It might not be the most glamorous way to travel but lets face it, overnight bus trips are an absolute god send when it comes to seeing the world on a budget. They can be cramped, dirty and smelly but really are second to none when it comes to cheap transport. Oh the things we adventurers do to keep costs down! Despite the bus being one of the most favoured methods of transport among backpackers, it is far from the favourite.
Before I took any overnight bus trips, I was hugely anxious about them. What would I do if I needed the loo? Are they reliable? Would they be comfortable? My mind spun with questions. In true Winging the World style, I am going to try to help make your next long haul bus trip less horrendous. I’ve compiled a list of top tips to make the journey as pain free as possible, one anxious traveller to another.
Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.
The above line may be a cheesy spin that your teachers used to persuade you to revise for your exams but its core message holds true. One of the most surefire ways to make your overnight bus trip more comfortable is to take adequate precautions before travelling.
Know your Overnight Bus!
The most important thing to realise when it comes to long haul bus rides is to know the difference in classes. Be aware that bus types vary by continent. I’ve been on some shocking VIP buses in Asia but brilliant ones in South American countries. This is a general account of the different kinds of buses. It is also worth noting that the better the bus, the more likely there is to be a toilet.
- Hotel bus – Judging purely by the name, it is quickly apparent that this is the best bus to opt for if it is available. Sheets and pillows are laid out on the floor with rails surrounding different sleeping areas to separate everyone. You’ll sometimes even get bunk beds to double up on the available sleeping areas. Shared shared beds are occasionally available which means if you’re travelling as a couple you get to stick together. The ultimate in comfort yet often more expensive, the hotel bus should always be your first choice but just in case it isn’t obvious, hanky-panky isn’t welcome.
- Sleeper bus/ Tourist bus – These buses are also a good option. Usually featuring reclining chairs that go pretty much all the way back, they are a great choice if you are doing an equal mix of daytime and overnight travelling. There is usually a table which is handy for snacks and sometimes a leg pocket where you can keep valuables. I’d like to stress that if you are on the slightly taller side of life there you may find leg room a bit lacking.
- VIP bus – Surprisingly the VIP bus comes in quite low down the list. The reason for this is that you never know what you’re going to get. I have travelled on some great VIP buses where we were provided drinks and snacks as well as reclining chairs and extra legroom. I have also been on VIP buses that have had leaks and windows held together with play-doh.
My least fond memory of a so called VIP bus involved breaking down in the mountains of Laos. It was pouring with rain and we had to wait for 2 hours for the bus to get ‘fixed’. Once they finally got it going, the window leaked on me the whole way and the driver couldn’t go over 40mph. The estimated 8 hour journey took nearly 17. Not fun.
- Standard 2nd/3rd class bus – These two types of buses have very little difference in my opinion. There tends to be a longer journey time as they stop more frequently. Owing to the increase in breaks people are more inclined to join the bus part way through the route. That vacant seat next to you might not stay vacant for long.
Overnight Bus Trip Advice for the Anxious Traveller!
Stock up on Imodium to ward off any unfortunate accidents
I must apologise for getting down and dirty so early on in this article but this is a vital tip to ensure you have a smooth journey. There is nothing worse than clenching your cheeks for hours on end when that curry just didn’t agree with you. Trust me, I have had plenty of experience with awful travel journeys!
When buying said anti-diarrhoea drugs, it is also important to make you sure that you have been given what you asked for. Tim and I once attempted to purchase the above but due to a language barrier and lax drug regulations, ended up with a pack of diazepam. Great for calming the nerves, not so great for slowing gut movement.
Make sure you keep cash on you, small denominations are best
If you are lucky enough to get regular toilet stops it is possible that many of these will be in the middle of nowhere. Depending on where you are, it may be impossible to find a cash point so always make sure you have some cash handy for snacks and border crossing fees.
Pack the essentials and make sure that they are adequately charged
Unfortunately, you won’t always be able to sleep so a book or an iPod is good for keeping the mind busy. Always make sure these devices are fully charged and for added protection, don’t forget to pack a portable charger and relevant cables. Many high quality buses will actually include USB charging ports. It’s also worth bringing at least one big bottle of water and some snacks as these are not always provided.
Plan your outfit
Buses are always a bit of a gamble when it comes to temperature. Make sure you are wearing something that will ultimately keep you cool, but also make sure you have a thicker/longer layer of clothing close to hand in case there is no escape from faulty air conditioning. 18 hours is a long time to be cold!
Arrive at the bus station early to bag a good seat
When it comes to buses, it is the early bird that catches the worm. Getting to the pick-up point in good time means that you get a better choice of seats. The seats with the most legroom are always the first to be snapped up so make sure you’re choosing a seat with comfort in mind.
The front seats are usually the best in terms of legroom and you also benefit from a good view of the road on double deckers – anxious travellers will want to avoid this if the driving is lacking in skill and safety! If given the choice always go for an aisle seat instead of a window, as you can use the walkway to spread out when the bus is moving. People will also be much less likely to sit next to you if they have to ask you to move. Win, win.
Take advantage of every toilet stop
You would think any journey upwards of 8 hours would meet the criteria for an onboard toilet but this is not always the case. I have done journeys of 20 hours with the only toilets being the ones that the bus driver has decided to stop at. It might be annoying when you’re rudely awoken by the sleeper bus grinding to a halt at 3am but it is worth getting up and using the loo.
Toilet stops seem to be a hugely unregulated feature of bus travel which means you may have to go hours without one. Nothing disrupts journey comfort like dying for a wee, or worse, a number two. Make sure you’re back at the bus as soon as you are finished though because they will leave without you, I once had to stand half in and half out of the bus while Tim took much longer than the driver was willing to wait!
Try to get as much sleep as humanly possible
My top tip for making your long haul bus journey as smooth as possible is probably my ultimate tip for any stressful situation in life. Sleep as much as your possibly can. Not only does time fly by when you’re asleep but you’re more likely to arrive at your destination feeling refreshed and ready to start exploring.
In my experience bus rides can be pretty terrifying, especially when you’re hurtling around mountain bends at 60mph so I find that closing your eyes is the best tactic to avoid a mental breakdown. Passing a bus which has fallen casualty to the treacherous road conditions is not conducive to a worry free journey. Thank god for that diazepam!
Be picky when it comes to deciding who you sit near
Don’t underestimate the gravity of this decision. During a bus ride through Vietnam I foolishly decided to sit opposite a man who was shouting across the bus to beckon his friend over. I should have seen the warning signs then but alas.
He spent the entire journey having excruciatingly loud phone conversations and hocking up loogis (thats phlegm and spit for all us non-American folk) into a plastic bag. As if this wasn’t grim enough, he tied the plastic bag to the strap of his luggage in the overhead compartment. Every time the bus driver braked, this spit filled bag hit the girl in front in the head.
Organise your belongings to give you easy access to the important things
Make sure you keep your valuables with you at all times. Stow them away in a safe place out of sight when you are sleeping and be extra safe by splitting your money across your belongings and your person. I am an avid believer in the sock purse and would recommend it to anyone.
Use your GPS
This is a great tip and can be utilised by anyone with a smart phone (which is pretty much everyone these days). Sometimes, a language barrier will mean that you arrive at your desired destination with absolutely no idea you are there. Whilst a lot of the time you will be lucky and will be the last stop, some buses will continue onto other destinations.
Using the GPS on your phone (which works without using data) will help you keep track of your journey. I definitely recommend using the maps.me app as it is great for marking your next accommodation stop as well as other important landmarks. GPS will also help you work out when it is time to depart the bus, unless you’ve enjoyed your journey so much that you want to stay?!
What are your top tips on surviving long haul bus travel?
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