Bus travel may not sound sexy in today’s world of high-speed trains and budget airlines, but in my humble bus-loving opinion, travelers who discount it are missing out. While city buses are great, this article focuses strictly on the advantages of long-distance bus travel abroad.
Ready for some bus inspiration?
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My Bus Background
Given the option to take long-distance public transportation via a plane, train, or bus, I happily choose the bus when time, budget, and the scenery make sense.
Bus hour tallying would’ve come in handy in a moment like this, but I’ve easily spent over 150 hours on long-distance buses.
What’s the longest bus ride I’ve ever been on, you wonder?
Quito, Ecuador to Medellin, Colombia. It was more than a 30-hour ride.
You read that right: THIRTY. HOURS.
But before you call me crazy, consider this: that bus ride included a layover in Ipiales, where I had enough time to run (literally) to see the famous Las Lajas Sanctuary. It also included a stop in the jungle where I had the best hot chocolate of my life, and my “humorous” bus driver suggesting I cover my eyes with a towel when I was afraid of his driving.
More on that later.
I’ve also taken countless day trips by bus, such as a day trip to Niš to visit friends in Serbia.
While there are many advantages of bus travel, I recognize it’s not the perfect fit for everyone. I hope that this article will help you decide if taking the bus is right for you.
Psst! Want to read about one of my favorite long-distance bus experiences? Check out my guide on taking the bus from Bariloche to El Calafate in Argentina.
Advantages of Bus Travel
Let’s jump into twelve reasons why bus travel is a fantastic way to travel abroad. After, I’ll cover the reasons why you shouldn’t take a bus, as well as tips on what to look for before purchasing your bus ticket.
1. You Get to See More
One of the biggest reasons I choose bus travel is that I get to see so much more than other forms of transportation. I’m not the type that counts airport layovers as “being in” a country, but when it comes to bus travel, I can claim to have least “seen” more of that country (though nothing compares to staying there, of course).
Let’s say you’ll be traveling from Brussels to Prague. Wouldn’t it be great to know what the countryside of Germany looks like?
Sure, a plane only takes 1.5 hours, but the 18-hour bus ride comes with bragging rights to those back home that you traveled the entire width of Germany.
Wait—a train does that too, you say.
That’s true. But in many cases, it’s in a more limited way. The longer distance your bus ride is, the more likely it’ll stop in other cities before arriving at your destination.
How cool would it be to pass through Cologne and Frankfurt on your way to Prague? It’s totally possible if you take the bus.
2. You Can Build in Layovers
What’s even better than passing through new places?
Spending time in them!
When looking at your bus options to any given destination, you’ll often have a variety of routes to choose from. If you’ve got the time, consider opting out of the fastest option and choose one that will give you a longer layover in another city or country.
Sometimes, layovers involve staying on the same bus. But these are typically short layovers, just long enough to give people a restroom break and pick up new passengers.
Longer layovers usually require you to change buses. In those cases, the bus stations may offer luggage storage. That way, you’ll be free to explore whatever town or city you’re in while waiting for your next bus.
Travel Tip: Check what time the layovers will be taking place. There’s little point in having four hours of free time if you’ll be arriving at 1:00 am.
3. It May Be More Economical
When people think about the advantages of bus travel, one of the first thoughts that typically comes to mind is saving money.
While this can certainly be true, notice the word “may” in the title. More often than not, if you’re booking on short notice, a bus will be your most economical option.
However, with low-cost airfare carriers popping up around the globe and trains often offering lower prices for those booking in advance, if you’re considering traveling by bus for budget reasons only, make sure to assess all your options first.
4. You Could Make New Friends
I’ve met some really cool people on buses—travelers and locals alike. They’ve given me tips on where to go and what to do.
And in the case of locals, they sometimes give me a built-in support system before I arrive, cell phone numbers, home addresses, and all.
Even when language is a barrier, you can still “meet” people. I’ll never forget the woman I sat with on a bus from Pamukkale to Cappadocia in Turkey. She snapped her banana in half, skin still on, and gave me one end. She then did the same with another banana when we finished our first halves.
Or the time I traveled by bus from Petra to Amman in Jordan, and children huddled around me, practicing their English and showing me their books from school.
Of course, there’s always the chance you could be paired with less-than-ideal bus mates. On my 20+ hour bus ride from Portugal to France, the bus stopped for an all-inclusive, three-course, sit-down meal.
The wine was free too.
And so, the next few hours of the bus ride were “lively” with drunk men.
5. You May Get to Try New Food
Going off the wine reference above, our meal was in Spain, which was pretty neat considering we started in Porto, Portugal, and ended our journey in Paris.
Since most long-distance buses typically stop at a designated food court, if the option is available, I make it a point to visit a nearby store or restaurant. The food tends to be more authentic (and cheaper) than the food found directly at the bus stop.
Even if you are taking a long-distance bus within the same country, you may get the chance to taste some regional cuisine.
Keep in mind, however, that some buses provide all meals onboard only, and they tend to be equivalent to economy-class airplane food.
This was the case for my 21-hour bus ride from Lima to Cusco in Peru. To this day, I still swear my eggs were grey!
6. Land Border Crossings
There’s nothing like arriving in a new country, going through immigration, and collecting a new passport stamp. This is fine and dandy at airports, but the experience is augmented by doing border crossings by land.
I’ve done countless land border crossings during my over a decade of traveling. During this time, I’ve found that my bus travel border crossings have almost always fallen into one of the following four categories:
- Sometimes you’ll stay on the bus and the immigration will collect everyone’s passports, process and stamp them in their office, then hand the passports back out on the bus.
- Sometimes you’ll be required to get off the bus and walk across the land border. Other times, you’ll get off the bus in country “X,” perform exit procedures, get back on the bus and drive ten feet over to country “Y,” perform entrance procedures, get back on the bus and continue with your trip.
- Sometimes you’ll get off the bus in country “X,” perform exit procedures, continue by foot into country “Y,” perform entrance procedures, then get on an entirely different bus with the rest of your bus companions to continue your journey. This happens when a bus isn’t registered to cross into a given country.
- Sometimes they look at your passport but don’t stamp it. This was my experience with a few countries in the Balkans and in Isreal for political reasons.
There’s one other important factor to consider, which is whether or not you are legally allowed to cross by land into any given country (assuming you already meet the visa/entrance requirements).
I’ll talk about this in more detail toward the end of this post.
7. Power Outlets & WiFi
Long-distance buses know that people expect WiFi and a way to charge their electronics, so these are two amenities you can expect on most buses.
It’s definitely not the case for all of them, though. I’ve most commonly encountered a lack of WiFi and power outlets on buses in Eastern Europe.
Another important factor to consider is that just because a bus comes equipped with WiFi and power outlets doesn’t mean they’ll work. Also, if you’re traveling through a remote area, the WiFi will likely be spotty.
Travel Tip: WiFi and outlets will only function when the bus is on, so don’t panic about them not working during layovers.
Long story short?
Having power outlets and WiFi can be one of the great advantages of bus travel, but you should be prepared for it to malfunction.
8. Reduced Chance of Missing Luggage
I know I’ll get some haters on this one, so let me start with this—traveling by bus doesn’t mean your luggage won’t get lost or stolen.
Case in point: One 2:00 am morning at Heathrow Airport, I met a woman waiting for her lost luggage to arrive. The bus company had found it and placed it on the next bus, which was due to arrive soon. The stakes were high, though—divorce papers and chunks of gold were among its contents.
Luckily for the woman, it arrived safe and sound. But let’s face it—you should bring your valuables as a carry-on regardless of what transportation method you use.
Now that we’ve got that cleared up, here’s why the chances of missing checked luggage are reduced by taking the bus: You stand right there watching it be placed under the bus. It doesn’t have to go through luggage belts, security checks, or multiple hands before (hopefully) arriving on the same plane you’re taking.
Oftentimes, your bag will be tagged before going under the bus, similar to how they tag bags at the airport. But from my experience, those bag tags are rarely checked. And also from my experience, bus goers and employees work well on the honor system.
9. Arrive Seconds Before You Depart
If running late is in your blood, traveling by bus offers you a big advantage. Buses beat planes and trains when it comes to last-minute arrivals.
You can literally run down the road chasing your bus as it pulls away. If the driver sees you, the chances are high that they’ll stop and let you on.
Try doing that with a plane or train!
Of course, there are some downsides to this as well—if a bus wants to leave early, it can.
Or, if the driver wants to kick it with their other bus driver buddies for another round of sodas at a pit stop, go off route to bring a package to their grandma, or stop to pee on the side of the road while everyone else on the bus is crossing their legs, they can do that too (true stories).
10. Closer to Downtown Than Airports
Of the many advantages of bus travel, this one is a gem: Bus stations are almost always closer to the center of towns and cities than airports. This will save you time and money when you arrive and depart from your new destination.
In fact, many bus stations throughout the world are located within walking distance of a city’s main attractions.
Nonetheless, if you’re intentionally booking a longer layover to explore a new place, check to ensure the bus station is in a central location.
11. Larger Seats & More Legroom
According to TIME, airlines are removing restrooms and kitchenettes to make room for more airplane seats. And then there’s Cathay Pacific Airways, which has a reputation for comfortable flying but started adding an extra row of seats to their planes in 2017, taking away about one inch of legroom per economy passenger.
Now, I’m not about to claim that I’ve never had my knees painfully pressed into the bus seat in front of me.
But generally speaking, seats are larger and legroom is roomier on buses than on planes. Some of the fancier bus companies may even offer the option to purchase a more expensive bus seat that comes with a variety of extra amenities, including extra legroom.
The best part? “More expensive” is typically just a small increase from regular seats, unlike many airlines and trains.
The bus line Cruz del Sur in Latin America is a great example of roomy seat upgrades for a low price.
12. Better Cancellation Policies
You may not have thought about cancellation policies as one of the advantages of bus travel. But as a general rule, bus tickets offer greater flexibility than plane and train tickets without having to pay extra for better cancellation policy perks.
I’ll never forget the time I booked a bus from Colonia to Montevideo, Uruguay. Having just crossed a short distance to Colonia by ferry from Argentina, I didn’t think of checking if there would be a time difference between the two countries.
As it turned out, there was an hour difference, causing me to miss my bus. The bus company was wonderful and put me on the next bus to Montevideo without extra charges.
The Disadvantages of Bus Travel Abroad
With so many advantages of bus travel, I know what you’re thinking—it can’t all be sunshine and roses.
And you’re right.
Below are five situations where it’s not a good idea to take the bus.
1. Limited Time
There are a few things that’ll make your time-crunched vacation feel even shorter than opting for a cross-country bus ride.
So, skip the bus and take advantage of a plane or high-speed train.
2. Medical Circumstances
I’m not just talking about car sickness here, which is very much a factor to consider, but any medical condition that would make sitting for long periods of time in small quarters difficult.
Furthermore, while many long-distance buses have a tiny bathroom on board, not all do.
3. High Altitude
If you’ve never been to a high-altitude area before, here’s a tip—a bus ride isn’t the time to try it. I made this mistake and was among a handful of others who spent the ride filling up vomit bags the bus staff gave us.
Altitude sickness typically occurs at or above 8,000 feet. Even if you’ve handled high altitude well in the past, altitude sickness can strike anyway. So, make sure to check the elevation of the areas you’d be passing through to determine whether or not bus travel would be a good fit for you.
If you do choose to take a bus through a high-altitude area, consider talking with your doctor about prescribing you Diamox to help you acclimate.
High altitude isn’t necessarily a reason to put long-distance bus travel on your “don’t do” list, though. The mountain views you’ll get to see along the way are stunning.
4. Traveling with Children
Your children are undoubtedly the loves of your life, but your fellow passengers won’t feel the same—especially if they’re misbehaving.
You know your children best; I’m in no position to recommend what they can handle.
Just consider this: If at any point during the journey you can picture your child crying, kicking the seat of the passenger in front of you, or running up and down the aisle, it’s best to forgo that long-distance bus ride for an option that’ll get you arriving at your destination as quickly as possible.
5. Dirt & Poor Driving
What a combo! Let’s start with dirt.
I’ve ridden on buses that were spotless and smelled divine and others that made me cringe to touch my skin to the seat fabric.
Sometimes, bus quality and cleanliness depend on the bus company. Other times, old dirty buses are the norm for any given destination. I tend to encounter this with cheaper buses in Latin America and buses in Eastern Europe since they often reek of cigarettes.
One particular driver I had in Macedonia seemed to be under the impression that he wasn’t really smoking on the bus if a lit cigarette simply hung from his lips. Occasionally, he’d stick his head out the window and take a puff “outside.”
So, if you’re a stickler for cleanliness, do some research about the bus company before purchasing your ticket.
And now, let’s talk about that towel I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
The scariest bus ride of my life was from the Ecuador border to Medellin, Colombia. This 20+ hour bus ride was through high mountain ranges, steep drop-offs, and tight curves. I swear the driver averaged 50 miles an hour the entire way.
I wasn’t alone in my fears about this bus ride; my fellow passengers were all clinging to their seats. After informing a police officer during a routine stop about our driver’s reckless behavior, the driver’s assistant proceeded to—completely seriously—offer me a towel to cover my eyes.
Needless to say, if you’re prone to be a nervous car rider, certain bus drivers may give you anxiety.
Bonus: The Thing That Shouldn’t Stand in Your Way
I understand language barriers can be intimidating. But you’d be surprised how much you can communicate by hand signals, writing words in their language on paper, and using a translation app.
The more you put yourself in language barrier situations, the more comfortable you’ll feel with it. Of course, you should make the effort to learn at least some basic “please” and “thank yous” in the local language.
But aside from that, use this trick that’s worked for me in even the stickiest of bus translation situations: Write down the destination you want to go to and point at it.
Works every time!
Things to Consider Before Purchasing Your Bus Ticket
Now that I’ve covered the advantages of bus travel, below are a few things you may want to check before purchasing your ticket.
1. Bathroom on board
If you want to know you’ll have a restroom at your disposal whenever you need it, ensure that your bus has one onboard.
Even then, going “number two” in a bus restroom is usually frowned upon, hence a special stop my bus made in the snowy Peruvian Andes one night for some frantic passengers.
Make sure to leave room in your bag for a healthy dose of hand sanitizer after using the restroom.
If you opt for a bus without a bathroom onboard, minimizing the liquids you consume during the ride is your best bet.
As already mentioned, many buses offer WiFi, so this is something worth checking. However, if you need WiFi onboard for work or anything else important, don’t take a bus.
Everything under the sun can and will happen to WiFi on buses. A memorable experience I had was when a WiFi login said it offered “unlimited” WiFi. Ten minutes later, a notification popped up saying my WiFi limit had expired.
If you plan on using WiFi, taking pictures of the beautiful scenery out your window, or using your phone to navigate once you arrive at your destination, you’ll want to ensure you have enough battery.
Nowadays, many long-distance buses offer the option to charge electronics directly at your seat.
In some cases, they’re traditional outlets. In other cases, they’re in the form of a USB.
Travel Tip: Bring a converter and adapter, if necessary, according to the country you’ll be traveling in.
However, I’ve been on plenty of buses with malfunctioning outlets. In some cases, it’s just the outlet in the seat I’m in. Other times, it’s an issue on the entire bus.
So, if you’ll be relying on your phone to make calls or get directions upon arriving at your destination, make sure to either save some battery or bring a backup charger.
If your bus ride falls over one or more mealtimes, make sure to check with the bus company to see if meals are included.
There are typically three ways that long-distance buses handle meals:
- They make stops at large, cafeteria-style bus stops around mealtimes.
- Meals are included and served on board.
- Meals are included and served at restaurants. Note: I’ve only ever had this happen one time on my trip from Portugal to France.
5. Is it legal?
What a question! But it’s an important one, and I’m not talking about visas here since that’s coming next.
In rare cases, it might be illegal to cross a border by land even though the same person with the same passport can legally cross by plane.
Two situations I’ve been personally faced with come to mind here.
The first is when I traveled from Ukraine to Belarus. It’s a pretty crazy story about how I had to purchase two flights in one day to get into Belarus, all instigated because I thought I could travel by bus from Kyiv to Minsk.
Spoiler alert: Americans can’t cross into Belarus by land.
The second example is traveling from Israel to Jordan. There’s only one land border crossing where Americans can legally cross between the two countries if they don’t already have a visa. I didn’t realize this until it was almost too late when I tried traveling from Isreal to Amman.
And so, cue purchasing yet another last-minute flight because of poor bus border-crossing research on my part.
Going off the point above, it’s imperative that you check visa and entry requirements before hopping on a bus with a border crossing.
Because here’s the thing—with all the border crossings I’ve done, bus companies have rarely asked, let alone checked, that I had the correct paperwork to enter before I got on the bus.
And can you blame them?
It’d be super time-consuming for them to keep up with entrance policies for people from every country in the world.
You might be wondering: what happens if you don’t have the right visa/immunizations/whatever the country requires to enter?
You’ll be required to wait at the border for the next bus going back into the country you were trying to leave.
As mentioned earlier, some countries don’t stamp passports for land border crossings (and I’m not talking about situations like the European Union here). This happened to me in Albania and some other non-EU Balkan countries.
It’s a strange feeling, to say the least.
If you’re a person with limited mobility, I recommend checking with the bus company to see how they can accommodate you. Oftentimes, they can arrange a seat in the front row.
Wheelchair users will, unfortunately, be more limited in accessibility for long-distance bus travel. However, certain bus companies cater to wheelchair users with a built-in lift on the bus. The Spanish bus company ALSA is well known for having this feature.
8. Tourist bus routes
Finally, this guide on the advantages of bus travel is more geared towards the backpacker. However, there are tourist-geared bus routes you can do too if you’re looking for more comfort and hand-holding.
I haven’t done many tourist bus routes during my travels. An exception to this is the Cruce Andino Lake Crossing, which is a 12-hour bus and boat combo that travels between Puerto Varas, Chile, and Bariloche, Argentina. It’s an expensive way to travel between the two countries, but the scenery was stunning.
Advantages of Bus Travel Wrap Up
There are countless advantages of bus travel, which is why it’s one of my favorite ways to explore the world. I hope this post has inspired you to consider taking a bus for your own trip.
Do you have funny, frustrating, or enlightening long-distance bus experiences that you’d like to share?
If so, leave a comment. I’d love to read about them!
Laura has been wandering the globe for over a decade. She's an early bird and backpacker at heart and can often be spotted with a dog or ten that she's befriended along the way. Much of the content Laura writes on A Piece of Travel includes details on solo female travel and wheelchair accessibility, with the support of her brother-in-law and sister.