Getting from point A to point B in a foreign country can be quite the wacky adventure. From the lightening fast bullet trains of Japan to the crazy chicken buses of Guatemala to the pocket-change-priced flights across Europe, the options for global travel are endless. All these choices can seem crazy at times so I've put together a quick guide to some of my favorite transportation options around the world, some of the lesson’s I’ve learned along the way and some money saving tips.
For obvious geographical reasons, flying is most often the first mode of transportation I take from the US to whatever other country I’m going. I usually opt for ground transportation once in a new continent to save money however there are some insanely affordable airlines worth checking out (click the logos to go to their sites):
EasyJet and RyanAir are known to be two of the most affordable airlines for travel in Europe and connecting countries. I once flew from Spain to Morocco for $29 AND booked it only a week in advance. CopaAirlines is one of the most popular low cost options in Latin America as well. For the budgeting traveler these are a godsend. However, don't expect first class complimentary champagne on these babies. These flights are pretty 'basic' to put it nicely. Limited leg room, no snacks and strict one bag and/or bag size policies are often associated with these airlines but I can say through my own personal experience I have no complaints! You pay for what you get and for a $29 international flight I'll pass on the peanuts.
FLIGHT SEARCHING TIPS
Especially if you're into comparing prices and going back and forth like myself, remember to always search for flights in an incognito window. This will block the sites from registering your browsing history and bumping up the prices next time you check back.
Global flight search engines such as SkyScanner are great tools to compare flight prices. If you have flexibility in your travels you can search by week or month to see the cheapest options. If you're feeling adventurous you can even select 'Everywhere' as your destination and see the cheapest places around the world to fly to.
Another great travel hack for airfare is to consider stitching or flying multi-city. Sometimes, building in a layover by 'stitching' two flights together can save you money on your overall flight and even give you a mini-vacation in a second location. I recently used this tactic to save $170 on a flight from Lima to NYC while building in a 24 hour trip in Miami to visit some family. Likewise, flying into one destination and out of another can save you money and time on travel depending on your itinerary. Skiplagged is one site that helps you find these and other loopholes in airfare pricing and itineraries without a lengthy manual search.
The benefits of train travel are endless. You get beautiful views, a drop off in (usually) the center of town, no long check-ins or luggage fees AND it's BYOB (try doing that on a plane!). It goes without saying but an EuRail pass is an excellent choice and gives you the freedom to change up both the places you visit and the timing of your travel on a whim.
Under the age of 26? More often than not you can get a youth discount on your tickets! Oh, and another way this form of transportation makes for a budget friendly option: night trains. On long distance rides, instead of missing a whole days time, opt for a night train and get an included nights sleep on your travel, waking up in your new destination ready to go.
One site that has helped me countless times is Rome2Rio. If you're trying to plan a route and want to know your options on how to get from point A to point B in the fastest/cheapest/easiest way..simple type in your two locations and this site will list out all of your various options of land/air/sea combinations to get you where you want to go. It's obviously not limited to train travel however they have excellent links to regional train/bus schedules that would otherwise take some internet digging to find.
Oh the wonders of ground transportation. Whether it's buses, taxis shuttles or tuk tuks, they're sure to be an adventure. Most of my experience with auto travel is based in a wild world called the Central American bus system. Here are few things I've learned along the way:
'Splurge' on a luxury liner for long distance trips: I learned the hard way that taking the cheaper bus option on a 20 hour ride from Guatemala to Nicaragua is NOT worth the $20 saved. 'Luxury liners' (aka often air conditioned, soft seats, sometimes even snacks and wifi) are WELL worth the money on long distance bus trips. And who am I kidding, the prices are still very affordable! Companies such as TicaBus are famous around Central America for a comfortable and organized option to ground transportation.
On The Other Hand...There's Nothing Quite Like a Chicken Bus:
These public buses famous in Guatemala and other Central American countries are often old yellow school buses that have been brought down through Mexico and then painted crazy colors. Don't expect a whole bench seat to yourself, or a seat at all because these guys are packed to the gills. Not to mention there's often a vendor squeezing up and down the aisle selling refrescos and plantain chips to the passengers. Oh, and the bus drivers are usually blasting tunes that you'll be able to feel through the floor. It's a wild ride and definitely worth trying at least once! Plus, they never cost more than a few dollars.
BASIC BUS TIPS
Keep your bags ON you: Not to freak anyone out but it's always better to be safe than sorry. Often local passengers' luggage will be strapped to the roof of the buses but in my opinion I prefer to keep my bag with me. Tourist backpacks can be spotted a mile away and are an easy steal. I've had friends get their bags stolen from right under their feet if they put them on the floor under their seat so I always keep mine in my lap or hold onto a strap to be careful. Again, this is just me being extra careful. If you want to strap yours on the roof, go ahead. It's all part of the wild ride!
Up Front Seating: Depending on how busy the busload is, I always try to get a seat closer to the front of the bus for many reasons. First being it's a bit smoother of a ride on bumpy and curvy roads. It also gets you easier access to the driver if you have a question about the route. Lastly, it'll get you on and off quicker. Kind of common sense but worth mentioning.
Terminal Tickets: Although buying tickets ahead of time online seems like the best option, I've found that going to the terminal and buying tickets in person is usually a better bet. Especially if there is confusion between the schedule translation, I try to stop by the terminal a few days/hours before my bus leaves if possible and know that I've secured the right ticket and to get familiar with the departure area. The amount of times I've rushed to a bus only to realize I was at the wrong terminal/location in a city is embarrassingly high. It's better to plan a bit ahead so the trip goes smoothly.
Pay Attention to Price and Bring Change: I'm sure I spent a many first few times on public busses paying twice as much as the locals in line next to me and didn't even know it (although still a very cheap price). In most chicken bus/public bus systems there's a man collecting cash as you step on the bus. Try to pay attention to what others around you are handing him and always have small bills because handing over the equivalent of a $20 bill in local currency on a chicken bus would be like handing a taxi driver $100 and can get you quite a strange look.
Just writing about bus travel in Central America has me missing it. There's something about this up close and personal transportation that lets you really get a feel for life where you're visiting. I'd often find myself looking over at the person next to me wondering where they're headed to and striking up a conversation in my patchwork of Spanish sentences.
Transportation is obviously a necessary part of travel but instead of making it rushed and stressful try to use it as a way to see the people and culture of your travels. No matter if you're traveling by plane, train, bus or anything in between, if you go into the experience with an open mind and eyes it's sure to be an adventure in itself. Happy Trails!