Tips for Long Bus Rides: How To Make Them Bearable

We are sort of long bus journey experts. Aside from the 6 months we spent taking buses around Eastern and Southern Africa, we have both survived bus journeys in Asia, Europe, South America, Australia and previously more of Africa on multiple other trips for extended periods of time. In fact, our friends now often ask us for our top tips for long bus rides!

So how do we do it?

Table of Contents

Introduction

Our trips as long-term travellers often take us on long, often uncomfortable bus journeys. Often, for us, this was in Africa, which (if you’ve travelled much in Africa before, you’ll know) is no mean feat! They can be really uncomfortable, especially if you’re not used to travelling for a long time. However, over the years, we’ve definitely learned that there is a knack to this kind of journey, and a way to make it much more bearable!

So how can you make it less of a drain?

Tips for long bus rides for more inexperienced travellers

If you’re not used to backpacking or intense budget travel, you might want to start off easy. Throwing yourself in at the deep end can often be a great technique. In this instance though, we’d say that’s a sure-fire way to scare yourself silly, and stop you ever wanting to take a long bus journey again.

So here’s our tips…

Murray is sitting on a bus with his hoodie over his face. He is trying to sleep.

1. Start small

If you’re backpacking, try a few shorter bus journeys first to see how you get on. This will allow you to get to grips with the local transport system, and see how well you manage. Trying a journey of only two to three hours (or shorter if needed) first can be a good test. If you cope well, great! You can try something longer. If, however, you find that you’re already struggling, this may be a good indicator that you should stick to shorter trips.

2. Determine your maximum time limit

Once you’re more familiar, try a few longer trips and build yourself up to a time limit where you really feel that’s enough. From our perspective, our upper limit now is around 24 hours, but it definitely took us a while to get there! Also, it’s worth saying, we probably wouldn’t choose a 24 hour journey, if we had another choice.

It’s important to factor in your capabilities here. It’s really important not to push yourself too much, as this could just lead to you dreading long journeys in the long run. Once you’ve figured out what you’re comfortable with, you’ll know how far you can go. If you think a trip is going to be too long for you, split it up!

3. Start somewhere you feel comfortable

If you can, try to practice taking longer journeys somewhere familiar to you, such as your home country. This can make you more comfortable with the journey itself, meaning if you travel abroad, you have one less thing to get to grips with. If you can’t start at home, try at least somewhere you know the language or have no time difference. The more stress you take out of it initially will make you more comfortable in more difficult situations.

A tour bus parked in the middle of a dry, desert area. There is a pink sky at sunset in the background.

Tips for long bus rides for more experienced travellers

Though Murray was initially the one of the two of us who hated being on a bus for more than a couple of hours, nowadays, he’s pretty famous among our friends for being able to pass out asleep on any bus any time. Once you’re a bit more used to bus journeys, here’s how to make them work for you…

Take everything you need to be as comfortable as possible

For us, that’s a combination of the below:

  • A neck pillow (or scarf – see photo below for this technique!)
  • A scarf or blanket in case it gets chilly
  • Earplugs – bus journeys can get super noisy and it can be impossible to sleep without earplugs!
  • Eye mask – even if you don’t use an eye mask at home, we do recommend taking one. Drivers can stop unexpectedly, turning lights on and off etc.
  • Entertainment – a book (if you can read on buses), downloaded tv shows, podcasts, music, films. Whatever you need to keep you busy
  • Enough water to last – we use a Lifestraw filtered water bottle so we can fill up anywhere
  • Snacks/packed lunch – need we say more!

It might seem like overkill, but the more comfortable you can make yourself, the more likely you are to fall asleep which is, without doubt, the best way to pass time on long bus journeys.

Prepare before you go

Before we take a long trip, here’s how we prepare:

  • Download the area of the map you’ll be travelling through, especially the place you’ll be arriving. You may find you arrive without WiFi or internet and it’s important to prepare. We also track our journey via GPS so it’s useful to know where we are.
  • Download any entertainment you need, such as podcasts, music, books on kindles, tv shows etc.
  • Charge everything – phones are a given, but consider other things you might need, like battery packs (if it’s an extra long journey, your phone might need another charge), headphones, kindles, tablets etc.
  • Get anything you might need before you go – for example, do you need snacks and drinks? In our experience it’s better to get more snacks than you think in case of delays (especially important for diabetics etc.)
  • Book your accommodation for your arrival and print or download your booking confirmation. Preparation is key because trust me, after 18 hours on a bus, you don’t want to be trekking round an unfamiliar city figuring out where to stay. Also, while we on that…
  • Figure out how you’re getting to your accommodation – download the map. If you’re walking, screenshot the route. If you need a taxi or public transport, figure out how to do that
  • Get a good night’s sleep – you might not sleep much on the bus
  • Try and prebook your tickets – IF possible. We know this is not always a possibility, but we always try to use sites like Busbud. They’re super useful for being able to download your tickets and have them to hand.
  • Pack properly – you need a hand baggage item with whatever you’ll need on the journey (snacks, pillow, entertainment etc) easily accessible
Murray is asleep again. He has a scarf tied round his head to the back of a car seat, and over his eyes to keep his head in place and act as an eye mask

How to avoid losing things

This is a pet peeve of ours and something we’re honestly still learning. Over the years, we have strewn so many of our belongings around various buses of the world and it can be so annoying. Here’s how we try to mitigate it these days:

  • Try not to spread out. In the mad scramble at the end of the trip to repack your bags, it’s really easy to miss something. We employ the ‘one item out of our bags at a time’ rule and try to make sure everything else is packed away. If you’re not good at this, try keeping everything in one place (like the seat back) and making sure you check it before you get off the bus.
  • Give yourself time to pack up. Like I said, the mad scramble is a killer. I always try to leave at least half an hour before the end of the trip to pack up and make sure I’m good. Sometimes I’ll even set an alarm!
  • If you’re on a bus for more than one day (with a tour company or similar), take everything off the bus after each day and do a check of your belongings
  • Invest in an Airtag or similar tracking device. These have been such lifesavers for us with luggage! Hot tip: though you can’t set up an Airtag without an Apple device, you can manage it with an android. All you need is Bluetooth!

If you’re travelling on your own…

Being a solo traveller on a long bus journey can be daunting at best. Safety can be a worry in certain places, and it’s tricky to keep track of your things. We’ve both travelled solo on buses, but more so together. Here’s what we do when travelling alone (in addition to all of the above)

  • Pack light – firstly this is going to help you lift your bag up and down from the luggage shelves if no one offers to help. Secondly, this will mean you have a lot less to worry about!
  • Be extra careful with your things – an Airtag is a must! When travelling solo, we always try not to spread out too much, stow everything away when we’re going to sleep, and keeping valuable items, such as phones, wallets, passports on our person
  • Set an alarm to make sure you wake up before your stop. You can always ask the driver to come and get you too, but this stops you needing to rely on others
  • If you’re abroad and don’t know the language, downloading Google Translate can be so helpful. Of course we always try to learn some local phrases, but in case of emergency, this can be a lifesaver
  • Have a local sim topped up with internet in case you break down or need to call someone.

The one thing we always take: a scarf

You’re probably thinking, of all the things we’ve mentioned, why would a scarf be top of the list?! So, I’m not saying it’s the most important (your passport probably ticks that box), but I would consider it most versatile. Here’s some ways you might not have thought of to repurpose a scarf on a long journey:

  • Roll it up and make a cushion – to sit on, to rest your head on etc. Perfect!
  • As a ‘head stabiliser’ – this works so well! OK, so I know we look a bit mad, but it stops your head rolling about making it SO easy to sleep. Tip: tie the knot behind the seat, not on your head, and of course check with the person behind you that they don’t mind. I am not good at sleeping while travelling and I find this works absolute wonders
  • As a blanket – less bulky but still works really well! Also you can place it over your valuables on your lap while you sleep. Make sure to fasten your seatbelt over it if you can, so it doesn’t move anywhere
  • In case of bad smells, DIY facemask. This one might just be us, but whenever we’re on a long bus, someone or something always seems to smell. Having a ready-make scarf sprayed/rubbed with perfume (we use a solid, oil-based one) over our nose and mouth can make things a lot more bearable! It’s also good as a facemask if someone else is coughing etc.
  • DIY eye mask – much the same principle as the facemask. Tie the scarf round your eyes and bingo, you’ve got black-out curtains.

We could go on and on about the merits of scarves when travelling (DIY bag, head wrap, the list goes on!). Suffice to say, it’s the one thing we never go without.

A view out of a bus window on a very dusty, dirt track road. There are mountains in the distance.

Toilet breaks

This is always tricky. Not knowing when you’ll get a loo break is always a bit of a nightmare and can make for a very worrying/uncomfortable journey. If there’s no toilet on board and you have no idea what to expect, we definitely recommend:

  • Asking the driver when they are planning to stop. This is definitely daunting, but it’ll be worse if you don’t know. We would say just double check before you set off: ‘How often do you stop for toilet breaks?’. If you’re operating in another language, have this phrase downloaded to your phone and double check
  • Stay hydrated before you set off, then make sure you get to the toilet before you get going. Most bus stations will have somewhere to go, but go at your accommodation too, just in case!
  • Limit your water intake for the first couple of hours until you know the situation – if they’re only going to be stopping every four hours, you probably need to be aware of this before downing your whole bottle of water!

As a final thought, women travellers who are uncomfortable with long distances with no toilet breaks, you genuinely may want to consider a Shewee! I haven’t resorted to one yet, but we often remark on how much easier it is for Murray on these trips than me. It may be on the cards for me at some point!

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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