Affordable Bus Travel Advice

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In many countries bus travel is the most affordable transportation option for getting from one place to another.

We’ve spent countless hours on buses since we started traveling and for the most part our experiences have been great.  However, there were a few times when our experiences could have been better if we had made different choices or just had a different outlook on the situation. Here is some advice from each of us when it comes to Affordable Bus Travel.

Bus Travel Advice from Michael

One of the many things I learned during the months I spent backpacking in South America was how to turn off my brain during long bus journeys. This is essential as bus travel tends to be a unbearably long, incredibly uncomfortable, and at times downright terrifying. I come from a privileged place where the roads are wide and mostly straight, where rules are enforced by cops in mirrored sunglasses and bad attitudes, and where plunging off of a cliff into a deep ravine is generally frowned upon. I once spent ten hours on a bus with no heat on a sub-zero night sans any sort of bathroom, that hit and butchered a goat which shattered the windshield and blew out the back tire leaving us standing in the middle of the road for a hour. The ride ended with myself and my two Irish mates being unceremoniously evicted onto a freezing early morning dust swept road near the Bolivian border.

I figured I was ready for anything bus related.

India, once again, humbled me, shattering that particular illusion during a ten hour trip between monsoon drenched McLeod Ganj and the high hills of Manali.

The bus itself turned out to be a dingy, oily, tin can on wheels. Pretty much par for the course  in India. This particular archaic machine lacked power steering and possessed a set of exquisitely screeching breaks. Alright, I told myself, that’s fine. Don’t judge. Maybe this old sucker has a few moves left in it. Sort of like the Millennium Falcon. I sat down in my seat and tried to make myself comfortable. Sadly, the seat was not designed with comfort in mind.  Browned by age, more metal frame than cushion, beaten down by decades of countless humans. An iron bar cleverly positioned to palpate both kidneys at once ran across the seatback, reshaping the curve of my lumbar spine. No amount of turning, twisting, leaning, or reclining spared me from the discomfort. Fine, I thought again, this is fine. It’s only ten hours…

The seats turned out to be the least of our concerns. Our driver revealed himself to be a fucking lunatic. This sleep deprived chain smoking individual, who shall remain nameless, seemed to have zero regard for his own life, and even less for the lives of those stuck in the back of his rolling death trap. Hairpin turns taken at ridiculous speeds at night in the rain, ancient breaks roaring in agony. The bus rocked back and forth like a ship at stormy sea, tires inches away from cliff edge and certain death. Every hole in the “road” (at times asphalt, mostly mud and rock and dirt) sent us flinging up out of our seats, shocks absorbing absolutely nothing. Twice I slammed my temple into an iron bar positioned over the window, its sole purpose seemingly to punish me for sitting next to it. A passenger behind me started sobbing, expressing with unabashed honesty what we were all feeling. “Holy fucking shit, I’m going to die.”

Hours crawled by this way. We pretended to sleep, closing our eyes to avoid looking out the windows and seeing death run parallel to the worn tires. To avert our gaze from the sight of our lunatic captain passing other vehicles. To try and remain sane. Some time around  four in the morning, six hours into this harrowing journey, I came to a couple of conclusions. For one – I had, up until that time, valued my life too highly, held on to the need to LIVE too dearly, was far too impressed with my own existence.  I needed to learn how to let go. No way to hit the brakes and no hope of escape. Much like life. Maybe you get to where you’re trying to go, or maybe you expire along the way. Either way, you’re on the bus.  A tickle rose up inside of me and forced its way from my belly to my throat. I couldn’t contain it and burst out laughing. Things got easier after that. Hysterical laughter has a way of soothing over extreme stress.

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Bus Travel Advice from Randi

Twenty hours on an overnight bus in Mexico from San Cristobal de las Casas to Playa del Carmen with food poisoning and altitude sickness wasn’t one of my favorite travel experiences to say the least.  When I realized, mere seconds before throwing up, that the only toilet on the bus was covered in someone else’s feces, I knew I had made a mistake.

There are a few things to consider when traveling by bus to make the ride more comfortable for you and whoever you might be traveling with.  Here are a few things Michael and I learned from this experience.

Traveling cheap doesn’t necessarily mean that the least expensive options are always the best ones. There are three buses from San Cristobal to Playa del Carmen.

  • The Cheap Bus: ~600 pesos ($48.00)
  • The Mid-priced Bus: ~800 pesos ($64.00)
  • The Expensive Bus: ~1200 pesos ($96.00)

I wanted to take the least expensive option, being in cost-saving mode, but luckily it was sold out and we ended up on the mid-priced bus. The $30.00 we saved by taking the mid-priced bus instead of the most expensive bus likely cost us the comfort of extra legroom, the convenience of two bathrooms supplied with toilet paper and hand soap to choose from, and a few additional hours of our lives on the bus. If I had it to do over again I would hand over the $30.00 without hesitation.

Being sick on a very bumpy and winding ride is bad enough but when you are dealing with unnecessary inconveniences you can quickly find yourself in a very undesirable situation.

The other mistake we made was booking two seats in the same row next to one another.  This meant that Michael ended up giving me his aisle seat so I could quickly run to the disease infested bathroom at a moment’s notice.  Therefore, he spent 20 hours crammed in a window seat with very little leg room while trying to take care of a sick person.  This combination makes for a very cranky caretaker and an even more cranky sick person.  In the future we plan to book two aisle seats across from one another when possible and let someone else experience the discomfort of the window seat on a long journey.

Weigh your transportation options carefully when taking long bus trips.  Even if you aren’t sick an extra few bucks can make all the difference when it comes to a long bus journey.


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