How To Survive A Long Bus Journey

by Brenna Holeman
Chicken Buses in Nicaragua
When having to travel through a country or even across international borders, often the cheapest and most convenient mode of transportation is the bus. Though it’s not as romantic as train travel and not as fast as travelling by air, bus travel can have its benefits, often linking us by road to otherwise inaccessible places. In many areas frequented by backpackers (Central and South America and Southeast Asia, for example), buses can also be extremely cheap; I paid no more than $15 to travel across the whole of Costa Rica, for example, and, just recently, paid only $5 for six hours worth of travel through Ecuador.
But let’s be frank – buses are often pretty awful. Though a lot of countries have comfortable, air-conditioned fleets, a lot of times the only option is to take the equivalent of a chicken bus; they’re bumpy, hot, crowded, loud, uncomfortable, and yes, sometimes filled with chickens. So how do we survive bus travel, be it luxury or local? How can we make the ride as pleasant as it can possibly be?
On the bus in Nepal

1. Do your research. There are often lots of different bus companies with lots of different options. A day or two before you want to travel, ask your hostel or tourist information for advice on which bus company to go with. Also research different times and routes – sometimes you can shave off a few hours by taking an alternative route, or by travelling at night (if it’s safe to do so). It’s also important to check whether or not the bus is a direct one; nothing’s worse than stopping every 15 minutes or so to pick up new passengers.

2. Be prepared. It may sound over-dramatic, but be prepared for every possible situation: will you get hungry? will you get cold? will you get hot? will you get a headache? will you be able to sleep? I always make sure to have the following in my carry-on bag: water, snacks, toilet paper, painkillers, inflatable neck pillow (say what you will, but they really work) and warm clothing (socks, a sweater, and a scarf or sarong). Warm clothing is especially important for air-conditioned buses, as they tend to be absolutely freezing.

Kerri and I Seemingly Ready for a Night Bus in Thailand

3. Similarly, pack to keep yourself entertained. I’m a rare breed who can happily read on buses, but I always make sure to have lots of other things to keep me occupied in case I get bored of staring out the window (which is not often). A laptop or iPad with movies, a smart phone with games, or something to listen to music with are all great options, though it’s only smart to use any of these if the bus seems safe and you can use these devices fairly inconspicuously.

View Out the Window in Guatemala

4. Keep an eye (and a hand, and a foot) on your belongings at all times. I frequently hear about theft on buses – pickpocketing is especially common when the bus is crowded and people are disembarking, so watch for distractions and always keep your wits about you. Other dangers include putting your bag on the overhead rack, having your bag stolen from under your seat, or having your bag taken when you fall asleep. To keep my belongings safe, I never, ever put anything on the overhead rack; I put my carry-on bag/day-pack between my legs with my feet through the straps, so it’s impossible to tug or lift without me moving my feet. I also NEVER SLEEP*…just kidding. I always have a small purse with most of my valuables in it (camera, hard drive, iPhone) that I wear with the strap over my body and sitting in my lap with my scarf or sarong over it/me like a blanket. I also wear my money belt under my clothes with my passport and bank cards. All of this may sound paranoid, but I always believe that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

5. REALLY keep an eye on your belongings at all times. Don’t leave five backpacks with one person when you all go to the bathroom. Watch your bag being put in the luggage compartment and wait until the compartment is shut before getting on the bus. When the bus stops and others disembark, watch out the window if they open the luggage compartment again. If there is a break for food or the bathroom, take everything with you. Think like a thief – wouldn’t it be easy to grab a small bag sitting on the ground while its owner struggles to get her big backpack on or look at a map?

6. Stay calm. In many, many countries, buses are late and overcrowded, and roads under construction. There might be obnoxious music playing, or perhaps a terrible movie in a language you can’t speak on TV (Kerri and I were blessed with this gem not once but twice in Colombia). The person next to you may be snoring, or the baby behind you crying. And, unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about any of this. There is no use in getting worked up – just take some deep breaths and know that, eventually, you’ll get to your destination.

Stuck in the Mud in Laos

7. Prepare for your arrival. Long before I get to my destination, I already know a few things: where the station is located in the city, how I can get to my hostel or find an area with a lot of hostels, how much a taxi should cost, and (if arriving in a new country) what the exchange rate is. That way, I’m never walking off a bus wide-eyed and confused – I look confident, because I am confident. I also personally try to never arrive at night, though sometimes this is unavoidable.

8. Enjoy the ride. Yes, it could potentially be a long and uncomfortable one, but I look at every journey as a necessary step in continuing my adventures. I actually usually really love being on buses, as it gives me a chance to see the countryside and reflect on my trip’s past, present, and future. I also love chatting to the people around me (locals and travellers alike), trying the food of the vendors that come onboard, and just staring out the window and taking it all in. “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” they say – but sometimes the journey is a pain in the ass, so make the very best of it.

*What do you do on bus rides? Do you have any other tips?*
On the Bus in Colombia
*Though I never, ever take sleeping pills.
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Antastesia. September 10, 2012 - 9:45 pm

I actually like being on buses too. I love being in planes, it’s probably where I feel the best, but buses are just a little bit more ‘ adventurous’. I also make sure I have things to eat&to drink.
But for me the most important is to wear confortable clothes, and have wipes if I’m going to spend a long time on the road. It’s always refreshing and nice to clean up your face and reapply make up 🙂

aynlatonio September 11, 2012 - 5:27 am

This might sound ironic but I felt safest when I’m toploading. I did this when I was travelling from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, Palawan. It was a 5-hour bus ride and aside from the rough and dusty roads, I didn’t mind being up there with other people’s luggage. It was quite an experience with the cool breeze blowing in your face the whole time although my ass hurt really bad after awhile…

This Battered Suitcase September 12, 2012 - 2:59 am

Antastesia – Very good tip! I always feel so grungy after a bus ride, so wipes might help…

Aynlatonio – I saw lots of people toploading in the Philippines, but I didn’t try it! My ride to El Nido was in a little shuttle but I’ll have to go back to try it your way. It sounds great!


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