I love traveling by bus. Some people might hate it, but I am one of those weirdos who actually doesn’t mind spending 10+ hours on a bus.
Now, don’t get me wrong. If I could instantly transport myself anywhere, I would. But until those superpowers kick in (any day now!) I’ll have to make the best of long-distance travel.
I’ve been on many long distance buses and night buses in Europe, Southeast Asia and North America. They provide a unique travel experience. As a budget backpacker, it’s an affordable and efficient mode of transportation. And when I was a digital nomad, I used to spend those hours working on projects.
During all those trips, I became somewhat of an expert on long-distance bus travel. I learned how to find the best transportation, be as comfortable as possible, how to stay safe and get the most optimal sleep. Let me share my experience in overnight bus travel with you. Here are the most important things to know about traveling by long distance bus.
Reasons to travel by bus
Last year, I vowed to make more of an effort to reduce my carbon footprint. Travel, as amazing as it is, is not exactly environmentally friendly. Air travel account for 14% of all global CO2 emission every year and that number is just growing. Not to mention that flying is boring and tedious.
So I decided to fly as little as possible. Instead, whenever I can, I travel over land. This takes longer of course, but traveling over land does come with a few major upsides:
- Better for the environment
- More space
- No luggage restrictions (or less strict)
- You get to see the landscape roll by
- Easier to work than on a plane
- You can save on accommodation by taking a night bus/train
- Cheap (especially local buses)
- Less waiting around
- More convenient departure and arrival points
- Greater chance to meet locals
As you see, there are plenty of reasons to travel by bus or train instead of by plane. I find that I’m more relaxed when it comes to traveling over land than by plane, because there is much less stress involved. No long check-in lines, endless boarding procedures, and people tend to be more cheerful and friendly.
I think one of the reasons I also like buses is because, unlike with cars, I don’t get carsick. On a bus I can read, work or nap as much as I want.
What to wear on a night bus
To make your trip with a night bus more comfortable, you have to wear comfortable clothing. There’s no way you’ll have a good night sleep in 6 inch stiletto’s or skin tight jeans. Even in warm countries, night buses usually blast the A/C to arctic temperatures, so avoid shorts and tops and go for warm layers.
Since you’re going to want to sleep, you have to wear the closest thing to a pajama. My go-to travel outfit is soft leggings, a t-shirt and a hoodie. This will keep you warm and you won’t have any zippers or buttons digging into your skin.
I can’t sleep if my feet are cold, so I always bring a pair of thick socks with me. That way I can take my shoes off without having to touch anything with my bare feet.
The best clothing item you can wear on a night bus (or any mode of transportation) is a scarf. A scarf, sarong or pashmina is one of the most versatile travel gadgets. You can use it as a blanket, roll it up into a pillow or use it to cover your head against the light and noise.
What to bring on a night bus
The key to having a good trip on a night bus is preparation. This means packing all the essentials in your hand luggage, much like on a long flight.
You’re going to be on the bus for a while, so make sure you bring plenty of food and water. Most night buses will do a few stops or bathroom breaks during the night, but if you want to sleep as much as possible, you won’t want to get out to buy something every time.
In order to be able to sleep, you’ll need ear plugs, an eye mask and a neck pillow. This really makes all the difference in creating a sleep inducing environment. Honestly, those three items have saved me on many an uncomfortable bus ride. I also recommend bringing a few essential toiletries so you can wash your face, brush your teeth and freshen up in the morning. A fresh t-shirt and underwear are great if you won’t be able to check into your hotel straight away.
You probably won’t sleep the whole night through, so bring a few things to keep you entertained. A good book, music and a movie on your phone or laptop goes a long way to pass the time. There won’t be much to see out the window when it’s dark after all. Bring your charger and a power bank so you don’t run out of juice halfway through.
How to stay safe on a night bus
Safety is a concern for bus travelers everywhere, especially women traveling alone. I’ve been in some less than ideal situations, but thankfully, I can say that I have never had any truly dangerous or bad experiences. Although there is also some risk involved in long distance bus travel, I can confidently say that there is a safe way to do it.
Pick the right bus company and bus
First things first: picking a good bus company. As a budget backpacker, I am always tempted to go for the cheapest option. But if you’re going to be spending several hours on a bus, it is worth going with the most comfortable and safe option.
Always read reviews when picking a bus company and ask fellow travelers for recommendations. Look at things like the type of seats, included services and general comfort and safety. The staff at your accommodation can likely also help you find the best option.
I recommend taking a critical look at the arrival/departure point and time as well. You don’t want to get dropped off at the edge of town in the middle of the night. And let someone know which bus you’re planning to take.
Pick a good seat
Generally speaking, the middle of the bus is the safest place to be in case of an accident. I also prefer the middle of the bus as it is close to an exit and the bathroom (if there is one). You’ll also feel less shaking and bumping in the middle. I am a window seat kind of girl, so that I can curl up against the side of the bus to sleep and better enjoy the view. But this is a personal preference of course.
As a solo female traveler, I always recommend sitting next to a woman whenever possible. Not only do women generally take up less space, your chances of getting harassed are a lot lower. If that isn an option, go with your gut. Sit down to someone who looks harmless (families are usually a safe bet) and feel free to refuse the seat next to you or move if someone gives off a weird vibe. It’s more important to be safe than polite. I’ll usually place a bag on the seat next to me so people have to ask instead of just plopping down.
Some bus providers will let you choose a specific seat in advance. In Southeast Asia and North Africa, some even showed which seats were occupied by men, which was extremely convenient.
Keep valuables close
One of the upsides of bus travel is that the luggage restrictions are not as strict as with flying. I usually travel with carry on only, but will put my bigger backpack in the cargo hold of the bus and only take essentials on board. Never place anything valuable in the cargo hold or overhead compartment!
Luggage theft and pick pocketing happens on buses so always keep your valuables close. I recommend either in a cross body purse or money belt that you can keep on your body.
Don’t miss your bus
No matter how much I travel, I still get nervous about missing my bus/train/flight. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve had some close calls. This can be especially stressful in foreign countries where you don’t speak the language. It can be hard to figure out which bus is yours. So don’t be afraid to ask for help, either at the information desk or other travelers. There is always a kind stranger who will show you where your bus is.
One of the things that stressed me out most is the idea of getting left behind. Buses make regular stops for bathroom and food breaks. Always double check the length of the break with the driver, especially if there is a language barrier. Take valuables like wallet, passport and phone with you off the bus. Remember which bus you’re on (maybe take a picture) and make sure you get back on with time to spare.
Differences in bus travel around the world
Long distance bus travel doesn’t look the same everywhere in the world. Where it is most common way to travel in Southeast Asia, it has a bad reputation in the USA.
I’ve traveled by bus in different regions of the world, so I’ll highlight some of the differences to help you be better prepared.
Buses are the main mode of transportation in Southeast Asia (except for motorbikes maybe). It’s the easiest and cheapest way to get around the region, from city to city and country to country. Keep in mind that you sometimes need to change buses when crossing a border.
I took many, many long distances and overnight buses in Southeast Asia. They range from fancy tourist touring cars to run down minivans. My favorite are the local buses where I would usually be the only white person. They take forever, but provide and invaluable cultural experience.
The night buses in Southeast Asia are on a whole other level. Many will have specific night buses or sleeper buses designed for overnight travel. Seats recline all the way and offer amble space. Some buses even have full-blown beds! I took a “hotel bus” in Cambodia that had built in bunk beds.
Most bus operators do not offer online booking, so you’ll have to book in person either at the bus station, a travel agent office or through your accommodation.
Although long distance buses are becoming increasingly popular in Europe, there are no special night buses. Meaning that if you book a bus that happens to drive through the night, you have to make due with a reclining seat. Not as comfortable as a night train, but much more affordable.
Train travel is popular in Europe and there are many low-cost airlines, but bus travel is often cheaper and more convenient. In recent years a handful of companies have cornered the market, providing easy connections between major and minor European cities.
My favorite bus providers in Europe:
- FlixBus: the big guy on the market and looking to take over the whole world. You’ll see these bright green buses everywhere. FlixBus is my go to for travel in Europe in general.
- BlaBlaBus/Ouibus: Originally started out as a ride-sharing company (BlaBlaCar) but now also has bus lines, mostly in Western Europe.
- LuxExpress: This bus company operates exclusively in the Baltics, but I had to include them. Easily the most comfortable long distance buses I have ever been on with free tea and coffee, working Wi-Fi and onboard entertainment.
You won’t find any of those amazing special sleeper buses, but there is a long history of long distance bus travel in the US. These days most people would rather drive or fly and bus travel has become a class issue.
The biggest name in the game is obviously Greyhound. Unfortunately, the reputation of this company has gone downhill. Many people warned me off citing crazy incidents and the fact that ex-cons take Greyhound (what else are they supposed to do?). I’ll admit that some Greyhound buses I was on were a bit crummy. And some stations a bit sketchy. But all the people were very nice and helpful. Being poor doesn’t make you a bad person after all.
The one downside of Greyhound as a night bus is that they will wake you up and make you get off at every stop. There’s nothing fun about pointlessly waiting 30 min at a bus station at 4 am just to get back on the exact same bus…
My favorite bus providers in the US:
- Greyhound: The OG of US bus travel. Greyhound gets a bad rep, but I actually found them quite comfortable and safe. The quality of the buses differs wildly though.
- Megabus: Megabus offers a bit more comfort than Greyhound. Prices are slightly higher, but they often do crazy flash sales.
- Flixbus: The number one European bus company is looking to snag a share of the US market as well.