Once you’re on the road, every few days or so you’re looking for that next bus, train or boat to your next destination. For anyone on a long backpacking trip it can seem like an endless cycle of misinformation and hassle. Some countries are better than others but in places where you don’t speak the local lingo, getting from A to B can be a real pain. This article should help you travel on a shoestring more effectively whilst saving more money.
Getting from A to B – How to travel on a Shoestring
On your first backpacking trip, you may find yourself stressing out about the constant challenge of finding bus stations, booking tickets and surviving long journeys to unknown destinations. The best advice is to chill, keep smiling and accept that things might not always run smoothly. Take those lengthy delays and missed connections as all part of the travelling experience. Chances are you will look back upon these moments with some peculiar fondness in years to come.
That said with a bit of background research you can increase the likelihood of things going smoothly and at the very latest save some money. The best and cheapest ways of getting around vary greatly between regions of the world.
On this page we will provide some links to useful links for cheap travel companies and other sites that will help you gather information on prices and timetables. Seat61 is the best site we’ve found for information on train travel with train times, prices and info on rail travel all over the world. It also has ferry times and some information on bus travel where there are no train lines but mostly you will need to use national or regional sites to find out about routes, fares and departure times.
Bahn.com has timetables for practically every train in Europe. It’s probably not much use for booking tickets but it is a reliable source for information. The Trainline is pretty good also if your travelling in Britain.
In Europe you can book train tickets and passes via Rail Europe. If you are under 26, you are classed as a youth and can get discounted fares. Instead of buying individual tickets, consider getting an Interrail pass. Country passes can be purchased or you can get a Global Pass for travel across all 28 countries in the interrail region.
Even if you’re only planning two or three journeys, it is often much cheaper to buy a rail pass than it is for individual tickets.
For coaches see Eurolines. They also have Europe-wide passes similar to the rail ones. For domestic travel each country either has a national carrier or various different coach lines serving separate routes.
In the USA and Canada, Greyhound is the place to go for coaches and Amtrak for trains. Because of the large distances involved you might want to consider booking flights instead though. Generally speaking train travel isn’t as popular as it is in Europe. Most Americans get around by coach or car. Another option if you’re doing a big trip here with friends is to rent a car or buy a cheap van/car and do a US road trip.
Trains are almost non-existent in Latin America so the only real option is to get by on coaches and buses. There’s no real major international company that has a monopoly on things like Greyhound in the US. Even within countries there can often be dozens of different companies handling different routes. Your best option is usually just to turn up at the local bus station and buy a ticket to your destination. Check times at your hostel but bus departures are typically very regular and you hardly ever need to book in advance.
In much of South America coaches are often of a fairly high standard as they are used for very long journeys. The same can’t be said for the driving though which is often fairly reckless!
In Central America things are a bit less organised and it’s a case of getting on a bus going in the right direction and telling them where you want to get to in the end. They will help you to get off at the right point for a transfer. There are some decent standard coaches but the ‘Chicken Buses’ (basically imported US school buses) are ideal for anyone on a shoestring budget.
In most parts of Asia and Africa, it’s better to book transport at the station/port itself either on the day or a few days before travel. Online Information isn’t always plentiful but by talking to other travellers and staff in your hostel you can normally find out what you need to know.
In Australia, coaches are also run by Greyhound and you can get special hop on, hop off backpacker passes.
In India, the train network is very extensive and getting around the country by rail is an incredible experience. Indian Railways provide timetables and an online booking service.
Read more – How to find cheap accommodation when backpacking.
Can you travel for Free?
Budget Adventure Travel – Hitchhiking
Hitchhiking is the most obvious way to get around without spending any money. Sometimes you may be expected to contribute to petrol fees, but often drivers will just be grateful for the company on long and boring journeys. It’s normally safe but there a few nutters around in every corner of the globe so do take care, especially if you’re a girl travelling alone. On the positive side, solo female travellers will get loads more people stop so you won’t have to spend all day waiting for a lift.
Hitchhiking is in fact probably best done alone, as not many people will want to collect a big group or even just two dudes. Common sense is a big factor here and just because you’re abroad, it doesn’t mean you should leave your hopefully rational brain at home. If someone stops and they seem a bit dodgy, don’t get in!
Good countries for hitchhiking include most areas in North and Central America. In South America, Chile and Ecuador are good bets, but in regions of Colombia for example it’s not really sensible to hitchhike given that kidnappers and armed gangs are still found in some remote regions. Clearly safety issues can change in a relatively short period of time though, and just about anywhere in the world, so it’s worth asking for local advice (hostels are normally a good bet) before attempting to hitch-hike to your next destination.
Romania and Turkey are considered among the best places in Europe to hitchhike, but generally speaking it’s not as common when backpacking Europe as it is in North America. In Australia and New Zealand, you may have to wait a while for a lift but it’s definitely a great way to cover the huge distances.
The vastly different culture in parts of Asia, means different customs can apply when hitching a lift so check before you travel but certainly don’t let it put you off. Many Asians are fascinated by Western culture and will happily pick you up and go out of their way to ensure you reach your destination.
There are also a host of ride-sharing apps these days and while not free, using these can often work out cheaper than travelling by public transport and you also get a similar kind of experience to what you get from hitchhiking.
Any other ways to Travel for Free?
Aside from hitchhiking, it’s really hard to find free means of transport without breaking the law. One option is to get a job that involves travelling (e.g. cruise-ship work) but that’s probably harder than it sounds and you’d most likely end up spending more time working than actually having fun.
Cycling is one possibility and is certainly growing in popularity amongst travellers. It’s a great way to travel for free, keep fit and see new places. Given the speed of public transport in some countries you stand a good chance of beating the bus anyway, just make sure the roads are remotely decent all the way before setting off. If you don’t want to take your own bike halfway across the world, renting or buying is normally cheap and easy.
You could also find some rich person to let you ride around on their yacht or maybe even become a pirate? (okay we’ve ran out of ideas at this point for free transport).
Hopefully this article on travel on a shoestring budget has been of some use. Feel free to comment or ask questions below.
This article was last updated in June 2019.