Traveling by bus is one of the cheapest ways to get to your destination and it’s a staple for backpackers around the world. While not every country will have a train system, pretty much every country in the world will have some sort of bus company in operation that offers routes between destinations so no matter where you travel, be prepared to potentially take a bus or two!
On this page, I will tell you everything you need to know about traveling by bus so that you know exactly what to expect when you book your ticket. I will focus on buses that travel between different cities.
If you’re looking for information on local buses and other inner-city travel, check out my Guide to Public Transport.
So without further ado, here are the top 5 things you need to know about traveling by bus:
1. The quality of service can vary, but not by much
For the most part, a bus taken in one country will not be too much of a different experience compared to one taken in another country. You will get assigned a seat (or maybe not) and it drives you to your destination. Most buses will come with air conditioning and some might even have a toilet on board.
Some fancier bus services offer free wifi and maybe even a free drink or snack on board, but you can’t be too sure of any of this. If you’re traveling overnight or on longer routes, you might also get a reclined seat or flat bed to sleep on.
While some countries don’t really offer more than a basic service (like Laos where none of the above was included when I traveled there), there isn’t really a rule to be able to predict what kind of service you’re going to get in any specific country.
I’ve taken buses between destinations in Thailand that were nicer than ones I’ve taken in Europe so it really depends. If you can find reviews for the bus service on a booking website, then you’ll be able to see what others have said about them, but for the most part it’s hard to know what to expect.
In my opinion, the best way to approach bus travel is to just go in not expecting anything except maybe air conditioning if you’re in a hot place. This way you’ll come out the other end either satisfied or pleasantly surprised.
Even if there’s no toilet on board, the bus will stop for toilet breaks on the way to your destination so that’s not an issue. And if it’s an emergency, any reasonable bus driver will pull over for you anyways, not something you can ask a train conductor to do!
2. There is no such thing as Google Buses
Similar to trains, there is no one website that exists where you can book a bus for every country in the world. However, a good way to see what bus operators there are for any route you’re looking for is to check Rome2Rio. The best thing to do is to note down the bus operators it finds and then check out their specific websites to see schedules and pricing.
One website that gets close to a Google Flights-like service though is Busbud. They have bus itineraries for more countries than any other online booking service I’ve found so it’s worth bookmarking their website.
Otherwise, for Europe I recommend also checking Omio and for Southeast Asia, East Asia (not including South Korea), Australia, New Zealand, and some destinations in South Asia, try 12go. Any bookings you make using these websites will add a small fee to the price.
If you can’t see itineraries for any buses on any of those websites, then you will have to inquire about the buses at the bus station.
3. Booking in advance isn't really necessary
It depends on the bus service and whether or not it’s a busy route or there is an event happening which is inflating passenger numbers, but in general, you don’t need to book your bus ticket too far in advance when traveling by bus.
You can save some money by booking in advance for some bus companies, but for most you can just show up at the bus station and buy your ticket the same day. Booking online in advance is just more convenient as it means you can just show up at the station 15 minutes before your bus leaves and board your bus no problem.
If online bookings aren’t possible, then you’ll need to go to the closest bus station to inquire about schedules and prices. I recommend booking online when possible, especially in Europe and North America, as it can mean cheaper fares.
4. Seats can sometimes be reserved
Most long-distance buses operate on a first come-first serve basis. They won’t sell more tickets than seats so you can rest assured that you’ll have a seat, but you often won’t know which one it will be until you board your bus and see what’s available. The sooner you board your bus, the bigger the selection of seats you will have to choose from.
That being said, there are times when seat reservations are enforced and you can reserve your seat when you buy your ticket so it really all depends on the bus service. Bus companies won’t typically charge you to choose a new seat if you don’t like the one you’re given when you book your ticket so you don’t need to worry about that.
5. The check-in process is simple
Because there isn’t one.
As long as you have your ticket, all you have to do is find your bus, leave your luggage with the driver who will place it in the compartment underneath the bus, and then board it to find your seat. You don’t need to show up at the station any sooner than 15 minutes before departure. There is no check-in or security that you will need to go through.
If your bus is going to cross a border, then you will want to keep your passport and other border documents with you on the bus because you will have to get off the bus to cross the border on foot before getting back onto bus on the other side.
At some borders, the border control officers might board the bus and either collect your documents and return them to you after checking them or simply check your documents in front of you on the bus.
And that’s all!
Traveling by bus is pretty straightforward and is ideal for the no-frills traveler. Some destinations won’t have any other transportation options available and in others, it simply just makes sense financially. As long as you know what to expect, you can travel by bus like a pro!
Let me know if I missed anything in the comments down below and if you want to find out everything you need to know about traveling by ferry, check out my Guide to Ferry Travel.