Transportation

Upon arriving in a new country, you will have several options as to how you are going to move around the city and travel to and within the country or countries previously set out in your itinerary. The cost of getting around ranges from the very cheap (walking) to relatively expensive (a taxi for one person). Before your plane even touches down, you should put some thought into how you would like to move about, based on your budget and/or the importance of safety. This section will help you understand your transportation options and make choosing the appropriate mode of transport easier.

Airplane

Plane food sucks and for some reason you always end up sitting next to a smelly person who for some reason can’t pick up on the fact that you really don’t want to talk with him or her. On the other hand, planes do get you to your destination really fast, and they feature cool movies from time to time. If you want to buy a ticket, the best way is to do so is by stepping into a travel agency. They have access to just about all flights and booking systems. Simply make the employee find every possible flight (combination) to your destination and pick one that has a good price and time schedule. Travel agencies charge a small administration fee for booking a flight. Buying your ticket online can also be cheap. Besides a credit card, you’ll need a lot of patience to find the best offer. For more information on booking airline tickets, see Airline tickets.

Colourful chicken bus in Guatemala.

One of the colourful and over-full ‘chicken buses’ in Guatemala.

Train & bus

Trains and buses are the most common ways for long distance overland travel. Buses are in general a bit cheaper, though also less comfortable. Trains provide a wonderful means to see more of the rustic side of the country, while buses stay mostly on highways. Europe is by far the most popular place to travel by train due to its convenience and wide-spread routes. If you plan to do a lot of travelling by train within one or more countries, be sure to check all the rail pass possibilities (such as Inter Rail). After all, why pay more than necessary?

In Europe, bus travel between cities is equally convenient to trains, with extensive routes and ride options, and is often cheaper than taking the train. The buses make stops primarily in major cities and are very pleasant to travel in. Because they are so affordable, busing around Europe should be a serious consideration for the extreme budget traveler. Bus companies to consider include Busabout and Eurolines.

Budget tip: If you’re planning to travel a relatively big distance (6 hours or more), then you might want to take an overnight bus or train. It saves time, and it’s one night’s accommodation less to pay for.

Budget tip: Get yourself an ISIC card from the International Student Travel Confederation. Available in a lot of countries if you can show some proof that you’re a student. This card gives you discounts on public transport, museum entrances, etcetera. So flash it wherever you can, and it will earn itself back easily. For a complete overview of where you can get it, in which countries you can use it and on what it will give you discounts, visit the ISIC site.

Hitchhiking

Hitchhiking is fun, yet you should be careful. Preferably, hitchhike with a partner. If you’re a girl, I wouldn’t recommend to hitchhike by yourself. Nevertheless, it’s a common means of transportation in a number of countries. Naturally, there’s reason for this. First of all: it’s free! Sometimes the driver may ask for a bit of money to share the costs for gasoline, but most of the time the only money you’ll be spending is for a cup of coffee. Either way, it’s cheaper than any other kind of transportation. Also, you’ll meet a lot of great people along the route, and it can still get you to your destination pretty fast.

Make sure the climate is suitable for hitching (i.e. don’t go hitchhiking when it’s raining and below zero ;). All you need to go hitchhiking, is a enough food and water for a day, a detailed roadmap, a big black marker, and some cardboard or paper which can serve as your hitchhiking signs.

Here’s hitchhiking explained in short: set out your route beforehand, and try to stick to that route. Find a suitable spot to start hitching. An onramp or a gas station are good spots, but basically any place will do as long as cars drive slow enough to read your sign and have the possibility to pull over. Stand along the side of a road with the sign in your hands, and wait until a car pulls over for you. Ask the driver where he’s going before getting in, and if it’s the right direction just get in. Remember that you have no obligation whatsoever towards the driver, so if you feel there’s something dodgy about the driver or if he’s not going far enough, just say “no thanks, I’ll wait for the next car”. Make sure to arrange a suitable spot to get dropped off, so you won’t end up miles from the highway you wanted to follow.

Making signs is a good idea, this way drivers that are going your way will sooner be tempted to pull over, and drivers that are not going your way won’t stop. What exactly you should write on your sign, can be a bit tricky. It’s all a matter of distance. If you’re in Amsterdam and put Moscow on your hitchhiking sign, no one will pull over. You’ll have to choose yourself what you’re going to write down. The most common options are: the name of a large city down the road, the road number you want to follow or the name of a country you want to reach. Write in large readable letters, and no more than a few characters, so you should use abbreviations for names.

Cycling & walking

People hiking in the snow.

Hiking across Europe.

Practice before you leave, preferably with your all your travel gear on, or with weight substitutes (bricks or whatever). This will save you a bit of adjustment agony. Buy a good detailed map of the region you’ll be crossing. Bring a compass, a small medical kit, sturdy equipment, and always have some food supplies in case you get stranded in a desolate place. If you’re going by bike, bring a repair kit with you. If you’re going to hike, make sure your walking shoes are decent, comfortable and not completely new (so walk a lot in them before departing).

Transportation within cities

Subway, tram and bus. To find out which number to take, when they leave, and how the ticket system works, you’ll simply have to rely on your guidebook, or the info you got from anywhere else. Bigger stations usually have an information desk. It can be useful to have a city map. If you’re not sure where exactly to get out, friendly ask the driver or another passenger to warn you. Transportation systems may seem quite chaotic, but after a while you’ll probably have figured out most of it. Apart from taking public transport, there’s always the option to walk or rent a bike. The advantages: you’ll see more of the city, and it’s healthier for you too! :)

Budget tip: There are ways to avoid paying for public transport. For example, if there’s a system where you have to get your ticket stamped by a machine, and the check ups are not very frequent, then simply don’t stamp it. If you do get checked, simply play the stupid foreigner (the standard “eehm.. I did buy a ticket, but I didn’t know it worked like that..” always seems to work). These actions are of course not encouraged, but… well… if you’re low on cash… ;)

Transportation resources

  • ISIC
    The international student discount card

  • Eurolines
    Low-cost travel operator of scheduled coach services to Europe

  • Busabout Europe
    A freestyle travel network, designed exclusively for backpackers.