Monday, 14 September 2015

Budget Travel pt3 - getting around

Third and final part of our Budget Travel series covers the subject of moving around once you're in South America. Of course you want to see as much as possible, and with such vast distances, it can be tricky to choose the best option. On one hand, taking a flight is quicker then a bus when you need to get from one end of Brazil to another. Don't forget, these countries are massive! Sometimes taking a bus from one city to another can take up to 4 days! On the other hand, you will see more on the bus and experience a true vibe of the country then sat on the plane. You can mix the ways you travel, and take buses on short distances, while covering greater stretches on the plane. Below, we listed few budget ways of travelling in South America:
  • Domestic flights
  • Buses
  • Trains
  • Collectivos (private mini buses)
  • Chicken buses
  • Hitch hiking
  • Car hire
The biggest flight operators LAN+TAM (LATAM) Image by: CBC&VB

Domestic flights - there's no low-cost airline alternatives to the ones we have in Europe or USA. Flying can be expensive. You're looking at £300 flight from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro (LATAM airlines). However, tickets get cheaper, if you fly within one country. Flight from Belem to Sao Paolo in Brazil will cost you £154. It makes sense to travel by plane within the same country, if you need to cover greater distances and time is an issue. But make sure to cross the border to neighbouring country on the bus or the boat.
Most airlines in South America have websites with English versions where you can book your flight. Tip - you get charged more using an English version, as you're a foreigner. Tick your home country as Argentina (if looking for flights there) and proceed with the booking using Spanish version. If you're not sure of a certain phrase, translate it using Google Translate :)
In some South American countries government provides cheap flights to remote locations (Air Force), mostly transporting locals and their cargo, but they are also open to foreigners. Such flights serve the simple purpose and do not follow guidelines, so standing room is common! You might be travelling with chickens, pigs and bunches of bananas. Forget about air conditioning and sound proofing. These flights are cheap, but not very comfortable. Fortunately they are usually fairly short.
Air Force do not offer advanced bookings, and flights are filled on a first-come first-served basis. To book a flight locally, contact a travel agency or airline office. In remote locations or small towns, you may have to ask around to find a booking agency. It could be a restaurant or government office that doubles as a ticketing agency. If you travel with the Air Force in Peru or Bolivia, don’t expect exact timetables. The planes fly their daily routes with little regard for schedules. Get to the airport early and bring something to read while you wait. Be prepared to pay for your ticket in cash.  
Taking a bus to Rio Image by:

Buses - if you travel through South America, you will undoubtedly spend time on a bus. It's the most common form of public transportation, both for short and long-distance travel. You will find wider selection and more luxurious buses in Chile and Argentina - camas (double deckers) with reclining seats, air conditioning and meals provided. Other countries, like Bolivia and Ecuador, will have more basic services and smaller selection. Snacks are often handed out on the longer routes, all depending on the quality of the bus company. Taking a bus lets you see a fantastic, otherworldly scenery you might otherwise miss (if travelling by plane). Purchase your ticket at the bus terminal, or directly from a driver (cash only).
An overnight bus journey can save you money on accommodation for a night, and in some cases the cost of a meal. Be cautious when taking a night bus in Colombia, there are stories of buses being stopped at a gun point by guerrillas and passengers taken hostage. Of course, this is an exception more then a rule!
Remember to dress warm and in layers, especially if travelling by night. Some parts of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina can get really cold! If you have travel sickness, bring your tablets with you, as winding mountain roads can be unpleasant.
Feeling spontaneous? Turn up at the bus station and ask for a discount on a half empty bus - you might be lucky. Don't try it during a holiday season, though.
There is a good and reasonably priced network or internal flights, but if you book outside Venezuela using the internet, the booking will be subject to the official exchange rate and thus close to double the price of arriving, changing money and booking locally (note you find all the airline desks at the airport (domestic terminal 500 meters from international)). Buses are largely good quality, but freezing - take clothing suitable for Sweden in December if using over night buses. For shorter distances, por puesto (per seat) buses or taxis, leave when full. - See more at:
excellent faster 'collectivos' (mini-buses that leave when full). Good value on main routes, more expensive on country routes. - See more at:
Turn up at the bus stations and try and get a discount on half empty departures just leaving - except on holidays. - See more at:
Turn up at the bus stations and try and get a discount on half empty departures just leaving - except on holidays. - See more at:
Turn up at the bus stations and try and get a discount on half empty departures just leaving - except on holidays. - See more at:
Don't be surprised by the state of the roads, they aren't in as good shape as we're used to, so be patient. Locals have to live there, you're only a visitor. Don't complain. Avoid bus travel in the Amazon lowlands during the rainy season (October through April), when dirt roads turn into mud.
Image by:
Trains - with the exception of Peruvian tourist trains to Machu Picchu and few commuter routes in Buenos Aires or São Paulo, trains are all but nonexistent in South America, in stark contrast to Europe and East Asia. Don't plan on travelling a lot by trains - even if you get a chance, you'll find the they tend to be slower, of worse service then buses and absolutely freezing at night.
Collectivo to Machu Picchu Image by:

Collectivos - these are mini vans operated by private drivers. There's no set timetable, and they often leave once they're full. The total cost of the journey is split by the number of passengers. As there's no set price, you can bargain! Beware that Spanish is essential to communicate, as not many people speak English. The collectivos are often used in remote areas not covered by main bus routes. They are generally used for shorter journeys (up to 2-3 hours) and are quicker then coaches.

Chicken bus in Guatemala. Image by:

Chicken buses - these are old USA school buses turned into crowded commuter buses. They tend to stop for anyone and anywhere, but they cost next to nothing. Name is misleading, so don't think they're just for chickens. But the connection is in the comfort - this bus will be crammed like a chicken cage!
There are major stops that the Chicken Bus will make but you can generally get the bus to stop wherever you like. It is important to know where you are going to stop before you get to your destination as it is easy to miss your stop if no one else is getting off! Ask other passengers if you're not sure. They will often be more helpful then the driver. Basic Spanish will be beneficial.
You can store your luggage in an overhead storage or under the seat, if there's a room. Don't agree to put it on the top of the bus (roof rack) as there are incidents of bag slashing. If the driver asks for an extra fee to keep the bag with you, point to the other passengers seating with the bags - don't agree to pay extra.
While on the bus, secure your bag to the rail with a cable lock (if you have one). It will give you peace of mind once the bag is stored out of your sight.
The chicken bus is undoubtedly the cheapest was to travel around South and Central America. It costs pennies, but don't expect comfort, especially on popular routes. You'll find you might need to stand on some journeys, but consider the local people who have to commute everyday. Be polite and always give up a seat to someone older, it will earn you respect from fellow passengers.
Hitchhiking through the Atacama desert in Chile; Image by

Hitchhiking - can be very useful on short routes which lack public transportation, and where the only other option would be a very expensive taxi ride. Most traffic, except trucks, is local, and you should be ready to travel in just about any vehicle that has four wheels and an engine. You can find yourself taking ride in the back of a cattle truck, pick-up truck or old sedan crowded with family members on a weekend excursion. Paying few cents (25c) for a ride is a common practise. Keep in mind that hitchhiking is much easier if you speak a few words of the local language. It will allow you to avoid misunderstandings about your ride’s destination. You will also be able to strike up a conversations with the driver - which often prove to be as interesting and insightful as any part of your travels.  
In some countries, such as Ecuador, it is really easy to get rides, especially when you look like a foreigner, though there are also some dangers involved. Uruguay, Argentina and Chile are considered the safest countries to hitchhike. Hitching in Colombia is generally not recommended. You'll find that drivers are less likely to stop and pick up strangers, due to the country's violent past.
Safety tip: be very picky about who you get a ride with. Pick families, couples and other travellers. Skip cars with front tinted windows and groups of men. This will just depend on your comfort level. If you’re two women, maybe you will only catch a ride with other females or families.
If someone pulls over, have a quick conversation with them before you get in. Ask them where they’re headed and if they mind giving you a lift. Even with a short interaction you can get at least an idea of who this person is. If it doesn’t feel right, just thank them and wait for someone else. Don’t worry about offending them; better be safe than sorry.
Overall it's safer to hitchhike for a guy, group of friends or a couple. Solo female travellers should not hitchhike alone.
Self drive through South America; Image by

Hiring a car is a good option if you're in a group of friends and can split the cost. Go around hiring a car as you would do back home, google 'hire a car + your location' and book it online. Budget is a popular chain, with prices for 4-seater car starting at £35 a day. You can choose the pick-up and drop-off location from their list - you might want to drop the car off in a different place from where you've picked it up, if you're travelling to another part of the country. It is generally good and safe option for travelling, you can stop wherever and whenever you want and travel at your own pace and in greater comfort. 

See also:
Budget travel pt 1 - Accommodation
Budget travel pt 2- Food

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