Traveling (as a “Tourist”) vs. Backpacking: 14 Key Distinctions

Last Updated on February 14, 2024 by Lifevif Team and JC Franco

Before you head off on your next adventure, you might want to give some thought to the type of trip you wish to go on. Do you want to travel as a tourist, or do you want to go backpacking? You might not have given it too much thought before, but the type of adventure you have is defined by the type of travel style you opt for. In my opinion, traveling (as a tourist) and backpacking is not the same thing, and I am going to tell you why. 

14 differences between traveling (as a tourist) and backpacking:

1RelaxationCultural experience
2Strict schedules “Taking it as it comes”
3Supplied conveniences Self-sufficiency
4Excess baggageTraveling light
5Comfortable transportThe local way
6High package costsSaving money
7ComfortRoughing it
8Peak-time travel Low season specials
9Guided tours and sightseeingAuthentic experiences with locals
10PrivacyOpen-minded facility sharing
11Ease of travel with kidsSolo/couples/small group travel
12Home away from home baseAlways on the move
13ExpectationsHappy wanderer spirit
14Annual getawaysConsistent travel

I have personally done a bit of touristy traveling, as well as a bit of backpacking. And you know what? I thoroughly enjoyed both. For me, the most important thing is to get the most out of your holiday. However, for some, there is a travel style that suits them better than others – and that’s the very reason why I am writing this.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between traditional traveling and backpacking so that you can decide what type of traveler you would prefer to be.

Breaking Down the 14 Differences between Traveling (as a tourist) & Backpacking

These are 14 main differences between the experience that a traditional traveler and a backpacker have. 

1. Relaxation vs. cultural experience.

Traditional travelers usually seek out idyllic or luxurious destinations where they can relax, unwind, and simply escape the stresses of their regular lives. Most traditional travelers don’t have a desire to walk through the poorer areas, visit a local market, or talk to the locals about their real way of life. This is more of the backpacker’s interest.

Backpackers are typically looking to get out of their comfort zones. They want to experience the culture and lifestyles of others. They want an experience that is completely different from their regular life.

2. Strict schedules vs. “taking it as it comes”.

Traditional travelers have an itinerary to work with. Each day has a set place to go or activities planned and this is how the holiday is “mapped” out. This can be highly beneficial if you don’t want to find yourself bored or at a loss for ideas of things to do.

On the other hand, backpackers revel in the lack of a solid plan. They follow no strict schedule, although they might have an idea of the places they wish to see and the things they wish to do. If you ever meet a regular backpacker, you might find yourself thinking that they have perfected the fine art of “taking it as it comes”.  

3. Supplied conveniences vs. self-sufficiency.

Travelers usually book certain packages based on what is provided. Traditional travelers have peace of mind that they will have toilet paper, toiletries, and various conveniences supplied to them. This is where the backpacker differs. Backpackers are quite self-sufficient. Instead of relying on their travel choices and bookings to supply the essentials needed, they carry them with them. 

4. Excess baggage vs. traveling light.

You will often see traditional travelers paying for excess luggage. This is because they won’t be carrying their luggage everywhere with them. Backpackers have to cut back on their comforts while traveling. You won’t find a backpacker paying for excess baggage because they have to carry their luggage everywhere with them. If it can’t fit in the backpack, it can’t go with.

5. Comfortable transport vs. the local way.

Another very noticeable difference between traditional travelers and backpackers is the way in which they choose to get around their chosen destination. Travelers will usually hire cars or catch a taxi, whereas backpackers take full advantage of the country’s local transport system. If the locals are squeezing into over-packed public transport vans, they do the same.

6. High package costs vs. saving money.

When booking a traditional holiday package, you can expect to pay considerably more (depending on the destination) than a backpacker. While a traditional holiday provides comfort and convenience, it also includes a high price. Because backpackers choose local services, avoid tourist “traps”, and opt to stay in hostels, Airbnbs, and backpacker’s lodges, they often pay far less to visit a destination than you would expect.

7. Comfort vs. roughing it.

Traditional travelers have the luxury of comfort and if they don’t get it, they can complain. Hotels, nice restaurants, reliable vehicles, minimal walking, and air conditioning – the average tourist gets it all. Backpackers don’t often have access to these luxuries and so spend a lot of time roughing it. 

If you are thinking of going backpacking, now is a good time to consider if you are the type of traveler that can rough it.

Are you happy to eat street food from vendors instead of sitting in a nice restaurant? Are you comfortable buying a beer from the local grocery store instead of buying drinks form the hotel or a fancy pub? Are you happy to do a lot of walking to cut back on costs or travel in overcrowded vehicles that don’t offer air conditioning? It sounds worse than it is. I must admit that I absolutely loved every backpacking trip I have ever been on as “roughing it” only adds to the adventure. 

8. Peak-time travel vs. low season specials.

Traditional travelers often book holiday packages during peak times because that is when the weather is best. Backpackers are somewhat different. In an effort to save money and to ensure that they get to explore a destination without the crowds, they are happy to travel during off-peak seasons. Low seasons might not have the best weather, but they certainly have the best prices.

9. Guided tours and sightseeing vs. authentic experiences with locals.

Backpackers forego the option of a guided tour wherever they can. Unless it is an obligation, backpackers will “wing it” when visiting a new country. Google Maps can provide all the guidance you need, and a bit of time on the internet will uncover all the places to see and the history behind them. If you get lost, you can ask the locals for help. There’s a lot of money to be saved with this travel technique.

Traditional travelers book tours and guided sightseeing trips as there is safety and, of course, security in this. Many prefer this type of booking and exploration style because it is convenient. It reduces the risk of getting lost and they get to see all the spots/highlights on their bucket list.

10. Privacy vs. open-minded facility sharing.

When opting for traditional traveling, you can expect to be able to book your own chalet, hotel room, or bungalow for privacy. All the facilities are for your own use unless otherwise stipulated. Backpacker’s options don’t include much privacy. You cannot expect to stay at a backpacker’s lodge and have private bathrooms and expansive suites available. Most lodgings are in hostel-style (several bunk beds in one room), or the bathroom facilities are at least shared. Again, the money-saving often makes up for the lack of privacy.

11. Ease of travel with kids vs. solo/couples/small group travel.

If you have small children, backpacking is probably not the travel style for you. Many traditional travelers opt for this type of travel because it is convenient with children. Children tend to need a more structured day and parents need to be sure of the facilities available to them, for the sake of the children. Backpackers generally don’t have children or are traveling solo, with a partner, or as a small group of friends.

12. Home away from home base vs. always on the move.

Backpackers are the nomads of the travel world. They don’t need a “home base” when they travel. In fact, they thrive when they are always on the move. That’s where traditional travelers are different. They often book hotels for several days at a time or their entire trip. This ties them to one area and allows them to come and go from this one spot. While it is convenient to have a home base away from home, it’s also sort of limiting on where you can go and what you can do.

13. Expectations vs. happy wanderer spirit.

There’s no denying it; traditional travelers have expectations. As that type of traveler for some of my trips, I exercise my expectations readily. I expect excellent service, a nice clean environment, a good schedule to follow, and professionalism. As a backpacker, I am completely different. When backpacking, I let go of the expectations and live in the moment. I am happy to wander, explore, and simply drink in what is going on around me – no expectations and no strings attached.

14. Annual getaways vs. consistent travel.

Traditional travelers are typically tied to busy work schedules, leave allowances and budgets. Backpackers are, by nature, typically more carefree, and because of the money they save while backpacking, they are able to afford to travel more frequently. 

Travel Your Way

While doing this comparison between traveling and backpacking, I couldn’t help but realize that there’s no real “right” or “wrong” way to travel. For me, the most important thing is to get out there and explore. Whether you are a happy wandering backpacker or a schedule bound traditional traveler, I have the same words of advice: happy travels!

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who share their experiences and knowledge about the "Seven F's of Life".

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco is a New York-based editor for Lifevif. He mainly focuses on content about faith, spirituality, personal growth, finance, and sports. He graduated from Mercyhurst University with a Bachelor’s degree in Business, majoring in Marketing. He is a certified tennis instructor who teaches in the New York City Metropolitan area. In terms of finance, he has passed the Level I exam of the CFA program.