¨On a bus, your eyes, ears, and pores are open, absorbing in the variety, the wonder, the magic of the city. It is a beautiful way to get to know the city.¨
International Bus Travel Tips
This blog was written before the COVID Pandemic. The COVID epidemics played havoc on the travel business. In 2022, Fifty Plus Nomad decided to focus on traveling and living in Mexico and language learning posts. We will only update these long-term travel-related posts on a time-permitting basis. We would appreciate your comments and updates on these posts.
Bus travel, however, is often the most inexpensive and convenient option for travel between destinations worldwide for Fifty Plus Nomads.
I am always amazed by the frequency, availability, convenience, low cost, and comfort of intercity bus travel in most of Latin America (except Central America) and Asia.
Buses within cities (intracity buses) and intercity buses in the USA/Canada and parts of Europe are not fantastic but can be pretty good once you get used to them.
If you follow some of the following international bus travel tips, you, too, will find that you like and use bus travel more than you thought possible.
Long-Distance Buses Between Cities (Inter-City Buses)
- Sometimes an inter-city trip with a connection may be better than a non-stop bus trip, particularly if you are beginning or ending a trip in a small city. I learned this lesson on a bus trip from San Miguel de Allende (a smaller town) to Aguascalientes, Mexico (a relatively big place). I went to the bus station, noticed one bus a day between the two points, and bought a ticket for that bus. It took eight hours and left at around ten in the morning. I wanted to meet a former host family in Aguascalientes and hoped to arrive in the daytime on a Sunday so that I could spend the day with the family. I ended up arriving at six o’clock at night. When I got there, the family mentioned that I should have taken the bus to Leon (a large city) and then taken another bus from Leon to Aguascalientes. I realized when I booked my return trip that they were right. There were buses every hour or less between San Miguel de Allende and Leon and between Leon and Aguascalientes. The total time for the trip with the stop in Leon was four and a half hours, and because the buses on both legs were so frequent, I could have left early in the morning and spent more time with the family.
- I recommend buying tickets at least thirty minutes before your intercity trip (and allowing, if possible, a similar amount of time for long-distance trains/bus connections). You may want to get to the station even earlier to allow time to find the tickets because some bus and train stations are enormous. (The bus station in Guadalajara, Mexico, is larger than most airports). Many people wait to purchase tickets until the last minute, meaning that the bus or train may become packed at the last minute.
- Buy tickets several days in advance during holidays, if possible.
- Some large cities have more than one intercity bus station. (Mexico City has five, including the airport!) Therefore, always check to make sure you know the correct station.
- In many places, the best, and frequently the primary, inter-city (between cities), short-distance public transportation is by bus. Throughout Latin America and many parts of Eastern Europe and North America, there are few other options for public transport between cities other than the bus (or plane). Intercity bus tickets in most Western Europe and North America cost about 20-30% less than comparable train tickets and between 10 and 70% less than plane tickets. The buses, especially in Latin America, are comfortable, frequent, and convenient. The deluxe buses in Latin America include sandwiches and soft drinks, extremely comfortable reclining seats, and in-seat entertainment systems. However, trains in Europe are usually faster and more relaxing than buses.
- Inter-city buses that travel in rural areas in Europe, Asia, and the US, and many second-class buses in Latin America and Asia, do not always stop at the station. You must pay attention that you are exiting and entering the bus correctly. Sometimes, the drivers and/or electronic signs will announce the stops; however, you may not be able to understand these announcements since they are usually not in English. Also, the drivers and electronic notifications often use names of places that can be different than what you expect. Let the driver and/or some fellow passengers know where you want to exit to avoid mistakes. Also, suppose you are taking a bus in a rural area, particularly in parts of Europe and North America. In that case, you will often have to call for a taxi or Uber (generally, it is easy to find taxis in urban and suburban train and bus stations) once you arrive at your destination. Taxis or sometimes motorized bicycles are almost always available throughout Third World Countries. Ask for help or, if available, use Uber if this is a problem. Most people are glad to help tourists.
- Flixbus and Coach Companies Megabus can be a significant cost savings alternative for traveling between many large cities in the US and Canada.
- National Express in Britain and Eurolines offer inexpensive shuttles between most major European cities and airports. They occasionally run some fantastic deals. When I checked out National Express’s website, they had tickets for 15 pounds from London to Paris.
- You want to consider taking van shuttles between major tourist centers in Central America. Most shuttles depart four to six times a day and have eight to ten passengers. The shuttles cost $25 and leave from major hotels. Similar bus trips cost around $3-$5; however, the shuttles are more comfortable and secure. (An excellent idea if you carry valuable or heavy luggage). Interbus operates these shuttles in Costa Rica. I have seen similar shuttles in Nicaragua and Guatemala.
- While it is far from perfect, I have generally been satisfied with Greyhound for short trips in the US. The buses are usually punctual, inexpensive, clean, and reasonable. The stations are sometimes not very inviting, however. In addition, there is not much overhead room. Be prepared to check in all but small backpacks and purses. You are allowed to check in one bag of 50 pounds maximum. You have to pay a fee for any additional bags.
Local City Buses (Intracity Buses)
- In most places in the developed world (and increasingly in the Third World), you can find intracity (transit within a given city) public transportation schedules online and, in many cases, using Google Maps. You can also see if the buses or trains are on time using various apps and websites. Many cities also post the schedules at the bus or train stops. In some Third World Countries, getting accurate information about buses can be problematic (though it is steadily improving), especially outside of major cities. Often, the individual drivers own the buses (instead of a large organization). The owners post their routes on the bus windows. Usually, the routing information on the windows is only meaningful to locals. The only way I have found to get information is to ask locals for help. Generally, they are very accommodating; however, be patient. It may take a while to find the correct information. I have met travelers and admire them, who enjoy taking these buses because it is an excellent way to connect with locals. I must admit I find it frustrating.
- Finding the right bus stop to get off a city bus can be troublesome. Often the buses are so crowded that you cannot see any landmarks, and even when you can see the route, most of the places you want to go to are not noticeable outside the bus window. I have found that the only way to avoid these problems is to ask at least two locals for help and, even with that, accept that I will be on the wrong bus or get off at the wrong stop about one-quarter of the time. (Note: The difficulty of negotiating city bus travel is one of the main reasons I do not visit many cities for a day or two each in Europe). When I tried this type of travel, I spent as much time getting lost on the city bus as sightseeing. That said, city bus travel does not have to be that bad. Once you have used the bus, you will be able to find your way the next time easily. In addition, many touristy cities have one or two bus routes that connect most of the main tourist sites.
- In the US and Canada, you may need exact change to get on most city buses (the drivers cannot make change) unless you have a transit card or pass.
- Though riding a city bus saves money (and sometimes time and trouble) over taxis and cars, particularly in North America and Europe, it can be more trouble than it is worth. City buses are a great option if you use the same route repeatedly over a week or more. (For example, to get back and forth while living in a homestay and studying at a language school). They are particularly worthwhile if you buy or rent a house overseas for an extended period. Buses in most developed countries cost between 5-20% of the price of taxis and Ubers, cover a lot of territory, and avoid some of the problems associated with car rentals (i.e., accidents). While buses can be significant cost savings over taxis and Ubers in Third World countries, it is worthwhile to take taxis and Ubers over public transportation in most Third World Countries. A typical bus ride costs between 30 and 75 cents, whereas a taxi or Uber will cost you $1 to $10.
- Riding a city bus can be more trouble than they are worth if you plan to travel to many places in a city over a short period. Buses can be slow, infrequent, and complicated. I have spent lots of time looking for a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. More commonly still, I have gotten on a bus traveling opposite from what I wanted.