How To Travel Long Distance by Bus

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’s cheap and as a traveler saving money is key.  The trick to a positive long-distance trip is to be prepared. If you’re not, you may walk away feeling miserable, tired and resentful.

Over the years I’ve taken several long-haul trips. Sometimes I was prepared and other times I wanted to find the closet cliff and dive off. It’s all about the preparation, your state of mind, and the little things you bring along to help you get through (such as distractions like books, magazines, or an iPod. ). Here are eight tips for surviving long-distance bus travel..

Planning your trip

Don’t rush out and buy a ticket without some thought and planning. 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. Walk around to various tourism offices and compare prices. It may sound like a waste of time, but when you’re on a budget, you don’t want to be overcharged because you’re in a rush and don’t know better.

Be very clear about what your standards are before you go out to buy your ticket. Government buses are older, not air-conditioned and have very little leg room. They also stop in every little town on the way and therefore take longer. VIP buses, on the other hand, are roomy, have ac and offer passengers water and a meal. A VIP bus may be double the price, but if you want to be more comfortable then it’s worth the extra money.

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. 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.

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 pretty noisy, 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.

Mental preparation

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, there will be people near you who have bad body odor, you may be surrounded by loud people or crying babies, you may come down with motion sickness, and once you’ve arrived at your destination you’ll be exhausted. These are all a part of traveling long distance by bus.

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.

Baggage

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. If the bus uses roof storage, bring a bike lock or pacsafe with you and secure it to the racks on top of the bus to prevent others from unloading it when you’re not looking.

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 at the petrol stations 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.

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. 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.

Exercise

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.

Feeling secure

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. Know your route. You may not be able to read the signs and you could miss your stop if you’re not paying attention. If the unthinkable happens and your bus gets hijacked remember the following.

Stay calm. Take deep breaths and focus on your surroundings. Where are you? If you know your route, you may have a rough idea as to where you are. Look for landmarks or anything that stands out. How many people are involved in the hijacking? Pay attention to things like clothing, accents, symbols, eye color, height, stature and so on. Everything will happen quickly, so stay calm and focus.

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!

Learn more about bus travel in Central America.

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Photos by: 1. AndrewHA, 2. Murtada al Mousawy 3. felibrilu, 4. Bairo, 5. steve caddy,  6. opacity,  7. Sistak, 8. timsamoff

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Older comments on How To Travel Long Distance by Bus

Gypsy Traveller
17 February 2011

I greatly enjoy over-the-road travel. One time, the bus broke down in Gary Indiana (USA) at all hours of the morning; another female passenger made it quite verbally clear she was irritated with the situation. Stated that she was pregnant, stepped outside to chain smoke and hung her (just washed) underware on a road sign to dry while we all waited for a mechanic.

Inka Piegsa-quischotte
17 February 2011

I travel by long distance coach all the time,particularly in Turkey and Europe. All these tips are very helpful for a single woman traveler. Blending in is the key.

Michael Hodson
17 February 2011

I’ve done more bus travel in the last two years than anyone I know — given that I circled the globe without ever flying. Agree with almost all of this, especially bringing water and food (and heavy, warm clothes in Central and South America), and either an iPod or earplugs — really loud music, movies and people on lots of buses. One thing that I totally disagree with is EVER sitting anywhere near the front of the bus. Check out the photo of the bus wrecked near the end of this post…. head on collisions are a MUCH bigger safety risk than ever getting groped or anything like that in the back of the bus. Never, ever, ever sit up near the front. So damn dangerous up there.

Canuck Girl
18 February 2011

It all depends on the country you’re traveling in. The same could be said for sitting in the front of an airplane, or driving a car etc.

As a solo female traveler, I don’t want to risk being groped (or worse), EVER! THAT is too risky in my books. If I was worried about being in an accident, I would just stay home. Head-on collisions can happen with ANY vehicle.

Pedro Assunção
24 February 2011

To be honest i prefer to sit in the middle of the bus, especially when i plan to sleep for a while. Sitting in the middle of the bus ensures that there is less “rocking” around from bumps in the road.

jessus
03 March 2011

Hm, I would somewhat disagree with sitting AWAY from the front if you suffer from motion sickness. From personal experience, the front is the best place to sit if you’re prone to nausea on the road!

mamta123
09 March 2011

it is nice to have a look on totally different topic. GOOD

mamta123
16 March 2011

Hey gypsy it is quite strange. Is not it sounds funny well being a travel writer i m quite happy to have such comments over here.

excuse the dust
27 May 2011

Besides a greyhound trip in my college years, I’ve only taken one other long bus trip (from Cuernavaca, MX to Ixtapa stopping all over the country it seemed). I was pretty sure I’ve never seen worse driver but hey, I lived to tell the tale!