Because Phuket is a big island with many attractions both on and off it, getting around may be quite difficult at times, especially since the all-necessary public transportation system is relatively scarce and sometimes unhelpful. Therefore, unless you rent your own vehicle, getting to most parts of the island may prove troublesome and will cause you to miss many worthwhile experiences.
Even though the airport is near the northern extremity of the island, around 30 kilometres away from Phuket Town and even further from the most popular tourist destinations such as the Patong and Karon beaches, airport transfers are reasonably simple. Most holiday tickets will include a package itinerary comprised of the flight itself and airport transfer to and from the hotel. In that case, chances are you will only need to find the tour guide or driver holding up the sign with either your name or your hotel’s name on it.
If, however, you need separate transport to reach your hotel, the best option is to use one of the two official transport companies having booths inside the arrival lounge. They’re hard to miss and they also hardly miss any tourists with their offers. They ask for fixed tariffs of around 500 Baht for transfer to the major beaches in the southern part of the island. While they do offer cheaper prices, pirate taxis waiting outside the terminal should be avoided, as they sometimes cause trouble.
Additionally, mini-buses from the airport to Phuket Town are offered by both companies at about 100 Baht, while the Airport Bus is 85 Baht per person. Departure schedules normally depend on the number of incoming flights. Once in town, you can readily hire private transport, although you may also do that directly at the airport as well. Some car rental companies, including Budget and National, have offices inside the terminal.
There aren’t many buses on Phuket. The most common way to get from beach to town and vice-versa is the song taew, a small truck customised for carrying passengers seated on two long benches in the back. Slow and cheap, at around 20 Baht per person from Phuket Town to Patong, they leave from a set stop next to Phuket Town’s fresh produce market and reach all major beaches on the island. They are typically colourful and have a sign on front showing their destination, with English also added in small letters. They only leave when enough passengers climb on board, so there is no set schedule. When returning to town from the beach areas, they usually pick up passengers from directly along the streets while slowly cruising around.
If you prefer having a personal taxi, on the other hand, tuk-tuks are the option for you. They’re even smaller trucks customised in a similar fashion to song taews that may only carry about four people. They get their names from the sounds of their engines and swarm all major tourist areas, always ready to take you virtually anywhere for the right price. The drivers aim to squeeze every possible Baht from tourists, so you should expect to bargain, keeping it in a friendly manner. Prices for a trip between Patong and Phuket range from 200 to 400 Baht for a one-way trip (at 45 Baht per US$), but it should be noted that evening tariffs are much higher.
A tuk-tuk can also be rented on a daily basis for at least 2,000 Baht, making it a perfect, yet more expensive, alternative for getting around the entire island than driving yourself.
A more unusual transport method for most tourists will be the motorcycle taxis, which can take you anywhere at pre-arranged prices negotiated before the ride. They are private owners of small motorbikes who rent their services, and can be identified by their distinctly coloured jackets indicating their home base’s location. Most also have ‘TAXI’ written in English on these jackets.
You might, however, not feel really enthusiastic about having someone drive you everywhere. Given the large size of the island – 50 kilometres in length and 15 in width – renting a personal vehicle is by far the best way of getting a chance to see everything, or at least most of it. Private cars can easily be found in every beach area and major companies have offices in most resorts, so renting should be quite straightforward. You can also phone companies of your choice, as most will offer vehicle delivery and pick up services. You should avoid renting from the side of the road, though, as few such vehicles have insurance and an accident might completely ruin your vacation.
Renting a personal vehicle is also the only effective option if you want to see the neighbouring provinces of Phang Nga and Krabi, which are off Phuket island, by land. The good roads and extraordinary landscapes make this an excellent and viable option.
Among the rental companies that offer full car insurance are National Car Rent, Budget Car Rental, Avis and VIA.
If you go on Phuket, chances are you will see many Thais, children inclusive, running about on big and small motorcycles, and this might make you want to try it yourself. This form of transport does seem ideal in such a tropical climate. This is probably the reason why they are also a popular option among tourists and can basically be rented anywhere on the island. However, while learning to operate them is quite straightforward, mastering driving them well enough to avoid accidents on Phuket’s hazardous roads is a different issues. 90% of accidents in Phuket involve motorcycles and the town has the highest road incident rate in Thailand. Foreigners with severe scrapes and bruises on their arms and legs are common sights in hospitals, but things can sometimes get worse. The steep mountain roads that need to be crossed to leave tha major west coast beach areas are the most hazardous zones.
Additionally, Thai laws requires all drivers to carry valid licences and all riders to wear helmets, even though these rules are often ignored by most locals. The police may sometimes enforce both, so preparation is advised.
Also, keep in mind that rented motorcycles never have insurance. Tourists will be fully accountable for any damage brought to them, and some greedy owners will charge much more than the actual reparation costs. Even more problems arise when owners rent their vehicles to people not having valid drivers’ licences and accidents occur.
If you want to get yourself around cheaply, regional buses can also be an option. Phuket Town’s long distance bus station lies right across from the Royal City Hotel. Both air-con tour buses and cheap ‘orange crush’ buses leave from here towards southern, northern and eastern destinations. Regular services are provided to Bangkok, Krabi, Surat Thani, Nakorn Srithammarat, Trang, Haad Yai and other provincial capitals. Tickets can be purchased either through travel agents or directly at the station and foreigners with long legs might want to get two adjoining seats if they wish to get a good sleep. Most tour buses to Bangkok depart around 17:00 (5:00PM) in the evening and arrive in the capital around 6:00AM the next morning.
There is also the option of travelling by boat, although regular ferries only run from Phuket to the Phi Phi Islands, Koh Yao Noi and Krabi. Unscheduled fairs can also be found to Koh Bon, Racha Yai and Koh Yao Yai, and Koh Lanta can be reached by transfer in Koh Phi Phi. However, most people will get around using privately rented boats.
Finally, to get in and out of Phuket by air, you may opt for one of the approximately ten airlines with scheduled flights to the island. If you’re there in the high season, about twice that number will also provide charter flights.