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Finding Cheap Ways to Travel

When I was on my round-the-world trip back in the 1990s, I didn't have a full-time job and was constantly on the lookout for cheap ways to travel. I was doing odd jobs at first and then freelancing as a journalist so money was scarce, especially in Africa where it often took months for me to be reunited with my cash.

I learned the art of budget brutality on that trip.

Things were also more expensive then; these days there are plenty of options for inexpensive travel - if not inexpensive, then a lot less expensive than before.

How to save money on airfares

For most of us, cheap travel starts with a cheap airfare. It's a mess of offerings out there but it is possible to find your way around.

These are good starting points:

  • The websites of regular scheduled airlines. That's right - they often have impressive sales and specials that undercut everyone else, even the no-frills airlines. Usually deals are released once a week so check their websites regularly to be the first one in - the number of low-cost seats is often limited. 
  • Many countries have charter airlines managed by tour companies. The dates of travel are usually rigid but prices can be very low. These are especially useful if you're heading for a resort destination.
  • Discount airlines - the EasyJets and Ryanairs of the world - can usually provide low low fares, especially within a region and if you book well ahead of time. For more information visit my page on very cheap international flights
  • To get comparisons head to your favorite booking engine (I use eBookers or eDreams but there are plenty of others out there). Let technology do the work for you and provide you with a comparison of costs.
  • If you're planning on long-term travel over several continents, round the world tickets will probably be your best bet.
  • And of course there are mileage clubs and points you can accumulate either by traveling a lot or through credit cards. A good place to start learning about these is with The Points Guy - it's his specialty.

Railways can be cheaper than flying

If I had a choice I'd travel everywhere by train, watching the countryside whip past my window.

Unfortunately in some countries (Switzerland and France are two good examples) taking a train can be far more expensive than flying so if you're a train fan, this is where your chances lie: 

  • In developing countries - where trains are used by local people to get to work. You may not travel in great style, but it will be cheap.
  • Rail passes! Not just the Eurail Pass but country passes for unlimited travel within a single country, like Australia or Japan.
  • Visit my page on cheap train travel for more information and ideas on how to cut train travel costs.
Train locomotiveOne of my favorite forms of transport - in some parts of the world it's a cheap travel alternative

Travel by bus

If you have the time or the inclination the bus may well be the cheapest way to travel over long distances.

  • Most countries have a bus network that criss-crosses the nation. (In fact I have yet to find a country without a bus system.)
  • Many bus companies have pass systems, like the trains - for example Greyhound or Eurolines.
  • In some countries you can hop on and hop off. I took the Baz Bus in South Africa and spent a month going a relatively short distance - and saw everything along the way.
  • Some companies offer extreme long distance rides, especially between immigration countries - Sweden to Portugal, or Poland to France for example. 

Buses don't come without risks, however. In some countries, like Kenya or Tanzania, riding local buses means taking your life in your hands. In others, like Panama and Thailand, buses are a perfectly good alternative to other forms of public transport - but they're less safe than trains or planes.

The most harrowing bus rides I've taken are in Muslim countries, where drivers race to make it to the next town in time for prayers, and in Africa, where buses come to die after no one else wants them...

For an overview of information and resources, have a look at my travel by bus page.

Different - and unusual - forms of transport

One of the great things about travel is novelty - trying new things, experiencing different approaches to life, and, why not, new modes of transportation.

  • You can rent a car (although I've heard of people buying them abroad just to travel) if you feel confident about driving in that country (I have never ever been able to master driving on the left side, as they do in the UK). If this is tempting take a look at my international drivers licence page but be warned, this is not the cheapest way to travel. 
  • I've tried hitchhiking but have mixed feelings about it. In some countries it's relatively safe and perfectly legitimate. In others I wouldn't dream of it. For an overview of hows and wherefores, see what I have to say to and about female hitchhikers.
  • One style that is increasingly popular is travel on foot, walking at least part of the way. Like hitchhiking, walking carries safety issues for solo women and this isn't something I'd do everywhere - but it's free so in a pinch... and it's so nice to be outside all the time.
  • There are boats! I get seasick at the thought of it but the number of women sailing around the world is increasing. And if you're any good at it, why not get a free ride by applying for yacht jobs?
  • If Irish author Dervla Murphy could ride a bicycle from home all the way to India (not to mention a mule across Ethiopia), surely we can be creative about how we get somewhere. Just for fun, here are some suggestions for unusual transportation.

Also have a look at these related questions from readers:
How much money do I need to travel for seven months?
How do I travel cheaply in Australia and New Zealand?

Do you have ideas for traveling on the cheap? I'd love to hear them in the comments below.

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