially like his advice on knowing what’s important to you. He will shave on accommodation in order to have a good meal, but others may want to do the opposite. Some people hate museums, some consider that the main reason to visit a big capital city. Figure out your priorities so you’ll enjoy your time on the road with a limited budget.
The largest section of the book is a regional breakdown, lumping continents or travel areas together and trying to estimate specific costs. This is a tall order, but in general Matt handles it well, showing the major differences between East and West in Europe, for example, and explaining how taking different transportation options between countries can have an impact on your budget and your enjoyment.
A few tacked-on sections at the end include specific gear and city-by city hostel recommendations (where a link to one page on his blog probably would have sufficed), a packing list, and a few pages of medical advice.
How to Travel the World on $50 a Day lists for just $15, so even if you only use one section of advice in here, it’ll pay for itself several times over. Even with 20 years of travel under my belt, there were still pages in here I dog-eared to reference later and websites to check out that I had never heard of before. Get it at Amazon (around $10 for Kindle or paperback), Barnes & Noble (Nook & paperback), or at your favorite store.