Transportation is a concern of every traveler, whether planning how to reach a destination or trying to hail a taxi. Numerous transportation options exist, ranging from one-way trips in a first-class jet to budget accommodation on a freighter.
Choosing your vehicle
On some routes, many different vehicles can be considered. For example, from Copenhagen to Stockholm, flying might be fastest, while an intercity bus is cheapest, driving allows more baggage, and rail travel is the most comfortable (and at five hours on par with the plane, when going from downtown to downtown). Finally, cruising or yachting between these cities would take one or two days more than the other options, while being a greater experience than the destination itself.
Only the wealthiest can overlook costs, and only the most patient need no haste. Other concerns are safety, scheduling, environmental issues, medical conditions, and the amount of baggage needed.
Buses and planes may severely limit the amount of baggage and even charge for checked baggage. Trains and cruise ships usually have no nominal limit to the amount of luggage, though they require it to be carried by the travelling party. Even where checked luggage on trains exist, allowances are usually more generous than for aviation. Your own boat or a car may have even more – or more convenient – capacity for extraordinary amounts of luggage. Still think carefully about what you really need.
The schedule of a public carrier might be a limiting factor. While some airline services fly only once a week, a metro line might depart as often as every few minutes. With your own vehicle, this is usually not a problem, unless you need to use a ferry, or if roads are temporarily closed down. However, road tolls, speed restrictions and traffic congestion might vary by time of day, the day of the week, or by season.
The vehicle of choice might depend on the country or region. While the United States is – with limited exceptions – built for the car, Japan has a great rail network, and in the Netherlands, cycling is practical even for inter-city journeys.
On large distances (500 km or more), flying is usually the fastest mode of transportation. Crossing an ocean or continent will take days in any other ways, and flying is usually even cheaper in such cases. On the other hand flying generally involves airport transfer, and dealing with security checks and baggage issues other travellers might not have to face. Where high speed rail is available, it is often a faster option than the plane, though not necessarily always cheaper. Shop around and see what best serves your needs.
Purchasing airline tickets can involve a mind-numbing array of fare classes, date restrictions, and price options. Two travelers sitting next to one another on a plane have almost always paid different fares. Finding the cheapest route and best prices can be a challenge.
Airline travel varies from cramped economy cabins to large suites that may even offer a full-length bed. Prices vary according to class of service, but frequent flyer status and other methods offer ways of sometimes getting upgraded travel without the upgraded price.
Round the world flights
Several airlines offer round-the-world flights, with a number of stops on the way. If you want to see several locations far from home, this is sometimes the best way. Options and flexibility varies between the different schemes.
Airport security has become more strict in the 21th century, and offers a host of hassles for travelers. Arriving at the airport in time to make it through security checks, carrying the proper documentation and avoiding transits through countries with strict security constraints are all considerations on a trip by air.
Travelling at the controls of a small plane as a private pilot can be one of the most fulfilling travel experiences possible. You get to see the world from a perspective entirely different from the ground or from commercial aviation. Most parts of the world have some form of general aviation; in Western countries such as the United States and Europe small airports are everywhere. Costs are somewhat higher than commercial airline seats; travel time is less than by car but usually somewhat more than by airline. On the other hand, when the costs of operating a light plane are shared between the pilot and passengers, it can be a surprisingly economical way of getting around. Becoming a pilot can take a significant amount of time and money, but most will agree the rewards are outstanding; for most travel pilots the journey is the reward.
A few business travellers fly aboard corporate aircraft, small planes owned by their employers. A helicopter is a necessity for offshore oil platform operators and some mining and resource firms.
A few small communities in remote locations (such as Alaska or the Canadian High Arctic) rely on small aircraft to bring supplies or postal service; often these are scheduled runs in small aircraft (like those used for charter service or general aviation, some may even be float planes which land at sea) to expensive-to-reach points far from the beaten path. There are still some communities outside the arctic best or only reached by air, mostly in Australia and developing countries. The name stems from the “bush” meaning the sparsely populated areas in e.g. much of Africa.
Air charter is the official name for air taxi operations, for which national aviation regulators impose specific regulations for pilot qualifications and experience, safety, and maintenance.
Air charter companies fly point-to-point, at the time requested by hiring customers, so that customers don’t need to wait in-line at major hub airports. Air charter companies often fly smaller aircraft with room for 3-9 (or more) passengers. Aircraft with more than 9 passengers start to fall into the “commuter” size range, subjecting them to extra requirements and costs. The VLJ (very light jet) aircraft being delivered by Eclipse Aviation and others typically seat 4-5 passengers, and offer a new set of choices for point-to-point flights.
Travel by rail often invokes a past era, with tracks winding through mountains and forests, comforts including dining cars and sleeper cabins, and other amenities not available to air and motor travelers.
While heritage dating back to the 19th century can be found in Europe and some Asian countries (South Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan) as well, the high speed trains, which beat cars hands down in terms of speed, have nothing nostalgic about them, but rather, they are cutting-edge technologies and the pride of their creators. Although the price of a ticket might reflect that, they are often not more expensive than flying (and may end up being cheaper than driving) on short (less than 1,000 km) routes and the experience of whisking through picturesque landscapes at more than 300 km per hour (or 200 miles per hour) may well be worth the cost. As one famous slogan for one of the first high speed rail services said: flying at altitude zero. Just sit back and relax. Oh and the dining cars and even sleepers? They are still available for many high speed lines. High speed rail is also the safest mode of travel, as accidents on these lines are seen as a national disgrace in most countries and safety standards are tough.
Regardless of speed most trains around the world also offer more legroom than all but first class airline seats. Food (regardless whether cooked on board or from your lunch box) also tastes better aboard a train, as the lower air pressure and dry air in planes affects your taste buds.
For more in-depth information see:
Tips for rail travel if you have never been on a train, look no further than this article
Urban rail love it or hate it, almost all self-respecting metropolises in the world have some form of it. Usually they are fast, cheap and reliable. Without these systems getting from A to B would be a nightmare for anybody but owners of helicopters
Rail travel in Europe for one of the most extensive, cheapest and most user-friendly train networks
High speed rail in China for the longest and fastest growing high speed network and to date the only high speed sleeper services
Amtrak America’s much laughed about intercity-rail operator is slowly coming into its own with a steady growth in passengers as well as the “crown jewel” Northeast Corridor (Boston-Washington) where trains are giving the airlines a run for their money
Rail travel in Germany one of the densest networks with (when booked in advance) very affordable prices and high train speeds, that is being upgraded even further. There is hardly a place of interest, that can’t be reached via train in Germany.
Rail travel in Japan – the original bullet trains. You get top speed, but you will have to pay top price more often than not.
High-speed rail in South Korea – is a good and fast way to get to the places it covers. However, be prepared to pay somewhat costly fares.
High speed rail – the fastest and usually most modern type of rail travel. Here the airlines get a run for their money as High speed rail is often the fastest way to get from A to B period.
Boat travel used to be the fastest way to travel around the world from ancient times until the railways developed in the 19th century.
Ferries are all but essential to reach islands such as Ireland or Newfoundland, which otherwise would only be accessible by air travel. Ferries also sail along rivers and cross seas. Coastal ferries follow the shoreline providing a scenic and comfortable means or travel, or to supply the most remote outposts, small coastal villages with no intercity road network. Some ferries also carry cars and there are still a few ferries around that carry trains, though the rise of air travel and the increasing availability of tunnels and bridges have made those a rare sight in passenger transport.
Ferries in the Mediterranean
Ferries in the Red Sea
Ferry routes to Great Britain
Ferries in the Baltic – probably the best and likely the biggest ferries in the world at surprisingly affordable prices
Hurtigruten along the Norwegian coast
Cruise ships range in size from vessels holding a handful of passengers to floating cities that hold thousands of passengers and offer all of the amenities that one would expect of a luxury resort. They provide access to nice destinations and can sometimes be used to cross a sea or even ocean as part of a longer journey.
A less crowded, sometimes cheaper, alternative for crossing a sea or ocean, not using airplanes or commercial cruise ships or ferries.
Yacht chartering is the best kept secret in the holiday industry. It is where you hire a yacht (either a sailing yacht or a motor yacht) and sail in a different part of the world each year. As well as the flexibility it offers it can also be surprisingly excellent value for money, often working out cheaper than booking hotel rooms, especially if there are a good number of people going on holiday together. It also usually works out cheaper than owning your own yacht if you charter for up to six weeks a year. In order to charter a yacht you may need to demonstrate that you have a qualified skipper and at least one competent member of crew. if you are not able to supply your own skipper (this is known as “bare-boat charter”) you can pay to have one supplied, which is known as a “skippered” or “crewed” charter. Popular locations include Croatia, Greece, Seychelles, Turkey, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Whitsunday Islands. You could also try Finland or the inner waterways of western Europe.
Houseboat rental is an option in some regions, such as the Thousand Islands and the Kawarthas in Canada.
Some have a yacht but lack a crew. On some routes this is a common occurrence, and you might get a memorable (seldom free) voyage across some body of water. Having experience or key skills is an advantage, but often the right attitude is enough. The downside is that finding the yacht can take some (or plenty) time, space is limited, and yachts are hardly the fastest option.
In some countries such as the United States a car is a nearly indispensable tool for travel. Cars allow plenty of baggage and flexibility in destination planning, but require maintenance, insurance, and valid driving permits. They are also usually one of the more expensive modes of travel, all things considered, and raise environmental concerns.
Driving is the obvious choice, if not the only option in many places, for countryside destinations and outdoor life, far from congested city streets.
For more in-depth information, see the Road trips article.
Taxis are usually convenient for door-to-door-rides. It might however get costly, especially in high-income countries. Motorcycle and tricycle taxis (rickshaws) are another option.
Hitchhiking is an inexpensive and sometimes dangerous way to get from one place to another. Hitchhiking has its own codes and rules, and can be an effective and enjoyable means of travel for some.
For more in-depth information see:
Tips for hitchhiking
Hitchhiking around the world
Ride sharing, an alternative to hitchhiking where a ride is arranged in advance and expenses shared
Cycling trips can range from your daily commute or the ride to the grocer to adventures that last for months, with the cyclist using manpower to traverse the countryside. Some newer bicycles also offer assistance through an auxiliary electric motor, but on longer trips the recharging of the battery will almost certainly fall back on your muscle power, much like a hybrid car recharges its battery through recuperative breaking. While cycling can be frustrating in places that lack infrastructure for it, it can be a very rewarding way of seeing the landscape up close and getting you to places you would never have gotten to otherwise. City cycling offers a wider range than walking while still preserving the advantage of enabling you to stop and look around or enter any interesting place you might find without having to look for parking.
For more in-depth information see:
Urban cycling – the fastest method of transportation in the likes of Amsterdam, Erlangen or Portland (Oregon) and still the cheapest in many others
Tour cycling – You want to get your trusty old two wheels back in shape ahead of that cross-continental trip? That and more is covered here
Cycling in Europe – from a good way to get around to more of a leisure activity, cycling in Europe runs the whole spectrum
Cycling in Copenhagen – the original and arguably still most bike friendly city
Cycling in Denmark – Copenhagen is the poster child, but the whole country is a good place to bike – flat geography and bike friendly policies have seen to that
Rarely the most glamorous or even the most comfortable way to get around, buses are often the cheapest option except walking, and indispensable in low income regions such as Central America or South East Asia. Almost any inhabited place on Earth has some form of bus service either local or inter-city, either every five minutes or once a month. While the bus ride is usually not the thing you write home about, knowing how to get from A to B is the first thing you should consider when planning your trip. And for some the journey is indeed the destination and even a ride in a battered up old school-bus can be reason to travel all by itself. Whatever there may be to say against bus travel, it is for sure one of the best ways to meet the locals and start a conversation. Brush up on the local languages or print out a Phrasebook.
Traveling by motorcycle enables you to enjoy the surroundings you travel through in at a completely different level than if you’d travel by car, while you can travel further and faster than on a regular bike.
Motorcycle touring, specific advice for long road trips on a motorcycle
Horse riding is a pastime in many countries, and remains the most practical mode of transportation in some areas.
Carriages and stagecoaches drawn by horses or other animals can be used as a recreational vehicle.
Public transportation can consist of buses, urban rail systems, or more exotic vehicles, such as funiculars or local ferries. It is usually the most practical way to get around large cities.
While it is usually cheaper than a taxi or a car, comfort and reliability vary a lot between cities.
Cross-country skiing, ice skating, and hiking are not the fastest way to get around, but can be very rewarding.