How to Build a Backpacking Trip on the Cheap

Meghan Coyle
By Meghan Coyle 
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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You might be looking at your belongings in your new backpack and the balance in your bank account with the same question: Is this enough for the weeks- or the monthslong journey ahead?

In all likelihood, you overpacked and you’ll ditch half of it at the next hostel. Then, a week into your life-changing trip, you’ll realize you’re way over budget, and you'll spend the rest of the time asking why everything costs so much. Luckily, there are ways to save on your trip across another country or continent with a backpack — and you’ll be surrounded by fellow travelers looking to save as well.

Here are seven ways to save money, so you can spend less time worrying and more time exploring.

1. Pick cheaper destinations

If you want to save on costs, the best strategy is to pick destinations where the exchange rate is good, the hostels are cheap and the food costs even less. Sure, you want a selfie with the Eiffel Tower, but perhaps spend fewer days in Paris and more in Budapest.

If you can score cheap flights or use points from your travel rewards card to book a free flight, consider backpacking in Southeast Asia or South America instead of Europe. Once you book a flight to a cheaper country, look for smaller cities that might offer similar attractions. On the neighborhood level, when you’re choosing a place to stay or eat, go where the tourists don’t. Not only will you have spent less, but you’ll also probably get a more intimate look at how people actually live.

2. Book a hostel with perks

You might be tempted to book the cheapest hostel you find when you’re trying to save money, but it’s worth digging into the amenities to see if you can get more value than simply a bunk bed and a storage cabinet. Does your hostel offer free meals? Free breakfast is often easy to find, but some hostels also have dinner on certain nights for free or for a small fee. Plan your itinerary so you can take advantage of the free food and the chance to meet new people. Hostels with kitchens can also help you save money because you can cook or pack lunches instead of eating every meal out. Other perks you want to look for include free laundry and Wi-Fi.

3. Think outside the hostel

There’s more to backpacking than trudging from one hostel to another. If you’re creative, you might be able to score even cheaper accommodations. Some backpackers carry around a tent or hammock, so they have plenty of flexibility to stay the night wherever they may be. Make sure you know the country’s rules about free camping before you pitch a tent.

4. Eat at the grocery store

Eating out for every meal gets expensive, particularly if you’re buying coffee every morning and snacking on street food in the afternoon. Instead, try to pack a few meals or cook if you have access to a kitchen. One good place to stop for food might be a local grocery store or convenience store. They often have ready-made meals that cost a lot less than eating at a restaurant next door.

5. Get a rail pass

Depending on your itinerary, it might be beneficial to get a rail pass if you’re planning to travel to several different cities. In Europe, some rail passes let you take as many train trips as you want through one country or several countries within a certain period of time. Keep in mind that particular trains or routes may cost extra, even when you have a pass. Also, be sure to look up the rules before you travel. Some rail systems, like those in Japan, make it easier to purchase a rail pass before you leave home and require that you’re traveling on a tourist visa.

6. Walk or bike

You can also save on transportation costs by getting yourself where you need to go with the power of your own two feet. Walking might take a little longer, but it’s free and gives you more freedom to explore. You’ll notice a lot more about a place on foot than you will from the back of an Uber. Another slightly faster option is borrowing a bike from your hostel or a city bike-share program. When you opt for public transportation or use Uber or Lyft, charge it on a credit card that gives you rewards for this type of transit, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express.

7. Find free things to do

There will be some can’t-miss attractions that you'll have to pay for, but there are plenty of other free things to do if you know where to look. Ask your hostel or other backpackers for recommendations. Look up if local museums have certain days of the week that are free. Find festivals, libraries and parks in the city. Go on a free walking tour or take a hike.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2024, including those best for:

Travel Cards from Our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

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NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.


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Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

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NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


Enjoy 6.5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel; 4.5% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and 3% on all other purchases (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year). After your first year or $20,000 spent, enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.


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Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

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Rewards rate


Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.


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Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.

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