Long-distance travel is not as bad as people make it out to be. Yes, it’s long. There may be some pain involved, and it’ll eat up your time. But it is cheap, and when you’re traveling long-term, saving money is key.
The trick to a positive long-distance bus trip is to be prepared. If you’re not, you may walk away feeling miserable, tired, and resentful.
Planning your trip
Don’t rush out and buy a ticket without some thought and planning. In fact, you should check multiple places and companies to buy tickets from.
When you’re on the road, it’s important to do some research first. Talk with other travelers about which buses they’ve used and what the costs were. If you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language, check out various tourism offices and compare prices.
Then suck it up, go to the actual bus station itself, brave the language barrier by using hand gestures and bringing a pen and piece of paper, then buy your ticket for a fraction of the cost you would from a travel agent. They exist for convenience of the traveler, and they tax you for it (as they should). While it can be a little daunting the first few times you do it, it gets easier, and the longer you’re on the road, the more you’ll do it, and the more comfortable you’ll become gathering information and purchasing tickets in another language.
Be very clear about what your standards are before you go out to buy your ticket. Depending on which country you’re in will determine what options you have.
Most regions, no matter where you are in the world, have a bare-bones, rock bottom priced bus option that most of the locals take. These won’t be comfortable and will not leave or arrive on time, but they will be dirt cheap and allow you to mingle with the people of the country you’re visiting. Every long-term traveler should take at least one of these types of bus trips during their travels.
What types of buses there are beyond that depend on the region and country Argentina, for example, has buses will fully reclinable seats that serve good, hot meals and wine (and they may not be as expensive as you think!). Many countries have some type of first-class bus that will be most expensive. Then there is everything else in between.
Make sure you know what type of bus you are booking. It’s a good idea to scope out the buses before you buy your ticket. Look for the ones that appear to be clean and in good repair. If there are no such buses, then look for the ones with less sketchy drivers!
Buying a ticket
Once you’ve decided on your budget and comfort levels, it’s important to think about timing. Some travelers are not comfortable with arriving in a new city in the middle of the night. One solution is to take an overnight bus, this way you arrive in the morning and you also save on the cost of a hostel stay.
When you’re ready to buy your ticket, be very precise. Speak clearly and reconfirm the information before handing over your money. Write down prices if you don’t speak the language. Learn the most basic of words – bathroom, food, drinks, what time – to be able to communicate and get the basic information. Make sure you and the ticket seller are both agreed on the price. If possible have them write it down for you. This could come in handy later if the price is disputed and they try to extort more money from you. Be confident but respectful.
As noted already, always try to go to the bus station itself to purchase your ticket. It will almost always be cheaper than from your hostel or a travel agent.
Selecting a seat
Selecting a seat on a bus is just as important as selecting a seat in a movie theatre. If you’re prone to motion sickness, it’s best to sit in the middle or back of the bus where you’re far from the big front windows. Depending on the country you are in, the back of the bus can be noisy and bumpy, so take that into account if you are hoping to get some sleep.
Solo female travelers should sit as close to the front of the bus as you can. There is a reason why older people sit at the front. It’s safe. Bad things tend to happen closer to the back where the bus driver is unable to see.
Keep in mind though, some countries have stewards who seat you when you board. If you smile big, you may be able to get the seat you want, but most likely you will have to take what they give you.
Everything we feel is a reflection of our state of mind. If we decide that something will suck, well then, it will suck. If we feel sad or depressed, even the brightest setting will look grey and dreary. However, we as individuals have the power to change our perceptions by looking at the same situation from a different angle. This is something I’ve learned to do over the years, and it’s helped to shape my travel memories into something more than just misery.
Before you start your journey, come to terms with the fact that things will not be perfect.
- After a couple of hours your legs may cramp up
- The dude next to you may stink
- There could be a durian rolling around underneath the seat in front of you, the smell wafting up to your nose and the spikiness of the fruit stabbing your flip flop covered feet every 3 minutes
- The bus driver in Vietnam may smoke the entire time while screaming obscenities at the surrounding traffic (on an overnight bus)
- You may be seated next to a family, all of whom have motion sickness and puke the entire time
These have all happened to me on long bus journeys, and all are a part of traveling long distance by bus. And while not always the most pleasant while they’re happening, they sure do make the best stories afterwards!
If you’re prepared for these types of things, then the trip won’t seem as horrible when the time comes. Embrace the realities and find ways to make your trip more comfortable (and learn how to laugh at the ridiculous things that happen!).
Traveling by bus means that your bag will be stowed either underneath or on top of the bus. It’s important to make sure everything is secure. Be sure to lock your bag and stand at the curb until you see it loaded onto the bus.
Never leave your valuables in your main bag. Pack a daypack with essentials and bring it on the bus with you. Don’t forget to bring some snacks, like fruit, nuts, and packets of peanut butter, or slices of meat (Kielbasa, salami etc.) or cheese. These types of foods will keep your body nourished while you travel and are often cheaper and healthier than what you’ll scrounge up when the bus stops.
Bring plenty of water; not only do you need to stay hydrated, you can also use the water to freshen up on a long ride. And of course, don’t forget some toilet paper, which can often be scarce (on non-existent) in some areas. Before leaving home take a roll and slide the cardboard center out, then place in a Ziploc baggie (you’ll be thankful for this later in your trip) and squish it down so it takes less room in your bag. Baby wipes are a godsend as well on a long bus journey.
Your daypack should also include things like toiletries, a change of clothes and underwear, and earplugs to block out the sounds of singers, snorers, loud-talkers, and crying babies (or screaming Vietnamese bus drivers). And be sure to wear a money belt under your clothes and have your passport, cash, and credit cards inside it. This way if your daypack gets swiped, you have the important things on your person. Ladies, don’t forget about your bra. It’s another great hiding place for valuables.
As a solo female traveler it’s a good idea to have things like a set of keys in your pack for quick self-defense. You probably won’t need to use them, but knowing you have them will add a level of safety and comfort to your trip. Bringing a pashmina or sarong is also a good idea. They are generally large in size and will help to cover cleavage and keep you warm. Remember to dress comfortably, but be conservative if you don’t want to be hassled during your trip. Travel smart. There are times to be sexy, and on a bus in the middle of nowhere Asia or Africa is not one of those times.
Don’t wear flashy jewelry or expensive items when traveling by bus. Keep them in your money belt or somewhere else that is safe. They key is to blend in as much as you can.
DVT –Deep Vein Thrombosis is a very real and potentially dangerous condition that can strike anyone. In the most serious cases, DVT can cause pulmonary embolisms.
DVT occurs when there are blood clots in a deep vein, which can occur in both the arms and legs. Symptoms include swelling, hot red skin and intense pain. Although some doctors suggest that travelers wear compression socks on long haul trips to avoid DVT, exercise is another (and cheaper) way to prevent clotting of the blood.
When your traveling by bus, be sure to get out and stretch whenever it stops. You can do basic lunges, and walk around the bus, but don’t wander away as the bus may leave without you. It may not be possible to leave the bus whenever it stops, so be sure to stand up and stretch.
Everyone has different safety levels. Some people feel as though they could stare down Colombian rebels, while others quiver when a dog barks. Be aware of your safety and comfort levels and prepare appropriately. It’s a good idea to send an email to family before your trip to let them know where you are, where you’re going, etc.
Making friends with someone on the bus helps to keep you informed. As a solo female traveler, I look for older women or couples to chat with. They generally warm up to strangers faster, and they’ll look out for you during the trip.
Pay attention to your surroundings – including the people sitting around you – this is the most important part of staying safe. Keep your valuables with you at all times, on your lap. If it’s an overnight bus and you’re going to sleep, treat your bag like your childhood teddy bear.
Enjoy the scenery
Traveling by bus is a great way to see a country. From small towns to large cities, the bus provides you with a view of local life that constantly changes as the kilometers tick by. Making the most of the trip is all about mental and physical preparation – prepare and pack smartly, accept that the journey is not within your control, time it so you have an itinerary cushion in the chance that you’re delayed, and remember the excitement of where you are and what you’re doing. Look at your situation as an epic adventure, don’t stress out, sit back, relax and, above all, enjoy!
Read more about traveling overland:
- 12 Tips for Surviving Public Transportation in a Developing Country
- Overnight Bus Tips from an Expert
- A Step-By-Step Guide to Riding the Chicken Buses of Guatemala
- The Art of Overland Travel