Interview with Vagabond, Matthew Karsten

Permanent Traveler Matthew KarstenMost people are surprised at how inexpensive a travel lifestyle can be. With a modest and consistent online income, a life abroad is probably a lot easier than you think. This interview with Matthew Karsten, of, is a great case study on what is possible.

Please tell us about your travels.

I first began traveling long-term in November 2010. Before I left for good, I took a “practice” trip in Mexico for 5 weeks to see if I’d like it, and to learn about any logistical problems that might pop up (mail, banking, internet, etc.). After that I flew into Guatemala and have been working my way South through Central America for the last 10 months.

What made you decide to begin a nomadic life?

There really wasn’t a single big reason, more like a combination of many. I was bored with my life. I moved around a lot, and it was something I actually looked forward to doing. I guess I just couldn’t stay in one place for too long before I started wondering what it would be like living somewhere else. I think I was just born with a nomadic gene.

Did you have a lot of savings when you started?

I dramatically cut down on unnecessary expenses to save for the trip, but I didn’t spend years saving up like some people do. I maybe saved for a year or so. The difference is I also spent 3 years building up a business in my spare time that could support me while I was traveling. I was aiming for a certain monthly income, not a certain savings amount.

You were living and working in Hawaii before, why did you leave?

I left Hawaii for the same reasons I left the beautiful mountains of Montana, and the amazing nightlife in Miami. I got sick of those places. I needed something new. It’s my nomadic gene working, I can’t control it. It’s one of the reasons I love constant travel so much. Every day is completely new and different.

Please tell us about your website?

My travel blog was created about 6 months prior to the start of my trip. I knew I wanted to record the many travel experiences I’d have for friends & family. I was hoping that others might find it interesting too, because I always loved reading other travel blogs. Eventually I’d like to turn my travel blog into another solid source of income, but my main goal with the site is to effectively share my experiences with others in the hopes that they’ll be inspired to take some risks and explore the world on their own.

Your videos are very high quality, do you think video is more effective than text on a blog?

At the moment I use 3 different cameras to record my adventures, and all of them record HD video. I wouldn’t consider them pro cameras, but all combined they aren’t cheap. Right now it’s about $5000 worth of camera gear. All the short films on the site are edited by me, but I have no formal training. I slowly taught myself (and still have a lot more to learn). I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to have video on a travel blog, but it certainly helps add a different dimension. My videos tend to focus on the visual experiences, I don’t talk much in them. Shooting & editing video is a TON of work, and if you don’t really enjoy it, it can be a nightmare. Luckily I enjoy it very much.

What did you do to build such a large online following?

At the moment I have over 13,000 followers on Twitter, and over 1400 fans on Facebook. One of my techniques for gathering new followers is to make it very easy for people to follow me. At the end of every blog post, I just ask people to follow if they enjoyed the story or photos. The process has to be easy & quick.

Do you make much money from your website?

I don’t make a ton of money from my travel blog yet. Maybe $300-$400 a month with some affiliate links & advertising. While I’d obviously like that to increase, I also don’t want my blog to become an ugly billboard that’s unpleasant to visit. I turn down advertisers all the time if I think their ads will degrade the experience for my readers.

How do you earn an income now?

The quick explanation is that I create membership websites. Customers pay for information or access to online courses about particular topics. The topics vary widely. I plan on writing a detailed blog post about this in the future. It’s taken me years to earn an income this way.

What are your approximate monthly living expenses?

I spend about $800-$1000 a month on living expenses while traveling. About 30% is for food, 30% for accommodation, 20% transportation, and 20% for entertainment. The breakdown can change depending where I am and what I’m doing though.

What do you dislike about always being on the road?

Generating meaningful friendships & relationships can be hard to when you’re always on the road. I plan on taking long breaks for a few months in one location every so often to help remedy that, but I’m not sure if it will work yet. I possibly see myself getting sick of the nomadic lifestyle sometime in the future. But for now, the benefits outweigh the costs.

Are you afraid of not being in the workforce for a long time?

I’m not a “career” kind of guy. I can always learn something new if I’m forced to, I think everyone can.

Have you had any serious problems on your travels?

Plenty of minor annoyances, like missed flights & buses, delayed baggage, broken cameras, cuts & sprains, etc. But so far no robberies, major accidents, illnesses, animal attacks, or things like that. I’ve had food poisoning only once in 10 months, and I drink local tap water most of the time.

How do you deal with administrative issues like banking, bills and health care?

I do my banking with Charles Schwab, a great bank for travel. They refund all your ATM fees no matter where you are. I have a catastrophic health insurance plan with Blue Cross Blue Shield in the United States that only covers major problems, and I use local doctors for other things. I also subscribe to a virtual mail-forwarding service called Earth Class Mail for cashing the occasional physical check and managing my mail.

Do you have any advice for people considering long-term traveling?

It may seem like there are too many obligations & obstacles stopping you from long-term travel, but I’ve learned that nothing is impossible. The only thing stopping you, is you. If you really want to travel, there’s always a way to make it happen. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy though.

To help conquer fears, I’d also like to recommend the following piece of advice from the philosopher Seneca:

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: Is this the condition that I feared?”

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

3 Responses to Interview with Vagabond, Matthew Karsten

  1. Jannell says:

    Thank you for the interview, Matthew. I’m loving your blog. I clicked on over and somehow lost a half hour! Fun. Hope to cross paths with you out in the world somewhere.

  2. John says:

    Thanks Jannell,

    Matthew has built up a huge following online. He is a great person to follow.

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