overland travel vs air travel

When to chose overland travel vs air travel?

There’s a certain mystique to overland travel. It gives you the chance to take in sights, sounds, smells, customs & practices specific to a country or region that you might otherwise miss.  When you compare the experience of a day on a train in Italy, a lively bus through Ethiopia, or a road trip down Australia’s Great Ocean Road vs a flight from city to city, the day on land will definitely be a richer “experience”. The journey can often be better than the destination, but when it’s not, don’t force it. Overland travel is often cheaper than flying, but not in the grand scheme of things. Overland travel consumes what we feel is our most precious commodity…time. We know everyone’s got different priorities, but don’t choose land over air on money alone. For us, there’s a time to fly and time to ride.

Overland Travel Costs You Time.

One example of a time to take to the friendly skies instead of braving the bus was our trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. We like to travel spontaneously with ever evolving plans. Even with just 1 day’s notice we were able to find a great flight for around $35USD per person. The morning flight was only 40 minutes and allowed us to have one last night in Bangkok. When we arrived at our hostel in Chiang Mai the next morning, we encountered a fellow traveler. He had left Bangkok at 10pm and arrived to the hostel just moments before us. He looked terrible. This dude had spent 10 very uncomfortable hours on windy Thai roads, was desperate for a nap, and had only saved $15USD (plus the $10 for a night in a hostel). However, he lost an entire night’s sleep to travel and now an entire day to recovering. We had gotten a full night’s sleep, had traveled the same distance in a fraction of the time, and were off exploring the city while he slept his day away. To us, it doesn’t make sense to spend less money if it’s ultimately going to cost you time.

It Can Depend on Where You’re Traveling.

Land vs air travel is a huge dilemma in Africa, where there’s no easy way to get around. Flights are not cheap, nor are there a lot of safe, reliable airlines. But getting around by land is anything but easy, with public transport’s safety being dicey at best. Here’s an example:

Say you’re in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and want to check out it’s neighbor, Malawi. Looking at a map, it seems peace of cake. You might think twice about that magical land journey, though. It takes 2 days down torn up roads in your own wheels. If you’re doing buses…be ready for connection hell. Changing in town after town, hoping you’re making the right connections as the locals push you onto the bus they want you on. You can train to Zambia then work your way to Malawi…maybe. In Africa, it depends on the condition of the tracks on any given day, and will take you a minimum of 2 days, if you’re lucky.

However, a flight from Dar to Lilongwe  can be had for around $100. That’s a big backpacker expense, but if you can turn 2 days into 2 hours, this expense needs to be considered. Even for us this was a no brainer. It cost us $125/person, but it saved us a heap of time. Literally days. We didn’t miss a beat at Malawi’s Lake of Stars Music Festival, but met others who nearly missed the whole festival due to unexpected overland problems.

This is a scenario we encounter and discuss with fellow travelers all the time. People only look at the dollar sign and don’t bother to consider the value of their time, comfort, or well-being. For us, it’s the opposite. Our time and happiness is something we have a hard time compromising. Especially in regions like SE Asia, where you have endless options. There is heaps to see and do and a plethora of discount airlines serving the tourist route. By spending a few more dollars, you might be able to enjoy a ton more sights.

Why Making the Right Choice is Important.

I’m going to be straight with you…cause I like you. Your time is your most valuable commodity in your life. It’s only going in one direction. Every second that goes by becomes your past. That few seconds you just spent reading those first few lines…you can’t get those back. So, it’s especially important to keep in mind when you’re traveling that time is an expense just like any other. So many backpackers and travelers take the time to find the cheapest way to do things without ever considering what the time cost will be.

I love a good bus ride or train trip. Trains are a comfortable and romantic way to see the countryside. And, can you really call yourself a backpacker or traveler if you haven’t survived an 18 hour bus ride where you’ve shared seats with the locals and their livestock? There’s nothing sexy or exotic about flying anymore. It’s long lines, baggage fees and crying babies. Yet, we can’t deny that air travel provides savings on the most precious of costs…time.

A savvy backpacker will catch you on this one…”Well, if you take an overnight bus you’ve not only spent less on your ticket, but you’ve also saved yourself the cost of one night’s accommodation.” I cannot deny that sweet deal. Yes, you saved yourself a few bucks. But at what cost? Let’s consider that after a full day in the Thai heat, you take a 10 hour bus ride and get no sleep. You arrive in Chiang Mai tired, hungry, grumpy and in need of a bed. The $15 you saved by choosing the overnight bus, plus the $10 you saved on a night’s lodging has now cost you a full day of your life.  Is one day of your life worth more or less than $25?

What it All Comes Down to…

Ultimately, it’s your call. We love overland travel. We’ve driven across some of the largest countries in the world. We love the unique taste of culture you get on each country’s public transport. But when the time spent isn’t worth the experience, we know who wins our land vs air dilemma. Believe me, I like to save money, but not if it means losing precious time.

Next time, when you’re tipping the scales of overland travel vs air travel, it’s important to really consider all your costs.

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