Everything but the plane – the backpacker’s guide to getting around by train, bus, bike and boat

How To Travel Without Flying | Overland Backpacking Guide by The Girl Outdoors Sian Lewis

How to travel without flying: a guide to backpacking overland

Bags packed, ready to hit the road on an epic adventure? Resist the urge to book a flight and read my guide to planning how to travel with out flying by going overland first. Air travel has traditionally been the obvious option when exploring exciting new places, but it is also by far the least eco-friendly (not to mention the most expensive) way to see the world. We can all try to fly less – here’s how to plan more eco-friendly transport around the world.

Before you go

The first step to working how to get from A to B in a new place is to do your homework, and read up on where you’re headed. Check when high season (the time when a location is most popular with tourists) is and try to avoid it – shoulder season, the months before and after high season, tends to still offer great weather, but less tourists and cheaper travel options and accommodation. Find out if big festivals or holy days are happening around when you want to travel, as this can send travel fares costs through the roof (or you may want to join the party, and plan your travel so that you’re definitely there!). Buy a guidebook and see what overland travel recommendations it makes – they’ll almost always be the easiest, tried-and-tested modes of transport.

The key to how to easily travel without flying? Packing light – hence why this article is aimed at backpackers. Carrying your belongings in one rucksack makes it far easier to be flexible and to hop on and off trains and buses, or even to hike with your pack or fit your kit into bike panniers for part of a journey.

Remember, as a backpacker you can take it slow, especially if you need to keep an eye on your budget, and a long bus ride will almost always be cheaper and will definitely be more eco-friendly than a speedy plane ticket, so start thinking of the journey as part of the experience rather than just a means to an end. Plans can easily change when you’re backpacking, so consider spending extra on flexible fares if you’re booking a longer bus or train ticket – it gives you the freedom to stay longer in places you love or to vary plans if you meet people you want to travel with. Even if you book some plane travel, combining flying with overland travel is a great way to cut down on the emissions of your adventure.


How To Travel Without Flying | Overland Backpacking Guide

More eco-friendly and arguably more romantic than flying is train travel. If you’re just as into the journey as the destination, they can be a wonderful way to travel across a country, or indeed across many, especially in places such as Europe where it’s easy to hop on and off trains between cities. They’re also easier to negotiate with a hefty backpack.

Find the perfect pass: There are great pre-designed train itineraries available too, such as the Interrail Global Pass, which lets you travel in and out of no less than 30 European cities – that’s an instantly planned backpacking trip.

In other countries, taking the train can be its own travel highlight – Sri Lanka’s beautiful train journey from Columbo to Kandy through tea plantations, for example, is a must. If you do book a multi-day train journey (which also means you won’t have to pay for separate accommodation), it’s worth splashing out extra cash to get your own compartment, as they can be a squeeze at the best of times.


How To Travel Without Flying | Overland Backpacking Guide

The least glamorous but often most practical travel method for backpackers is a common or garden variety bus. Long-haul, country-crossing buses are often the cheapest way by far to travel, but they can be a bit of an endurance test. The key to facing a 14-hour overnighter journey is, like in a lot of backpacking scenarios, to be well prepared. Stock up with books, music, snacks and even a blanket and pillow to make it more bearable.

As well as traditional buses, destinations that are backpacker favourites, such as Australia and New Zealand, have overland backpacker bus tours specifically aimed at travellers. These can be more expensive but are far more social and often include group activities as well as scheduled arrivals and departures in locations you’re probably keen to see. They’re especially good if you’re travelling solo and want to meet new people.


How To Travel Without Flying | Overland Backpacking Guide

Don’t forget the ocean as a means of travel. Okay, so the days when taking a three-week boat journey across the globe was your main travel option are over (although many routes are still viable, such as Southampton to New York) the coastal route can be a wonderful way to travel. Ferries are often cheaper than planes when hopping between countries closely connected by sea, and sometimes a boat is the only way to get to really exciting, out of the way places – for example, ferry-hopping is definitely the best and often only way to travel between Greece’s wonderful islands.

If you have any yachting skills, you can even yacht-hike between islands and other destinations popular with the sailing set – look online or ask in ports to find out if any boats need crew members, and offer to work in exchange for your passage to a new place. This boat hitchhiking guide is a useful place to start.


Tips for travelling overland by car

Cars are the least eco-friendly travel option on this list, but I’ve still included road tripping information because some places are extremely hard to reach any other way. If you do need to get wheels (rather than choosing to fly), try to share the ride with friends, look for lift shares or even hitchhike.

If you’re heading somewhere rural without any good public transport, renting a car can be the only way to get around conveniently. If you need four wheels, try to get a gang together to split rental costs and limit your emissions. Look for online rental deals – a good option is to rent a car with a well-known company with multiple outlets, as you can often pick a car up from them at one train station and drop it at another, making planning an international road trip easy. Do you research by destination – for example, it’s easy to find a comfortable car for rent Dubai. Or in big countries like the USA and Canada, rather than flying between coasts, consider ditching the hostels for a bit and renting your own rolling home – a campervan or RV. These aren’t cheap to rent, and you’ll usually also have to pay for a campsite to stay in each night (where you’ll get to hook up your van’s electricity and have a shower, too), but can be worth it for the freedom they offer on a country-crossing road trip.

Hitchhiking safely: hitchiking was once the classic fall-back travel option for backpackers, and if you’re careful and safe, it can be a great (and free!) way to get about. But it’s an area where you should proceed with caution. Always hitchhike with someone else, only hitch in daylight, always let a third person know where you’re headed and, ideally, let them know the license plate of the car you’re getting into. Again, do your research first – hitchhiking is commonplace is some countries but illegal in others, and different hand signals or protocol may be used, or it may even be customary to pay the driver a small fee.


How To backpack by bike

Explore by bike: One of the very best ways to explore a beautiful new place is by bicycle, and it’s totally planet friendly,too. Just cycling around for a day or two? Your hostel may have some you can borrow – otherwise, seek out a rental shop with decent-looking bikes. A rental bike should come with a lock and key, well pumped-up tyres and responsive brakes. Helmets are recommended, and baskets are good if you’re off to the beach or on a day out in the countryside.

Fancy exploring in the saddle over a longer distance? Consider bikepacking for all or part of your journey – it’s a wonderful way to explore, totally planet-friendly and you’ll get fit in the process. Get started with my guide to cycle touring.

Explore on foot: Don’t forget hiking as a means of getting between shorter distances on your journey if you’re travelling with a backpack – I regularly choose to hike to a train station or to different town if it’s a distance I can cover in a day. If you fancy hiking, look for off-road trails, coastal paths and quiet b-roads – in the UK I use my Ordnance Survey app to plan walks, and abroad I like Maps.Me for walks and cycles. Or you could drop off some belongings at a hostel and take your lighter pack with one on a must-do long-distance hiking trail.

How To Travel Without Flying | Overland Backpacking Guide by The Girl Outdoors Sian Lewis

Going solo when you travel without flying? Read my top tips for travelling alone


1 Comment

  1. January 10, 2020 / 5:21 pm

    It’s interesting to read about all the ways you can get creative when travelling. Personally travelling by train in Sri Lanka was a real highlight of my time there. As you say the journey from Kandy to Columbo is truly stunning, especially around Ella. Travelling by train there gave me such an insight to Sri Lankan culture and I made a lot of new friends.

    Having chosen to stop flying in 2017 I’m now cycling around the world with my partner and think this is the best way to travel. You can stop wherever you like, if you want to explore a place for longer or taste a places specialities.

    You mentioned about different gestures for hitchhiking in some places. Can I ask what? I always thought sticking your thumb out was common practice but as I like to hitch to get to hiking trails I feel I need to know these other gestures.
    Thanks in advance!