Thursday, May 22, 2008

15 tips for a frugal, relaxing, earth-friendly vacation that's car-free!

Last month my sister and I vacationed in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco-- using only public transportation and our feet! Some of the people we told about our plans were totally shocked, as if it had never occured to them that people could travel without driving. But it worked out very well for us... and not only did it make the trip cheaper, but also more relaxing and enjoyable.  (Driving is stressful enough on its own, let alone in the middle of a strange city!  And I'd rather spend my time waiting for a bus or train than be stuck in traffic or circling endlessly for a parking space.)

If your travel plans are focused on cities, then public transportation (combined with a reasonable amount of good old-fashioned walking) may work better than you think to get you where you want to go. Yes, some cities do have totally lousy/nonexistent public transit, but there are a lot whose systems are just so-so and yet do a perfectly good job of connecting you to most or all of the attractions you're interested in, not to mention the many cities with genuinely excellent public transportation.
Don't let nervousness about riding an unfamiliar public transit system hold you back! I've found repeatedly that doing a little basic research ahead of time is all you really need to get the hang of virtually any city's system. (Actually, I've also generally found that even when I'm unprepared and skip many of the steps below, I'm still able to get by fine in a strange city's transit system!)
  • Start by getting a feel for where your target attractions are in the city-- which are close enough that you can walk between them?  Many cities have clusters of attractions downtown and/or in other areas of the city.  Are any of your destinations walkable from your hotel/hostel, or the airport/train terminal/bus terminal that you're arriving from?  And if you're using Google Maps to do this research, you'll be able to see which locations are near train/light rail stops.
  • Visit attractions' websites and click on Directions; many of them will tell you "We're 5 blocks from train station X, and buses Y and Z run right by our doors."  (Although just because there aren't public transit directions listed doesn't mean you can't get there via public transportation, especially if you're willing to walk a little farther than they'd be comfortable advising you to.)
  • Choose lodging wisely so that you're reasonably near public transportation (or your hotel will shuttle you to a transit stop.)  Don't be afraid of a bit of a walk, but do investigate in advance whether you'll feel comfortable walking it after dark. (Hotel reviews on rating sites will often give you some idea of this.)
  • Find the "trip planner" function that's on almost every city's transit website, and play around with it. Don't worry too much about the exact times to start with, but just get a feel for which trains/buses run between Points A, B, and C. Once you've got that figured out, you can check out the frequency of each of those trains/buses and their hours of operation. And based on that info you can put together a tentative itinerary, in which each leg of the journey seems reasonable.
  • Get advice from people who've been there.  If you've got friends from the area (or who've visited before) that's great; if not, there's a multitude of great places online to get advice, including travel-specific websites and the general but wonderful Ask Metafilter.
  • Pick up or print out maps that include transportation routes, and key bus schedules.  They'll help you adjust your plans on the fly.
  • Figure out ways to get internet access mid-trip so you can make adjustments with maximum information on hand. Your hotel/hostel may have internet access for free or cheap, or you can try an internet cafe or maybe even a local library.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions if you're lost or confused. Sure, some people may be rude to you. But most transit employees and random passersby will be friendly and generous in helping you figure out how to get where you need to go. (I can attest to this from the locals' perspective, as I've been known to interrupt people who seem confused in order to try to help them find their way!) 
  • Pack your walking shoes and really experience the city by walking through its neighborhoods and taking in its scenic views; walking from one attraction to another can be deeply enjoyable in and of itself.  And getting good exercise via a nice long walk can lift your mood all day (not to mention helping you burn off some of the tasty local food you've indulged in!)
  • Sometimes transit is an attraction in itself! In Seattle, we took a ferry to Bainbridge Island and back-- $6.70 roundtrip-- rather than take get our Puget Sound city views from a fancy cruise. And we nearly took the San Francisco cable cars (part of the SF public transportation system) as well.
  • Look for tourist transit passes (one price for all day or multiple days), but do some quick math to check that you're likely to come out ahead versus paying per ride.
  • Keep an eye out for free transportation options.  In both Seattle and Portland, our rides in the downtown area were free.  In Chicago, they don't do that, but they do have free trolleys running between all the major attractions downtown during summer months.
  • Don't fear the occasional cab. I very rarely actually take a cab... but if you're thinking of ditching the whole car-free plan because one or two special attractions aren't transit-accessible, you should run the numbers and figure out if taking a taxi is a better plan. 
  • If you want to get out of the city, investigate bus tours. One reason a lot of people like driving is that you can expand your itinerary to see attractions that are in the general vicinity of your target city. Well, often there are guided tours of those attractions that depart from the city (we considered a tour of Mt. St. Helens leaving from Portland, for example.)  So hunt around, compare prices, and figure out if you might be better off scheduling the tour rather than renting a car. 
  • If you can't do no car, try less car! If you really want/need a car for certain parts of your trip, that doesn't mean you need one for the whole time. Rent one for a day or two and then return it.
What are some good cities where tourists can rely on public transportation?  Well, at the very least, I can tell you from personal experience that you'll do fine in Chicago, Washington DC, New York, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco.   (I hear that Boston and Philadelphia, among many other cities, are great as well.)  And London and Dublin were easy too, although it almost goes without saying that most European cities have great transit systems...

Do you typically use a car or public transportation while vacationing in cities?  What factors affect your choices?  What cities can you add to the list that're easy to enjoy without a car?  Any other tips on making car-free vacations as pleasant and frugal as possible?


Greener Pastures said...

nice tips on economical travel. We went to Italy last year, and the public transportation was great in the cities. We needed a car in Tuscany- but it's all small towns and countryside. There's a bus system but it takes forever to link up.


Grampa Ken said...

My wife and I started off with 3 days of bussing on a 2 week trip to the LA area several years ago. It was a nice change from the usual. Later in Waikiki we rode the bus for 2 weeks. It's so much more a relaxing holiday.

Aaron Stroud said...

Great idea. I'm not big on city attractions--give me a good book and cabin in the woods--but this is a great list of suggestions for traveling frugally and getting a real feel for the city!

Anonymous said...

We're planning a trip to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, BC later this summer. We'll use trains, ferries, buses and other public transit this time, with perhaps a rental car for a day to tour the artist studios on Salt Spring Island, BC.

We normally avoid big cities during our travels because of the traffic and parking issues, so I'm looking forward to using public transit to explore this time.

Thanks for the helpful tips.

Penelope @ Our Fourpence Worth said...

Great tips!

Grampa Ken said...

Millionaire Mommy
You might find Translink's site helpful in using Greater Vancouver transit.