Talking about travelling and commuting in English

Talking about travelling and commuting in English

One of the mistakes that most beginners make when learning English is that they tend to focus on the vehicle or the mode of transportation. They always say “by car” or “by plane” or “by foot“. In the most extreme of cases, they say things like, “I go travelling with my car.“, which in English sounds just as clever as, “I go travelling…with my feet“.

Of course the speakers of other languages don’t find this to be unusual. In many languages, I go travelling with my feet is a perfectly good sentence. No one laughs. In this case, English is different. In English, we can say we went by car, on we got there on foot, but if we do, it’s because we want to emphasize that there is something extreme and unusual about the way we travelled there.



The 4×4 broke down in the middle of the desert. Luckily, some of the people who lived in the desert helped us and were able to make it to the other side on foot.


We left L.A. on Monday morning and we arrived in Boston by lunchtime on Tuesday. By car?! Wow! That’s impressive!

How English speakers talk about travelling and commuting

So, if English speakers don’t say, we went by boat, by bike, by metro, by horse, what do we say?

Generally, we tend to focus on the verb. In most cases, the verb indicates which mode of transportation or vehicle we are using, so we never have to say it.



Tim: How did you get to work today?
Nigel: I drove.


In the example above, Nigel doesn’t have to say, “I drove a car.”, because most people only drive cars. If Nigel is a bus driver or a chauffer, he might have to be a bit more specific. Notice also that Nigel doesn’t have to say I drove my car. If we do drive, the car the we usually drive is a car that we own. Not always, but usually.


So, what about other forms of transportation? How do English speakers talk about them?


Talking about modes of transportation

These are the most common types of transport.


Mode of transport What people say Logic
by foot (to) walk, run we can only do these things with our feet
by taxi, train, bus, ferry, metro, and the elevator(the lift (GB)) (to) take (took) It’s public transportation. We “take” public transport. * special: You can also say that you catch (caught) any kind of public transport and if you fail to catch an intended public transport vehicle, you can say that you missed it, e.g. “I missed the train.”
bicycle, motorcycle, *bike, quad, jetski, waterski, snow mobile, horse (to) ride (rode) These modes of transportation all require the same bodily position – with one leg on each side of the vehicle. Operating a vehicle this way is called riding as in horseback-riding.
by boat (not a canoe, kayak or row-boat) (to)sail Originally all boats had sails so this is the verb we still use today. But we use it for all boats, not just the ones with sails. Even giant aircraft carriers or oil tankers
plane, airplane(US)/aeroplane(GB), helicopter, space shuttle, space ship (to) fly (flew) Planes fly, so when we use a plane for transportation, we say, we “fly”.
by car, tank, or any other vehicle with wheels that YOU are operating. (to)drive (drove) The logic is that you are controlling the power and the direction of the horses in front of you. The strength of engines is measured in horsepower. Managing the horses in this way is called driving. Although this is an ancient way of thinking, this is why we say we drive a car.
by small boats: canoe, kayak, row-boat (to) canoe, kayak, row these vehicles are so unique, they get their own verb.
by skateboard, hoverboard (to) skateboard, hoverboard, ride (rode) these vehicles also have their own verbs, or you can use the verb ride although you don’t have to operate them in the same way you operate a bicycle.
by surfboard (to) surf If you can travel by surfboard. Wow!

And now?

With the terms above, you should be able to talk about most basic types of transport and you can also sound more natural. So remember to use I traveled/travelled by + (vehicle), less than 10% of the time, and try not to use it in the first sentence that you use in order to talk about a particular mode of transportation unless you are saying that there was something really special about it.


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