Overland travel or overlanding refers to a journey performed without the use of flights. This may include:
- Travel to relatively distant or inaccessible points (such as the Australian outback) with vehicles designed to be capable of off-road use.
- Cross-continental travel without flights or boats – a famous historical example being Marco Polo's first overland expedition in the 13th century from Venice to the Chinese court of Kublai Khan.
- Round-the-world travel using sea travel between continents and road or rail travel ashore, in the Around the world in 80 days tradition.
Since the 1960s overlanding has been a popular means of travel between destinations across Africa, Europe, Asia (particularly India), the Americas and Australia. In the 1960s and 70s, thousands of young westerners travelled the "Hippie Trail" through the Middle East to India and Nepal. See Istanbul to New Delhi over land.
Travelling around the world has been a goal for many intrepid explorers ever since humans suspected that the world was round. Ancient Greek mathematicians calculated that the world was round (and despite common myth today, was believed round throughout the Middle Ages as well) and speculated on how to follow it all the way. The first persons generally acknowledged to have pulled off this trip were the survivors of Ferdinand Magellan's crew. After three years under sail, one ship safely returned. With the widespread deployment of locomotives and steamships in the late 1800s, Jules Verne predicted a trip around the world in eighty days to be feasible by land and sea. A pair of rival New York City journalists made the trip in 1889 in 72 and 76 days respectively.
These days, it is easy to buy a number of flights that take you around the world, but many people choose not to fly. One reason is that air travel is a polluting form of transport. Another is that the joy of travelling is the journey itself and the many places and experiences that come from passing through countries rather than flying over them.
Many people plan to travel around the world without using air transport by using a combination of sea, rail and road, although generally it is almost impossible not to include some air transport on the way, due to the cost of covering the oceans and for political reasons in some parts of the world.
In a nutshell: the very minimum requirements for a trip like this are several months of time, good health and, expressed in American dollars, a five-figure sum of money.
Arranged voyages round the world
There are a limited number of arranged overland trips around the world. In practice these trips are cruises circumnavigating the globe from port to port, therefore a more describing name for them would be "over seas". Some travel agents arrange places on freight ships going around the world, the rest on regular cruise ships. These usually last about 100 days, and prices begin at USD 15,000.
A few cruise ship lines package a "world cruise" as a single bundle, with duration typically 110–120 days. These trips typically run once annually.
Originally overland tours catered to young travellers who were happy to "rough it" and travel in large groups. Since then, the overlanding industry has evolved and now there are arranged trips for all kinds of travellers. In Africa, for example, there are wide range of tours designed for different types of travellers, including families and senior travellers, with primitive as well as quite luxury accommodation and services.
There are many overland tour companies that provide a converted or purpose-made truck or bus and a tour leader. On these guided overland tours the group travels together overland for a period of weeks or months either with their own vehicles or with the provided one.
The tours marketed as overlanding are often quite long, such as six weeks from Kenya to South Africa. A twenty-six weeks tour from London to Johannesburg like in the old days is hard to find nowadays, though, and the itineraries are usually planned in detail, leaving little to improvisation.
On your own
A possibly cheaper and definitely more adventurous way is to combine scheduled intercity bus, train and boat connections to go around the world – or to go all the way by yacht. You could also use any land vehicle, such as a bike, motorcycle, car, or even travel on foot. You plan your trip from scratch and set your own schedule. This will mean a lot more planning than, e.g., flying round the world through ten cities. Remember that your itinerary will very likely include places far off the beaten track and far away from everything. Consult the articles for each of the countries you plan to travel to in order to learn about the connections and travel conditions.
Crossing from Europe to Asia or vice versa can be done relatively easy – you can take a train from most major European cities to Moscow and travel by the Trans Siberian to Beijing, Vladivostok and places along the route. Another relatively straightforward train route is from Moscow to Urumqi. Travel through Central Asia or the Middle East is possible but requires more visas and more changes of buses and trains. The security situation also tends to be worse, as many countries in the region are or have been embroiled in violence. The fabled Hippie Trail overland from Europe to India came to a screeching halt when Iran had a revolution and the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The on-going Syrian Civil war is a major obstacle to all travel in the region, as is visa trouble should you enter Israel.
The Pacific Ocean is by far the greatest obstacle to completing a circuit around the world overland; There are no ferries between either Indonesia or New Zealand to Australia, nor are there any sort of regular services from Asia or Australia to the thousands of islands in Polynesia. Further north the Bering strait between Russia and Alaska doesn't have any scheduled traffic crossing it either. Moreover there are no roads on either side of the Bering Strait and a special permission is required to enter Chukotka on the Russian side. This means you either have to shell out more money than a plane ticket on the cruise ships that do cover this route – Japan to Alaska is the most economical option – or opt for the option more in the spirit of such a journey; Freighter travel (or trying to combine yacht hitchhikes). New Zealand, which maintains loose associations with a number of small islands in the Pacific, sometimes offers for people to join on the semi regular freight routes, supplying these islands, but natives are always given priority, and securing a spot on these trips are not trivial, and requires much perseverance. If you want to cross as many longitudes as possible by land but are willing to fly if absolutely necessary, things get a little easier. Coming from Asia, you can get across the Indonesian islands by ferry and overland to the easternmost of Papua New Guinea. From there you can fly to New Zealand, via Australia if you wish. The North Island reaches all the way to 178°E. From New Zealand you can fly via Hawaii to Anchorage, Alaska from where you can backtrack by ferry to Dutch Harbor-Unalaska, located at 166°W. Alaska is connected by ferry and road to Canada and the Lower 48.
Traffic over the Atlantic is much more frequent than over the Pacific. Cunard Line's proud historical ocean liners still ply the route between Southampton and New York, and are much more economically feasible than the Trans-Pacific cruises. Some cruise ships spend the summer in Europe and the winter in the Caribbean and offer affordable "re-positioning cruises" across the Atlantic. Lots of freighters cross the Atlantic between Europe and the Americas and journeys on these can be arranged through several agencies. Also quite many recreational sailors cross the Atlantic (see Hitchhiking boats). If you can get from North America to Iceland, you can take Smyril Line's weekly ferry from Seyðisfjörður to Denmark on the European mainland. Headstrong, experienced travellers with a very loose timetable could attempt to cross the North Atlantic on fishing vessels – Greenland to Iceland is, while in no way easy, possibly doable. But unless you use a cruise ship as ferry or charter small craft, there is no practical way to cover the strait between Canada and Greenland. It may be possible to hire experienced Inuit to cross the strait on dog sleighs during the winter and hopefully to continue by coastal vessels.
Perhaps surprisingly, another obstacle is the Darién Gap: a small 160-km stretch of dense marshy jungle, made even more dangerous by guerrillas fighting in the area, between Panama and Colombia. Yes, this means there are no roads between Central and South America, there are no ferries covering the gap either, but backpacker traffic is so heavy that there is a fairly organised line of private vessels operating between Cartagena and the Portobelo Area or Carti in Panama. As of 2019, there is no longer ferry between Carti in Panama and Cartagena in Colombia. It is also feasible to walk along the Caribbean coast line, but unless you have experience in such journeys, this is not something you should take lightly. From Europe you can go by freight ship to Montevideo and some places in Brazil and some of the cruises in the Caribbean also include ports in Venezuela.
Northern Africa can be easily visited from Europe. However, if you want to travel further south overland you need to cross the Sahara desert, which is a challenging task. You could possibly travel along the west coast, passing through several countries that require visas from almost all foreigners. The easier route would be in eastern Africa, sample routes include Cairo to Nairobi overland and Alexandria to Cape Town by train and bus. Rail transportation and paved roads are uncommon, therefore getting around can be challenging and take time. Also, inform yourself about the situation in the areas you plan to travel through – sadly infectious diseases, armed conflicts and crime are prevalent in much of Africa. Finally, to get out from anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa your alternatives are to either backtrack north to get to Europe or Asia or fly. Crossing the Indian ocean by boat is dangerous because of pirates, at least unless you take a very southerly route.
Australia and the rest of Oceania require flying if you aren't going by freighter or by an irregular and expensive Trans-Pacific or RTW cruise. While most Indonesian islands are connected to each other by ferry and western Indonesia has several connections to the Asian mainland, there are no scheduled ships between Asia and Oceania. It is possible to arrange a ride from South-East Asia to Australia by working on a sailing boat. Depending on the captain, experience may not be essential, but definitely helpful.
Hitching a ride on a cargo-ship between East-Timor and Darwin is not possible. There is a lack of information on the Internet about this. Even though it looks like the two are the closest points on a map, the shipping companies want nothing to do with passengers. It is not out of any legal considerations, travelling as a passenger is perfectly legal, they just do not want the hassle of the paperwork. This is taken from a first-hand experience at Dili port and numerous face-to-face conversations with company reps and port officials. Dili marina is also pretty quiet and not as busy as Bali marinas are. Avoid East Timor if your intention to attempt a crossing to Darwin.
A hypothetical route into Australia, not spoken about much is via the Torres Strait Islands (Disclaimer, this was not attempted by the writer but was researched extensively). Separating Daru, Papua New Guinea and Thursday Island is approximately 150 km of water. While no commercial boats connect them, it is legal for Torres Islanders to freely travel between the Torres Islands (Australia) and PNG. You could hire a captain to sail between the two, or kayak it yourself between Daru and Saibai Island . The main difficulty is reaching Daru from Indonesia as it may involve traversing the entire PNG coastline to reach it. It may be possible to reach Daru from Merauke but you may not be able to cross the border into PNG from here. It is possible to cross the border at Jayapura on the north-side of Papau but reaching Daru may be very difficult as it would involve many many ferry rides to reach even Port Moresby. Air travel is the primary means of travel between towns and cities in PNG.
Overall getting from one continent to another in the Southern Hemisphere is in practice an option only if you have your own boat.
In 1907, a car race from Beijing to Paris was arranged, and in 1936 two guys from Prague drove around the world in 97 days. There are two ways to drive around the world: you can buy and sell vehicles along the way (or rent for at least some stretches), which means that you can fly over difficult and dangerous regions and don't have any problems getting it over the oceans, or you could drive the same vehicle. If you drive the same car around the world you will have to drive all the way and arrange with freight ships to take the car at least over the Atlantic and the Pacific. Driving around the world means you will need various documents in addition to your passport and visas such as an international driver's license, Carnet de Passage, documents concerning the car's insurances and in some cases even a local driver's license (or a local driver)! Weblogs where RTW drivers share their first hand experiences include My Overland Adventure Transworldexpedition, The world by road and Vw vagabonds. Many other examples of Round the world travel by vehicle (Overlanding) can be found on Overland Sphere.
At 9,288 km (nearly 6,000 miles) the Trans-Siberian Railway is one of the longest overland journeys in existence today, taking seven days to reach Vladivostok from Moscow, and providing an alternative to air travel for journeys between Europe and Asia. The Chinese, Russian and other governments are discussing a high-speed (around 320 km/h or 200 mph) line on this route. Europe itself has a comprehensive rail network.
In the USA Amtrak can carry you overland from New York across the continent to San Francisco on the Pacific Coast and back and forth across the continent using different routes, just a part of their 21,000-mile (34,000-km) train line system, Canada's Via Rail offers similar services; see Rail travel in Canada and Rail travel in the US.
The introduction of Japan's high speed railway, Tōkaidō Shinkansen, in 1964 changed the face of rail travel. The railway has carried more than 4 billion passengers and its new N700 series trains are capable of 300 km/hr. France's TGV (train à grande vitesse or high speed train) attains similar speeds, making it faster than air travel for many journeys. Germany was the first European country to respond to the TGV and for a short time, a German ICE held the speed record for trains before the TGV got it back. Today Spain has the longest HSR network in Europe and fast trains crisscross the Benelux, southern England, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and even Turkey. China has the longest HSR network and is still building more, see High-speed rail in China. More networks are either planned or under construction, slashing travel times to never before seen levels.
Buses and overland safari trucks
The Silk Road historically connects the Mediterranean with Persia and China. Today the route refers to overland journeys between Europe and China, taking either the northern route – through Russia and Kazakhstan to Urumqi or Xi'an in China – or the southern route – through Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan to India and perhaps beyond. These routes are still popular today, with companies such as Oasis Overland and Odyssey Overland offering tours on the southern route.
By small craft
Nowadays circumnavigating the globe by yacht is not the feat it was a hundred years ago – even teenagers have done it solo. But it still requires solid ocean sailing experience, there is much that can go wrong, and there is little help available on the ocean. For some introduction, see Cruising on small craft.
Hitchhiking boats is possible. Hundreds of sailing boats cross the oceans every year (although quite few do all the Pacific). Waiting in busy ports like Grenada, Madeira or Panama can help. Talk to boat owners, be friendly, helpful, and approachable. Something may turn up. The Internet is also a useful resource, there are many websites that match crew with short-handed skippers. They might just be going the right way.
Trans Africa overland routes
Some of the longest and more traditional overland routes are in Africa. The Cairo to Cape Town and v.v. route covers more than 10,000 km, usually following the Nile River through Egypt and Sudan, continuing to Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia along the way. From the mid-1980s, the closure of the Aswan-to-Wadi Halfa ferry between Egypt and Sudan, and instability in Sudan, northern Uganda and Ethiopia, made the journey impossible. The Cape to Cairo and Cairo to Cape Town route has again become possible and increasingly popular both with commercial overland trucks carrying groups of 20 or so paying passengers as well as independent travellers on motorbikes or with 4WD vehicles. See Alexandria to Cape Town by train and bus.
The traditional Trans Africa route is from London to Nairobi, Kenya and Cape Town, South Africa. The route started in the 1970s and became very popular with small companies using old Bedford four wheel drive trucks carrying about 24 people each, plus lots of independents, normally run by groups of friends in 4x4 Land Rovers heading out of London from November to March every year. The usual route was from Morocco to Algeria with a Sahara desert crossing into Niger in West Africa, continuing to Nigeria. This was followed by a month-long journey likened to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” through the forests of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), surfacing into the relatively modern world in Kenya via Uganda. From Kenya the last leg was south through Tanzania to either Zimbabwe or South Africa.
This route has changed dramatically due to border closures and political instability creating no-go zones. The route has reversed itself somewhat over the last few years, with trucks now crossing from the north to the south of Africa, closely following the west coast all the way from Morocco to Cape Town with the biggest change in the route being made possible by the opening of Angola to tourism. The journey then continues through Southern and East Africa from Cape Town to Nairobi and on to Cairo. For the coast of West Africa, there is even a bike trail.
The 2 month long Cape Town to Kenya Overland routing is extremely popular due to the diversity experienced along the route. The range of cultures, fauna and flora experienced allows for a traveller to experience remote regions in Africa yet still allow for a more manageable length of time. Due to the logistics in East and Southern Africa it allows you to travel to areas which are difficult and expensive to access independently.
In Southern Africa the most popular route is Cape Town to Victoria Falls (around 3 weeks long). Companies have trucks leaving almost daily starting the route in Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape to Vic route takes travellers through Namibia, Botswana and ending in either Zimbabwe or Zambia.
These days, overland journeys explore most continents; the only one not yet regularly travelled is Antarctica.
A few companies offer overland expeditions from the UK to Australia. Originated by Exploratory Overland Expeditions in 2006, the expedition is marketed as the longest trans-Asian overland journey available.
The longest overland expedition of any kind is run by African Trails; their London-Cape Town-Istanbul journey (43 weeks) remains the classic overland expedition for die-hard travellers. Though the longest combination of trips is 50½ weeks run by Dragoman from Helsinki, Finland to Cape Town, South Africa via Russia, China, Middle East, following the Nile and to Kenya and on to southern Africa.