How Can I Save on Transportation During a Round-the-World Trip?
Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel
11.06.08 | 12:34 PM ET
I’m planning a round-the-world trip, but I worry about transportation costs once I start traveling. Ideally, I would like to travel to most places overland, exploring along the way. However, civil unrest, war and such make that virtually impossible. Any suggestions about how to get around these obstacles without resorting to expensive flights and spending too much money?
You bring up an interesting issue, since the difficulty of far-flung overland travel has always been (and always will be) an intoxicating challenge for long-term travelers.
First off, I’ll commend you for choosing to explore the world overland. This may prove slow and difficult at times, but it’s the best way to truly see and experience the destinations you seek. Moreover, on a global scale, traveling overland is much more possible than you might think, despite the news you hear of wars and civil unrest.
The fact is that wars and civil unrest have always been with us, and in comparative terms this is a rather easy point in history to travel the world overland. One reason many people think it’s not possible to travel long distances overland is our collective romantic memory of the Hippie Trail of the 1960s and ‘70s, when thousands of young people were able to journey from Istanbul to India—and points beyond—entirely by bus, train and hitching. This is still possible, actually, though wars in places like Afghanistan and red tape in places like Iran have made it more complicated. One should keep in mind, too, that Hippie-Trail-era wanderers had almost no access to Russia, Central Asia and China—places which are much more welcoming to overland travelers today.
Since overland access is a constantly changing phenomenon, I encourage you to buttress whatever I tell you here with on-the-ground information, political and safety information from official sources, and up-to-date road reports from traveler message boards.
In general terms, however, long-distance overland travel is often impeded less by wars and unrest than by regional bureaucracy and local government restrictions. Just because your map shows a road going from India to China, for example, doesn’t mean it’s going to be open to international travelers. In many cases, special permission is required for far-flung border crossings, which is why it’s important to collect local information as you travel. Good indie travel guidebooks will contain detailed border-crossing information, though this should be cross-referenced in-country, since conditions are always subject to change (both for better and for worse).
In some parts of the world, such as North America, Europe and Australia, overland travel is not a problem (though, oddly enough, air travel in these places is often cheaper for long hauls than taking a train or bus). The countries of Central and South America (which I traveled by Land Rover in 2003-2004) are also quite accessible overland—though one should keep up to date on regional dangers, be aware of geographical roadless areas (such as the Darien Gap separating Panama and Colombia), and know that not all border crossings accept tourist traffic.
Overlanding in Asia, Russia and the Middle East can be more complicated, since some border crossings (such as Israel-Lebanon) have been closed for decades, some countries (such as Myanmar) decree that you must exit from your port of entry, and other countries (such as Iran and Russia) require high fees or complicated red tape to enable an overland crossing. Still, Asia has abundant overland possibilities that are worth the time and effort.
Finally, there’s Africa, where long-range overland travel is both notoriously difficult and strangely popular. Traveling overland from Cairo to Cape Town, for instance, can be a logistical nightmare, but it’s also a popular and classic route—a fact that Paul Theroux’s recent Dark Star Safari attests. Again, just stay aware of dangers, know that roads will be rough (or nonexistent), and use local and guidebook information to plan the best route.
In short, keep three things in mind when considering overland travel. First, overlanding in most parts of the world is very doable, and while you might occasionally have to resort to air travel, even this shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. Second, remember that overland travel is not always as simple and linear as it looks on a map, so you should be prepared to change your overland itinerary to accommodate red tape, official border crossings and existing travel infrastructure. And, finally, keep up to date on logistical, political and safety information as you travel, since all of these factors are subject to change on an overland journey.