Hey there! Planning a trip? Transportation is an important part of every trip. And I've found that every successful trip has a custom transportation plan.
Think of all your transportation options like tools in a toolbox. You need a screwdriver to secure a doorknob and a wrench to loosen a toilet bolt. Having the right tool for the job makes it a lot easier.
It's the same with travel.
There are places where you can't get around without a car and others where driving will be a nightmare. After planning family trips for nearly 20 years, I've found that there are a lot more ways to get around than you might expect.
It matters which one you choose because transportation costs you time and money. And it isn't always the “fun” part of your trip, but it could be… My goal is to help you spend your travel budget on something you will enjoy – or at least give you alternatives.
When you find the right “tool” for the job it can make your trip a lot easier and more fun.
Here are my Top 12 transportation tools, and when to use them.
Your Own Car
Driving our own car is my favorite way to travel anytime our destination is a 1-2 day drive from home. I love road trips!
Our minivan is large and comfortable for my family of four. There is plenty of space for anything we want to pack. And it's the easiest and least expensive way to have a car at our destination.
When we shop for a new family car, road trip comfort is a big part of the decision. It's a lot easier to spend 8-12 hours per day together if everyone has enough personal space and convenient details like USB ports, heated seats, and window shades.
All those hours in the car have created opportunities to have important conversations and build relationships with our kids. That kind of family time is precious.
Flying is the best option when you want to travel far from home. This is the obvious choice for many trips.
Sometimes flying can be the best, most affordable option for destinations closer to home. Especially for 1-2 people. My daughter recently found an $80 last-minute, roundtrip, nonstop fare from Las Vegas to Denver when her friend needed to get to a passport office on short notice. It was right before their Spring Break trip to Mexico.
They originally planned to drive from Southern Utah, but snow was forecast so that wasn't a safe option. So they searched for flights and found the $80 fares on Spirit Airlines. Spirit isn't usually our first choice, but everything went as planned and they had a great trip.
If you are flying and then planning to cover a lot of ground when you get there, a rental car is might be your best bet.
Memorable trips where a rental car made the difference include the time when we drove to the Adirondacks from New York City and the time we drove to Key West from Fort Lauderdale, Florida after a cruise.
My husband and I once put 1200 km on a rental car on our Nova Scotia vacation. Exploring the beauty and diversity of that province was one of our favorite anniversary trips.
Going international? You may need an international driving permit. Read up on the requirements for your destination before you book a car.
However, don't default to renting a car. It's not my first choice if I can use any of the other options from this list. Renting a car can come with a lot of extra costs like upsells, fuel, and parking. Plus, driving in an unfamiliar place can be stressful.
Does your destination have a good train system? It can be a great alternative to booking a flight or rental car.
When my husband and I visited Alaska, we learned that Alaska Railroad could take us to many of the places we wanted to go. We flew into Fairbanks and took the train to Denali National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park, and Anchorage. We flew home from Anchorage.
The train was scenic and comfortable, and it was an easy and affordable way to experience Alaska.
Another time, we realized that we could easily take the Eurostar train to London after we booked our first flights to Paris. The train allowed us to spend a week in London and a week in Paris – checking off two iconic cities in one trip.
Public transportation is a good, inexpensive way to get around in big cities like New York City, Washington D.C., London, Paris, and Tokyo. If that's how the locals get around, you should use it too.
Big cities like New York City and Paris sell visitor passes that allow you to ride public transportation as much as you want for a limited number of days. This is a convenient option that can save you money if you will use the subway at least 2-3 times per day.
Don't limit yourself to the subway. Buses may be the best way to get where you need to go. On a recent Washington D.C. trip, we discovered the Circulator bus. It stops at many popular tourist attractions and costs only $1 per ride. It also accepts SmarTrip public transportation cards.
I usually use this option to get to and from the airport – especially when we arrive in a new city late at night.
I pay extra for a larger vehicle for my family of four, with our luggage. Without luggage, a basic car is usually OK for 2-4 people if the ride is short.
On an Orlando trip, we found that it cost about the same amount to use Uber/Lyft twice a day as to rent a car to visit Universal Orlando and SeaWorld. Our drivers dropped us off and picked us up right at the front entrance.
In my experience, Uber, Lyft, and taxi fares are usually about the same. I download both the Uber and Lyft apps to my phone and set them up before I leave home and check the rates a few minutes before we need them.
If there is a taxi ready at the curb, I ask for the fare. If it is competitive with Uber or Lyft (it usually is), we take the taxi. If it is not competitive, the taxi driver may price match. Some taxi services also have apps that you can download before your trip.
Shuttle services can be an easy way to get to popular destinations. Shuttle services might be free or paid.
Hotels near theme parks like LEGOLAND California often offer free shuttles to the park. Many hotels in Las Vegas, like the family-friendly Tahiti Village – have free shuttles to The Strip. For us, a free shuttle is sometimes the deciding factor in choosing a hotel.
A growing number of U.S. national parks – including Zion, Glacier, and Yosemite – have mandatory shuttles during much of the year. These shuttles are free but may require reservations as crowds get bigger. Make sure you know what to expect before you book your trip.
We have used paid shuttles to get from the airport to a cruise ship terminal or Disneyland. Most hotels near Disneyland use the paid Anaheim Regional Transportation (ART) paid shuttle or another paid shuttle. The ART shuttle can help you get to Knott's Berry Farm, Angel Stadium, and beaches too.
Paid shuttles usually charge per person, while taxis or rideshares charge per vehicle. As a family with older kids, we have found that a taxi/Uber/Lyft is often less expensive than a shuttle and we don't have to book it in advance.
Ferries are common modes of public transportation in places built around water – and being from Utah, I think they are really fun. Many ferries allow you to drive your car onto the ferry.
Leave your car behind and walk on if you don't really need your car at the other end. It will save you a lot of time and money.
Ferry or airplane is the only way you can reach the beautiful San Juan Islands in Washington State. It's a long, scenic ferry ride from Anacortes to Friday Harbor and we have both walked on and driven on this ferry.
Driving on the ferry allowed us to spend several days on San Juan Island and easily explore the whole island. However, it costs a lot more to drive on and we needed to make reservations well in advance. Summer weekends are especially crowded.
Last summer, we took a day trip to Friday Harbor. Our large family group walked on the ferry without reservations for a few dollars per person. We walked off, enjoyed a seafood lunch, explored the shops nearby, and walked back on a few hours later. Plus, we enjoyed the fantastic scenery and family time both ways.
Bus tours are often a good way to see and learn about a new place. And booking a bus tour is a lot easier than figuring out how to get around on your own.
You can book entire bus trips that are led by a tour guide, or just book a tour as one part of your trip. Personally, I like more control and fewer new friends so I generally book bus tours that only last a few hours.
Guided tours are a good option for cruise excursions. Whether you book through the cruise line or book independently, a tour can help you make the most of your limited time. Tours often include a guide, transportation, gear, and food.
We have enjoyed Mayan ruins, cave tubing, whale watching, and more on our cruise excursions. Click HERE to get all my tips for booking a great cruise excursion.
One of my favorite tour options is a Big Bus Tour. We did this in London and it doubled as our transportation for the day. We got a narrated tour of the city and saw a lot more than we would have without the tour. We hopped off at St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London, explored those places, and hopped back on the next bus. Big Bus Tours come by about every 15 minutes.
If you do a bus tour, consider doing it early in your trip. It can help you get familiar with a new city right away.
Planning a trip to someplace exotic, where you don't speak the language and don't want to drive? Booking a private tour guide might be a good option.
Families and other groups that can fill a van have negotiating power. Local tour guides are often happy to take you anywhere you want for the day and give you good advice for a fair price.
We did this for a full-day cruise excursion in Jamaica. I found a tour guide referral on TripAdvisor.com and sent her an email. She set us up with a van and driver who met us at the cruise dock and drove us all over the island for six hours. It cost my family a few hundred dollars but it included our admissions at Blue Hole and river tubing, and our driver stopped at a delicious Jamaican restaurant for takeout on our way back to the ship.
My sister has booked private tour guides for her family of six in Italy, Morocco, and China. She found the guides through Viator or their hotel or through other sources as she planned the trip. Local guides speak the language, provide the vehicle, and know their way around. They offer valuable local knowledge that is hard to replace with DIY research.
We visited the Tetons with extended family and they own electric bicycles. I borrowed one for a group ride to Jenny Lake on a paved bike trail and it was amazing. Electric bikes are so easy to ride and we effortlessly covered miles of scenic bike trails. I would consider renting or buying an electric bicycle for future trips.
My daughter and I spent a fall weekend in Washington D.C. and we used Capital Bikeshare to bike the National Mall from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial. The leaves were falling and the weather was sunny – it was one of those magical travel moments. Using the app, we unlocked the bikes at one end of the Mall and dropped them off at the other. Our total cost was $3 each.
Scooter rentals can fall into this category as well. Whether you rent bicycles or use your own, they can be a great way to explore your destination.
Walking is one of the BEST ways to explore your destination. Walking through a city, national park, etc. lets you see it up close and notice details that you'll miss if you whiz by in a car or bus. It's much more enriching than hopping from one viewpoint or attraction to another.
Book a hotel or vacation rental close to your top activities and then walk whenever it's practical. We did this in London and New York City and hardly ever used the subway. Walking helped us connect neighborhoods and landmarks we had heard about and finally experience them in person. It helped us to get a complete picture of a neighborhood, instead of just the touristy parts.
At Disneyland, we ALWAYS book a hotel on-property or across the street so that we can walk to and from the parks. It saves money on transportation costs and makes it easy to take a break in the afternoon when it's hot and crowded.
Consider a variety of transportation options when you plan a trip and choose those that fit your travel style and your destination the best. There is almost always more than one way to get from Point A to Point B.
I hope that my family's experience helps your family to plan a great vacation! If you have another transportation option to add or an experience to share, please use the Comments section below.