How to Travel Cheaply Between Destinations

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One of the most important aspects to consider when planning travel on a budget is how you’ll get from point A to point B once you’re actually on your trip. I have a regular 9-5 job and only a certain amount of vacation time per year, so when I travel I like to maximize that time by visiting as many places as I can. While many people perceive the initial flight over to be a big expense (hint: it doesn’t have to be), I know firsthand that the cost of moving about during your trip can add up quickly too.

So how do you make the most of your money and your time? Based on my experience, there are a few general pros and cons to consider with each method of transportation.

1. Plane
The biggest advantage to flying is, of course, speed. If time is of the essence or you’re traveling a long distance, flying is usually the way to go (and sometimes, your only option). But for shorter distances, factoring in the time you’ll have to spend at the airport may make the option of air travel a little less attractive. And flying is usually the most expensive option unless you’re using an ultra low-cost carrier.

Generally I’ll look at flights first to gauge how expensive they are. Since I tend to travel at a fast pace within a limited amount of time, I usually prefer flying just to get to my next destination as quickly as possible. Occasionally, this has cost me a little more than I’d have liked to spend, but more often than not I’m able to find inexpensive flights that don’t break my budget.
(Read my article Save Money on Travel with These 4 Websites for more tips on how to find cheap flights.)

2. Train
The cost of train travel can vary widely by what part of the world you’re in, so research is definitely required here. For example, taking a train is one of the first options that come to mind for tourists planning trips to Europe, but Eurail passes are actually not very cheap (between $208-$632 as of this writing!). And trains are usually slower than flying, so when you consider the time it will take to get from A to B on a train, it’s usually more cost-effective to simply fly between countries in Europe.

If time is not a concern, train travel can be a more attractive option. Taking a train means you’re slightly more immersed in the places you’re visiting, with a little more freedom to move slowly and explore countries at your own pace. You also don’t have to worry about checking your bag (though I recommend traveling with only a carry-on anyway) or dealing with the hassles of airport security.

Overnight trains can also be a money-efficient option when you consider that sleeping on the train means you’re skipping the cost of both a flight and a hotel. I took an overnight train in Egypt from Luxor to Cairo a few years ago. The journey cost around $100, cheaper than a flight and hotel. The train ride itself was fine, the food was acceptable, and I found it easy to sleep on the fold-down beds. I also saw a more interesting view of everyday life in lesser-known Egyptian towns along the way. In many cases slums were backed right up against the tracks. As the train slowed for entry into a station along the way, I even watched in horror as a man killed a cow for slaughter in his backyard right before my eyes. I’m not sure I’m better for having seen that, but it was a lot more interesting than flying, that’s for sure!

3. Bus
Buses are usually among the least expensive ways to travel, but they can also be the slowest. When I take a bus to get somewhere, it’s usually out of necessity, and ideally for shorter distances. In Jordan a few years ago, I took a bus from Amman to Petra and back, as roads were the only way to get out there and I preferred to leave the driving to someone else. In Croatia I took a bus from Dubrovnik to Split. The country is so long and thin (essentially all coastline) that roads are really the only way to get around. We had to briefly pass through Bosnia on the way.

4. Rental Car
I have yet to rent a car on any of my trips, but I’ve definitely considered it. Renting a car can be expensive but it allows you complete freedom to travel at your own pace. If you’re going to rent a car, it’s a good idea to be sure you understand local traffic laws and have at least a very basic understanding of the language.

5. Boat
There are two reasons to travel by boat: purely functional, because it happens to be the fastest or least expensive way to arrive at your destination, and for pleasure, such as a cruise. I’ve taken boats for the former reason several times, most recently the Jadrolinija ferries in Croatia.

Personally, I’m not usually a fan of cruises. I prefer to travel independently, immersing myself in the culture and not spending time on a boat with other tourists instead of locals, eating whatever food the boat serves instead of local cuisine, and participating in group tours and activities instead of getting lost wandering around ancient villages. But as I learned on my recent trip to Croatia, there are times when cruises make sense. When planning my trip, I’d seen an option for an expensive sailboat cruise with chef-prepared meals, but brushed it off because it was a cruise. I later experienced such difficulty traveling between coastal cities on that tiny, narrow strip of land that I realized it would’ve been so much easier to simply be on a boat for the entire experience, even if it might have cost a little more. I also didn’t much care for Croatian cuisine (or at least what was fed to tourists: so-so seafood and poorly executed Italian food) so I would have actually enjoyed being able to return to the boat for evening meals.

As always, pricing will fluctuate by part of the world and time of year, so individual research will always be required when planning travel on a budget. Keeping these commonly experienced benefits and drawbacks in mind will help you maximize your time abroad while keeping your bank account happy.

All photos by Megan Van Groll.

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