Once associated with hippie culture, these days backpacking is popular with many different kinds of travelers—from outdoorsy wilderness trekkers to modern-day "flashpackers," who travel with all the latest gadgets and creature comforts. Still, most backpackers have a few things in common: a budget consciousness, an adventurous spirit, and a tendency to travel light.
Cheap Backpacking Destinations Around the World
With abundant budget airlines to choose from, traveling light is an increasingly cheap way to trot the globe. Here are the top cheap backpacking destinations worldwide that have also seen an influx of affordable flight options.
Pro tips: If you're planning an extended trip, many low-cost airlines offer cheap one-way flights. For others, you may be able to fly into one location and back from another to satisfy any round-trip requirements. When flying one-way internationally, make sure to bring proof of onward travel.
Just 1,000 miles from Florida across the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena is a logical starting point if you want to backpack throughout South America. It's a good jumping-off point for a variety of activities, and the nearby Rosario Islands provide marvelous snorkeling and remote beaches.
Within Cartagena, you can see some brilliant colonial architecture inside the walls of a fortified city. To the north, the protected coastline of Tayrona National Park is a great place to hike in a lush tropical forest while enjoying views of palm-lined beaches. To the south, you can continue to the mountainous capital of Bogota and then to Ecuador and beyond.
Flights to Cartagena: Fares have come down in recent years. More flight options from JetBlue, along with the presence of Spirit Airlines, have brought competition to many of the routes. I regularly see round-trip fares as low as under $200 (from Florida) and mid-$200s to mid-$400s from a variety of other cities.
A little further down the South American backpacking trail is the expansive capital city of Peru. Within Lima, you can make a visit to the ancient catacombs underneath the Monastery of San Francisco for a spooky look at history. The bohemian district of Barranco has some fascinating street art, beach access, and a lively nightlife scene. Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incan empire, is just a one hour flight from Lima in the Peruvian Andes. This is the traditional jumping-off point for a visit to Machu Picchu.
While most tourists think a trip to Peru starts and ends with Machu Picchu, the country actually offers a number of other highlights worth your time. The village of Lunahuaná, south of Lima, provides both a whitewater rafting experience and a great opportunity to stargaze the southern sky. To the north of Lima, you can make your way into the Amazon via Iquitos, where you’ll have the chance to take a jungle excursion down the river and be among the pink dolphins, sloths, anacondas, and other wildlife unique to this region. The salt flats of Bolivia are further south of Lima.
Flights to Lima: These are among the cheapest per-mile flights you can get from North America to South America. As with Colombia, the somewhat recent addition of JetBlue, additional coverage from Aeromexico, the recent addition of Interjet flights, and the continued presence of Spirit have kept this a very competitive market. I often find round-trip fares in the mid-$200s to $500s from a wide range of cities and airlines.
Thailand has been a backpacker paradise for years. The relative cost of living compared to the West, along with an exquisite culture, have kept a steady flow of straphangers coming for everything from a spiritual retreat to a full moon party. The sprawling capital of Bangkok is full of temples, like the reclining Buddha, and plenty of food stalls to enjoy the flavorful Thai cuisine. Don’t miss out on a tuk-tuk ride, which serves as the main form of taxi in Thailand.
Beyond Bangkok, Thailand offers a chance to play in the mud with elephants, visit floating markets, or enjoy world-class beaches. Beyond Thailand, you can continue on to other hotspots in Southeast Asia, such as Cambodia or Vietnam. If you’re proficient cruising on two wheels, a motorbike can be one of the best ways to explore this part of the world. You’ll see them everywhere as it is the main form of transportation for the locals.
Flights to Bangkok and the rest of Southeast Asia: Prices are consistently low thanks to an influx in competition from mainland Chinese carriers like China Eastern and China Southern. I regularly see round-trip fares in the mid-$400s to mid-$700s in North American cities served by these carriers. Every once in a while, you’ll find other carriers, like ANA, competing with similar fares.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Malaysia's capital is often compared to its more westernized neighbor, Singapore. One big difference? The cost. Like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur has amazing night food markets, but you’ll pay much less for the experience. Outside of the capital, the Batu Caves offer a series of cave temples to visit (and thieving monkeys to avoid). Langkawi island in the northwest of Malaysia is a tropical gem with plenty of beach resorts and eco-friendly tours. From there, you can also island hop over to Koh Lipe, Thailand, or continue cruising the Andaman Sea all the way to Phuket. With cheap nonstop flights offered to places all over the region, your next destination after Kuala Lumpur should be easy to reach on a budget.
Flights to Kuala Lumpur: Fares have come down thanks to the mainland Chinese carriers, although you may have a better experience on airlines like ANA or Asiana, which also offer regular fare sales. I often see round-trip fares in the mid-$400s to mid-$600s range from major North American hubs. Since United and Air Canada are Star Alliance partners, there are sometimes nationwide sales that can get you from smaller North American cities to Southeast Asia affordably, too, using a combination of United/Air Canada and their partner airlines in Asia.
The Irish love the craic (Gaelic word roughly meaning “fun”) and you’ll find this plentiful in Dublin. If you crave live music, don’t miss out on strolling the cobblestone streets of Temple Bar. You’ll also find busker performances and shopping along Grafton street, and some peacefulness in St. Stephens green. Of course, a visit to St. James’s Gate for a perfectly poured pint of Guinness is on many people’s to-do list in Dublin. The aroma around the massive brewery can be unpleasant, but you’ll be rewarded with a tasty beverage at the top.
Rural Ireland's rolling hills and cheerful locals make Ireland a favorite stomping ground for many travelers. Along the west coast, you’ll find some amazing scenery in the Connemara mountains and nearby Cliffs of Moher. In the southwest, the scenery doesn't get any better than a road trip along the Ring of Kerry.
Flights to Dublin: Dublin is the main hub for Europe’s largest low-cost carrier, Ryanair, so flights from Ireland to the rest of Europe remain extremely cheap year-round. You’ll also save quite a bit in taxes on your return journey to North America if you fly back from Ireland compared to high transatlantic departure taxes from nearby airports in the United Kingdom. And, since Norwegian and WOW Air have expanded to cover a wide range of cities in the USA, you'll also find low fares to cities across Europe from places you might not expect. With transatlantic competition that also involves Aer Lingus, Delta, American, and United, I regularly see fares from high-$300s to mid-$500s round-trip. Sometimes even under $200 round-trip on Norwegian.
Another major city to use as a starting point for a European backpacking adventure is Madrid, whose location in the middle of Spain allows you to explore all corners of the country easily. The Camino el Santiago pilgrimage is a highlight for those who enjoy multi-day trekking. There are many different routes to take, but they all end up in Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain.
Spain is also home to a number of wacky festivals, such as La Tomatina in Valencia, which has been dubbed the world’s biggest food fight. Other cultural hubs, like Barcelona, and European beach havens, like Ibiza, make Spain a diverse area with something for just about everyone. From Spain, you can easily reach the rest of Europe via rail or hop on one of the many low-cost airlines.
Flights to Madrid: Flights are regularly cheaper than to the other European Oneworld Alliance hub in London. Since this is a hub city for American’s partner airline, Iberia, nationwide sales on competing airlines like Delta and United pop-up on occasion and fairly often from hub cities in the U.S. Look for Norwegian summer flights to Madrid as well. And Iberia's low-cost long-haul subsidiary, LEVEL, offers discount flights to nearby Barcelona.
Budapest is home to one of the largest music and cultural festivals in Europe. Each August, tens of thousands flock to an island in the middle of the Danube to enjoy the Sziget festival. Of course, if music festivals aren't your thing, Budapest is also famous for its many thermal baths throughout the city. There are a few charming castles to visit and a nice contrast of architecture between Buda and Pest. Jumping off from Budapest, you can venture into eastern European countries like Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine with relative ease.
Flights to Budapest: Being the major hub for discount carrier Wizz Air, Budapest has cheap flights throughout Europe and into the Middle East or Russia. Getting to central or eastern Europe can sometimes be cheaper by booking two separate tickets, one to a major hub in western Europe, and then a cheap onward flight from there. New nonstop summer service from the U.S. on LOT Polish and American combined with the recent addition on Air Canada’s route map have led to round-trip fares in the low-$500s to high-$600s on a somewhat regular basis. Turkish Airlines also often has similar fares.
San Jose, Costa Rica
From world-class surfing to zip-line and canopy tours in the rainforest around the grand Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica offers adventurous activities for all walks of life. Although Costa Rica may not be as budget-friendly as neighboring countries, it's still relatively cheap compared to North America.
There are also many relatively unknown gems in the region, such as Samara or Manzanillo on the Pacific side, or Bocas del Toro, Panama, on the Caribbean side. Either San Jose or the other major Costa Rican airport, Liberia, may be a good alternative to reach the backpacker-friendly country of Nicaragua. The coastal town of San Juan del Sur, near the border with Costa Rica, is a favorite among many who’ve taken the trail throughout Central America.
Flights to San Jose, Costa Rica: Due to the sheer number of airlines flying into San Jose, it's usually the cheapest destination in Central America. The relatively recent addition of Southwest and Interjet flights and the upcoming new service being offered by Volaris are bringing airfares down on all airlines. I regularly see round-trip fares in the mid-$200s to high-$300s from all over North America.
Auckland, New Zealand
Auckland has become the perfect gateway airport into the South Pacific region. Although Auckland itself may not be the most desirable destination, there are heaps of attractions throughout the country of New Zealand.
About a two-hour drive to the east of Auckland, Hot Water Beach allows you to dig your own natural hot tub right on the beach. The South Island is packed with amazing scenery, which you may have seen in The Lord of the Rings movies. Kayaking through the Milford Sound and the drive there from Queenstown is simply an amazing experience. Being the adventure capital of the world, Queenstown has thrilling activities like skydiving, hang gliding, and rappelling down canyons. From New Zealand, you can easily hop over to Australia or add on a stop in Fiji or Hawaii before returning home.
Flights to Auckland: The South Pacific is one of the most expensive places to fly into from North America. Still, competition on new routes from American and United, along with their partners in the region (Qantas and Air New Zealand) sometimes bring fares down. Flights are normally more than $1,000 round-trip from most of North America, but I've seen fare sales bring prices down into the $600-to-$800 range.
Denver, Colorado, USA
Backpacker culture hasn’t entirely taken off in the U.S. yet, but you can still get a good taste of it in the West. And Denver is a perfect starting point to explore the region. Whether you like winter sports like skiing and snowboarding, or summer activities like hiking and rock-climbing, you'll have your pick in Colorado. Breckenridge and Rocky Mountain National Park are just a few hours from Denver. Even closer to Denver is the college town of Boulder, which is a favorite for many in the hiking community for its outdoor activities and local microbreweries.
Flights to Denver: Denver-bound flights are among the cheapest in the U.S. thanks to its position as a major hub for United, Southwest, and Frontier. If you can pack super light or are just going for a quick hiking trip, you can often get to/from Denver for just $39 round-trip on either Frontier or Spirit. If you can’t travel that light, Southwest usually competes with those prices on routes where Frontier flies; its fares range from $50 to $198 round-trip, including two free checked bags.
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