This is a general guide that should help people figure out the basics of long-term, low-budget travelling; this part if about transportation.
You can’t travel without actually moving from A to B and for that you need some form of transport. Here are the most common options, giving a rough idea of your options. I will post a more detailed guide for each option later on.
Overall you can split the options into several categories: Self-propelled or Motorized. Free or Paid. Independent or On-Schedule. These three factors offer massive differences, for your speed, budget and freedom. For example you can cross a country twice; once on a bicycle (self-propelled, free, independent), once in a bus (motorized, paid, on-schedule) and you will have two completely different journeys, even if you travelled the same roads across the same country.
When deciding which one is most attractive to you, you have to take into account the time you have, the budget you can spend, and how comfortable you are with making your own path. All options have positive and negative sides, it’s up to you to pick the one that fits your travel style best.
Hiking / Walking:
As slow as it gets, average hikers walk 36km/23miles per day (number taken for the PCT and AT thru-hikers in the US). Beginners do less, pros do more. This mode of transport is only recommended if you want to make hiking the goal of your trip, for example picking a specific trail to do. There are only few people doing this from country to country (or even circumnavigate the world), so pick one place you want to see, get other transport there and then get your hiking shoes out.
You require equipment for this, the price range is immense. For a reasonable full set, expect $500. Super-high quality brand whore gear, new from the shop, try $1000 and upwards. For shoestring-budget second-hand gear: $100. Gear includes good shoes and socks, trekking poles, a backpack, a mattress, shelter (tarp or tent) and a sleeping bag. Normal clothing is fine, but depending on climate, good raingear might make it way more enjoyable.
Examples for hiking trails are the PCT (http://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/), the AT (http://www.nps.gov/appa/index.htm) and the CDT (http://www.continentaldividetrail.org/), all of which are in the US.
A good resource is http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/index.html
A lot faster than hiking, but still a far cry from driving a motorized vehicle, a bicycle can bring you along 60miles a day comfortably. Well trained people can do 100miles, some 150miles, while less trained maybe start with 30miles a day. The good thing is that you get more fit the longer your tour gets.
Any bicycle is good enough for touring, a special, expensive touring-bike is not required. I’ve personally toured on a city bike, a hardtail MTB, a full-suspension MTB, a cyclo-cross bike and a carbon racing bike. You got my personal guarantee that all of those can be used. It makes sense to invest in good touring tires (Schwalbe Marathon for example) because flat tires will be the most likely threat to you. You still need some special bike gear, about which I’ll talk in a bicycle-only post, it would be too long for here.
Many places, especially in Europe, have long-distance bike trails that connect a country with the next. The EuroVelo network http://www.eurovelo.org/ (Europe) and the http://www.adventurecycling.org/routes-and-maps/us-bicycle-route-system/ (USA) are the best examples.
Cycling is in my opinion the best way to travel. Not only can you cover a lot of miles on your own (100 miles a day brings you across the US in about a month), it keeps you fit, out in the country ready to meet people, and if you truly get sick of it, you can easily put the bike in a bus, train or plane and continue that way.
Slightly more exotic, but totally doable is using waterways. It’s slow, slower than even walking in most cases, but allows you to bring lots of luggage. Packing food for a month is no problem in a touring kayak. The downside is the transport of the vehicle and it’s price. No matter if you row, paddle or raft, the boat will cost you.
The most backpacker friendly boat option is http://www.alpackaraft.com/ who makes nearly indestructable inflatable boats rated to grade V white water (the highest) and only weight 2-8 pounds, which includes the equipment. They pack down to tent-size and can be put into any backpack.
Boats are an amazing way to get away from the crowds, allowing you access to otherwise hard-to-get areas. You can also add a boat to your hiking or biking setup, for example like the guys from http://lostcoastbike.blogspot.kr/ (Alaska with bike and packraft) or Casey from https://onvagrancy.com/ (Europe Summer AND Winter by bike and packraft).
If you like it slightly faster than the previous three, but still do not want to spend much money, hitchhiking is always an option. There are many countries in the world where it is the only option for the locals, because no public transport exists. There is an entire website dedicated to it, collecting more data than I could ever give you here, so please have a look at http://hitchwiki.org/en/Main_Page
Hitchhiking is fast, 300-600miles per day are doable. It’s cheap, because you either pay nothing or contribute to the fuel cost, as you see fit. It works worldwide. It brings you closer to the people in the country. And it is much safer than most people would assume. Personal note: Just today I’ve been picked up the road that I’ve been cycling on. Didnt even try to hitchhike, but some Korean driver saw me in the rain, stopped his pickup, took me in. Now I’m sleeping in his guest room, his wife made dinner for everyone and the only reason I can write this post (instead of sleeping in a tent without electricity and wifi) is that people are awesome and friendly. Not everyone is a rapist and axe murderer.
When hitchhiking, it’s best to write the direction or destination on a sign, stand outside of towns on major roads heading your way, preferably with a long line of sight and some space for cars to stop. You should look well dressed and groomed, wearing clean clothing, showing your backpack somewhere. This makes you stand out from hobos or drifters. The more remote an area, the more likely it is for individual cars to stop. The same counts for bad weather, if its snowing or raining, people are more likely to stop. That being said, hitchhiking is best done in good weather, because it involves standing around and waiting. A lot.
The best part about hitchhiking? It not only work on roads, you can hitchhike on boats too, across entire oceans. And with planes. (Yes, I’m serious. I myself hitchhiked in planes in Australia. 2-4 seaters that deliver post and other stuff to farms in the outback.)
If you got some more cash lying around and can afford your own vehicle, the fuel, the insurance and the carne de passage (a international visa for your vehicle) than you can get a motorbike. It’s fast and you are more independant than with hitchhiking, but otherwise you carry about the same equipment as the cyclist. You have some tools to repair your bike, spare parts, specific clothing, camping gear and that’s pretty much it. You will still spend your days outdoors camping or paying for a hotel/hostel. Motorbikes are much harder to transport to new continents though, and require you to pay extra for shipping, as well as waiting 4-6 weeks till the cargo ship arrives.
Driving Cars (aka Road trip):
You might already own a car, making this the most accessable way for a quick trip that does not require much equipment or planning. Similar to the motorbike tour, you need insurance, fual and a carne de passage for international travel and might be forced to ship your car in a cargo ship. I’d recommend staying on your continent for road trips. I’d assume that this is the most favorable option for US Americans, with a large country that does not require special permits, cheap gasoline and a good road network.
My personal experience with them is limited, only from meeting other people that do so. Last year in Westafrica I met ~20 french people, who decided to pack their camper vans and cars, drive down from France to Morocco and just keep going. They were alternative people, punks and clowns (actual circus athletes) and just wanted to do some shows for the locals in Africa. They went from little village to village, build up a bouncy castle, entertained the kids, everything free of charge, till they ran out of money and they decided to drive back to Europe. Most of them work on farms, fruit picking, some others as waiters.
Another good example are these crazy guys, who drove around the world in a black cab from London to London: http://www.itsonthemeter.com/ They even got sponsoring after they were half-way done.
Driving Vans / Campers:
A step up from you normal road trip, it’s possible to take your home with you. A mobile home. This is perfect for longer tours if you do not want to miss the comfort of a bed, electricity, shower, kitchen… the initial investement is larger and it costs more fuel than a normal car, but you save costs on accommodation and food, being able to cook. Long term, this does save you a lot of money. It’s also the best option for people with children or pets, which require more space and attention.
Options for vans range from tiny/cheap self-build vans (http://www.wickedcampers.com.au/) to more classical VW-bus sized campers (http://www.vwvagabonds.com/Howdoyou.html). I’ve yet to see one of the vacation-home bus-sized giant-campers on large trips around the world. Usually it’s smaller, older models with a lot of character.
Worldwide the most used public transport, these range from crappy small moving junkyards to luxury accommodation with free meal and wifi. Prices are the lowest of all paid transport types, ranging from $1-2 for 100miles to $20 for the same distance, depending on your country. The cheapest places for bus transport are Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Central Africa, Central Asia and Southeastasia. Europe and the US have an increasingly large bus network that can be worth a look too.
Trains are an excellent choice for highly developed countries, but barely exist in the third world or developing nations. Costs range from unrealisticly high (Japanese bullet train, French TGV, German ICE) over reasonably cheap (most places) to absurdly cheap (Russian Trans-Sibirian railroad). The advantages over a bus are more space, the ability to walk around, less bumps, beds and a diner. Disadvantage is usually the higher price and the even more restrictive scheduling and destination choice. While I love trains, I’d usually recommend taking a bus instead.
46€ with Thalys from Paris to Cologne, Germany. 500km. => Expensive, 3h transport.
70€ with Trans-Sib railroad from Moscow to Irkutsk, Russia. 5200km. => Cheap. 90h transport. (4 nights accommodation too)
Not usually used for long-distance, taxis can be your only alternative if you want to travel to a remote place without bus/train access, like temples, national parks, safaris, trail heads… in the first world this would bancrupt you instantly, but in the developing and third world this is common. Some countries, like Guinea, do not even have trains or busses and all public transport is done with taxis. The good thing is that you can drop the price by inviting more backpackers.
These type of transport are always expensive, because you are essentially hiring a driver and a car for a day or more. I only recommend them if you have no other option. A good idea is checking online communities to see if other travelers with their own transport (overlander jeep trips in Africa for example) are in the area and can take you. This might take a few days more to arrange, but is worth the effort.
Full-day tuktuk with driver in Cambodia: $25
300km/200mile taxi ride in Jordan: $100
650km/400mile shared taxi ride in Guinea: $60 (shared taxi means it leaves when full and has a set destination. A bit like a bus)
The fastest option, usually reserved for traversing obstacles like oceans, civil war areas or closed borders/visa issues. Planes are not often used by travelers because of the high price and the fact that they’d miss out on everything on the way. They are the easiest way to reach most destinations though, especially islands or new continents.
Round-the-world travelers might want to check out so called RTW tickets. Try http://www.staralliance.com/ or http://thegreatescapade.com/ . When booking these, it helps to talk to a professional travel agent, who knows most of the work-arounds. Check online for a agency that specialises in RTW trips.
If you like to fly yourself, it is a good idea to fly from transport hub to transport hub, because the high competition will drop prices. NY and LA are more likely to offer good flights than St.Louis or New Orleans. Make your way overland to the transport hub first, then go by plane. London, Frankfurt, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Sydney, Auckland, Capetown, Rio de Janeiro are all good options.
For finding cheap prices, try www.kayak.com or similar sites. Just two days ago I looked up flights from NY to London, cheapest option came in at 216€.
For shorter trips that require planes, mostly island hopping, you will fly in a 4-seater (or similar) plane. This means both way lower cost and lower luggage limits. This is often necessary to reach destinations in the Caribbean.
The epitome of luxury, the cruiseship, is slow transport which includes a package deal with food and accommodation. Prices plummet extremely just before departure with companies trying to fill their last empty cabins. While not really for a shoestring budget, they can be much less expensive than people might imagine. Try http://cruises.orbitz.com/ and try to find a few good ones. I tested it today and found a 2-week trip for $850 in the Caribbean, or a 12 day tour through Turkey and Greece for $699. The main difficulty will be arriving on time, which requires extra flights, but if you are already travelling in the area, it is a good idea to check out available cruises nearby.
Long-distance international ferries are rare, having been almost driven to extinction by cheap flights. They are often more expensive than a flight, making them no real option for travelers. Exceptions exist, like the PELNI network in Indonesia, which offer 2-3 day trips for $25-40 (connecting Java, Borneo, Sulawesi, Flores, Timor and Sumatra), the mediterrean sea network (connecting Europe with Northafrica) or the Skandinavian ferry lines. The Caribbean barely has any international ferries, neither do the pacific or indian ocean states.
60€ from Tunis, Tunesia to Sicily, Italy.
35€ from Tangier, Morocco to Gibraltar, Spain.
$140 from Tianjin, China to Incheon, Seoul.
I’ve seen people travelling on dog sledges, by horse, by elephant, on a unicycle, skateboard, inline skates, e-bikes, blown up truck tires (floating down a river), and hitchiking with their own camping trailer (other cars had to pull them). There are tons of possibilities. Things like your own yacht, hot air balloon and private plane I leave out of the list, I don’t think you need a guide on cheap travelling if you own any or all of those. 😉