With so much guidance for backpackers focused on how to get from A to B as cheaply as possible, a newcomer might be forgiven for thinking that world travel is all about getting as far as you can within your budget.
It isn’t, of course, and it’s worth a reminder that all forms of transport come with unique pros & cons, adaptable to different occasions.
Is that long bumpy bus ride the only way to travel through Laos, or can you get a cinematic and far more memorable boat-ride up the Mekong for a tiny bit more money?
Do cheap car rentals to see remote temples with a few trusted fellow travelers work out more affordable – and meaningful – than signing up to that touristy backpacker coach trip?
Rail travel has so many things going for it. You get a rolling panorama and often the opportunity to meet local people who’re making the same journey.
At their best, trains are affordable, environmentally friendly, scenic, sociable and romantic.
At their most frustrating, trains can be a bureaucratic nightmare to book, and the cheapest bunks on long journeys can be little more than a plank in a communal sleeping carriage.
The latter is fine if you’re confident and fairly hardy, but it’s not ideal if you’re at all uncomfortable about being unconscious in the company of strangers.
Likewise, if you’re suffering from any illness, you’ll probably be more comfortable in a pricier berth. It’ll eat up more of your budget, but you’ll recover faster and waste less time at your destination.
Rail travel within many countries is amazingly affordable, and in more expensive places like Europe, you can get rail passes that drastically reduce your costs.
Once you start looking into international rail travel, however, prices rapidly shoot above the cost of flying.
I spent years pretending to myself that I loved flying because it felt like such a cosmopolitan luxury – being able to hop on a plane and zoom to another part of the world in a matter of hours.
In recent years, however, I’ve conceded that it’s actually bloomin’ uncomfortable. My eyes and nostrils slowly dry up in the incessant air-conditioning.
It’s noisy. The whole concept of being airborne in a winged metal tube is insane when you ponder it – typically 30,000 feet up and halfway across Siberia.
And, what’s with that oxygen-deprived drowsiness that keeps you hovering halfway between sleep and awake, but never fully into either?
It’s boring, my word, it’s so boring. Not to mention being bad for the ozone layer.
That being said, it’s often the fastest way to get across the globe, and on long journeys is often the cheapest. The best way to approach flying is a necessity at the start & end of your trip, using land-based modes in between.
You have to be fit, and in some places brave, but bikes are a fantastic and cheap way to explore the landscape around your base.
Make sure you hire a reliable one; test the brakes before you set out, and press the tires to check for slow punctures.
Learn how to repair tires if you’re going to spend more than a couple of hours in the saddle, and always take a bicycle pump and plenty of water. Padded cycling shorts may also be a bonus.
Again, fitness is essential; even if you do a lot of walking at home, remember that you might struggle in a different climate.
Don’t underestimate the importance of proper footwear – hiking sandals at least.
Too many backpackers spontaneously hike off in flip-flops and suffer for it.
Hiking is fundamentally free, but don’t just trek off anywhere without first asking questions about dangerous animals, land mines, terrorist organizations and so forth – the cost of fixing these situations would immediately cancel any savings you made by hoofing it alone instead of hiring a guide.
This depends on your terrain and how many people you go with.
Rent a car and fill it with fellow travelers, and you have a reasonably eco-friendly and affordable ride, with the added benefit of being very flexible.
A car will let you go off and explore sites that may be well off the coach-crammed tourist trail.
However, some terrain is simply unsuitable for the average car – do your research first to save wasted time and money.
Typically the cheapest of all public transport options in most countries, but often also the least comfortable.
Bus journeys usually take much longer than rail or plane, too.
However, they’re sometimes the only way to get where you’re going, and they can be lots of fun if you’re traveling with the right people.
If you’re really doing it on a shoestring, bus travel can help eke out your budget.
Although some boat journeys are on a par with bus travel in terms of comfort, there is something inherently more exciting about whizzing – or at least puttering – along between jungle-clad riverbanks than heaving along a concrete-walled cutting in a jittery old bus.
If there is a riverboat option, and providing you can swim, do try it for at least one leg of your journey.
If you’re confident on two motorized wheels, this is a great way to explore the back roads around your base – for some hardened travelers, even getting from A to B, although you’ll need minimal luggage.
As with hiring any vehicle, make sure yours is fully functioning before you head off.
Cheapest is not always best here, and it might be worth taking a guide.
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Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:
- G Adventures for small group tours.
- World Nomads for travel insurance.
- Hostelworld for booking hostels.
- Rail Europe for train passes.
Wednesday 4th of September 2013
nothing like cycling I say!
Sunday 25th of August 2013
You forgot to talk about hitchiking... might not be the easiest way to travel but it sure can be the most exciting... and the cheapest :-)
Friday 16th of August 2013
Great tips on the different modes. You have to be careful with bus travel though. In some countries it can be extremely uncomfortable. It's wise to spend just a little more on a reputable bus company.
Tuesday 13th of August 2013
These are definitely all interesting ways to travel with their positives and negatives in each. We want to travel a lot soon but are still deciding on how :)