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Posted by Jessica on Aug 7, 2007
TTT #3: Top 13 Tips for a Long Bus Ride

Note: Travel Tip Tuesday posts are more travel resource than travel blog. They will generally contain advice and specific tips and recommendations we came up with during our trip. While these posts are more firmly geared towards those readers who may be contemplating or planning a trip of their own, we hope they will not be uninteresting to everyone else. And we promise to pepper them vigorously with little anecdotes and tidbits from our travels to keep you coming back for more!

Recently I was asked what I missed most from traveling. The first thought that came to mind was long bus rides. Both Tim and I absolutely adored them. It didn't matter if we were cramped into the space of one person with our bags on our laps with bad karaoke playing loudly and the sun beating relentlessly through the window, or if we were in the lap of luxury being served three-course meals and champagne while watching the latest Hollywood hit with English subtitles: we loved bus rides. All bus rides (even a 36-hour one in South America).

Part of the reason we loved bus rides so much is that we saw them as an adventure. You never knew what to expect. All buses everywhere are different – company to company, country to country, continent to continent.

As you travel, you'll gain a sense for a country's bus system and how it (usually) works. Do you have to buy your ticket a few days in advance or can you show up a few minutes ahead of time? Is extra baggage tied to the roof, stored underneath, or piled on your lap? Do people sell things on the bus? Do locals fill up the aisles when seats are no longer available? Are unmarried women and men asked to sit apart? Is it commonplace for bunches of bananas to be piled under your feet? Does everyone always get on the bus with a machete? Do young boys hang out the front door yelling, trying to attract more riders, while the bus is moving at top speed? Does the bus stop to pick up people at seemingly random points or only at bus stops? And most importantly, is there a toilet on the bus or do you have to wait?

Learning all of these things not only helps you prepare for a comfy bus ride, but also gives a wonderful insight into the country you're traveling in. Comparing an 18-hour Cruz del Sur bus ride through Peru to a 5-hour PPPT bus ride in Cambodia is like comparing jalapeños to tarantulas. Both have their positives, both have their drawbacks, both say a lot about where you're traveling, and both are delicious if you're in the right frame of mind.

So with all of that said, I now present to you the hedgehogs' top 13 tips for long bus rides. Our hope is these tips will help get you ready for your own bus ride adventure. But as always, your mileage may vary.

Tip #1 – Go with a company you trust

More often than not, there are a lot of companies to choose between. And there are good, bad, and downright dangerous companies too. Check out reviews on Lonely Planet's message boards, ask other travelers in your area (better yet, ask the locals too), and do some information gathering at the bus station. Is the person from bus line Z a complete ass and not helpful, but the person from bus line B is bubbly and informative? Then trust your instincts and go with B. (Yes, even if they cost a few bucks more.)

Tip #2 – Travel as the locals do

Part of the fun of traveling is traveling with and like the locals. It's no fun sitting on a bus with 20 other backpackers on the gringo trail with air conditioning, when you could be on a bus with 20 locals and the windows open. (Laos, I'm looking at you now.) And when the local buses are first rate (hey Argentina!), spring the extra $2 for the top notch seats. (Most likely all the backpackers are in the cheaper seats anyway.) Trust me, after 27 hours in the same place, those extra 10 inches you got for that $2 are well worth it.

Tip #3 – Bring some snacks

Even if you're in a country (say Argentina) where they feed on the bus you like there's no tomorrow, always bring some food with you on your trip. Relying on the bus company for your food might leave you hungry when you find out you don't like what they have, they run out of trays, or you discover you're extra hungry. (My appetite always doubled on long bus rides, while Tim's always diminished.) What type of food to bring on the bus is completely up to you. In Argentina, we often packed a few extra empanadas, in Ecuador we were in a honey-nut Cheerio phase, and in Turkey we were fans of small baguettes and cheese. Whatever is tasty, filling, easy-to-pack, and easy-to-eat is your best bet. (And remember, being fed on a bus is rare – more often than not you'll grab food along the way at pit stops. If that's the case, it's even more important to bring some food with you: sometimes that next pit stop can be a loooong way away.)

Tip #4 – Don

Like on an airplane, it sucks trying to track down water when all you really want is a sip now and then. You also never know when your bus will break down in the middle of nowhere. So having that extra bottle of water easily accessible can feel like a lifesaver sometimes.

Tip #5 – Discover the joy that is plastic bags

I guarantee while you are traveling you will become enamored with plastic bags and all their lovely qualities. The plastic bag, aka the food bag on travel days, is your lifeline to all that is good in the world. Store your food and water in this sturdy sucker for easy access in one place without using your carry-on bag space.

Tip #6 – Put your essentials in your carry-on bag

Just like with air travel, if you have to check things, make sure you have what you need for the bus ride in your carry-on bag. The bus will not stop because you've left your iPod or your tampons in the undercarriage. (Or, better yet, follow Tim's guidelines and don't check anything at all.) Oh, and if you do check things, remember not to check your valuables. Bring them on the bus in your carry-on or in your pockets, and keep them on your person.

Tip #7 – Dress in layers

I can't stress this tip enough. Even after traveling as much as we did, I often made the mistake of not dressing in layers which either left me freezing or sweating. An important thing to consider is the weather outside too. With air conditioning and heaters (that also have a tendency to not work or overwork), you almost want to dress for the opposite season. Is it winter in Argentina? Go on the bus wearing a tank top. Is it summer in Spain? Put on your parka. Trust me, you'll thank me for it. (Oh, and fuzzy travel socks are always nice too no matter the weather outside.)

Tip #8 – Take advantage of pit stops

You might feel like you can't be bothered to get off the bus when it stops. But it's often worth it to refuel your snacks/water, grab some local food, stretch, and take advantage of a clean(er) bathroom. Our mantra: always take advantage of a toilet even when you don't think you need to go. Speaking of which...

Tip #9 – Toilet paper, Imodium, and motion sickness pills are your friends

Toilet paper, Imodium, and motion sickness pills should be easily accessible on your bus ride. You don't need a giant roll or an entire bottle. Just fold a few pieces of the soft stuff in your pocket, and toss a few of the pills in your bag. Even if you're not prone to motion sickness, it's amazing what 23 hours up and down, round and round, back and forth at altitude through the Andes Mountains will do to you. And if you travel long enough and far enough, there will be a time when you need toilet paper when you least expect it (even if you've followed rule #8 above). Our fingers are crossed you make it to the bus toilet or a rest stop in time. (I won't say that we always did, but that rather embarrassing story is for another time.) And when you do, you'll be happy to have toilet paper there too.

Tip #10 – Expect the unexpected

No matter how many bus rides we've taken around the world, a few surprises always took us, well, by surprise. So don't unpack your entire carry-on once you're on the bus. You may have paid for your ride, but you are not in the family sedan. You never know when you'll be kicked out of those first rate seats in the middle of the night because your bus broke down and thrown in some rather craptastic ones instead (with water dripping on your head non-stop, no less). It's important that you are able to move and pack quickly when need be. (And if an unexpected quick change of plans does happen, remember your handy dandy plastic bag. It's a great place to shove everything in a hurry.)

Tip #11 – Don

Aside from the unlikely event of flying through the windshield in an accident (remember, there aren't usually seatbelts available), you can also see out the windshield when you're sitting at the very front of the bus. I know you're reading this right now thinking it would be great to have such a wonderful view out the windshield as you travel the world by bus, but it's not. I can not tell you the number of times I watched as we went around a curve, at night, at top speed, on the wrong side of the road, on a narrow mountain pass, with nothing but the horn being sounded. I am certain I cut off several years of my life by staring, scared shitless out the windshield of a giant bus careening down the middle of a Bangkok highway on the wrong side of the divider. So do yourself a huge favor and sit away from the windshield. Which brings us to...

Tip #12 – Learn to let go

You can't control everything while you travel and you'll go crazy if you try to. This is magnified on bus rides. That doesn't mean you need to get on the bus where the driver clearly smells of alcohol or where your instincts are screaming at you to grab the next bus. It just means there will be many choices any driver any where will make that aren't your own. Rather than lamenting and worrying about them, sit back, look out the window (not the windshield), and breathe. The chances are overwhelming that you'll arrive at your destination safe and sound and probably with a few good traveling stories too.

Tip #13 – Remember the journey is just as important as the destination

Listen to your headphones while you look out at the landscape or bury your nose in a good book, but don't be so distracted by these home comforts that you miss the elderly Ecuadorian lady next to you who wants to practice her English. Watch the kids and the parents during your bus ride – it's amazing how much you can learn about a country from the different parenting styles. Take note of the countryside you're driving through; look at the houses and the buildings and the signs that you pass along the way. Listen to the music (even if it is bad karaoke) or the television show (even if it's showing bad karaoke music videos) that the bus driver is playing. Eavesdrop on the chatter of locals in their native language. And above all, take a moment to remember your bus ride is a journey through another land. If you do, I guarantee you'll come home missing long bus rides too.

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August 7, 2007 at 9:59pm
Couldn't pass up the chance to be #1--are you guys watching the new season of Who Wants to be a Superhero? :)
Tim the hedgehog
August 8, 2007 at 1:24pm

Couldn't pass up the chance to be #1"are you guys watching the new season of Who Wants to be a Superhero?

Good gravy, there's a new season? The mind boggles.


Three episodes already! Clearly we have some catching up to do… :)

August 13, 2007 at 5:38am
#2 I try harder.
How I miss you guys.
5 days until I sit in church and become a mother-in-law. Can I go on one of your bus rides now?
Jessica the hedgehog
August 20, 2007 at 10:21am
We miss you too, Janet. *hugs* Tim and I are definitely going to have to make it back up your way for a visit. :)

Congrats on becoming a mother-in-law! There's so much to catch up on! :):)

August 23, 2007 at 8:27pm
So I am now doing a 3 hour commute to NY from Philly almost every day and I've definitely found many of your suggestions useful. My personal necessity is books – when it gets too awful, I can submerse in a book, but most of the time I'm just looking out the window and watching stuff passing by. I'm developing a great appreciation for graffiti, abandoned buildings and people's backyards.
September 21, 2007 at 12:01am
These are great… makes me think of some of my favorite times during my summer in Mexico. :)
Hui Suan
June 10, 2009 at 7:55am
Thanks man, I think I feel a lot more ready for tomorrow's trip. (I decided to google tips on long bus rides…)
Jessica the hedgehog
June 10, 2009 at 10:11am
Awesome! We're always happy to help out fellow travelers. :)

Enjoy your long bus ride tomorrow, and happy travels!

August 3, 2010 at 5:49pm
Hey, thanks for the tips. I'm going on a three day bus trip heading to BC and I googled some tips and found these the most useful.
August 5, 2010 at 11:56am
No worries, Katrina! It's our pleasure to help. And fingers crossed your bus ride to BC goes well! :)
May 2, 2011 at 12:29pm
I am going to Germany from London and I am not sure what I should bring on board the coach.
May 5, 2011 at 12:07pm
Hey Chazza! :)

When we travel, we travel super light so we're actually able to bring everything on board the coach with us. But, if we had a few extra bags and were checking them underneath? Then we'd be sure to bring a smaller bag with us onto the bus that had all our valuables in it (camera, passports, cash, credit card, etc), a book or something else to read, some snacks, a water bottle, any medication we might need during the trip (i.e. aspirin or dramamine), and maybe some music to listen to as well. (I'd probably have a small notebook and a pen with me too because I like to take notes to myself on travel days.) Depending on how long the ride was going to be, we might also have some comfy socks to put on, a hoodie or something we could make into a makeshift pillow, and an eye mask so we could sleep better. (Some folks like ear plugs too, but they feel too uncomfy for me!) And, of course, don't forget to dress in layers.

Fingers crossed you have a great trip! :)

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