A year and a half ago, I interviewed a woman who makes pocket squares for Saks Fifth Avenue. She told me that she does her best work while riding the train. Some days, she will take the New Jersey Transit train back and forth for hours just to get work done. While I have yet to take the train solely for work purposes (though, a subway ride is cheaper than most coffee these days so it might not be a bad idea), I agree with her sentiment.
The train is my favorite mode of public transportation. You can absorb the scenery over a good book, you can write, play cards, and have a great conversation or share a meal with a fellow traveler. (Though I am a bit biased, because I cannot read on the bus). For overnight travel, trains are far more comfortable than buses, and you can make friends with your fellow cabin mates. The way the cars rock steadily over the tracks always lulls me to sleep sooner than I plan. You are also less confined to your seat than you are on a bus, and you don’t have to worry about traffic.
However, there are times when other modes of transit are preferable and some places that don’t lend themselves to public transit at all.
If you want to travel along the rocky coast of Australia or connect with the diverse landscapes across the United States and you are on a budget, driving is your best bet. The U.S. and Australia are both massive countries in which airfare is expensive, even for short distances. In that case, a car is a great way to see the countryside and allows you the freedom to stop off and enjoy various places at your whim. You aren’t on anyone’s schedule but your own.
Buses, in my opinion, are best for short distances that can be traveled in a day. You can watch the scenery while listening to a good playlist, take a short nap, and some people can read without motion sickness (I cannot). Overnight buses are sometimes the only option, and some of them aren’t terrible, but the majority of the time it is the least comfortable way to get somewhere and expect to really have a decent night’s sleep. That being said, they are usually the cheapest option. You can spend two days on a bus to get from Thailand to Laos very cheaply (I met a German girl who did it). But those are two days that you won’t have to tour your destination and you will be tired when you arrive, which can put a strain on how much you can do there.
In some places—specifically, developing countries—the roads between metropolitan areas can be extremely rough and traffic laws are virtually nonexistent. Renting a car can also make you a target for theft and other crime. Sometimes, the train or bus only arrives at odd times (like 2 am), which isn’t always safe depending on the destination, and if the destination is far, it might take you two days to get there. In this case, a short flight is the way to go.
Unless you have a year to travel, like the German girl I mentioned, it is my feeling that the extra money is worth the extra time you will have to experience the place, rather than have to rush through seeing it in half the time while groggy just to save $50.
Overall, you have to weigh your options. When planning transit for your trip, be sure to consider how much time will it take to get from Point A to Point B, how much time do you have to travel, whether you are traveling by day or by night, what the roads are like—is it a reasonable option to drive—and are there any local holidays coming up—is there traffic to account for. More often than not, your answer will be clear.