With airfares being so expensive, especially once you factor in all the extra charges, it often seems that overland travel will always be your cheapest bet.
Don’t be so sure.
Things to consider
When doing price comparisons, there are some factors that need to be considered.
- Length of journey. Sure, saving $20 is always nice, but is that savings worth taking an 18-hour bus ride (which may not have a bathroom) when the airplane will get you there in 1-1/2 hours?
- Extra fees. Sometimes an airfare will seem cheaper than a train ride, but make sure you factor in any extra fees like checked baggage. All those little fees can add up quickly.
- Look at transportation costs to the departure area. It might cost $20 more to get to the discount carrier’s airport than the one used by more expensive carriers. Typically, bus and train stations are closer to the downtown area of a city, and it may be much cheaper to get to them.
- Consider all the various segments. When we were looking at going from Colombia to Ecuador, it initially looked like the bus would be cheaper. However, upon further investigation I discovered it was a 3-day journey. You have to take a bus to a city, spend the night, catch the next bus, etc. Factor in all those overnight lodgings, not to mention losing 3 days to just sitting on a bus, and our $120 per person (pp) airfare was a steal. And we only lost 4 hours (getting to the airport, having to arrive early, and the flight itself) compared to 72 hours.
- Don’t discount comfort. Yes, sometimes the journey is part of the travel adventure, but don’t be too quick to discount arriving in comfort. I’ve had friends who had to try to sleep on the floor of a bus. Consider what condition you might be in once you arrive at your final destination. If could take you an extra day just to recover.
- Surprisingly, there is a bus that goes from Morocco to Lyon. You leave on a Tuesday and arrive on Saturday. When I checked, it was on sale for $110 pp. However, a flight from Agadir was $100, including baggage. Agadir is a few-hour bus ride from Guelmim. For essentially the same price (including the bus ride from Guelmim to Agadir), I was able to fly from Agadir to Lyon, France. I paid for the flexible fare which allowed me to change my dates, change the flight and included priority boarding, checked baggage, and no administrative fee for using a credit card. The taxi from the airport in Lyon was $86 USD, but if I factored in the cost of food, drinks, bathroom stops, etc., I probably broke even. Although I got to Lyon in less than 2 hours instead of in 5 days which is worth something to me. Especially when traveling with a child.
- When looking at traveling from Auckland to Christchurch in New Zealand, I checked out the discount bus. It would cost us $50 for the 11-hour bus ride to Wellington. Then it would be another $50 pp for the ferry to cross over to the south island followed by another $53 for the bus to Christchurch (5 hours). So overland would end up costing $203 NZD and would take more than 16 hours of travel. Conversely, I can fly for under 1-1/2 hours for $110 NZD (including baggage). That’s quite a bit of savings, not to mention time savings.
- On the flip side, we ended up taking the VIP bus from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to Lima, Peru. Yes, it meant 27 hours on a bus; however, it was $90 (and included meals) compared to $450 pp to fly.
Sometimes it’s worth the fancier bus
Even when you’ve decided the overland route is the best, make sure to look at all the options. When we took the bus from Belize to Guatemala, I figured we’d save a lot of money by taking the less comfortable chicken bus. We ended up losing 4-1/2 extra hours in extremely uncomfortable conditions only to save $11.
In Honduras, we always took the Hedman Alas bus. It cost a bit more, but it was so much more comfortable and had much better customer service. Their buses also had functioning bathrooms and each passenger got a drink and a snack. It’s worth it.
Cheaper isn’t always cheaper
When comparing flights recently, I noticed leaving a day later would save us $54. That’s a pretty good amount of money considering our budget. However, a hotel room would’ve cost $52. Plus I would have to pay for transportation to the hotel and the airport the next day. The savings quickly disappeared once I viewed the bigger picture.
It is really worth checking the difference in cost between flights, trains, and buses. Sometimes flights are cheaper, and often the bus is cheaper than the train. But keep in mind the level of comfort you’re trading in for the monetary savings, and consider your time, well-being, and sanity as a commodity as well. Sometimes it’s just worth the extra cost.
When you travel, do you typically prefer overland travel over air travel? Are you willing to pay a little extra for comfort?