Bus Travel Tips, Tricks and Advice – Slow Travel on Four Wheels

“A bus is a vehicle that runs twice as fast when you are after it as when you are in it.”
– Unknown Author

When it comes to public transportation, bus travel is the cheapest, most dangerous and least comfortable way to get from one destination to another, and it is the slowest way to travel. Here, we will explore strategies, tips and advice to make bus travel as painless as possible.

Local buses are flagged down by extending your arm with a down-turned palm, and waving with your wrist. Although most fare collectors will not try to rip tourists off, there are the odd ones who will. Try to determine what the other passengers are paying by simply asking them, or observing with what denominations they pay and what change they are getting back.

Ticket Wicket

If you know exactly when you plan on moving to the next town, purchase tickets a few days in advance. This will give you a wider choice of available seating, and may be essential during busy periods. Try to avoid traveling on weekends and holidays, as transportation and accommodation may be difficult, or impossible, to secure.

Ask if there are any other companies serving the same route. A competitor may be cheaper, or leave / arrive at a more convenient time. When it comes to comfort, you usually get what you pay for. A direct or express bus will invariably get you to your destination quicker than a local one that stops every few minutes (or metres) to pick passengers up or drop them off.

Bus Travel can be delayed by road repairs, construction and maintenance

Bus Travel delays on the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia

When asking about which bus to take, don’t ask “yes / no” questions or point to a particular vehicle. Instead of asking “Is this the bus to Bangkok?”, ask “Which bus goes to Bangkok?”. “What time does the bus leave?” not “Does the bus leave at 7:00?”. Eager to please you or misunderstanding the question, locals can often agree or respond in the affirmative, despite the opposite being true.

The more people you ask, the better your chances of obtaining accurate bus travel information. Don’t just get a second opinion, get a fourth or fifth one, too. If you get a different answer from every person you ask, it’s your choice who to believe. Or, take the average. If you feel the answers you’re getting are more of an attempt to please you or mask misunderstanding than valuable information, ask a few questions to which you already know the answers. This will give you an indication of how reliable your source is.

Bus Travel by Day and Night

A day bus is usually better than a night bus. However, in some countries and on some routes, long distance bus travel at night may be your only option. It may save you a night’s accommodation, but will cost you passing scenery and a good night’s sleep, especially if the speaker is blaring and the driver leans on the horn every time another vehicle approaches.

Night buses usually take less time to cover any distance than day buses. This is due to less traffic and wired, crazier drivers. They may even arrive at their destination earlier than quoted. If you are told you’ll arrive at 6am, count on closer to 4am. They are generally safer, as they travel during periods of lighter traffic. But, already abhorrent driving skills and habits become even worse at night. Darkness can impede a driver’s vision, and fatigue and alcohol can impair their reactions and judgment. In some countries, nighttime is also a favored time for bandits to set up roadblocks.

Alex finds room among the luggage on a bus in Laos

Alex finds room among the luggage on a bus in Laos

If you will be traveling at night, use a hat, bandana, etc, rolled into a sarong as a pillow. Place it between the back of your neck and the head rest. A thin blanket or extra sarong will help keep you warm when the AC doesn’t get turned off or if you are in temperate climates. Earplugs will silence any chatterboxes and snorers, and an eye-shade might come in handy if the bus’s interior lights stay on all night.

Keep your day-pack on your lap, and watch for on-board pick-pockets and bag-slashers. Keep your wits about you upon arrival, and what valuables you can on you – whether in your money belt, neck pouch, or inside pocket. Thieves will often target the groggy, weary, bleary-eyed, yawning backpacker stumbling off a bus at 4:30 in the morning. Keep

Seat Selection

The perfect bus seat may not exist anywhere on the planet. However, there are some things to consider that might make your road journey – particularly long overnight trips – more comfortable, or at least less uncomfortable. If your only option is a sleeper bus (rusting rattletraps with three rows of bunks), try to secure an upper bunk with a window. This way any cigarette butts, ashes, spit, trash, etc from the top seats won’t end up on you, and you’ll have a view and fresh air.

On busy and popular services without reserved or assigned seating, you will join the scramble for a seat. If traveling with a companion and the bus has two doors, each person should be at a door, thereby increasing the chances of sitting for the duration of the journey. Be sure to save a seat for your companion. Although it can be very competitive, maintain a certain level of courtesy and consideration.

Alex settles in for a 30 hour ride on a Chinese Sleeper Bus

Settling in on a Sleeper Bus

Seats at the front of the bus don’t have any in front of them that will recline into your lap, but will also expose you to the driver’s dangerous and horrifying driving techniques and habits. Sit close to the front of the bus, but not right at the front. This way you can see and anticipate any potential disasters, and have a few seats separating you from it.

Odors, Fumes and the Window Seat

Don’t sit near the toilet, which is usually at the back of the bus. It will see the most traffic and develop an unpleasant odour after a while. The very rear seats won’t recline, and seats at the back of the bus will be above the real axle. These are also the most susceptible to the movement of the bus and the imperfections of the road. Avoid sitting under a speaker. It will probably be blaring at full blast, far beyond the point of distortion, for the entire journey.

If your bus doesn’t have AC (and it probably won’t) and open windows are the only means of keeping the temperature down, note which side the exhaust is on, and sit on the other side. Six hours of inhaling diesel smoke will seem like twelve.

Many people suffer from motion sickness, so keep an eye on the passengers around you. If the person sitting in front of you starts turning green, close your window.

Matatus cram the roads of Mombasa, Kenya

Matatus cram the roads of Mombasa

If traveling by day, and the views are equally appealing from both sides, choose the side of the vehicle away from the sun. You won’t get scorched, and you’ll have better light for photos. If possible, change sides of the bus occasionally. Looking out the same window for eight hours will result in a strained and sore neck.

At Least I’m Enjoying the Ride

Luggage stored on or under a bus works on the LIFO principle – Last In First Off. There’s no need to rush to the front of the line to have your backpack stowed, unless there is a real possibility of there not being enough room for everyone or everyone’s baggage. If you do, you’ll be waiting at the back of the line to get it upon arrival, as hotel rooms quickly disappear. If traveling with a friend, have one person retain the seats while the other deals with the packs.

Don’t be surprised if everyone’s luggage is piled in the middle of the bus, rather than on the roof or luggage compartment. Be cautious of someone trying to charge you for loading your pack onto a bus. Most countries don’t charge for baggage. If you think you are being taken for a ride, claim you were told the charge was included in the ticket. If that doesn’t work, ask for a receipt. Alternately, ask a local if there actually is a surcharge.

Changing a flat tire near Coroico, Bolivia

A flat tire can turn a three-hour bus ride into a day-long odyssey

Prepare for long bus rides. Bring water, snacks and your guidebook. If you are suffering from any stomach ailments, bring anti-diarrheal medication, and keep a few plastic bags handy in case you are nauseous. Be proactive with motion sickness and take a tablet at least 30 minutes before the bus leaves. Try to get up and walk around to stretch your limbs every hour or two. This will help your blood circulation and break up long hauls as well.

So, relax, take in the passing scenery, and enjoy the ride. Contemplate where you’ve been, and plan what you’ll do where you’re going. After all, when you’re sitting on a bus for several hours, there isn’t much else to do.


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