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Public transportation, taxis, bus tours and more: Which is best for traveling?

The perk of bus tours is the driver does all the work. The cons are bus tour cancellations and relying on all other passengers to work together.
The perk of bus tours is the driver does all the work. The cons are bus tour cancellations and relying on all other passengers to work together.
Shamontiel L. Vaughn

The idea of going into an unfamiliar city and making plans to vacation by public transportation or shuttle service may seem ridiculous to some and cost-effective to others.

Before deciding on being the driver or letting someone else do the work, ask yourself the following questions: How close is my hotel to public transportation? How often do the hotel shuttles run? How helpful is customer service and the site maps for learning how to use public buses and trains? How do the car rental rates compare in this city to those in my own city? What are the rules for bus tour cancellations? Do I have the patience to deal with the public? Am I confident enough to drive around on my own?

And then weigh the pros and cons of each type of transportation while traveling.

Bus tours: These are the most convenient way to sit back, relax and snap photographs while the tour bus driver takes over finding ways to get to all of the great spots around each city. Travelers can choose stop-and-go bus tours where they make the choice of how long they want to hang around at each destination. Then there are timed tours when travelers have to be back by a certain time. For travelers who are more interested in just seeing popular spots that don't require a lot of walking, sitting bus tours may be the way to go.

However, there are problems with bus tours, too. When reading the fine print, many bus tour companies do not promise refunds or even money off should the bus not be able to make it to each location. And the reasons may vary: weather, special events in the area, police blocking off locations for security reasons or even bus tour services running late. Disappointed riders just have to suck it up and deal with the fact that they went on a bus tour to see the White House but the extent of seeing it was the bus driver slowly riding by. Or, maybe there was a charity marathon that ruined plans to see The Capitol building. The bus tour company will say they're not responsible. The charity marathon event won't take the blame. The police certainly aren't interested in how much travelers paid to check out tour spots. The only person who cares is the one who gets the credit card bill for 100 percent charge to only see 65 percent of a tour.

Taxi service: Smartphones have made getting a ride to a destination so much easier with the convenience of UberX, Lyft and Sidecar. And while taxi drivers who have paid the price to do their job are irritated by the competition, consumers just want to get where they have to go. Travelers don't even have to worry about taxi rates, having cash and credit cards on hand, or digging for coins. The transportation charges for these electronic-based companies are made on Smartphones, tips included. Now whether this is fair to taxi drivers who have to renew their licenses each year, have vehicle inspections, pay for training, pass tests and negotiate rates (gas included) varies depending on who is asked. Travelers who used to be concerned about whether taxis would even take them or pick them up from their destination can rest assured that the driver picking them up has already agreed to both. But that still leaves travelers in the hands of questionable drivers who they're not sure they can trust. And for travelers unfamiliar with a new city, they may still be unsure of whether they're taking the scenic route and paying excess fees. Or, they end up cars with people whose driving skills prove they have no business owning a driver's license.

Shuttle service: Some hotels have superb shuttle service that runs nonstop. Other hotels may just have a random van with a hotel/motel/inn sign taped to the dashboard. Don't be surprised to get into a shuttle van and hear Biggie blasting through the speakers. Don't be shocked when the driver makes absolutely no move to help you with your bags or even informs you that there is a luggage area in the back of the van. Similar to the taxi or car service debacle, travelers will never be sure of just who they'll get to drive them around until they're already inside. And even the worst, most unprofessional drivers will still be appalled if they're not tipped for mediocre service. But of course every shuttle driver is not a carbon copy of another. Whereas one shuttle driver may be over-the-top, another shuttle driver working a different shift could be the epitome of what a shuttle driver should be.

Rental cars: GPS has made traveling far more stress free in unfamiliar cities. For Smartphone users, there's no need to pay extra fees to use rental car accessories. Just program phones to use Scout, TeleNavigator or any other map-based service that'll talk a traveler through the roads and expressways. However, rental companies still get paid for the use of the car, gas prices must be monitored and auto insurance will still be mandatory. For drivers under 25, there are still legal age requirements in many cities.

Public transportation: Taking public buses and trains is a pain whether you live in the city or are visiting. Like any other mode of transportation, travelers must rely on drivers to get them to their destination. And unlike the options above, public transportation includes a host of other people who want to get where they have to go as much as the next person. For travelers, there can be unnecessary expenses. For example, in Atlanta, it's required to pay $1 for the Marta Breeze card. While this is an environmentally friendly rule that eliminates paper waste, one-time ATL travelers may find that $1 to be a rip-off. In Washington D.C., the Metro farecard is free and still on paper. For Chicagoans still using Chicago Cards or magnetic paper strip cards (similar to the D.C. Metro farecards), those will be useless by July 1. It'll be required to switch to Ventra cards, which may create extra expenses for sporadic travelers and/or tourists (similar to the issues with Breeze cards). But even after the fare card situation is taken care of, traveling on trains and buses that are color coded may become a big headache for some. For those who freak out when they're lost or hate to ask for directions, public transportation will probably be a nightmare. But for green travelers who enjoy the monetary ease of no car payments and environmental perks of getting more cars off the road, this may be the only option they'll consider.

Which is the best?: There's no right or wrong answer. Each mode of transportation has pros and cons. For the Chicago Personal Finance Examiner, it proved far easier to see all of the sites in D.C. by Metro rail. In Atlanta, traveling by Marta rail was much more cost effective than a rental car because of how close the chosen hotel (Melia Atlanta) was to the train. Marta trains are walking distance from the airport, and the hotel was a block from the train stop. Although not thrilled with shuttle buses, there was just as much good and bad shuttle service in D.C. as there was Atlanta. However, D.C. shuttle drivers have a knack for getting around road blockades like pros in superb time. Traveling around Miami was much easier to do by rental car because the destinations had such big gaps in between. And tour buses in Toronto and Ontario came in handy while hanging out in Canada. Just as there are no two hotels that are exactly alike, neither is the ride. Individual tours should help make the decision for what transportation system is best.

Follow Shamontiel on Pinterest for all of her latest Chicago finance, employment and savings tips, or subscribe to her Chicago Personal Finance channel at the top of this page.

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