On the road, what starts off with wide-eyed, optimistic look at a tiny map in a ruffled guidebook and the innocent question “I wonder how long it is from A to B” tends to end in one (potentially) grueling, backbreaking, sweaty-freezing raindrippy 8 to 15 hour “overnight bus ride.”
Sure, overnight bus rides have the advantage of combining two things travelers love: getting there and not breaking the bank to do it. Accommodation! Movement! It’s like two flavors of ice-cream when you only paid for one. Now let’s talk about how not to get botulism/ e. coli/ cholera while you’re doing it.
Here you’ll find tips for how to arrive at your destination as undamaged as possible. Because let’s face it, if bus seats were comfortable to sleep in, we’d all give up our beds in favor of an 8-hour nightly catnap in a Greyhound special. And we’d fling ourselves about, and make it too cold or too hot, and we’d be sure to give away some of our prized possessions along the way. Add a dose of nausea and a screamingly loud radio tuned to music you can’t decipher, and you’ve got yourself something just about as pleasant as a night at the Plaza.
Making the decision: To overnight bus or not to overnight bus
Several factors may go into your consideration about whether or not to take the overnight bus. Let’s call them safety, time, money, and comfort.
Don’t underestimate the tales of fellow travelers, internet advice-givers, and your cousin’s Aunt Sheila. If someone tells you that the overnight busses tend to fly off the road, or that they’re routinely attacked by armed assailants, you should consider how true or untrue that may be and actually do a bit of research. While we tend to dismiss the naysayers when it comes to fear mongering, there is often some truth to people’s concerns, so talk to other travelers who have actually completed the same journeys. Some routes are not generally traveled at night (or at all) by locals. Assume they know at least as much as you do about their country and that they travel with a lot fewer pretty shiny things than you do.
Time and Money
You’ll save time, in that you’ll be hurtling through space when you would ordinarily wake up more or less where you went to sleep, and you’ll save money in that you’ll combine transportation with accommodation. But look at the big picture. Will you have to wait for a nighttime departure? How much would a local flight cost? Here the planners have a distinct advantage. For example, from Santiago to Calama, Chile (jumping-off point for the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama), a comfy 24-hour bus ride will cost you more than a two-hour plane jaunt, when purchased in advance. This is a simple matter of math.
This is where the travelers’ stories of yore come in. How bumpy? How cramped? How temperature inclement? Unpaved roads might be fun on an ATV, but after the seventh hour of bumpity-bump in a bus seat with punishing springs and a jaggedy armrest they start to lose their charm. Also, independent of the name of the service you’re taking, the number of seats on the bus is important. Just how diagonal can you get if there are 45 other souls on the bus? Not very. You can also often choose your seat location. Towards the front and on the upper level (if there are two) tend to be more comfortable.
So you’ve balanced safety/time/money/comfort, and overnight bus it is. Here’s the approach, the execution, and the getaway. Also known as:
Practicalities, or keeping your sanity and your stuff.
In the bus terminal
Overnight bus rides have the maddening tendency to start at night. This means you’ll be suited up with your backpacks, back to front, with all of your worldly possessions in a bus station at night. I have one word for you about your possessions. Contact. Visual and physical. You should ideally have physical contact with your bags at all times. Ideally, your main bag is in front of you with your feet on it, or you’re sitting on it, and your daypack, with all the shiny computery techie things, is on your body. Your passport and other essential documents are around your neck or your waist.
It looks dorky and everyone knows they’re there, but no one is going to sidle up to your middle and do a grabbity on you without you noticing. Everyone I’ve ever known that has had something stolen in a bus station has had it snatched while they weren’t looking. Don’t be that statistic.
On the bus
You’ve gotten on the bus, discovered the window (or aisle) seat of your dreams, and you’re getting comfy. Not so fast! The most likely time to get ripped off on the bus is before the bus even starts. A well-meaning “son” helps his “mother” to get situated and drags your bag along the luggage rack to the back, where he helps himself to your camera, and your gummy bears (talk about adding insult to injury). Stay very aware when you first get on the bus. I recommend against putting anything important in the overhead rack, preferring to place it at your feet or around the footrest, if there is one, or just holding it on your lap until you get going.
Once the bus gets underway you’re in better shape. A camaraderie of suffering emerges, with you and the twenty-seven or thirty-six or forty-five strangers of your choice are all stuck on the same bus now for the duration.
What to bring/wear
Clothing and food
Think of the bus like a tiny survivalist expedition. You’ll need to dress in layers, for any kind of weather, and in some places (the highlands of Bolivia come to mind or any country where air-conditioning is known), you’ll want a poncho/blanket, a sleeping bag or a down parka (but probably not all three). You’ll probably also want some water (in a small-mouthed bottle, unless you enjoy the mid-bus ride bath), lip balm, motion sickness meds if your situation warrants it, and some food. Now’s not the time to try the double-flaky deep fried meat-filled wonderpastry. Keep it simple: crackers, cookies, fruit, nuts, a sandwich.
You’ll also want some entertainment. A friend is good, but an MP3 player is smaller and less conflictive. You’ll also want earplugs which you can use to block out crying babies, nearby snorers, ruffling roosters, loud televisions, and even the pimp-my-ride style wheeze some country’s bus drivers have had added to the clutch. An eye mask gives you an air of mystery and also prevents you from seeing just how close the oncoming traffic is coming to the side of your bus. Toilet paper should accompany you everywhere, serving alternately to mop, clean, wipe, or in the case of extreme cold, to start a fire (but not on the bus).
I once asked an orthopedist how I should try to sleep to speed healing of an injured shoulder. And he told me that if he could figure out a way to control the positions in which people slept, he’d be a millionaire. So you may not be able to control the way you sleep on the bus, but at least you’ll know what you’re getting into with the descriptions below:
Straight and easy – Sit in the bus seat as you were meant to, feet down, head up. The lack of lumbar support will give you a backache, but no one will give you the fisheye.
Like a shrimp – Recline the bus seat all the way and lean to one side, curling your legs underneath you. You’re a single spoon here, unless your seatmate (preferably a friend or loved one) likes to sleep this way, too. Here you have a good chance of waking up with a stiff neck, but you’ll save your lower back.
Against the other seat – If your seatmate has his or her seat just a squidge further forward than yours, you use the side of their seat to lean your head against. You run a very good chance of bonking your head as it bounces out of and back into place, and also of drooling, but you can use the blanket to mop that up.
In the fetal/crash position – Curl your knees up and put them against the back of the seat in front of you, squinching down in your seat. This will annoy the person in front of you so try to do it gingerly, relaxing slowly into the position so they don’t notice. Warning: if the person in front of you changes the position of their seat, you could alternatively get smooshed or could go crashing into a heap on the floor. Also loose change will fall out of your pockets.
At some point in the middle of the night, or perhaps early in the morning, your bus may stop at a watering hole of sorts. You may wish to get off the bus, but as you do so, remember all of the pre-bus embarkment rules apply re: contact. Also, if there is more than one bus at your bar/restaurant/truckstop, take careful note of a distinguishing feature (furry red fringe around the windshield, for example) on the bus so you know which is yours. If you’re traveling alone, make eye contact with a fellow traveler that says in that plaintive yet silent voice, “Please don’t leave without me.”
You’ve made it to the destination. At his point you must slowly unfurl from your sleep position and resituate yourself into the land of the awake. Here you should take a quick census of possessions and people with which/whom you entered the bus. Then land on the ground outside the bus, ever alert for the wayward tempted-by-a-daypack ne’er-do-well preying on your befuddled and ill-slept state. For the main part, people in the world can be trusted, but like the flying-off-the-road or held-up-by-bandits stories mentioned earlier, you’d really rather listen to than tell the story about how your bag got away.
Locate your baggage receipt, claim your baggage, heft it on your shoulder, and find your way into the city. Your overnight bus ride is now complete. Depending on your budget and timeframe, repeat once every 12 hours to two weeks. Chiropracty optional.
Now go take a shower. You deserve it.
For more information on public transportation, check out the following articles:
- How to Keep Your Hanky Handy: 12 Tips for Surviving Uganda’s Public Transportation
- Photo Essay: Eight Unusual Transit Systems Around the World
- Public Transportation in Malaysia: Trials and Errors
- 11 of the World’s Coolest Train Stations