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Say a caster wants to travel to a different continent on the same plane. Can that journey be made using the spell plane shift, or can plane shift be used only to travel to a different plane than the caster's currently on?

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This is specifically answered in the spell’s description:

You and up to eight willing creatures who link hands in a circle are transported to a different plane of existence.

Nowhere does it say you can teleport to a location on the same plane of existence, so you can’t.

The caveat being that in order to travel to a different location on your starting plane of existence you would need to cast Plane Shift twice, which typically requires a long rest between castings, a 15th level caster sacrificing their only 7th and 8th level spell slots, 2 casters of the appropriate level, or some other way to cast a 7th level spell twice per day. This will allow you to a different plane on the first casting then a different location back on your original plane on the second casting.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While this is of course correct, it's noteworthy that using plane shift twice will actually allow you to teleport to a different place on your starting plane. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Jul 15 '18 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman That also takes, typically, two days... since standard you only get 1 7th spell slot per long rest any more. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Jul 15 '18 at 22:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth Depending on the distance traveled and a lack of Teleporation circle (Knowing the spell, not knowing the location cause you'll need that if you want a specific location) It might be better using Planeshift twice than traveling in a mundane way. \$\endgroup\$ – Jihelu Jul 16 '18 at 2:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ You might want to modify your caveat paragraph to indicate 15th level, not 17th. Nothing prevents a caster from using their 8th level slot to cast a 7th level spell unless they're a warlock. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Jul 16 '18 at 13:53

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