Abiotic stresses such as salinity, drought, and flooding severely limit food and fibre production and result in penalties of in excess of US$100 billion per annum to the agricultural sector. Improved abiotic stress tolerance to these environmental constraints via traditional or molecular breeding practices requires a good understanding of the physiological and molecular mechanisms behind roots sensing of hostile soils, as well as downstream signalling cascades to effectors mediating plant adaptive responses to the environment. In this review, we discuss some common mechanisms conferring plant tolerance to these three major abiotic stresses. Central to our discussion are: (i) the essentiality of membrane potential maintenance and ATP production/availability and its use for metabolic versus adaptive responses; (ii) reactive oxygen species and Ca2+ 'signatures' mediating stress signalling; and (iii) cytosolic K+ as the common denominator of plant adaptive responses. We discuss in detail how key plasma membrane and tonoplast transporters are regulated by various signalling molecules and processes observed in plants under stress conditions (e.g. changes in membrane potential; cytosolic pH and Ca2+; reactive oxygen species; polyamines; abscisic acid) and how these stress-induced changes are related to expression and activity of specific ion transporters. The reported results are then discussed in the context of strategies for breeding crops with improved abiotic stress tolerance. We also discuss a classical trade-off between tolerance and yield, and possible avenues for resolving this dilemma.