This blog post was updated on November 12, 2021.
When embarking on an international trip, you can easily get inundated with big decisions.
- Should I splurge on a five-star hotel?
- Should I cut out this activity in favor of another?
- How much time can I take off work?
But despite all of these decisions, the end-all always circles back to money. And when you’re spending a lot on a trip, it’s important to make budget cuts wherever you can. Enter transportation: the single biggest budget-buster on any trip. Regardless of whether you stay in a fancy resort or an Airbnb, your flight will likely be your biggest travel expense. But what happens when you need to get around the country? Surely, additional travel will drive you bankrupt? Not exactly.
With so many different modes of transportation available — some pricey and quick, others cheap and long-haul — it’s hard to decide which is best for you. However, there are distinct and important pros and cons to each. Learning about these can help you decide when it’s time to splurge, and when it’s time to hold your wallet a little bit closer.
Easily the quickest and most effective, planes are the obvious go-to when it comes to travel. Our minds are programmed to associate travel with finding cheap flights, mostly because we usually need a plane to get to our destinations. When we travel to and from a country, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll need to book a flight, but travel within the country can be a bit more variable. Some countries offer domestic flights as cheap as $20 (depending on where you are), while others can cost you up to $400. Opting for buses and trains over planes for domestic travel will minimize transport costs as much as possible. But, it always comes at the expense of time and comfort.
Traveling by plane is the quickest and most comfortable way to get across a country, often turning a 12+ hour bus ride into a 1-hour trip. They’re all set for you, have easily trackable and distinct schedules, and are generally very reliable. They’re the no-fuss choice for a busy backpacker who doesn’t have time to muck about with long highway trips.
Because it’s the fastest and most comfortable option, air travel will almost always be the most expensive option available to you. In places like the U.S. or Canada, a one-way trip can get as expensive as $400, so it won’t be the most budget-friendly choice.
When to Opt for a Plane
We recommend that you use a plane for domestic travel when you have a very short vacation period and need to get somewhere quickly. When you have the luxury of a long vacation, time is a less valuable resource because you simply have more of it, but short trips make your time the most valuable resource. If you’re going somewhere for a week or less, splurge and just get to where you need to go.
Trains come in all different shapes and sizes, and that’s even more prominent when you’re abroad. A train ride in Sweden, for example, will be very, very different from a train ride in India. Nevertheless, trains are always a reliable means of transport when you’re looking to get somewhere in a moderate amount of time with a moderate amount of comfort. Because they run on their own tracks, they bypass traffic and are therefore probably the fastest method of ground transport that you can find.
Probably the second-fastest mode of transport other than a plane, trains will get you where you need to go as quickly as possible on land. There’s no traffic, and they’re generally running on a timely schedule with minimum stops along the way. You know exactly where you’re getting on and exactly where you’ll be getting off. Also, they usually have bathrooms included, which can be a huge plus on a long-haul ride.
Because trains are usually the fastest mode of land travel, they’re also usually the most expensive. There are obviously all types of price options depending on your expected level of comfort and seat selection, but they are generally more expensive than buses. Also, because they don’t stop in many places, when you get on a train you’re on it for the long haul. In addition, trains are large and therefore have lots of people. This means that you should have your most precious belongings (passport, phone, wallet) on your person at all times to avoid the possibility of being pickpocketed.
When to Opt for a Train
Trains are a lovely middle ground between booking a pricey flight and riding a cheap bus. They’re a somewhat conservative budgetary option that doesn’t have to compromise comfort and speed for the money. If you have a week or two on your trip and a moderate budget, we suggest picking a train and saving a bit of time.
Ahh, buses… cheap, fun, and brimming with people. Buses are easily the most thrifty option for the frugal traveler who wants to save their precious pennies for food or sightseeing. But, depending on what you book, buses can be pretty grim. If you’re not used to long, bumpy bus rides (we’re talking 12+ hours,) avoid sleeper buses and try and find tourist buses. They may be slightly more expensive but they come with amenities such as air conditioning and reclinable seats. All in all, buses are a solid choice for anyone who has a bit more time and a bit less money.
Buses are easily the cheapest option for travel that you’ll find in any country. Whether you splurge on a $30 tourist bus or a $3 local bus, there’s no denying that this mode of transport will save you the most money. Some are air-conditioned and have a bathroom, some are sleeper buses that have reclining seats and allow you to sleep. And some even have free WiFi. Be sure to check the bus company’s online reviews to see which amenities will be available to you.
As with any other budget-conscious option, buses come with a laundry list of downsides. They usually are the longest and most tedious transport option, often stopping to pick up locals along the way. They can be wildly uncomfortable and jam-packed with people, leaving you susceptible to pickpockets. Keep in mind that even long-haul bus rides may not have bathrooms and will only make occasional stops. Also, booking VIP Buses often don’t mean you’ll experience anything extravagant or luxurious.
When to Opt for a Bus
Although they come with some cons, buses are definitely the most cost-effective way to travel for the gap-year backpacker who doesn’t have a lot of money to spend. If you find yourself with two weeks or more and need to count your change, bite the bullet and take the bus. Ultimately, it will be worth it. We recommend checking company reviews online to see what you’re getting into, and that doesn’t mean going to the bus company’s self-promoted website. Do your research and go in with few expectations.
Along the same line as buses, boats can vary in size and experience. We can think of horror stories of ferry rides that were overpopulated and dirty, but also amazing experiences abroad fancy and comfortable luxury boats. Boats are limited in scope, as they can really only take you across the water. But they can also be invaluable assets for cheap travel when your destination is just an ocean, lake, or river away.
Boat prices can vary depending on how luxurious you’d like your journey to be, but there are many options that can be even cheaper than a bus ride. They can take you across rivers and bodies of water way faster than a bus can get around them. And, they can even save you accommodation money if you opt for overnight ferry rides.
There’s no way around it: seasickness is a real factor here. Boats can also be overcrowded and occasionally sub-par on the cleanliness front. Overall, with ferries, you get what you pay for. If you pay for a budget ferry, don’t expect any fancy accommodations. There are even ferries that only have hammocks as beds.
When to Opt for a Boat
For starters, if you’re prone to getting seasick, boats are never a good option. But, if you can manage it, go ahead and choose to sail one when the water option is faster than any land transportation. Also, there may be some destinations that can only be reached by boat (some islands off the coasts of Colombia or Thailand, for example), so it’s worth the perceived discomfort if it gets you where you want to go.
Car hires, which mean anything from a taxi cab to an Uber or a tuk-tuk, are excellent and cheap ways to get around town for a day trip. While less of an option for a city-to-city trip, hiring a car is a cheap, fast, and comfortable option. However, usually, you’ll find yourself hiring a car or cab to get you from your hotel to an attraction and back again. And there are tremendous amounts of difference in price points depending on which you choose.
Car Hire Pros
Car hires are perfect when you want to go at your own pace, as you’re not really abiding by any hurried schedule. You also have more comfort and much less squeezing in with strangers. Ubers, tuk-tuks, and other rideshare apps are your best bet for a cheap ride. They’re generally cheaper than taxi cabs, especially at airports. Also, depending on which type you use (especially tuk-tuks), you can often haggle with the driver to bring down the price of your ride.
Also, if you have plans to explore an attraction during the day and want the convenience of knowing how to get back, you can hire a driver to take you there. They’ll wait for you and take you back, totally eliminating the guesswork involved in getting a return ride back.
Car Hire Cons
Unfortunately, because most car hires work their own schedules, most won’t want to drive hours away to another city. This means they’ll usually limit you to the confines of the city you’re in. They can also be pricey depending on how far you’re going and which type of car hire you go for (as mentioned before, taxi cabs are generally pretty expensive). Also, if you do hire a driver for the day, you’ll be paying more. Because you’re paying for the driver’s waiting time in addition to the rides there and back, it might not wind up being the most frugal option.
When to Opt for Car Service
Car hires are an excellent resource for when you want to do a quick day trip and avoid inflated tour bus prices. You’ll get where you wanna go quickly and you’ll usually have no issue getting back afterward. Whether you wind up using car hires, buses, trains, or planes, transportation can be a big budgetary issue on your mind.
You can potentially save hundreds if not thousands of dollars by taking budget-friendly buses or trains, but you run the risk of losing valuable time on trips by doing so. At the end of the day, it all comes down to what you value more on your trip — your money or your time.
Have any tips on choosing modes of transportation for your travels? Share them with us in the comments section!