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Reader Q: Where Do I Buy Bus Tickets?

If you’ve got a burning question, I’m here to help! Now Matt wants to know how to book bus tickets in advance when you can’t do it online.

So let’s start with it, shall we?

Hey, so I’ve got a question. I’m planning to backpack through South America pretty soon and I’ve got to figure out how to buy bus tickets. I’m not exactly sure how this works, but should I buy them in advance? And if I do, how do I do this?


Dear Matt,

Aside from the fact that I’m insanely jealous you’re heading to my part of the world, the answer is usually pretty simple in developing countries and even here in the U.S. In almost all cases, you can pretty much just show up at the bus just before it leaves and buy a ticket. I assume you’re talking about long-distance buses, no?

With the exception of Amurica and Europe, where it’s pretty easy to book a ticket online, it’s usually much easier to book a bus ticket in person than on the interwebs. This is especially true in developing countries, though some countries may have a pretty well-developed bus infrastructure. Mexico is especially great in this regard; definitely take a look at what can be done online with the help of Google Translate.

The bus is a great way to travel, because it’s a very flexible mode of transportation. I also prefer to travel overland, naturally, because there’s just something about seeing the beauty of the landscape change. Flights are more convenient by far, but sometimes taking a bus ride is an adventure unto itself.

When things need to be more planned, resorting through an online travel agency is really the last thing you want to do. The place where you’re hunkering up for the night sometimes can provide better local information than you would ever find on the Internet and most likely can even make the arrangements.

In instances, where it was nearly impossible to arrange a bus ticket in person, I’ve asked the hostel to handle it directly for me before I arrive. In one particular instance, Erica and I planned on arriving in Chengdu around midnight from the airport, where we were going to catch a 6 am bus to northeastern Sichuan. The hostel had the bus tickets ready to go when we checked in for the night. We caught it the next morning.

Hostels and hotels often charge a higher price for handling your bus ticket, so it’s often better to go straight to the bus company to book it if you can. Travel agencies in town can also handle these tickets; it also doesn’t hurt to shop around and to negotiate prices. (In towns that see lots of tourists, they may all be working together so there could be a fixed price. They also use the same bus operator sometimes, regardless if you paid more and booked it at a more “trustworthy” agency.)

Sometimes, though, you just can’t show up. This happens more often with overnight buses, and because most travelers (and locals) often save a night on hotel on these long bus rides, they tend to be more popular. It’s a real problem when there’s often only one nighttime departure—especially in low season—and seats are scarce. In that case, you really want to book try to book these particular type of buses at least one or two days in advance, or as soon as you can.

Now, if you’ve really got to be somewhere on time, I would look into another form of transportation. On one trip to Vietnam, I realized I couldn’t take the chance of not making the only departure from Saigon to Hue one day — the bus just wasn’t going to cut it. The airline ended up accommodating me, hoofs and all.

Just remember, no matter what mode of transportation you plan on using, make sure you also have some entertainment to pass the time!

Map Sherpa

If you have a travel-related question, don’t be afraid to contact me or send me an e-mail at [email protected]. You can always trek up a mountain to find me too, but you don’t want to do probably that, baa.

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