Bus travel is a mode of transportation; within the public transport network or with chartered buses.
All inhabited continents have some sort of bus travel and unless government regulations or geography prohibit it, you can find some – at least nominal – bus service almost anywhere you go. While comfort and prices range wildly, from the (in)famous chicken buses, the engines of which may or may not survive the next steep ascent, to luxury buses in countries such as Saudi Arabia, buses are usually the cheapest option at least on short distances.
Contrary to rail, which is usually organized at the national level, it is often easy for anyone to start a bus company. Where regulation is absent or moderate, there will thus be many independent firms, not always coordinating very well. You often have to check the connections locally.
There may also be a few dominating companies. National monopolies or cartels are rare, but in some countries government regulation sets (usually rather low) prices and/or pays subsidies, thus establishing a quite stable market. Still competition often varies from route to route. You will not have much trouble finding a company that goes from Washington DC to New York City, but a trip from Herzogenaurach to Regensburg may only be offered by a single company or none at all as a direct route.
Where there is a need for public transport, but no economically viable market, there may be heavily subsidized taxis or minibuses for the target audience, still taking outsiders as passengers – to find these you may have to get local advice even in places where most timetables are on the net. School buses sometimes belong to this category (and you might be able to go in the reverse direction as well).
Some main categories of buses are:
- Public transportation: Part of the national or local government system for public transportation; often integrated with urban rail, in some cases with a transferrable ticket system. These buses are usually cheaper and have a wider network than any other option, but might also be overcrowded, with a risk of crime and language barriers.
- Independent coach lines: Typically intercity buses (such as intercity buses in Europe and inter-city buses in the USA), airport coaches, etc. Comfort and service level varies a lot; you usually get what you pay for.
- Tour buses: Catering to tourists, with tour guides speaking various languages. Can have a hop-on-hop-off scheme.
- Sponsored shuttle buses: Buses to suburban shopping malls, ferries, etc, on a limited route and schedule. Might give free rides to the public, or only to patrons of the service provider.
- Chartered buses: Rented by a travel agent, or a travel group.
Depending on the line, tickets may have to be bought in advance, paid to the driver or paid to a separate conductor. On some lines it is possible to reserve seats.
Something being announced as a bus route does not necessarily mean you will ride a bus. In some regions you may end up in a lorry and where passenger volumes are small you might have to board what looks like a taxi. Also, bus stops are not always well marked or marked at all.
Bus operators have different attitudes towards standing passengers. While it is par for the course on chicken buses, laws and regulations in other places may require not only sitting down but buckling up. In some countries a few buses at the lower end of the price scale may transport standing passengers even over long distances, but the "first class" buses on major routes may not even fill all seats or seat less than the standard 2 + 2 (two left and right of the aisle).
For long bus rides you may want to have a bottle of water, something to eat (eating not allowed in all buses, though), something to read and perhaps something to lean your head against if getting tired. A map and guidebook, with which to keep track of what you see, is also good to have. On some lines there are newspapers, coffee and snacks available. If you are prone to get carsick, avoid seats in the rear end, try to get a seat with a good view and have a plastic bag handy. If you are travelling with children, having food, entertainment, paper towels etc. may be crucial. Unless there is a functional toilet, you should use the breaks (but do not miss the bus). If you aren't getting off at the very last stop, it is usually a good idea to try and tell other people on the bus, especially the driver or conductor, where you have to get off. In many instances, stops are "on demand" only or in non-obvious places and you may only recognize the landmarks of the city you want to go to when the bus is already pulling out of the station.
Capacity for luggage varies. On some buses you will want or have to have your bags on your lap, in some there is an overhead rack for smaller bags, in some there is a luggage compartment below the passenger compartment, in some the luggage is fastened on the roof. You may want to have your most important belongings in bags small enough to keep with you even in a crowded bus.
Almost all buses are designed for top speeds no higher than 100 km/h, some don't even reach 80 km/h. In some countries, e.g. Germany, this is enshrined in laws and thus technical developments in favor of higher speeds are unlikely. This means in practice that, all else being equal, trains are faster than buses almost everywhere where railways are up to a 21st century standard. (However, bus departures may be more frequent and have more convenient stops). In low income countries some buses are even slower and the ubiquitous former US school buses sometimes have trouble reaching the speed of a jogger over inclines. Still, bus drivers – especially those of "minibuses" – are notorious for trying to get the last out of the technology available, even if that might seem "suicidal" to outsiders. Be assured that especially when there has been a delay and time has to be made up, the driver will do anything in their power to get the lost time back. Another factor often limiting travel speed is the state of the roads. Sure, the Caribbean Coast is only a few hundred kilometers from Managua, but the roads are often nothing more than a small stretch of dirt that has been (mostly) cleared of trees and undergrowth and even at the maximum speed the bus will do on such routes you can easily spend a day or more on the road. If you take a ride such as these, you will surely have a tale to tell, but you might want to reconsider taking a bush plane on the way back, especially if the bus does not in fact make it and you have to be picked up by the next one.
Eat and Drink
While some low income countries have perfected "at your seat service" to an art form, with vendors for everything portable up to and including the newest "miracle cure" for some ailment you didn't know existed, buses in other regions may offer a limited selection only or nothing at all. Bringing your own is always a good idea, especially on long routes. This is also true if the bus makes scheduled "lunch breaks", as those are often at overpriced venues exploiting a captive market. Don't get yourself into a situation where you have to buy a greasy sandwich that has seen better days for twenty bucks or go hungry for the next eight hours. Choose food that does not risk to cause cleaning work, and do not make a big number of your meal if you think eating may be disallowed – often a driver chooses not to enforce such rules as long as your meal is no problem. Some buses may also have vending machines for small snacks, soft drinks or coffee, if that is the case, the operator will likely make a big fuzz about it on their website.
In some regions one is always supposed to share ones food or snacks with those nearby, at least among the ones sharing a bench. Offering is hardly rude, while not doing it or eating too much of what others brought may be.
Eating too much at once, and some food and drinks, may increase the risk of getting sick. Be cautious especially if such problems seem likely. Some people have more problems on modern buses on good but turning roads than on old buses on bumpy roads, in the same way as long ocean waves are worse than short lake waves.
A long bumpy bus ride is often the ideal way to meet locals and strike up conversations with "real" people. Except tour buses and other services which cater to an international crowd, language barriers can be expected (do not forget to bring a phrasebook).
Sleeping restfully on buses can be difficult – it's easy to end up exhausted after an overnight bus from one city to another. But if you can master it, it's a way to both save money on lodging for a night and also use your waking hours to enjoy your destination instead of spending them on transportation. A few recommendations:
- Sleeping is easier on a route without too many stops. If the bus is stopping in lots of towns along the way, you'll likely be woken up by lights turning on, people moving around, and the bus starting and stopping when it gets close to a station.
- Some buses have seats that recline very far to make for a more comfortable place to sleep; others just recline a little or not at all. When you buy your ticket, the company may let you choose a seat that reclines further and has more legroom, for a higher price of course. A few buses even have actual bunks on board!
- Neck pillows. Some people swear by them; others can't find a way to make themselves comfortable with one. It's worth trying one out to see if you like it. Neck pillow connoisseurs say the material makes a big difference—you'll have to decide for yourself. Of course a real pillow is an option too; it's awfully bulky, but you'll see people using one on some overnight buses.
- You might consider a sleep mask and earplugs to avoid being woken up by movement or lights turning on...though on the other hand, sometimes the lights are being turned on for a reason that you might want to wake up for, such as getting close to your stop or the conductor checking tickets.
- Wear layers—if the air conditioning is on too high or nonexistent, you'll sleep better if you can control your temperature a little more. Some passengers bring a blanket, which both keeps you warm and also makes it feel a little more like you're in bed.
- The day before your overnight bus, practice good habits to help you sleep: do some physical activity so you'll be tired, avoid caffeine in the late afternoon, and eat a filling dinner so you're not trying to fall asleep on an empty stomach. Hopefully this will help balance out the other aspects of the situation that are less conducive to sleep.
- Brush your teeth at the bus station bathroom before getting on. Not only is it good hygiene, it'll make it feel like bedtime. And there's no need to be self-conscious about it—you may even see other people brushing their teeth too. Some large bus stations even have showers available.
- Secure valuables and arrange your stuff so that it's difficult to steal without waking you up, for instance by wrapping the strap of your bag around your arm.
- If your stop isn't the last one, it's wise to set an alarm on your phone to make sure you don't miss it. But turn it off as soon as you're awake, and don't irritate the other passengers by hitting snooze!
- And finally: like anything, sleeping on a bus does get easier with practice.
While there are sleeper trains, few bus services are actually designed for sleeping passengers and those that are, are often more expensive than a "regular" bus. If you find the increased comfort worth the price difference, by all means go for it.
Bus travel by region
We currently have guides on bus travel in some countries where this phenomenon is either widespread or rather new. If you know about a country we should cover but do not, please plunge forward and create the article. For many countries the issue is more briefly handled in the "Get around" sections.
- Intercity bus travel in the USA – not the fastest nor glamorous but sometimes the least expensive, sometimes the only way to get around the United States without a car
- Bus travel in Mexico – became the most important mode of travel for the rich and the poor alike when internal air travel was dominated by a state monopoly and therefore very expensive and rail travel entered a terminal decline ending in only two tourist lines open to passengers today. A bus ride with some companies in Mexico rivals flying business class on a plane.
- Chicken bus – the backbone of public transport in e.g. Central America
- Intercity buses in Europe
- Intercity buses in Germany – virtually illegal prior to 2010, this market is rather new and volatile
- Intercity buses in France - partially modeled after the German situation, the market is still quite young
- Rail and bus travel in Sweden – dealing with rail travel as well
- Marshrutka – common in Russia and Ukraine
- Bus travel in former Yugoslavia – often the only feasible way to get around without a car
- Bus travel in Japan – yes, Japan is famous for the Shinkansen (and rightly so), but if you are travelling on the cheap or want to go to places where no train goes, the bus is your mode of choice
- Bus travel in Israel – the most important mode of transport in the country
City buses are a high-risk area for pickpockets, who can take advantage of packed crowds, noise, and travellers' confusion. Long-distance buses tend to be safer in this regard, as they are usually less packed and less people wander on and off the bus in a short time, but still keep your wits about and an eye on your luggage. In general buses are less safe and more prone to accidents than trains. Buckle up where seat belts are available.
Keep in mind that night buses are likely to be less safe than day buses—this goes for long-distance buses as well as city buses.