Long-distance buses can be a smart budget alternative to trains and car rental.
In most countries, trains are faster, more comfortable, and have more extensive schedules than long-distance buses. But in some places buses are often the better (or only) option. Just about everywhere, bus trips are almost always less expensive than trains — often significantly so. In recent years, a flock of new bus lines have giving railways some especially tough competition.
Note that in some countries, and in much of English-language signage and websites, a long-distance bus is called a “coach,” while a “bus” provides only in-city transit.
Use buses mainly to pick up where train system leave off. Buses fan out from the smallest train stations to places trains can’t get to — but keep in mind that bus service can be less frequent on holidays, Saturdays, and especially Sundays. For towns with train stations far from the center (such as hill towns), buses are often scheduled to meet each arrival and shuttle passengers to the main square (often at no extra cost — show your train ticket to the bus driver and see what happens). Many bus connections to nearby towns not served by train are timed to depart just after the train arrives. Miss that connection in a remote place and you’ll wait with the ghosts in an empty station until the next train arrives.
In most countries, bus routes are operated by multiple companies, each with its own timetables and fares and finding a reliable, date-specific, and unified source for schedule and price information can be next to impossible.
Stations, Tickets, and Passes
It’s common for a big city to have a number of smaller bus stations serving different regions, rather than one terminal for all bus traffic. Sometimes a bus “station” can just be an open parking lot with lots of stalls and a tiny ticket kiosk. Your hotelier or the local tourist information office can usually point you in the right direction. Larger bus stations have an information desk (and, often, a telephone number) with timetables. In smaller stations, check the destinations and schedules posted on the window of each company’s office. Bus-station staffers are less likely to speak English than their train-station counterparts. Bus stations have WCs (often without toilet paper) and cafés that offer quick, forgettable, overpriced food.
For popular routes during peak season, ensure you’ll get a seat by buying your tickets online (most of the upstart bus lines have user-friendly apps) or dropping by the station to buy your ticket a few hours in advance. If you’re downtown, need a ticket, and the bus station isn’t central, save time by asking at the tourist information office about travel agencies that sell bus tickets.
Riding the Bus
Before you get on a bus, ask the ticket seller and the conductor if you’ll need to transfer. If so, pay attention (and maybe even follow the route on a map) to be sure you don’t miss your change. When you transfer, look for a bus with the same name/logo as the company you bought the ticket from.
Drivers may not speak English. Buses generally lack toilets, but they stop every two hours or so for a short break. Drivers announce how long the stop will be, but if in doubt, ask the driver so you know if you have time to get out. Listen for the bus horn as a final call before departure.
Package Bus Excursions
One-day bus tours from big cities into the countryside are designed for sightseeing, but can also serve as useful transportation. For example, rather than buy a train ticket, consider taking a one-day bus tour. Bring your luggage and leave the tour in before it returns, having enjoyed a day of transportation, unforgettable stops, and a live guide bubbling with information. It can be well worth the extra cost, and it’s more efficient and faster than lacing together the stops on your own, using a combination of trains and public buses. If you do look into taking a bus tour as transportation, confirm the order of stops with the company (will they be stopping at your end destination last?) and let them know your plans.