Is overland travel always cheaper?

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.

overland travel isn't always worth it

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.

overland travel by train, the Marrakech Express

Some examples

  • 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.overland travel by VIP bus

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.

Final word

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?

Share This Post On


  1. We often, after a really bad travel experience, wonder why we do it to ourselves. Why do we take the $4 transport option instead of the $10 option? Just to save a few bucks that ends up taking longer and providing more than enough hassle and frustration. We are starting to splurge more and more.

    Post a Reply
  2. Not always the case especially here i Southeast Asia where there’s so many low cost carriers, especially when you get the chance to snag the Zero Fare deals 🙂

    Post a Reply
    • Those airfare sales sometimes kill me. Way too tempting and make me have to have plans, which I’m not a fan of. 🙂

      Post a Reply
  3. I only did one overland journey through my time in Asia and it put me off so much I didn’t make the same mistake twice! An 8 hour journey for £15 from Phuket to Koh Samui took almost 12 and it was hell on Earth. When I had to make the same journey in reverse I paid £65 for a 50 minute flight and I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

    I’d rather spend money on’ luxuries’ like comfort; my sanity isn’t worth the small amount I’d save.

    Some great tips here Talon especially the one about comparing journey prices to see if it *really* is cheaper!

    Post a Reply
    • I’m with you. Sanity and comfort are worth it, even if it cuts down on a different kind of splurge.

      Post a Reply
  4. From this year on I’m moving onto the more comfortable trip. I will be flying to Ukraine in autumn instead of taking a 19-hour bus. But I was lucky to have special offers by budget airline. I also booked a single room for 5 days instead of dorm room and that is going to be 100 EUR-much more than I’d like.

    Post a Reply
  5. I completely agree! I have quite often flown rather than taken the bus as the small difference in price rarely makes up for lost time and comfort… And yes sometimes it is even cheaper! If I do take a bus or train I always check out the price of the’fancy’bus – after 14 hours of misery on a chicken bus for less than $10 saving I have decided it’s just not worth it! That said, I recently got an overnight train in Thailand and purposefully bought second class rather than first as it is much for social and I had a great time talking to the locals! Every trip is different…:-)

    Post a Reply
    • I don’t think I’ll ever do a chicken bus again. It just isn’t worth the savings to be that miserable.

      I’m the same way on the Thai train. So many locals go 2nd class that you still get a great cultural experience without being miserable.

      Post a Reply
  6. Okay, I want to try a VIP bus! That looks great. When I was younger and traveling without the kids, I just wanted to save money and didn’t care much about time and comfort. Now with a family of 4 traveling, we need to balance the scales and make sure we can all handle the choices. Thanks for these tips.

    Post a Reply
    • Kids definitely add another layer to the whole picture and another consideration.

      The VIP bus was worth the extra fee. If you have to be stuck on a bus for 27 hours, it’s the only way to go IMO.

      Post a Reply
  7. Completely agree with all these points, but especially the last one about waiting for another day to catch your flight; I’m always loathe to pay more for a flight when I can see that there are cheaper days to fly, but if it means extending your stay by a few days (or even one) then you do have to factor in the cost of additional lodging, meals etc., and often that negates the savings.

    We’ve also learned that although early morning flights are often the very cheapest, they are rarely worth it for us to take because even in cities where public transport runs, if your flight is at 6:30 am, it’s rare that you can get to the airport by anything other than a taxi at 4:30 am in the morning to check in! We figure that unless the price savings in those scenarios is well over $20-$30, we’d rather pay a bit more and go at a more civilized hour!

    Currently in Indonesia and we’re trying to figure out how to get to Komodo–we can buy $90pp plane tickets and get there in about 2 hours, or we can go overland which will take over 24 hours but only cost about $25pp. In situations like this, the price difference is big enough it’s not an easy choice!

    Post a Reply
    • For me that’s a small enough difference I’d fly. That could be one long hell ride.

      I’m with you on the early morning flights. I much prefer to avoid them whenever possible.

      Post a Reply
  8. Great post! Doing the travel math and looking at the complete picture is so important. I don’t think it’s something you think about unless you travel regularly enough. Working out what your time is actually worth is a big one for me – if it will save me a day of travel to spend $100 more on a flight I’m pretty sure it’s worth it as I can utilise that time saved to earn more than $100.

    I love the picture of Tigger on the fancy bus!! Looks pretty comfy.

    Post a Reply
    • Most definitely! And yes, the bus was surprisingly comfortable. Worth the extra price for the VIP. Wide seats that went back all the way and had foot rests, and they included pillows and blankets. They served food and drinks. Pretty snazzy. Made the 27-hour bus ride a lot more doable.

      Post a Reply

Leave a Reply to Toni Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *