When travelling long overland distances on a budget, it is difficult to avoid taking overnight buses. Unless you can afford to fly, they are the only practical way to navigate huge backpacking regions like South America and South-East Asia.
For people who like their comforts the idea may sound like a nightmare, and I must admit we were nervous about it before we travelled. But we have found that overnight buses are not that bad at all, and in fact often provide a better experience than flying.
Besides being cheaper, overnight buses are also much better for optimising your travel time. You leave a city at dusk, arrive in another at dawn with the full day ahead, and you’ve saved a night’s accommodation costs in the process. On the contrary, taking daytime flights – even if the route is just a couple of hours – usually wipes out a whole day that could otherwise be spent exploring.
By taking a few simple steps to prepare for your overnight bus, you can avoid frustrating situations and give yourselves a good shot at a decent night’s sleep.
1. Shop for the best deals
The first step is to buy your ticket. Depending on location, there are usually plenty of options in terms of bus companies and ticket class, and by purchasing in advance you will get the best deals.
Shopping online is a good start, but if possible it’s always a good idea to try the bus terminal directly. If you know when you arrive at a city the date you intend to leave, why not book your tickets at the terminal while you’re there? This means you can check all the prices on offer, and you might be able to access discounts that aren’t available online. For example, Via Bariloche in Argentina offers 20% discount on display of a valid student ID.
Price comparison sites are the go-to for buying online. In Europe there are services like www.goeuro.com, www.comparabus.com and www.flixbus.com, in South America www.busbud.com and www.brazilbustravel.com, and in South-East Asia www.easybook.com. There are plenty of options for other regions too.
Prices can differ wildly depending on the ticket class. If you can afford a bit extra and want to ensure your comfort, consider upgrading to VIP seats, which sometimes have fully reclining chairs. We tried luxury class from Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls, and it was amazing! But most of the time we just go for the cheapest option, and we haven’t had any problems yet.
When purchasing, you will usually be able to select your seats. If it’s a double-decker coach, take the front-row seats on the top floor if available, as they tend to have a lot more leg room. Avoid seats near toilets, as the noise of people going in and out through the night makes it hard to sleep, and there might be an unpleasant smell.
2. Sort your entertainment
If you’re going to spend upwards of 12 hours on a bus, you will want to keep yourself occupied. Our longest overnight bus was a whopping 24 hours from Buenos Aires to Bariloche in Argentina, and it can get a bit monotonous just staring out of the window.
It’s extremely rare to have wifi on overnight buses, so if you want to listen to podcasts or watch Netflix, download everything you need before you set off. If you’re using a laptop or a Kindle, make sure it is fully charged.
Alternatively, you might want to bring a book, or a pen and sketchpad if you’re the creative type.
3. Bring snacks and drinks
Some companies provide snacks and drinks on board, but rarely anything mightily fulfilling. It’s worth checking with the company beforehand what is included, so you know if you need to supplement it.
It’s also useful to ask if there will be frequent stops at places with shops or cafés on the way. We’ve found that the overnight buses in South-East Asia tend to make several such stops through the night (travelling from Krabi to Bangkok we stopped three times in the early hours), while those in South America let you sleep through.
It’s always worth bringing some of your own sustenance just in case. We usually pack a couple of sandwiches, some crisps and fruit, and a flask of coffee for the morning.
4. Download maps before you leave
It’s easy to forget when travelling overnight that you will need to find your bearings at the other end of the journey. There’s nothing worse than turning up knackered at a bus station in a strange city with no idea how to get to your hostel. Moreover, on overnight journeys it’s reassuring to be able to check where you are along the way.
We use a great app called Maps.me that allows you to download maps that work without internet connection. Make sure that as well as downloading the app, you also download the specific regional maps within it that you need.
Also make sure that you write down the address of your accommodation, and as a backup take a few screenshots on your phone of its location on a map.
5. Check destination taxi fares before you leave
This may sound harsh, but all long-term travellers know it to be true: there isn’t anyone more likely to scam a tourist than a taxi driver, and the most likely place to get ripped off is at a transport hub when you arrive in a new city.
To avoid this happening, make sure you find out beforehand how much the taxi fare should be to your accommodation. You can usually find this in Tripadvisor forums, or otherwise just drop an email to the hostel and ask them.
When we arrived in Nazca, Peru, our hostel manager had advised us that the taxi fare should be 3 soles. At the station on arrival, we were bombarded by taxi drivers quoting triple that price. Armed with the email from our hostel manager, we were able to negotiate a fair price.
In some destinations, taxis are metered. Make sure that you take these from an official taxi rank, and make sure that the meter is running when the car sets off.
6. Bring a sleeping bag
Comfort on the bus is paramount to getting a good night’s sleep. We always bring our sleeping bags on board, and I’ve lost count of the number of jealous looks we’ve received from other passengers. It’s not unusual for the air conditioning to be turned too high, and you don’t want to spend the night shivering.
If you aren’t carrying a sleeping bag with you, it would be worth at least investing in a silk sleeping bag liner. They take up a lot less space and provide an extra layer of warmth.
Also make sure you wear comfortable clothes and consider bringing a hoodie that can double up as a head-rest. Sometimes pillows and blankets are provided, but it’s best to be prepared for when they’re not.
7. Bring small change
You never know what hidden costs you may encounter when travelling in different countries. In many parts of South America, porters at the bus terminals load your luggage into the hold, and expect a small tip for their efforts. It’s considered very bad etiquette not to give anything.
You also might need to pay a small fee to use toilets on the way, or even to cross a border (we had to pay 20 bolivianos each to leave Bolivia, for example). To avoid any awkward or unpleasant situations, it’s a good idea to bring a handful of loose change.
8. Bring toilet paper
This is an absolute must. If your bus has a toilet on board – which is by no means guaranteed – it’s unlikely to provide toilet paper. Make sure you bring a roll with you.
9. Arrive early
The standard company advice for overnight buses is to arrive at the terminal half an hour before the departure time. While we’ve never seen someone arrive after this and be turned away, it’s better to be prudent.
Check your route to the bus station. How long will it take you to get there? Is there likely to be heavy traffic? Bus terminals can be very large and confusing to navigate, and if you’ve booked online you might need to exchange your confirmation print-out for tickets at a company kiosk.
So allow plenty of time to arrive at the terminal, sort your tickets and make it to the departure point punctually. If you miss the bus you’ll be stuck, and almost certainly won’t get a refund.
10. Be careful with your valuables
Crime on tourist bus routes is not uncommon. Despite what you hear about South America, you’re not likely to be held up by armed robbers, but it’s been known for petty criminals to sneak valuables away while tourists sleep.
Ensure your passports and electronics are as secure as possible. Don’t leave them in the overhead space, or anywhere easily accessible under your seat. The best idea is to sleep on top of or wrapped around bags that contain valuables, so that any movement of them will wake you up.
If you are worried about armed robberies, then maybe consider keeping a cheap old phone and fake wallet on you with a few US dollars in it. If the unexpected happens, this could prevent you from losing your real stuff.
Not all these tips will work for everyone, and they don’t guarantee a good experience – sometimes you will just get a crazy driver or a bumpy road. In the vast majority of cases, though, overnight bus journeys have not been the ordeal we feared they might.
If you have any other ideas for getting the best out of overnight buses, please leave them in the comments below.