Buses offer one of the most affordable ways to travel, whether you are going from one city to another or simply traveling within a city. But not all buses are the same. Depending on where you are headed, you may find buses to be very comfortable and easy to use, or crowded and downright scary. Take a look at the two main types of bus transportation: city-to-city buses and intra-city buses (those operating within a city). For information on bus-based tour groups, see our guided tours section.
These buses, sometimes called "overland" buses, run between major cities, taking travelers over many miles. The bus systems often run on a schedule of some sort, allowing you to plan your travel agenda and book your tickets in advance. This isn't to say that all city-to-city buses have schedules, but most major companies do. City-to-city buses, with their ability to use major roads and highways, allow travelers more destination options than using train systems such as Eurail. And they often pick up and drop off travelers near, if not right in front of, hostels and tourist hot spots.
The quality of your ride will depend on what sort of bus company you choose to go with. Generally speaking, the larger bus-transport organizations will offer cleaner, better-running buses with more amenities. They may also feature bathrooms, food services and video monitors. All of these features should provide you with a pleasant ride between cities, allowing you to arrive at your destination feeling relaxed and rested. Even though they may be more expensive than some buses, in our opinion, they are worth it. Having said that, it should be known that even within bus transport companies, there are often older, more rundown buses as well as new ones. More often than not, you will have little choice in this matter. You just book your ticket and hope for one of the newer ones.
In contrast to the large bus organizations, choosing a smaller company or private bus will save you even more money, but because the bus may be old and well worn, your ride may be slower, less comfortable, and you may even have to share your seat with an animal or two. As well, there may be more risks involved: the bus may have poor maintenance records, it may be piloted by an untrained driver, it could have a leaking exhaust system, etc. However, these slower, rickety buses can be fun as you encounter each new and interesting predicament that is thrown your way.
This is assuming that you even have a choice in what sort of bus or bus company you will be using. Sometimes you have to take what you can get, even it it means riding on the roof with 30 other people as your bus crawls along a narrow, mountainous highway.
One important benefit of private busses over train travel is that private buses are, in some ways, safer. Because they only allow pass holders on the bus, unlike trains where thieves can board at any stop and roam the train looking for people to rip off, there is less risk of being robbed or having your bag stolen.
In Europe, bus travel between cities is equally convenient to trains, with extensive routes and ride options, and is often cheaper than taking the train. The buses make stops primarily in major cities and are very pleasant to travel in. Because they are so affordable, busing around Europe should be a serious consideration for the extreme budget traveler. Bus companies to consider include Busabout and Eurolines.
When in the Middle East, taking the bus is the only way to travel overland from city to city. Many buses here are easily comparable to those in Europe, with televisions, AC and washrooms on board. In Egypt, get on the biggest bus available when traveling at night. Drivers in Egypt don't turn on their headlights at night (to save energy). Renting a car or taking on overland taxi (believe it or not, a very economical option) at night would be asking for trouble.
If you are at all interested in learning about bus safety, check out Bus Plunge to read about some unfortunate bus mishaps from various locals around the world. On second thought, maybe you don't want to know about bus accidents.
Many bus organizations today are offering travelers a terrific option: the ability to get on and off the bus at pre-determined stops. This offers travelers a system not unlike a Eurail pass. You purchase a bus pass from the company with a set number of days. Then you wait for the bus and hop on when it stops in your city. When you arrive in a city that you would like to stay at, you can get off, knowing that you can get on another bus when it comes through town again.
When and where you purchase your ticket will vary, depending on the season and the country. Larger bus organizations usually have a travel agency-type office where tickets are sold. In Tel Aviv, Israel, their largest bus company has a fleet of buses and a bus station the size of an airport.
If you are traveling in the busy season, you will want to book a ticket well in advance. At less-busy times, you may be able to book a ticket on the same day as the departure. Use some common sense. It is better to book early, especially if you are trying to get to a particular city to catch a connecting flight, festival, or you have hostel bed already booked. You may have to make several trips to the bus station to avoid line-ups and get a bus that going your way.
Before buying you ticket from a smaller bus company, try to find out as much information as you can about the bus and the route you will be taking. How many stops will it be making? What route will the bus be taking? Are there bathrooms on board? If you get a chance to actually see the bus, all the better.
Intra-city transit can vary greatly depending on the level of development within the city or country. But almost all cities have some type of bus transport system, each offering a variety of services and features. It may be a public transit system operated by the government or a local organization, a collection of privately owned and operated buses, or a combination of the two.
Observe the locals to see how they use the local buses. In some cities, you can enter from the front or the back door. Sometimes you just hang off the side. Payments methods vary as well. You may never have to show your ticket to an official. But, get caught without a ticket while riding a bus and you may be fined (or worse).
On some buses, you will have to throw your bag up on the roof or stash it underneath. Try to get a seat, or stand, where you can keep your bag in sight. A stop-and-go bus provides many opportunities for thieves to grab your bag when you aren't looking.
Buses in any country can be very stuffy when packed with lots of people. Some buses may even suffer from sudden mechanical problems, leaving passengers stranded. But it really doesn't matter what kind of bus system you board because the distances traveled are relatively short. If the bus breaks down, simply get off and find another one.
If you plan on staying in a city for more than a few days, and will be using buses to get around, look into purchasing a booklet of bus tickets to save some money.