Ground transport varies from trains to buses, to ferries to hitchhiking. I use a large variety of these to get around everywhere I go and have looked for the cheapest combination and options. Hopefully, this helps to spell that out and be useful, I’ve split it into the USA and Europe as that is so far the only experience I have.
My experience is on the east coast of the country, I’ve travelled all up and down it. I’ve never gone west though so take this as east coast information.
Trains are expensive and I do not suggest them. If you are going a far distance the best idea is to fly as I guarantee it will be cheaper but it depends a lot on the season and how early you buy it, still should check. I don’t travel train because of its expense, leaving my recommendation for anything shorter than a cheap flight to be coach bus, the cheapest for its time frame.
The biggest US coach bus service is Greyhound with PeterPan being another major one along with Coach USA in the northeast only. Last second having to get anywhere relatively near, within a state or so, Greyhound is the best with PeterPan filling in the gaps. Coach USA has a small area of transit, but if you are in the northeast it can be a last resort.
Check both Greyhound and PeterPan when trying to get a ticket. The middle of the week will be cheaper, afternoons will be cheaper, and odd hours like 3 a.m. will be the next cheapest. Buying the day before actually leaving and more will cause it to be cheaper as well. PeterPan will have times that Greyhound does not, they are both usually the same price within a couple dollars though.
Amtrak is the major passenger train service in the USA. It is generally cheaper than driving, but almost double the cost of flying with a cheap ticket. Amtrak has a very lenient baggage policy though, if you are travelling with knives, camp gear etc and have a very large or particular heavy pack, it may be cheaper to take a train than pay to check your bag depending on the airline.
Here is a map of all Amtrak, Greyhound and various passenger bus routes across the entire country.
Here are some prices as of 2/11/18 to give a quick comparison to see the differences as well. You can get from Miami to Atlanta (13 hours, about 670 miles) for $42 on a Sunday a week ahead, and Boston to Washington D.C. (9 hours, 440 miles) for $29 only three days ahead. Amtrak’s cheapest is $183 and $111 respectively. Going long distance though, Miami to New York, Greyhound is $157 a week ahead and Amtrak is $155 two days ahead with the cheapest flight being Delta at only $85 two days ahead.
Always check all the different options if you are in a situation where you need to get somewhere quickly though. Last second, a bus is usually best as generally you’ll have to travel to an airport for a plane whereas bus stations are in the center of the city.
Hitchhiking is obviously the actual cheapest option seeing as its free. It can be very inconvenient depending on the weather, distance and time frame you have to work with though which is why I present this other hopefully helpful information on buses.
Another busline that was brought to my attention, and useful to know of just in case, is Megabus. They only go short distances and majorly on the east coast. Looking at a couple trips they are worth the check as the seemed to hover about $20, but nowhere near as extensive routes as Greyhound or Peterpan.
More extensive inner city transport for the USA will be another piece eventually when I have enough experience to warrant it.
Europe is a lot different than the USA in terms of trains, flights, and buses. Most of the time a flight is actually cheaper than any land transport because of budget airlines like Ryanair, but it’s also not always practical to be taking flights with backpack contents and size and weight.
With this in mind, for land transport, there’s the Eurail, coach buses similar to the USA, ferries, hitchhiking, and ride-sharing. What’s best for a given situation is dependant on how you’re traveling, how much you want to see, and what’s on your back. So, it’s up to you really. The USA is a bit more clean-cut with what’s cheaper but it varies a lot in Europe.
On all these forms of transport the size of your pack is not a particular issue, obviously if you have an 80L backpack it’s going to be a bit difficult to quickly hop into a car, but you’ll be fine. If you have things like camping gear that may be bulky or have lighters or knives packed away you’ll also be fine, big one up on flying in that way. The rest of the advice will be ignoring flying as an option considering these possibilities.
This leaves how fast you want to get somewhere, compared to how much to see in the middle and the cheapness of either.
Hitchhiking is the cheapest, at free, but also possibly the longest time frame needed. It is not particularly reliable, it is not particularly easy, but you will see everything in between where you are and where you are going. If you are really looking for a journey rather than a destination, hitchhiking is my strongest suggestion.
You will meet more people, gain more from the culture and language of these places, as you’ll have to talk to people, and you’ll go places you never expected to. Hitchhiking also leaves you the freedom to diverge from a plan without costing you money. How exactly to go about hitchhiking if you never have before I’ve written about here and why you should here.
Next cheapest, and slightly higher in dependability, is BlaBlaCar. I have not used it myself but I have met many people that have. It’s essentially just a carpooling service that matches you with someone going the same place you are, leaving from near you, and you help pay for gas. I say only slightly higher dependability because there could easily just not be someone going where you are.
For a price example, getting from Edinburgh to New Castle is about €16 on BlaBlaCar and there’s one car four days from now and another two days after that. A train to get the same distance is €25.
Most of the cars will be major cities as that’s the most common to travel from and to. There are not many trips between countries, so that leaves BlaBlaCar for smaller trips. I’d check out the site for more details, but they operate in almost every country in Europe.
There are many different coach buses depending on where you are in Europe. In general, they are pretty cheap from major cities to major cities.
The one I have taken is RegioJet, it’s an eastern European bus service primarily operating out of Czechia, but they have buses to most major cities all the way to Copenhagen, Naples and Paris. As a price example, Paris to Prague (1,036 km) is about €50 on a Wednesday. This is a map of cities they go to.
The advantage of the coach buses as well is that they have so many different times frames, you can generally just leave without too much planning. You might have to do sections, bus from one city to the next then hop on another, but it’s not difficult. For short distances, my exact experience being from Budapest to Bratislava, it is very cheap at maybe €5.
Eurail works by passes bought for travel between either one, two, three, four or five or more countries, each more expensive than the last. It’s then further cut into the number of days of travel. Say a pass for five days of travel in a one month period. Eurail is also for non-EU residents, the Interail is for EU residents. Also, the youth ticket is up to age 27.
As an example, a one country pass in France for three days of travel in one month is $194. It’s quite expensive and for some countries, such as Italy or Sweden, you have to pay a small fee to actually reserve a seat on the train you may want to take on top of the price you already actually paid for the ticket. I do not suggest the Eurail whatsoever, it’s quick and relatively reliable, but very expensive and if you decide to change plans you waste a lot of money.
There are many, many intercity trains within individual countries that are somewhat cheap and are too numerous to list. My advice, in general, has been for farther distances or consecutive short distances. From one smaller city to another, a local train will probably be easiest and possibly cheapest — besides hitchhiking of course.
Northern and southern England, for example, have different train systems that bring you all over the different cities for maybe £5-7 pounds short distance and £10-15 for longer. Italy has a train that will bring you all the way from Milan to Venice for about €20, the Trenitalia. That train specifically I managed to get all the way from Verona to outside Venice without a ticket, the conductor didn’t come until 7 a.m. when we left at about 5 a.m. They just told me to get off.
Always check different options because you never know when something will be oddly cheap when you need it. If you have no idea where to start in terms of transportation besides what I’ve suggested, use Google maps and hit the public transport button. It’ll show you the quickest ways to get somewhere as well as the available transport to use.
This is more to fill in the blanks than actually offer cheaper transport advice. There are ferries to get to England from France, or to Scotland to Ireland, but there are rather expensive. The only ferry I’ve taken that I’d say is worth it is if you are trying to get to Denmark from Germany. There is a small town called Puttgarden with a ferry for €10 to Denmark that is quicker and cheaper than going through mainland Denmark if you are trying to get to Copenhagen.
Besides ferries, the only other odd land transport I can think to mention is the underground tunnel from Paris to London. It goes under the English channel and is direct, and is expensive as shit at about €60 for a bus and possibly €100s for a train.
All of this information I have figured out slowly and painfully to my wallet and everything except the Eurail and the Paris/London I have taken myself. Some of this may be obvious to some but not to others, I hope it can be useful when you are in a tight spot though or planning to travel far away.