Whether you’re trying to avoid blowing your entire trip budget on a pricey plane ticket—or simply trying to get from A to B using the only method available—you’re bound to take an overnight bus at some point during your international travels. Here’s how to make the best of an often-bumpy, uncomfortable ride.
If there is such a things as a travel transportation hierarchy, bus travel sits somewhere towards the bottom (right above riding in the back of a cattle truck). It’s not glamorous, or speedy, or particularly comfortable—but it is cheap, and often it’s the only feasible way to get to certain far-flung destinations. The good news? There’s a time-tested formula for making it all manageable.
1. Check the Route
Certain routes are not considered safe for overnight travel due to unsafe roads or frequent ambushes—heed warnings from guidebooks, locals, and other travelers and take a daytime bus or another mode of travel if a night bus will compromise your safety.
2. Treat Yourself
This is not the time to cheap out on a ticket. Buses are typically the most economical choice to begin with, so reward your frugality by allowing yourself to book one of the best bus lines—consider a VIP seat, as well. Think of it as an investment in the day and evening ahead. If you spend a restless night in a $10 bus seat, you’ll likely spend the first day at your destination napping. If you splurge on the $40 reclining version, you might just arrive refreshed. Book early to take advantage of sales that could get you the VIP bus seat for the price of the bargain basement version.
3. Score the Right Seat
If possible, book early to snag the best seats when pre-assigning is allowed. If you can’t do this, arrive at the bus terminal early to be first in the queue to board. Solo female travelers might feel more comfortable siting next to another woman whenever possible; feel free to make this request when booking if seats assignments are doled out in advance.
Seats in the back of the bus are traditionally bumpier and possibly closer to the toilets (if the bus has them) while seats in the front can bring on motion sickness or fear-inducing views. The middle of the bus is generally considered safest in the rare case of an accident.
When it comes to the window vs. aisle debate, both have their merits. While window seats can provide a great headrest, some argue that if you board early and grab an aisle, others will be less likely climb over you in search of a seat – you may actually luck out and land a seat to yourself.
4. Dress in Layers
Buses in certain parts of the world are notorious for their arctic-like conditions – others, for their lack of much needed air-conditioning. Be prepared for both by dressing like a soon-to-be-peeled onion. And go for comfort—this is the time to stash the jeans and break out leggings or a pair of sweatpants.
5. Pack Appropriately
Pack your carry-on bag with care. An eye mask, a set of earplugs, and a travel pillow are non-negotiable essentials. You should also include noise cancelling travel headphones, healthy snacks (you’ll find mostly junk food at local rest stops), reading materials and other entertainment, as well as your own tissues or toilet paper (many bathrooms don’t carry any at all). If you wear contacts, remember to bring your case and solution to your seat as well.
6. Watch Your Valuables
Don’t let concern over being pickpocketed keep you from getting a good night’s sleep. If possible, choose a direct bus—theft is most common when people are disembarking, so you can rest a little easier with fewer stops. If there is a break for food or the restroom, take everything with you. Avoid using overhead bins and try to keep your carry-on between your feet with your legs through the straps instead (be sure to lock your bag whenever you’re not using it). Keep your most important items – cash, phone, passport, etc. – in a crossbody bag underneath your top layer of clothing or obscure them with a sarong or travel blanket. While these measures may seem extreme, they can give you the peace of mind necessary to get some zzzs.
7. Give Yourself a Nudge to Nod
In case you find yourself tossing and turning—and counting bus wheel rotations is doing nothing for you—have a stash of sleep aids in your bag. The naturally occurring hormone melatonin induces and improves sleep (but make sure you’re not trying it for the first time when you’re traveling). Also, don’t sabotage yourself ahead of time; avoid caffeine after noon on the day of your overnight bus.
8. Prepare for Arrival
Before you board your bus, know where the destination station is located, the address of your next destination and how much a cab to get there should cost. Don’t count on onboard wifi to look that info up along the way; if it’s even available, it’s often broken or doesn’t have a strong signal.
9. Remember That Morning Will Come
We’ve all been there: sometimes it seems a certain bus ride is determined to drive you directly to crazy town. Babies will scream, seatmates will snore, roads will be closed, buses will be delayed, and terrible movies that feature regular explosions will play at full volume. Take a deep breath and remember that when the sun comes up you’ll be in a whole new destination – with a real bed waiting for you! And it will make for a good travel story to share with your friends when you arrive home.
What’s your best bet for surviving an overnight bus? Let us know in the comments below!
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Alexandra Baackes is a traveling writer, designer, and underwater videographer. She is currently in her third year of living as a full-time nomad -- follow along at alexinwanderland.com!