Just because something isn’t popular Stateside doesn’t mean it isn’t happening elsewhere. In other parts of the world, it’s bus or bust.
On other continents, bus transit is this whole segment of travel far more developed and extensive than anything in the U.S. Where that’s the case, it can be the best way to travel if you have some extra time, want to save money and see a bit of the land all in one. In much of South America, for example, bus travel is a big win, including in places like Argentina, Chile and Peru. Mexico also has an impressive bus culture and Thailand also has it all down too.
Moving to Argentina changed my whole conception of what type of travel was capable by bus: trips to real-deal, faraway destinations on overnight sleeper buses rolling through the countryside. In places where bus travel is developed (like in Argentina) it’s not just one company offering a few options, either. There are loads of bus companies and even different seat classes, the equivalents of economy and business.
Suddenly, there were more options and price points for getting places that what airlines offered. The seats even may recline! Whiskey nightcap? I now look into bus options wherever I travel.
That doesn’t always mean it’s always a win. When I took a seven-hour bus ride between Istanbul and Cappadocia on a basic bus—imagine crammed seats, no bathroom, bringing new meaning to the term Basic B—it was only marginally cheaper than a flight and I desperately wish I had flown. But it’s a good option to consider. Even to and from major destinations in Europe, land of the budget airlines, there is some movement with bus, even for a route as popular as from London to Paris.
“Train travel is great, too!” one might say. That’s true — where it exists. But generally speaking, in places with impressive bus travel infrastructure there really isn’t much in the way of trains. Through it all, including a 26-hour stint on a bus, I've figured out the major pros and cons.
|Mexico City — Acapulco|
|Bus||Costa Line||$65 round-trip / $33 one-way||3.5-4 hrs|
|Plane||Aeromexico||$183 round-trip / $116 one-way||1 hr|
|Bangkok — Chiang Mai|
|Bus||Air Aran Patthana (via Transit Bangkok)||$40 round-trip / $20 one-way||9-10 hrs|
|Plane||Air Asia||$90 round-trip / $45 one-way||1 hr 15 mins|
|London — Paris|
|Bus||iDBUS||$22 round-trip / $11 one-way||8.5 hrs|
|Plane||easyJet||$103 round-trip / $59 one-way||1.5 hrs|
|Buenos Aires — Mendoza|
|Bus||Cata Internacional||$110 round-trip / $52 one-way (official rate)||16 hrs|
|Plane||Aerolineas Argentina||$360 round-trip / $180 one-way||1.5 hours|
In many cases, the slightly more expensive tickets are also faster buses with fewer stops along the way. For example, a 13-hour bus with the same line costs $62 versus the $52 option listed above.
*Prices correct at time of publication, converted to USD and rounded to the nearest dollar. All flights are direct. Plane and bus tickets are the cheapest found using the same set of dates but reflect the general price at any given time for that same route.
- More space. Every bus seat I’ve ever had, even in Turkey, has always been bigger and more comfortable than any airplane economy seat could dream of being.
- Save money on lodging for a night. It’s transit and a hotel for a night (let’s hope not more) all in one.
- Cheap one-way tickets. No complicated algorithms are playing with bus ticket prices so a one-way is going to be half the price of a round-trip, making it far cheaper than a one-way flight. Also, ticket prices are the same whether you book one month or one year before a trip. That gives me a sense of travel calm.
- There’s scenery. And sunset and sunrise.
- A taste of local culture. Two friends of mine traveling in Thailand were part of a moving karaoke party which happens often on buses there. That would never fly on a plane.
- Pack whatever you want and however you want it. Bring all the liquids! There’s usually little to no security. It’s the wild, wild bus world.
- Less chance of delays and cancellations. Buses usually depart with much more certainty than flights in my experience. There's no chance of a bus being overbooked. You're not going to be denied boarding when you have a ticket.
- More scheduling options. I've always found more choices for times, routes and seats than with buses.
- Avoid airport hassle. No checking in before a certain time, no gamble with security lines.
- Central location. Bus terminals are usually right smack in the center of their destinations while airports are out in the hinterlands.
- Not as easy to search for as flights. Googling for bus options isn't going to pull up all the information that flight searching normally would would. There really aren't any central search sites that pull up all the options either though certain countries have their own sites. (In Argentina, it's Plataforma10.) Bus searching usually requires some time spent reading on forums.
- Buying online isn't always an option. That makes it harder to plan ahead of time and when you have a big itinerary. Remember, though, that most people busing around are locals and usually buy their tickets pretty last-minute. So, save for some massive annual pilgrimage, there's never any problem getting a bus seat even a week before travel. I've sometimes gone directly to the terminal and bought right then and there.
- The driver is a huge variable. Whereas flying is usually pretty predictable save for occasional turbulence, spirits and health depend so much on the driver. Pray not to get lurched around.
- Not as foreigner-friendly. Everyone is usually friendly, sure, but in my experience far less likely people working with buses speak multiple languages as compared with airport or airline staff. (Trying to ask for a rest stop on that Turkish bus involved me resorting to trying to discreetly making a universal sign for needing a bathroom.) Tourists tend to resort to more flying. I’ve never found as much signage or guidance at a bus terminal as I ever would find at an airport.
But don't forget...
Just because there is a bus route doesn’t mean you should take it. I’ve heard cautionary tales about taking a bus to the north of Argentina, for example, because of winding roads and altitude changes. I also took a 26-hour ride from Buenos Aires to Patagonia, which I did just to do it. I was also fresh out of college, meaning near broke and felt like I had all the time in the world.
It’s also usually worth it to spring for the more expensive line or seat. I once took one of the most expensive Argentinian bus companies which resulted in leather seats, welcome glasses of champagne and a whiskey nightcap. On the flip side, that karaoke on a Thai bus for my friends got very old, very fast. The only slightly more expensive option was a quiet one.
Same thing goes for some of the pricier seats. There usually isn’t a huge price difference between the classes but the more expensive seats I’ve always found to be bigger and better (seats reeeally recline). Plus, it often comes with preferential treatment like extra snacks.
That said, I’ve gotten elaborate meals on bus rides before but I’ve also gotten nothing. So it’s probably a safe idea to stock up on snacks, reading material and music. It’s not all too different from packing like you would for a long plane ride. Top it off with some friends for mental endurance and entertainment, and you’ve got a trip in the making.