The decision is made and the tickets purchased and accommodations are booked. As you spend time browsing travel guides and searching cool things to do in your destination, it's time to start figuring out how you will get around. Transportation can take a large chunk of your budget, depending upon the choices you make.
There are many different modes of transportation available but generally, quicker and more comfortable travel costs more than slow and less comfortable. Longer distances will cost more than shorter journeys. This post will focus on public transportation. Using public transportation is much less expensive than hiring a car and driver or renting a car for self-driving. An added benefit is the interaction with locals as they carry on their daily activities.
The most cost-effective way to move around a town or city is to walk. Whenever possible, I choose to walk. It's my favourite way to get a feel for the area and to see more, plus it costs nothing but time and I get some exercise... some days, a LOT of exercise. Most cities are very walkable but check with your hotel or hosts about areas of town that should be avoided. In many areas of the world, bicycles are a common form of transportation. I'm not talking about those brilliant athletic types who are cycling around a country. I'm talking about easy rides. Hotels may have bicycles available on loan or rent. Some cities have bike-share programs that also include electric bikes and scooters for those looking for less effort and more zoom.
Types of Public Transportation
Public transportation includes everything from local buses, subway systems, trams and light rapid transit, to funiculars and ferries. Every city has its own unique public transportation systems, infrastructure, and quirks but many have similarities. Take some time to know what to expect and how to use the options for your next trip.
The most budget-friendly option for travel in most countries is riding a bus, no matter whether it's a tourist bus or a local bus. More modern cities often have air-conditioned buses, many with complimentary WiFi. Longer-haul intercity buses often have a toilet and reclining seats. I have found bus drivers to be extremely helpful everywhere I have travelled, often going well beyond their duties to offer advice and give directions as I exit the bus.
Buses are also usually the slowest and dullest option, with stops and starts to pick up passengers at regular intervals. They can be very crowded and often uncomfortable, especially in less developed countries. The crowding may make you more susceptible to pickpockets. In many countries, buses are not very clean. On the other hand, buses in Japan are impeccable. On a recent trip in France, the choice to take the Blah-Blah Car Bus between Grenoble and Lyon was quicker and less expensive than the train. Local buses sometimes even include animals. I've ridden buses with farmers and their chickens in Mexico and even shared a ride with a baby goat in Peru. Both of those rides were much more pleasant that the 3-hour journey in Algeria with a child who loved his bird whistle. Intercity buses are excellent value in Europe and sometimes, they are the only choice. Travelling around Croatia or even Ireland by land, will usually require bus journey as the train system is not extensive and many communities are not served. The intercity bus, PeruHop, was an excellent way to see more of Peru and adjust more gradually to the higher elevations.
Collectivos, passenger vans that travel between cities, are common in South American countries. You will need a local to help you find where to pick up the collectivo as there are rarely any signs. These are mainly used by locals and cost very little.
Overall, buses are a good choice for those with more time and less money. With a little patience, they are a terrific way to travel conveniently.
Trains are a favourite way to travel, especially longer distances. Quality of train service varies widely country to country. On longer hauls, being able to get up and stretch your legs often helps with the tedium of long travel. Some countries allow locals to hop on board at the station to sell food, drinks, and sometimes even souvenirs. There are trains between almost every city in Europe and the UK. There are many routes between countries that offer an upgrade to a sleeper car. Pricing varies widely according to the time of day, routing, number of stops, and comfort.
Asia is known for very affordable train journeys, often packed with locals and tourists. In less-developed countries, riding the train can be a very adventurous choice.
The best reason to take a train is that it is the second-fastest mode of transport after airplanes. They usually run on a predictable schedule and have a station for arrivals/departures and ticket sales. They also usually have bathrooms... (often less than hygienic but available for emergencies). Trains are a good option between a more expensive flight and a cheaper bus ride.
Taxi, Uber, or Tuk-Tuk
Taxis can be called by a lot of different names depending upon where you're visiting. Taxis are most common for one-way short trips however there are some places that require a vehicle to access. When in Trujillo, Peru the only way I could visit the Chan Chan archaeological site was to join a tour or take a taxi. Knowing my tendency to linger longer than most tours allow, I opted for a cab. Tuk-tuks are usually small open-sided motorized carts built on a motorcycle chassis. These are generally used for shorter distances within a town. They may feel rather precarious but they are very efficient and easy on the budget.
Not all cities have Uber or Lyft. Many have other services with their own apps. Do a google search to see what is available at your destination.
Full day taxis with driver can be hired at a flat rate in many countries. I have used private car and driver services in Marrakech, Ireland, Greece, Cape Breton Island, Costa Rica and Peru. In each instance, the driver not only provided transportation but also offered travel and safety tips, often made unscheduled stops to other places of interest and provided a layer of protection -- something I highly value as a solo female traveller. In many cities, there are licensed cab companies and travellers are advised to ensure they are using those official services. Most modern cities require metered services. Some, like Amsterdam, also require drivers to show their navigation screen to reassure passengers that drivers have chosen the best route. Many cities have set prices from the airport to various zones in the city.
It is usually best to use official cabs in unfamiliar places and if travelling at night. If booking a non-metered trip, always confirm the price of the ride before entering the car. If you are considering a ride-share program, ask at your hotel for the most trusted platform for that locale.
Boats and Ferries
Coastal locations, islands, and other areas with waterways often have public boats, whether large ferries capable of transporting trucks and cars or smaller walk-on rides. As someone who was raised and lives on the coast, I love travelling on the water. Many river cities offer hop-on hop-off boat tours that combine sight-seeing and transportation. Other cities offer quick rides from one side of the water to the other. Vancouver has the "Aquabus", a little boat that circles False Creek in the downtown area as well as a major ferry system that travels between the mainland and the Gulf Islands. Venice's vaporetto system moves people all around the city and out to the nearby islands.
In certain areas of the world, ferries may be the only option. Travelling between many of the Greek, Scottish. or Thai islands require ferry rides. Even where these islands have airports, travelling by ferry is usually much more budget-friendly.
Ferries are also an option when travelling between countries – like Northern Ireland to Scotland or Croatia to Italy. Prices vary according to the route, distance and comforts, whether you walk on, bring a vehicle, or choose a cabin. Big factors that should be considered when travelling by boat or ferry are seasickness and weather. On one trip, my ferry from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia was delayed two days due to weather. When we finally set sail, the seas were very rough and many passengers were ill for the entire 7-hour sailing.
Sometimes it's possible to turn an ordinary transit day into a much more enjoyable experience. An example of this was when I booked a Cusco to Sacred Valley tour in Peru. One of the final stops on the tour was the town where I was going to spend a few days. Instead of returning to Cusco with my tour and then arranging onward transportation, I left the tour in Ollantaytambo and was settled into my room and enjoying my dinner about the time the tour returned to Cusco.
Overnight transit should also be considered by budget travellers. Personally, I love the idea of overnight transport. The opportunity to use my sleeping time to cover a journey and to combine my transportation and accommodation costs is hugely appealing. When all goes well, I feel like I have made an excellent choice.
The reality has not always been as appealing. An overnight train trip with a faulty electrical system meant that sleep was captured in short bursts throughout the night as the train alternated between frigid air conditioning at the stations to hellfire temperatures between. I've learned that choosing a cheaper fare that doesn't include a sleeping berth makes sleep, even on a reclining chair, rarely comfortable. Noise and activity around you is common. Other passengers will snore.
Get a Map
Fewer travellers use paper maps, preferring to use online navigation apps. Savvy travellers will download street and public transportation maps so they can be used offline. Be aware, however, that your favourite program may not work well where you are travelling. Check your app to see if it offers directions using public transportation, do an online search for an app specific to your destination. Paper maps can be invaluable. Most hotels and all tourism offices will have paper maps.
Many major cities use an interconnected payment and ticketing system, Many cities accept tap payments. Others issue tickets for cash at kiosks and local shops. In some destinations fares can be purchased onboard while others require pre-purchase. While cards and virtual wallets have become increasingly more available it is always a good idea to carry coins, especially in less urban settings. Change may not be available if you don't have the exact amount.
It is also important to know whether pre-purchased tickets need to be validated. Most modern systems require your ticket or card to be validated before you can exit the station. Tap-in and tap-out systems are common.
If purchasing an all-day ticket, know when it expires to avoid getting stuck behind a gate at an empty train station late at night. (Don't ask how I know....) Many cities also use fare payment zones. A single zone ticket allows travel on routes within the zone but travelling further requires additional payment. London, as an example, has nine zones. Fines are issued to travellers who do not purchase the correct ticket.
Consider buying Transit Passes
Passes can save a significant amount of money. Some cities offer cards, such as London's Oyster Card or Vancouver's Compass Card that can be used on all forms of city-wide public transportation. Other cities, such as Paris, offer books of tickets. Some cities offer a tourist city pass that includes public transportation and discounts to cultural sites.
My experience suggests that passes save money when used for 2-3 trips a day. City passes with tourist discounts should be considered carefully. Sometimes when pricing out the sights that you really want to see you'll discover that individual tickets may be a more budget-friendly decision.
Know the schedules.
In some cities, public transportation runs continually but in most cities, things close down somewhere close to midnight, reopening sometime around 5am. Other times, routes are shut down for maintenance or another service interruption. It's always good to have a Plan B for getting between places. A delayed flight to London had me racing through underground stations as announcements were being made that the various lines were shutting down... I eventually needed to choose to take a night bus or catch a taxi to get to my digs. On another trip, I needed to use a taxi to get to the airport because the metro line wasn't running early enough in the morning for me to catch my 6am flight.
Always Be aware of Safety
Public transportation is usually safe but it's always wise to be aware. Pickpockets tend to congregate in crowded spaces such as bus and train stations. Night buses can be a bit dodgy as the night-time crowd takes over. Keep your valuables close to your body. In Amsterdam as the sun was setting, I had not done my homework about the tram lines. The atmosphere around Centraal Station was feeling less safe but, for a variety of reasons, I wasn't able to figure out which tram line I needed to catch. I eventually got a taxi for nearly €50. The next morning, I took the tram (right outside my hotel) back to Centraal for less than €2. I don't regret my choice.
Using public transportation is a great way to learn about a city. Your best choice depends upon where you are travelling, your personal preferences and comforts, and budget. The best choice is very subjective and personal to you. Research will help you to know routes, schedules, and which options are available.
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