¨On a bus, your eyes, ears, and pores are open absorbing in the variety, the wonder, the magic of the city. It is a wonderful way to get to know the city.¨
For trips under 300 miles, I prefer buses or trains to airplanes. I do not mind spending five or six hours on a bus or a train. I like having the option of just deciding to buy a bus ticket at the last moment rather than making arrangements far in advance for a plane ticket. I find time aboard a bus or a train to be a great time to read, write, and watch the world go by. In contrast, all the security, check-in procedures, waiting in airport lounges, transportation to and from the airport, and the complications of buying the right airplane ticket, wear me down. When I have a long trip, I am willing to suffer through all the rigamarole involved in airline trips to save time. However, I do not think I will ever enjoy traveling on a plane as much as a bus or a train.
I do, however, sometimes get frustrated trying to find my way around a city by public transport. Uber, despite its problems, has helped me avoid some of the frustrations I used to have with public transportation and taxis. That said, I must admit that I have had some great times getting to know the taxi drivers in various parts of the globe. I also have had some fun experiences getting lost on city buses.
Over time, I have been on thousands of taxi and bus rides throughout the world. I have learned a lot of lessons from these experiences which you will find in more detail below:
- Buses, Trains, and Subways
- Bus, Train, and Subway Passes
- Taxis and Tuk-Tuks
- Car Rentals
- Getting to and From the Airport
Buses, Trains, and Subways
¨Be like a train, go in the rain, go in the sun, go in the storm, go in the dark tunnels. Be like a train, concentrate on your road and go with no hesitation.¨
Mehmet Murat Ildan
- Rome2Rio is quite good at showing you a variety of options- planes, trains, ferries, and automobiles- to get between one city and another (also called intercity transportation). I would recommend, however, that you always double-check the costs for the different options that are quoted on the site, sometimes they are not very accurate.
- In most places in the developed world, you can find intracity (transit within a given city) public transportation schedules online and in many cases using Google Maps. Increasingly, you can also see if the buses or trains are on time using various apps and websites. Many cities also post the schedules at the bus or train stops. In Emerging Countries, getting accurate information about buses can be problematic, especially outside of major cities. Often, the individual drivers own the buses (instead of a large organization). The owners post their routes on the bus windows. Usually, the routing information on the windows is only meaningful to locals. The only way I have found to get information is to ask locals for help. Generally, they are very accommodating; however, be patient it may take a while to find the right information. I have met travelers, and admire them, who enjoy taking these buses because it is an excellent way to connect with locals. I must admit I find it frustrating.
- I recommend that you buy tickets at least thirty minutes before your intercity trip is scheduled to leave (and that you allow, if possible, a similar amount of time for long distant trains/buses connections). Some bus and train stations are enormous. Many people wait to buy tickets to the last-minute meaning that the bus or train may be full at the last minute. During holidays, I would recommend buying tickets several days in advance, if possible.
- Some large cities have more than one intercity bus station. (Mexico City has five, including the airport!) Therefore, always check to make sure you know the correct station.
- You can sometimes save money by buying tickets for intercity transportation online. You also can save money by buying round-trip tickets online and occasionally even at the bus or train station. Not all bus and train stations have a kiosk to purchase ticket. Keep in mind, you may be able to buy tickets at travel agencies or through your hotel for a small fee.
- Sometimes an inter-city bus trip with a connection may be better than a non-stop bus trip, particularly if you are beginning or ending a trip in a small city. I learned this lesson the hard way on a bus trip from San Miguel de Allende (a smaller town) to Aguascalientes, Mexico (a relatively large place). I went to the bus station and noticed that there was one bus a day between the two points and bought a ticket for that bus. It took eight hours and left at around ten in the morning. I wanted to meet a former host family in Aguascalientes and hoped to arrive in the daytime on a Sunday so that I could spend the day with the family. I ended up arriving at six o’clock at night. When I got there, the family mentioned that I should have taken the bus to Leon (a large city) and then taken another bus from Leon to Aguascalientes. I realized when I booked my return trip that they were right. There were buses every hour or less between San Miguel de Allende and Leon and between Leon and Aguascalientes. The total time for the trip with the stop in Leon was four and a half hours and because the buses on both legs were so frequent that I could have left early in the morning and spent more time with the family.
- In many places, the best, and frequently the primary, inter-city (between cities), short distance public transportation is by bus. Throughout Latin America and many parts of Eastern Europe and North America, for example, there are very few other options for public transport between cities other than the bus (or plane). Intercity bus tickets in most of Western Europe and North America cost about 20-30% less than comparable train tickets and between 10 and 70% less than plane tickets. The buses, especially in Latin America, are generally quite comfortable; frequent and convenient. (The deluxe buses in Latin America include sandwiches and soft drinks, very comfortable reclining seats, and in-seat entertainment systems): In Europe, trains are usually a bit faster and more relaxing than buses, however.
- Inter-city buses that travel in rural areas in Europe, Asia, and the US, and many second-class buses in Latin America and Asia, do not always stop at the station. You need to pay attention that you are exiting and entering the bus at the right place. Sometimes, the drivers and/or electronic signs will announce the stops; however, you may not be able to understand these announcements since they are usually not in English. (Also, the drivers and electronic announcements often use names of places that can be different than what you expect). Let the driver and/or some fellow passengers know where you want to be dropped off to avoid mistakes. Also, if you are taking a bus in a rural area, particularly in parts of Europe and North America, you probably will have to call for a taxi (generally it is easy to find taxis in urban and suburban train and bus stations) once you arrive to get to your final destination. (Taxis or sometimes motorized bicycles are almost always available throughout Emerging Countries). Ask for help or, if it is available, use Uber, if this is a problem. Most people are glad to help tourists.
- Fifty-Plus nomads should consider hiring someone to drive them around and/or give them a private tour in Emerging Countries. The costs of hiring a car and a driver in much of Asia and Latin America for one day range between $60 and $150 per day. (Frequently this is not much more than the cost of renting a car). I hired a driver and car for two weeks in Kerala, India in 2013 for $60/day (plus $10 a day for the driver’s hotel) and considered it to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. I let the driver make all the plans and enjoyed having the opportunity to learn about his life. Before I decided to hire the driver, I found traveling in India to be frustrating, with the driver’s help it was one of the most relaxing trips I have ever taken. It should be noted, however, that hiring a driver in Europe and North America is so expensive that it not a realistic option for me. ($300-$600 per day).
- Greyhound’s Bolt and Coach Companies Megabus can be a significant cost savings alternative for traveling between many large cities in the US and Canada.
- National Express in Britain and Eurolines offer inexpensive shuttles between most major European cities and airports. They occasionally run some fantastic deals. When I checked out National Express’s website, they had tickets for 15 pounds from London to Paris.
- You can find a lot of good deals for buses and planes by looking for signs advertising deals in airports, train, bus station, and billboards while you are traveling around Europe (and, to a lesser degree, the rest of the world).
- Know when and how to pay for public transportation. In both western and Eastern Europe, you are usually required (outside of a few tourist areas) to buy local (and some long distance) train and bus tickets before you get on the bus. (You cannot pay for your trip on the bus itself). City bus tickets are sold at local stores. (In Italy, for example, tobacconists sell local bus tickets.) Train and long-distance bus tickets are sold online or at the station. (You can buy most tickets online and pick them up at the station). For useful information about this read Rick Steves’ advice.
- In most of Europe, you must validate most public transportation tickets. (On city buses, the machine for validating intercity tickets is within the bus itself. On both intracity and intercity trains, these machines are usually somewhere near the train tracks or ticket vending area. If you forget to get the ticket validated, you can sometimes get away with writing in the date and time on the ticket.) If the police catch you without a validated ticket you will be subject to a substantial fee (up to $100-200). In some countries, like Italy, the enforcement of this rule on city buses is so lax that you could probably pay less for fines than tickets if you were daring enough not to buy tickets. In other places, like Poland (at least when I was there in 1994) the rules may be very strictly enforced causing unsuspecting travelers to pay significant fines. (The Poles in 1994 found every conceivable excuse to fine Friends of mine have been fined for not putting the validation stamp on the right place on the ticket.)
- Though riding a city bus saves money (and sometimes time and trouble) over taxis and cars, particularly in North America and Europe, it can be more trouble than it is worth. City buses are a great option if you are going to use the same route repeatedly over a week or more. (For example, if you are living in a homestay and studying the language at a school for a couple of weeks). They are particularly worthwhile if you are going to buy or rent a house overseas for an extended period. Buses in most of the developed world cost between 5-20% of the price of taxis and Ubers, cover a lot of territory and avoid some of the problems with associated with car rentals (i.e., accidents). While buses can be a significant cost savings over taxis and Ubers as well in Emerging Countries, I generally think that is worthwhile to take taxis and Ubers over public transportation in most Emerging Countries (a typical bus ride costs between 30 and 75 cents, whereas a taxi or Uber, will cost you $1 to $10).
- Riding a city bus can be more trouble than they are worth if you plan to travel to many places in a city over a small period. Buses can be very slow, infrequent, and complicated. I’ve spent lots of time looking for a bus stop in the middle of seemingly nowhere. More common still, I’ve got on a bus traveling in the opposite direction from what I wanted.
- Unless you are in a big city, buses and trains can be surprisingly infrequent in Europe. In Italy, I frequently spent between thirty minutes and an hour waiting for a bus and even longer for intercity trains. Public transit is so scarce in Sicily that it is almost useless for most travelers. Most areas outside big cities in the US and Canada also lack convenient public transportation.
- It can be troublesome finding the right bus stop to get off a city bus. Often the buses are so crowded that you can’t see any landmarks and even when you can see the route most of the places you want to go are not noticeable outside the bus window. I’ve found that the only way to avoid these problems is to ask at least two locals for help and, even with that, accept that about one-quarter of the time, I’ll be on the wrong bus or get off at the wrong stop. (Note: The difficulty of negotiating city bus travel is one of the main reasons that I don’t visit a lot of cities for a day or two each in Europe. When I tried this type of travel, I spent almost as much time getting lost on the city bus as sightseeing.)
- That said, city bus travel doesn’t have to be that bad. Once you’ve used the bus, you’ll be able to find your way the next time easily. In addition, many touristy cities have one or two bus routes that connect most of the main common tourist sites.
- In the US and Canada, you need exact change to get on most city buses (the drivers cannot make change) unless you have a transit card or pass.
- In larger cities worldwide, take the subway. Subway routes are pretty easy to understand and very few tourist sites are located more than a twenty-minute walk from a station. (Make sure that you know the name of the last station on your route, and you’ll get on the right train). The most significant problem with the subway is buying the tickets to enter the subway. Unless there is a long line, I would recommend buying tickets at a kiosk that is manned by a human being anytime especially if you will only use a metro system a couple of time. (Many stations, especially in Europe, do not have these kiosks, unfortunately). The machines can be complicated to use at first particularly since some systems have several different types of tickets available. (Note: Many of the kiosks do have screens available in other languages. Usually, you can access these screens in English by looking for the US or UK (Union Jack) flag). Since, sometimes, you will be required to have a ticket available to exit the subway, I would recommend that you keep your ticket after entering the subway just in case.
- Consider taking slower, second class buses and trains instead of express ones, particularly in Europe. In most countries, you’ll be able to save about one-third by choosing local trains. Many travelers make the mistake of buying tickets for express trains before they know that local trains are available. Yes, it takes more time (usually about 50% more time), and many local trains are less comfortable. However, you do get to see more countryside (partly because the trains stop more often and move slower) and the cost savings are considerable. Besides, sometimes second class will be the most convenient way to travel around the countryside. (In most Emerging Countries, the quality and slowness of these buses and trains are bad enough so that I would recommend that most travelers stick to first class and express buses and trains).
- You can often save on accommodations by choosing to travel at night. If you can sleep on a train or bus and don’t care about seeing the countryside, this can save quite a bit. This cost-saving technique is so commonly used by many Emerging Country residents, that you may find it hard to find long-distance buses, trains, and even planes that travel during the day. I must admit that I do not like traveling at night because I cannot comfortably sleep on buses and trains and I need a whole day after I arrive to recoup my lost sleep time.
- In Central America, you want to consider taking van shuttles between major tourist centers. Most shuttles depart four to six times a day and have eight to ten passengers. The shuttles cost $25 and leave from major hotels. Similar bus trips cost around $3-$5; however, the shuttles are more comfortable and secure. (A particularly good idea if you are carrying valuable or heavy luggage). Grayline Tours operates these shuttles in Costa Rica. I’ve seen similar shuttles in Nicaragua and Guatemala.
- While it is far from perfect, I have generally been satisfied with Greyhound for short trips in the US. The buses are usually punctual, inexpensive, clean, and reasonably The stations are sometimes not very inviting, however. In addition, there is not much overhead room. Be prepared to check-in all but small backpacks and purses. (You are allowed to check-in one bag. 50 pounds maximum. You have to pay a fee for any additional bags).
Bus, Train, and Subway Passes
¨The words of the prophet are written on subway walls and tenement halls and whispered in the sounds of silence.¨
Passes come with a lot of rules that can limit your flexibility. I think they were worth considering primarily if you want to travel to a lot of places for a relatively short time (under a month). I have not bought rail or bus pass because I usually stay in one city for a week or more (and use it as a home base to explore the nearby countryside) and, therefore, it was cheaper for me to buy individual plane or train tickets than a pass. That said, I think that can be a useful tool in many Fifty-Plus Nomad’s tool kit. So, here is a distillation of some of the things I have learned about passes.
- While everyone has heard about Eurail passes (check out Rick Steves’ website and guidebooks for good advice on when to buy a Eurail pass), fewer people realize that:
- After purchasing the pass, they may discover that they could have traveled for less (and often more easily) using low-cost, internal European airlines and buses. This situation is especially true if they did not plan to check-in luggage. (European budget airlines often charge as much or more for checking-in your baggage as for the ticket. See my discussion on airline tickets for more about European budget airlines);
- the passes limit their flexibility to stay in one place longer (or leave a place quicker) than expected since they have to buy the Eurail passes before they depart from their home country, and
- they can’t get refunds for unused passes.
- Amtrak’s pass in the US and Via Rail’s pass in Canada may be as good, if not a better deal, than Eurail (mainly because travel in the US and Canada can involve long distances and thus cross-country trips can cost as much as the pass). Be aware, however, that though Amtrak is comfortable, it is not very punctual (except between high traffic areas like the Boston-Washington DC and Los Angeles-San Diego corridor) and the café car is expensive and not very good
- Bus passes may be a better option than train passes. Eurolines offers an inexpensive pass for travel between European cities. (I think that Eurolines pass could be more useful for most Eurail passes for some Fifty-Plus Nomads because the rules are less complex and the price is more inexpensive than the Eurail pass). Greyhound also sometimes offers a bus pass for people who are not from the US or Canada.
- Passes are not just available in the US and Western Europe. I’ve seen bus and train passes in many countries including Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji.
- Many cities, particularly in developed countries, have bus and intracity rail passes that allow you to make either: (1) unlimited subway and bus trips for a reasonable set fee (usually $6-$20/day; $20-70 a week) or (2) buy a small number of trips (usually 5 or 10 minimum) at a discounted price. (Sometimes, you will also need to pay for a magnetized card as well). If you intend to make more than three trips a day by public transportation, these passes often end up being worthwhile. (They can also help save the time and trouble involved in buying individual tickets). Check guidebooks, transit agency websites, ticket kiosks, and tourist information offices to learn more about how to purchase these passes.
Taxis and Tuk-Tuks
¨Calling a taxi in Texas is like calling a rabbi in Texas.¨
Taxis and Tuk-Tuks
- Many places in Asia do not have that many taxis, particularly outside of big cities. Instead, most short distant trips are in what backpackers have come to call ¨tuk-tuks¨ or motorized rickshaws. The word tuk-tuk comes from Thai and means ¨cheap, cheap¨. Tuk-tuk like vehicles can be found throughout Asia and increasingly in rural Latin America. As a whole, most of the time the rules for tuk-tuks do not vary much from taxis.
- In India and the Middle East, tuk-tuk and taxi drivers can be quite tricky. In India, no matter how hard I tried I would be either overcharged or (especially with tuk-tuks) I would be taken to souvenir shops on my way to and from my destination. These souvenir trip visits became so much a part of my tourist experience that when I refused in Kochi to be taken to another souvenir shop, the driver told me that he got the gas for his tuk-tuk by bringing tourists to these shops and that he would run out of gas if I did not go into a shop! (So I went into the shop and left as soon as I saw that he got his gas). I did, however, find that when I hired a driver for the day (usually through the hotel) that I normally was able to avoid being taken to souvenir shops. (Some of the drivers that I hired for the day were pleasant and interesting people).
- Know the address of your destination and, if possible, the telephone number. If the driver does not seem to know your destination (common in some Emerging Countries), try to find nearby places that the taxi cab driver knows. Hotels can be challenging to locate. Names change. (One time in Mumbai the driver could not find my hotel because the Taj hotel chain had recently changed the name from the President to Vivanta. Once he realized the name had changed, after asking several other drivers, we were able to locate the hotel quickly). Many chains have multiple locations throughout large cities. If the driver does not seem to know where the hotel is, see if you can access the hotel on the internet and show the location to the driver on Google Maps. (Increasingly taxi cab drivers will do this automatically using their GPS). If you can, show the driver the address in local characters, i.e., Cyrillic/Arabic/Chinese. Have the phone number of the hotel so that if necessary, the driver can call them for directions.
- Avoid being overcharged. Find out average costs from hotel clerk or websites. Ask the driver the price before you enter the cab and if necessary, haggle to get a price near the quote from the hotel. In my mind, if the price is close to what the hotel/website quoted and it is not very expensive anyway, I will not haggle if the difference in price is less than 10%. Most taxis in the developed world have meters. In Emerging Countries, they often do not. At my home in Merida, Mexico, most taxis do not have meters. I usually do not ask how much the trip is going to cost before I enter the taxi. Instead, I give them what I consider to be a fair price (usually the same as I offer an Uber driver or one of the rare metered taxis including a tip): I have never had a problem with this strategy.
- Use taxis provided by kiosks or at the taxi stand at the airport. These taxis are expensive but safe. In many places in the world (including some developed countries) you will be approached by people who want to provide taxi services. Usually, they will charge you more and, in some places, they can be dangerous. In most developed countries, you can get Ubers at the airport. Some larger airports have Uber designated waiting areas. At others, you can use the Uber app, and the driver will pick you up at the airport.
- Find out about the taxi experience in your destination before you arrive. You should be able through Googling to learn about any potential scams and problems with taxis in your destination. (Make sure the information is up-to-date, some sites report issues with taxis, for example, in Mexico City that was common ten years ago but has all but disappeared today). The most common problem is that pirate taxis exist that have meters that will severely overcharge for your trip. Usually, via Google, you will be able to learn which taxicab companies are legitimate. Most legitimate taxis will have a taxi sign and a license.
- Often in Europe taxi companies add legitimate surcharges onto the costs on the meter such as an airport pick up, an additional surcharge for Sunday and Holidays, etc. Researching the taxi rules online or in guidebooks will help you identify these surcharges. These surcharges can be substantial. One time in Assisi Italy the surcharges were more than the fare! (The hotel owner advised me that this would be the case beforehand).
- All these provisos aside, I have had some great experiences with taxi drivers. One time, for example, I was in San Jose, Costa Rica around midnight in a taxi and we got lost and ended up in the middle of the red-light district. I told the driver that it was clear that we were lost and when he saw how nervous I was, he said to me that he would charge me a minimal amount (about $1, as I recall) and that he would keep driving me until we found the hotel.
¨When we grew up we couldn’t wait to get our hands on cars, change the look of them. Now you see kids being like, ‘I’ll just take an Uber’ or ‘Oh, I don’t even have my drivers’ license’. Yet, I am like, ‘Ugh, who are these people?’¨
Uber is an alternative to taxis. Using Uber, after you install an app on your telephone, you can call for a car to pick you up and take you to your destination. The vehicle and driver are not associated with a taxi company. It is relatively easy for anyone with a car and a clean driving record to become an Uber driver. Uber drivers (unless taxi drivers) do not require a taxi license. Generally, because the drivers are private contractors, the cost of Uber trips is 10-30% below a comparable taxi trip.
Uber uses GPS (Global Positioning Systems) to:
- Tell the drivers where the customer is automatically (using GPS technology) and let the customer know (and if necessary change) where the driver will pick them up;
- Show the customer the name (and sometimes a photo) of the driver, the license number, and what type of car will pick them up (also sometimes with a picture);
- Display where the driver is in relationship to the pick-up point in real time;
- Provide an estimate of how long it will be before the driver will arrive and how much the trip will cost;
- Allow the customer to enter the name or address of their destination (most businesses and landmarks are already programmed in the app);
- Show, once the destination is selected, the recommended route (taking into consideration as much as possible the road and traffic conditions) to get the customer to their destination
- Display where the driver is in relationship to the GPS recommended route once on-the-road;
- Let the customer know the costs of the trip and allow them to add a tip for the driver once the trip is finished; and
- Keep a record of the customer’s trips. Once the customer has done the same route a couple of times, he or she will be able to program the same trip easily in the future.
To use Uber, you should have both a relatively new (no more than three years old) cell phone (the app takes up a lot of space on older phones) and an unlimited data plan. (You want to be able to use Uber whenever and wherever you need a ride rather than waste time trying to find a wi-fi signal).
There are several similar apps to Uber available. However, since I have used only Uber, I will limit this discussion only to Uber.
Since I do not have a car, I have used Uber over 300 times in the past two years and a half in over 20 destinations in the US, Canada, and Mexico. I still use regular taxis for about one-third of all trips (for reasons you will see below). Here are some of the things that I have learned about Uber during this time:
Advantages of Uber versus Traditional Taxis
- Since a computer algorithm determines the pricing, Uber is less likely to overcharge you than a taxi driver.
- Since the driver is supposed to follow the GPS recommended route, it is unlikely that you will get lost. If the driver gets lost, Uber will not charge you.
- You do not need cash. You can often use credit cards in traditional taxis as well. However, sometimes it can take time for the taxi driver to run the credit card charge and not all taxis have the necessary equipment to process credit card payments. In Uber, the cost is automatically applied to your credit card.
- You have a lot more information at your fingertips than with traditional taxis. You know the driver’s name, car license number, type of car, etc. You also have a history of past trips taken.
Issues with Ubers
- Uber will not always pick you up/drop you off where you are or want to go. Often, the driver will pick you up on the other side of the street from where you are standing. Sometimes, the driver will call you to help arrange the pick-up point.
- You will pay a fee if you or the driver cancels the trip. (You will be charged if the driver comes to the destination, waits for you, and then leaves if they cannot find you). A couple of times I have been charged this fee because the driver could not see me. (Unlike taxis, Ubers are not marked). Sometimes it is difficult to know where the driver is supposed to meet you, especially if the driver is on the other side of a road with a lot of traffic.
- Ubers do not go everywhere and are not available in many small towns. I have a friend who lives in a small suburb near Boston, called Nahant, that is on a peninsula. I found that I could not get an Uber to pick me up there. (I think it is hard for the drivers to find the address in the town). I was able to get Ubers to take me there from Boston without a problem.
- Uber may not save you money during peak hours, particularly in developed countries. Unlike taxis, Ubers have something called surge pricing. With surge pricing, the cost of the route increases whenever there is more demand for Ubers than usual in a given area. (With surge pricing, I have several times paid more for Uber trips after a concert than for a taxi).
- Uber has engendered a lot of problems with taxi cab drivers. Traditional taxi drivers have a lot of investment in the business including the cost of the license and the fees that they need to pay to the taxi companies. Taxi drivers often protest whenever Uber comes to town. These protests can be heated. In Cancun, the protests were so heated that Uber no longer operates there. When Uber came to Merida, Mexico, the drivers were reluctant at first to go to the bus stations, airports, or anywhere near a police station until the community accepted Ubers.
- In my mind, one of the best benefits of Uber is that regular cabs have gotten significantly better throughout the world to compete with Uber. As a result, taxis are still often a viable alternative to Uber. I use Uber whenever there is not a taxi stand at my pick-up point. I usually take taxis whenever there is a taxi stand nearby. (You will have to wait at least 5 minutes for an Uber, and you can get a taxi at the stand right away).
- Uber may be great if you don’t know where you are going. You can enter either the destination’s address or the name of your destination (make sure that it is the right hotel if the hotel is part of a chain) and the driver will take you there. I have had a lot of problems finding the right place if a traditional taxi driver has not been to an address before and he or she does not have a good GPS in their taxi.
- Uber chooses the route the driver follows based on the information that the GPS has about road and traffic conditions. If you know the route between your pick-up and destination well, the way the Uber driver chooses may be different than you expected. Once in a rare while, in Montreal, I have noticed that the course selected by the GPS was not the best available. (Probably because the information in the GPS was out-of-date).
- Always double-check to make sure that you are going to the right destination. It is easy to select the wrong destination if you are not careful, especially if a business has several locations within the same city. It is also possible to accidentally select the wrong place.
- Be prepared to get into the car quickly after you call for an Uber. While most Ubers arrive five to seven minutes after you place the order, I have occasionally had Ubers come within a minute after the call. (On the other hand, if your pick-up point is in a rural, out of the way place it can take up to twenty minutes to get an Uber)
¨Kilometers are shorter than miles. Save gas, take your next trip in kilometers.¨
I often wonder why so many people rent cars. There are times when renting a car is a great option. However, I think a lot of Fifty-Plus Nomads rent a car because it seems the thing to do without considering other options such as public transportation first.
Renting a car anywhere can be difficult and problematic for many Fifty-Plus Nomads. Rental rates generally range from $40-$100 a day and insurance costs an additional $10-40 more. (Also, most cars in Europe have a stick-shift transmission. If you need an automatic, you’ll pay more if you can find them at all.) If you rely primarily on public transportation, you will see that most of the world is considerably cheaper than the US. (Note: the US, however, is usually the most affordable and most convenient place to rent a car.) Also, you will also have other advantages if you rely on public transportation, including:
- You’ll meet more local people. I’ve met some of the world’s kindest people on buses. One time, I even had a fellow passenger in Mexico offer to let me stay with him because I was sick on the bus.
- You’ll see more of the countryside and relax on public transportation. On the bus or train, can read and look out the window rather than having pay attention to the road.
- You won’t have to pay the high tolls that exist overseas. Tolls can easily add ten to twenty cents a mile to travel in many parts of Europe and even regions of Latin America, such as Mexico and Argentina. (for example, you can spend more money on tolls alone traveling between Texas and Central Mexico than an airline ticket would cost.)
- Gas in most countries (even in Emerging Countries) costs as much or more per gallon as in the US, In most of Western Europe gas costs the equivalent of $8-11 a gallon. Even in a country where travel is cheap, like Thailand and Argentina, gas costs more than in the US
- Several times in my classes, I heard stories of people who rented a car in Western Europe or Australia and got in an accident in an area (like a traffic roundabout or a mountain pass) that was not covered by the car insurance. Generally, these students have had to endure a prolonged fight to get the issue resolved, and one student even had to pay the rental agency for the cost of a “totaled” car. I did not have a similar problem when I had a fender bender in a rental car in Calgary, Alberta in 2015.
- It can be challenging to find parking overseas, particularly in large cities. It is not unusual to spend thirty minutes to an hour to locate any free spaces. And, in some cities, you can quickly pay $20-$50 a day to park your car. Besides, in many European cities, you’ll have to park outside of town and walk or bus your way into the central city
- Finding your way around can be very frustrating. I met someone who spent almost six hours in a car just looking for a way to get out of Mexico City. I have also met several people who were so frustrated driving around Europe between the small roads, crazy drivers, and confusing road signs that they vowed never to return. My father even edited a video of all the mistakes we made in trying to find our way around France by car.
Despite these apparent disadvantages sometimes renting a car can be worthwhile. I would advise you to consider renting when:
- You plan to do a lot of travel in rural and suburban areas. It can be hard to find buses in the, and when they do exist, they can be extremely infrequent. In addition, when you travel in rural and suburban areas with a car you can access inexpensive rural accommodations [car-oriented chain hotels (like Motel 6 in the US or Ibis or Formule One in Europe), hostels and campgrounds, and agro-tourism farmstays and monastery rooms and restaurants (truck-stop diners and drive-through, fast-food restaurants) which help offset the car rental costs.
- You are traveling with your family. Even though costly, car rentals become competitive with public transportation when three or more people travel together,
- You need to carry a lot of luggage. Cars will save you a lot of lugging and storage charges. (in the US and Western Europe, it can be hard to find baggage storage facilities in bus and train stations. When you do see these facilities, they will be costly and may not allow you to keep baggage overnight.)
- For most travel in the US and Canada unless you are going to (and/or between) major cities in a congested area (like Boston-Washington- New York, San Francisco, and Chicago). Public buses are rare in the US and, most importantly, rental cars can be very cheap. Over the years, I’ve noted that there are several clues to getting inexpensive car rentals in the US and Canada:
- The most reasonable car rentals are usually from locations that are off-the-beaten-tourist-path. It is rare that you’ll get a good deal at the airport. Sometimes the difference in rental fees between places in the same city can be so pronounced that it is worth the time and trouble to take a bus or shuttle to another area to pick up a car or to change your itinerary to a place where rental cars are available cheaply. Years ago, I saved almost $300
- It often costs the same to rent a car for a week as for five days. Therefore, when possible, make rentals in week-long increments. (Note: This is true even for extended rentals. In other words, it will cost the same to rent a car for 26 days (7 days for three weeks plus five days) as for 28 days (7 days for four weeks).
- Look for rentals as part of packages. When you book a flight, many sites will ask you do you want to rent a car as well. I’ve found that usually booking both together will save 10-30%
- While typically, you want to avoid returning a vehicle to a different office than you rented it from, sometimes it can work out. You may pay as much or less for a car rental when you return the car to an office located a long distance from where you rented it. I was surprised to discover that it cost me $50 less to rent a car for a week in Peoria, Illinois and return it to Providence, Rhode Island than to rent a car to travel around Peoria for a week.
- If you need to travel to an airport that is far from home to pick up a flight, you may want to consider renting a car and driving it to the airport rather than taking a shuttle. Usually, there is no drop-off fee (drop-off fees typically occur when you rent a car from one location and drop it off at another location) for bringing a vehicle to a major airport. Sometimes if you are leaving from a more off-the-beaten-path destination, the rental fees can be very reasonable.
- Watch out for car rental companies’ additional fees. I have found that of all travel businesses, rental car companies are the ones most likely to force you to pay unexpected fees. Some of these fees which include:
- Early and late return and pick up fees: it is essential that you return or even pick up your car at the time that you indicated in advance to avoid fees. (I was once charged for dropping off a vehicle late because the staff was so overwhelmed at Chicago-O’Hare with car check-ins that they did not process the paperwork until three hours after I dropped the car off). The penalty for returning your vehicle earlier than indicated on the rental contract is sometimes called “rental change fee” and can be as high as $15-20. If you turn your car in late, you will probably pay a fee as well as an hourly or daily rate for the extra rental time. Expect to pay a full day’s charge for these optional items if you return the car late.
- Refueling fees (to avoid this fee, refuel the car within ten miles of your rental car office and bring the receipt with you when you return your vehicle);
- Additional authorized driver fees;
- Frequent traveler program fee (if you ask the rental car companies for credit on a frequent flier account, expect to pay a small daily fee- often more than the miles are worth for longer-term car rentals- for the privilege);
- Lost key (since most keys are smart keys expect this fee to be several hundreds of dollars. You may pay this fee twice if you lose both keys on a two-key keyring);
- Cancellation fees (usually car rental companies do not charge this fee for most rentals; however, there are two notable exceptions:
- (a) if you rent a luxury or premium car and
- (b) if you prepay for the car (which usually saves you some money) you will pay a fee if you cancel your rental less than 24 hours before your scheduled pickup time;
- Drop-off fees (sometimes substantial) if you do not pick-up the car at the same place you dropped it off;
- Fees (sometimes quite high) for GPS and baby seats;
- Airport concession fees. (These fees can be quite high and sometimes are the main reason why the cost of rentals in airport rental is higher than most other locations);
- Miscellaneous car-related fees such as vehicle licensing and tire recycling fees.
- Do not be surprised if car rental companies charge you an additional day if you do not return the car at the exact time you indicate on your reservation.
- Transponder Fee. I was charged $20 for the transponder rental in Florida. The transponder was necessary to pay tolls on Florida’s toll-roads. (The roads had no toll booths). Many rental companies charge this fee if you don’t use toll roads. I have heard of companies charging this fee daily without any cap. For more information on this fee, see this Point Guy post.
If you are going to rent a car outside of the US or Canada, here is some advice:
- Check out websites and guidebooks for advice about travelers renting a vehicle overseas. Rick Steves goes an excellent job of addressing some of the issues you will find in Europe.
- Also, find out about whether you need an international drivers’ license. The international drivers´ license is most valuable if you are going to a country without the Roman alphabet (usually Cyrillic, Arabic, etc.).
- Make sure that your insurance will cover you in another country. Credit card coverages are more likely to cover you than home country car insurances but do not be surprised if you need to buy insurance coverage overseas.
Getting to and From the Airport
¨Maybe I live in the gates that lead to outbound international flights. Maybe that is home. And do I feel more comfortable at the departures or at the arrivals.¨
Michal Coret, Becoming What I May Be
- If you need to park your car at the airport for several days, consider renting a room for the night and asking the hotel if they’ll let you park your car until you come home. Usually, they will charge you more for the night’s accommodation than you’d pay otherwise, but it still may be less than it costs to park your car at a lot near the airport. Parking a car near the airport usually costs $15-30 a day for a lot next to the airport and $6-15 a day for a lot two to five miles away from the airport. (note: you can make parking reservations online. You will be shuttled to the airport from the parking lots that are away from the airport.) A hotel room, with parking included, usually costs $100-150 a night. Sometimes, however, the free parking is only available for a limited period (most commonly, one week). If you park for more time, you may have to pay extra (usually less than you’d pay at an airport parking lot. Generally, inexpensive hotels charge less for parking and will allow you to park for a more extended time for no additional charge. It is rare that you can park a car for more than two weeks without paying an extra fee). For more information on these parking/room specials, check out www.parksleepfly.com.
- If you are planning to travel for less than a couple of days, you may be able to park your car at a suburban train station or a park-and-ride lot for free (or low cost) and take the train or bus to the airport and, thus, save the high parking costs. Check websites or call the station for details. Be careful since this option is not available from every station/park and ride lot and you could come home to a hefty ticket if it is prohibited.
- You can travel by public transportation to the airport and bypass paying parking fees altogether. Yes, in many suburban and rural communities, it may take several hours. However, there is almost no home in the US that is completely inaccessible by public transport, and even if you have to make many transfers, you’ll eventually get to the airport. (I think public transportation is available easily between almost every large central city and the airport. Buses, for example, go from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Los Angeles (LAX) every thirty minutes and from Seattle’s airport (Sea-Tac) to downtown Seattle every 10-20 minutes. Subway trains serve San Francisco airport (SFO), O’Hare in Chicago (ORD), Washington-National (DCA), Logan Airport in Boston (BOS), etc.
- Trains and buses also provide connections from downtown to all major airports in Europe and Asia. I have never had trouble getting to the airport in Europe and Asia by public transportation even when I needed to get an early morning flight.
- After a long flight, I consider taking a taxi or Uber from the airport to wherever I am staying to be a wonderful luxury. For many years, I tried to save money by using public transportation to get from the airport to somewhere near my hotel and then either walking or taking a taxi to my destination. Sure I used to save $20 to $30 this way and, as I used to tell myself, I got right away into spirit of the destination. But, about eight years ago, I realized that all I really did was arrive at my destination tired and frustrated. (Just buying a train ticket often felt like work). Nowadays, I am more than happy to pay for a taxi. (For some reason, in about 75% of all cases, I spend around $40-$50 for the taxi from the airport to my hotel).