Deciding how to get around is a huge part of trip planning. Transportation choices can make or break your budget and can also lead to some amazing (and very strange) experiences. Your chosen transport also defines how quickly you will go, so it will impact, and be impacted by, the places you want to see.
Finally, you’ll need to decide if you’re going to keep moving forward, go in a loop, or radiate out from a central location.
In reality, you’ll probably combine a few different forms of travel so it’s good to know the ins and outs of each one.
A lot of travellers hop between destinations by plane. Just check into the forums on Lonely Planet or Fodors and you’ll see trip plans that look like this:
“I’m planning on going to Croatia, Italy, and Greece this summer and was thinking I’d fly into Rome, then fly to Venice, take a flight to Zagreb, fly down to Dubrovnik, then fly to Athens. Does that sound reasonable?”
No it doesn’t sound bloody reasonable!
It sounds environmentally disastrous and like you’ll be spending half your time in the airport. There’s nothing more soulless than airports. Flying may seem romantic now, but once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll start to see what a huge hassle it is.
Besides, flying over the countries you came to see is really missing the whole point of travel.
Reasons to avoid flying at all costs:
- Too fast, meaning you’ll miss out on everything interesting in between
- Environmentally disastrous
- Extremely uncomfortable (unless you have a private jet)
- Most expensive
- You’ll probably get a cold
Our rule for flying is to do it only once we’ve exhausted all other plausible options. Of course, if you live in Delaware and you want to see Myanmar, you’re going to have to fly. But once you get there, try to go overland as much as possible. I promise you’ll thank us later.
(Don’t miss: 11 Tips on How to Be a Green Tourist) →
Despite all the janky-ass trains I’ve travelled on – they’re either too hot or too cold, usually overcrowded, and always smell like stale cigarettes and vomit – I still think of trains are a romantic way to travel. They whisk you across the countryside at varying paces depending on the type of train.
For example, the American Coast Starlight train takes 35 hours to get you from Seattle to LA. If it was a Chinese bullet train, it would take about 6 hours.
Overnight trains allow you to sleep while you travel, ostensibly a money and time saver. We’ve done overnighters from Cairo to Luxor and from Hong Kong to Shanghai. Both times were 12-hour nightmares that were only supposed to last eight.
Our Cairo train lurched to a stop unexpectedly in one of the poorest sections of Cairo in the middle of the night. We watched through the windows as herds of raggedy children came out to first try to peer inside the train and, having failed at that, throw rocks at us. For better or worse, you just don’t get to see that kind of thing if you fly.
On the Shanghai to Hong Kong train, we had five people packed into our four-person couchette and the two women in the car nattered non-stop for all the waking hours, interspersed with one of them sneezing every few minutes.
They did go to sleep eventually and I listened to them snore long into the night. We arrived in Hong Kong exhausted, grumpy, and with colds coming on.
It might sound like I’m dissuading you from train travel. Not at all. It’s far more exciting than flying and, despite the discomforts, still less annoying.
The pros and cons of trains:
- Romantic or squalid – you never know until you board
- Get to see the countryside as you go
- Don’t get stuck in traffic, but do stop unexpectedly for hours
- Faster than the bus (sometimes), slower than a plane
- Smaller carbon footprint than a plane or bus
- You can get up and walk around
- Prices can be inexpensive or overpriced, depending on the destination
If you’ve never really travelled by train, do it! Don’t just stick to the highly polished TGVs and bullet trains of the world, either. Take a slow train to a weird destination, just for fun.
Ferries & Other Boats
If I could travel around the world by ferry, I totally would.
(Hey, that’s a great idea for a trip! I’m officially coining the hashtag #rtwxferry right now!)
Ferries almost always expose you to some kind of delicious view, they occasionally run on time, and you might even get to see a pod of Orcas! They’re also an excellent way to meet locals, since ferries are often filled with local people just trying to get home to their island paradise, or to cross that pesky river that runs right through the highway.
Overnight ferries are the wet version of sleeper trains. Our experience is that you get shoved into an uncomfortable bunk, most likely alongside a few complete strangers, and lay awake all night listening to the twin throbs of the ship’s engine and the drunk guy snoring it off at 100 decibels right below you. If you finally do manage to sleep, you are undoubtedly woken at an ungodly hour by the ship’s tannoy playing Total Eclipse of the Heart.
God, how I love ferries!
Our most interesting ferry rides so far include the Hainan ferry, which summarized everything chaotically wonderful about China, from the haphazard everyone-drive-on-at-once loading “process” to the symphony of slurping as all the passengers (including us) enjoyed pot noodle together, to the 3-hour wait just outside our destination port for no apparent reason whatsoever, with no explanation from the ferry crew.
Another unforgettable ferry we took was from Brindisi, Italy to Patras in Greece. We somehow ended up on the local truckers’ ferry instead of the regular passenger ferry. There were gale force winds and the rickety old ship slammed up and down through 50-foot waves all night as we tried to sleep in our lightly padded chairs situated in the bow. I spent the whole night listening to Stephen snoring away next to me as I gripped the arms of my chair waiting for the ship to go down.
The pros and cons of ferries:
- Incredible views (whales optional)
- Hang out with locals
- Cover long distances while you sleep
- Can be expensive or free, depending on location and distance
- Lousy sleeping arrangements
- You probably can’t make it around the world by ferry alone
Of course there are lots of other kinds of boats you can take. We have also used cruise ships, wooden long boats, kayaks and mere rafts to propel us forward on our travels. A sailboat journey is also a nice option, especially if you want an excuse to force your whole family to call you “captain”.
Who doesn’t love a good road trip? A lot of people shy away from driving in foreign countries because they’ve heard horror stories about how “those people” drive. But in our experience, whether it’s driving in Morocco, France, LA (!), or Scotland, driving is just driving. There are nuts on the road everywhere, that’s just how it is. It’s up to you to drive defensively and you’ll get through.
By far our best road trip was the one we took around Morocco, where we had been warned not to drive. There was the constant hazard of trucks padded out with improbably large loads of hay, driving the narrow roads at night, without lights. There were also hundreds of police checkpoints, but they waved us through every one.
Our worst road trip? Through the Loire valley in France, where we discovered that most cars in France run on diesel, just after we filled up with regular. We broke down at a rural B&B and had to get towed, at our expense.
Pros and cons of car travel:
- Expensive to rent and pay for gas (especially in Europe!)
- Absolute freedom
- You can sleep in your car if need be (sometimes legally)
- Can start a car adventure right from your front door
- Hills aren’t a problem in a car
- You can combine them with ferries (win!)
- C- for environmental impact
If you have kids along on your journey, I highly recommend car travel. It gives you a level of control and freedom that is not available on public transport.
We’ve never travelled by motorbike, but there were certainly a few times on our bicycles (hello northern Vietnam and Laos) that we loudly exclaimed “this would be a perfect place to travel by motorbike” as we struggled up our 10th mountain pass of the day.
Motorbikes combine some of the advantages of cars and some of the advantages of bicycles and therefore might be the ideal form of getting around. Certainly in Southeast Asia, it has become almost de rigeur for backpackers to buy a motorbike and zip from village to village. The biggest hazard on a motorbike is probably meeting other clueless travellers who are also on a motorbike.
Pros and cons of motorbikes:
- You are more approachable than in a car, less so than on a bicycle
- They have a motor, handy for climbing mountains
- You are exposed to the weather (which is a pro BTW)
- May be dangerous? Probably more so than a car or a bicycle
- Have to pay for gas, but more fuel-efficient than a car
Travelling by motorbike seems ideal if you’re in Asia, India, or other places where motorbikes are more common than cars. Those places are also where driving is scariest, so make sure to take some kind of lessons before you hit the road.
This is obviously our favourite method of getting around (so far). Cycling is very slow and it can be hard work, you are exposed to all kinds of weather and sometimes the journey becomes more about riding a bike than visiting a country. But, all that hard work pays off, because cycling brings you to places you would never see (or would just zip right by) otherwise. It introduces you to local people who are as fascinated with you as you are with them and it means you can eat everything and you’ll still probably lose weight.
Pros and cons of cycling:
- Slow and hard work
- Breaks down barriers between you and the locals
- You see everything, no zipping by at 60 miles an hour
- Exposed to heat, rain, wind and sun all day every day
- Mountains: so high yet so rewarding
- Everyone loves bicycles, even little kids, so you make friends instantly
- Instead of stopping for gas, you get to stop for food
If you’re wondering if you can handle a cycle tour, there’s a really great article about cycle touring on The Planet D website about that very subject: The Truth About Cycle Touring – Is it Right for You? I highly recommend you read it. Yes, I wrote it. Why do you ask?
Others forms of transportation
There are lots of ways to get around that we haven’t listed here because we’ve never tried them. You could buy a solar Tuk Tuk (yes I am seriously considering this one), walk between destinations (talk about slow travel), ride a camel (very uncomfortable), hitchhike (only for the patient), or ride a horse (Man of la Mancha style).