Among the most prohibitive travel costs would-be adventurers run into are expensive plane tickets. Flights that run upwards of $1,000 depending on where you’re headed are difficult to swing, especially in this economy, at least without some serious advance planning. But in most countries, there are alternatives that allow you to get traveling without setting aside large chunks of money just to get there.
Train and bus travel are often cheaper than purchasing a flight, even on budget airlines, and can be a great way to meet fellow travelers. The stops along a bus route are perfect opportunities for striking up a conversation with the other passengers, and you can put the money you save on the plane ticket toward a particularly pricey, but enjoyable meal or an unplanned excursion.
You can often find both long-distance trains and buses for reasonable prices, but there are some important considerations to make when deciding which mode of travel to take.
If comfort is your main concern, a train is usually the way to go. This is true in developed countries like the U.S. and in those that are still developing, such as many areas of Southeast Asia. Trains commissioned for long-haul trips are often equipped with sleeper cars so you can book a bed or private room where you can spread out and get a reasonably good night’s sleep.
It’s also easier and more comfortable to get up and walk around during a train trip than a bus trip. You’re not going to be stopping and jerking in traffic and there are plenty of train cars to wander if you’re feeling restless. Some even have seats in the hallway if you’re going stir crazy and just want to get out of your room for a little while.
Train options vary by country. In some places, government-run rail services are the only choices and the quality varies depending on where you are. Amtrak is reasonably clean and the only choice in the United States; other countries, such as Japan, are well known for the clean and modern high-speed trains there. Before planning your trip, you’ll want to consider exactly where you want to go. If you’re going only from Point A to Point B, the booking process is fairly straightforward. However, if you want to make stops and explore different towns and cities along the way, you may want to get a rail pass that is cheaper and more convenient than buying individual tickets for each leg of the trip. In Europe, for example, a Eurorail pass is many travelers’ preferred way of traveling to a number of countries in a short amount of time.
A long-distance journey on a bus tends to be the bare bones budget option, but also the most adventurous. You’ll often find that there are multiple bus companies in a given area, which means they are competing for customers, which means reasonably low prices for you. In the U.S., for example, you can get cheap tickets through Megabus, Bolt Bus and even Greyhound (Megabus also operates in the UK, Ireland and other parts of Europe). The Chinatown buses are notorious for offering cheap seats, but being of dubious quality, and several lines were recently shut down or suspended by the government so you may want to steer clear of those.
If you book far enough in advance, you can score discounted tickets, with some companies offering $1 tickets for early birds. Bus travel tends to be the least hassle in terms of booking, as you can often just show up at the station and purchase a ticket for a bus leaving within the next couple of hours, if not sooner.
Unless it’s a last-minute trip, it’s a good idea to get on a bus company’s mailing list or check their website frequently to keep an eye out for special promotions and deals. Occasionally you’ll find a $10 bus ticket, which is a pretty good deal no matter where you’re coming from – or going to.
In other countries, you’ll often find a range of options from sleeper buses equipped with rows of beds to standard public buses that do not bode well for much sleep or rest, but often make for great travel stories. Before booking a bus trip in a foreign country, check out travel forums for that area to find out about any scams or get recommendations from people who have been there before. In Thailand, for example, a quick search on bus travel brings up posts from other travelers strongly recommending taking state-run buses versus private companies, as there are a higher number of thefts on those.
Of course, as the lowest budget form of travel, bus journeys have their drawbacks. For one thing, the buses are often not especially well-maintained and if you have the misfortune of being forced to take a seat at the very back, you’ll find yourself not only sweating from being over the engine, but covering your nose to avoid the stench of the bathroom.
Therefore, you’ll want to get to the bus station at least half an hour before your departure so you can get a spot in the front of the boarding line and scope out the best seat. Somewhere in the middle is usually optimal. While most buses have storage space below the seating area and a small overhead compartment, it’s best to travel as light as possible when taking a bus. Your personal space will be limited, and you don’t want to be that person with a bunch of bags spilling everywhere while someone else is trying to squeeze into the sear next to you. Pack one small bag with several compartments for your valuables, personal items and snacks. If you have an iPod or mp3 player, charge it, load it up with music or podcasts, and keep it close at all times. Being able to drown out the sound of fellow passengers’ cell phone calls or loud conversations can really make the difference on a long journey.
If you want to travel, or just check out another part of the country, but don’t have the money for expensive plane tickets, don’t despair. Train and bus routes make getting out of town a viable and economical possibility, and add extra color to any vacation or travel experience. In some parts of the world, you can easily take a bus or a train across borders and add several new stamps to your passport without even setting foot in an airport. Properly planned train journeys can be comfortable and truly memorable means of traveling, while bus trips can be pleasant, but usually they’re just great for getting where you’re going on the cheap and picking up plenty of odd stories on the way. The next time you get an itch to travel, look into the rail and bus options and start packing your bags.