6 Tips for Long-Distance Bus Travel

bus travel

No matter what sort of traveler you are, sooner or later you'll probably find yourself using public transportation to get around. The trip might be short, just a way to get around an unexplored city for cheap. Other trips can be longer and take anywhere from a few hours to a few days depending on the destination.

Trains, planes, rail lines, and taxis are all common ways to get from point A to point B, but taking a bus is arguably one of the cheapest, most popular, and (unfortunately) uncomfortable ways to travel out there.

(You might think being packed like sardines on a rail line at 5 p.m. is uncomfortable, but personally, we didn't know true horror until we were trapped on a bus for 2 hours next to a man that smelled like a pack of cigarettes mixed with a can of baked beans. True story.)

We’ve used buses as reliable methods of transportation during many of our adventures, mostly because they seem affordable no matter where you are. But once we pass hour two, we generally find ourselves bored ... or trapped in a window seat with empty stomachs and pounding heads.

After several long-distance bus trips ended in frustration and discomfort, we made it a priority to discover new ways to improve the overall comfort and survival of using bus transportation.

Here are six ways we’ve come up with to make sure your next long-distance trip on a bus is a breeze.

Bring Reading Materials

This is a no-brainer. If you’re going to be on a bus for more than an hour, always bring some sort of reading material with you. We’ve found that buses are usually packed, making it difficult to take a nap or get lost in your thoughts. So, having something to read to pass the time is a plus.

For long-distance travelers, we suggest bringing a tablet or e-reader. We currently use an iPad Mini, which we stock full of classics (when would we get a chance to read those otherwise, right?) and magazines. Nooks and Kindles are great too, especially ones that are backlit for those late-night trips. If you own one of the older versions of a Nook or Kindle that doesn’t come with a lit screen, you might want to upgrade.

Unfortunately, the downside to tablets and e-readers is that they require charged batteries. Some buses do have outlets these days, like Greyhounds, but many have yet to offer a way to charge electronics. Most popular bus lines have this information on their website (as well as other pertinent information such as whether they offer free WiFi)—so check if you can. If hopping on the bus is a spontaneous or last-minute choice, however, consider having a backup print book in your bag just in case your tablet dies.

Wear Earphones (Even If You Aren’t Listening To Music)

Even if you’re the sort of outgoing person who likes to talk to strangers, there are times when sweet silence is bliss. We’ve found (through trial and error) that not wearing earphones is like an unspoken invitation to others to strike up conversation. And when you’re stuck on the bus for hours (and hours), having to make continuous small talk with your neighbor can be exhausting.

Thankfully, wearing headphones can be a deterrent to others. The Joe Smith sitting in the seat in front of you generally won’t turn around and try to talk about the weather or his mother’s aunt’s ill cousin if he notices you’re already engaged in listening to something.

We also suggest you bring earphones if you plan to listen to music. Having a fantastic playlist can really do two things: make the hours fly by and create a relaxing atmosphere.

Or you could combine Tips #1 and #2 and listen to an audio book!

Either way, don’t forget to pack your earphones! We’ve made that mistake before. It turned a long trip into a long, long, long trip. Now we're careful to triple-check our pockets before we step on the bus.

Bring Something To Use As A Pillow

You haven’t truly learned the meaning of pain until you’re trapped on a bus overnight with nothing to rest your head on. The window is usually full of fingerprints and who-knows-what-else, and heaven forbid if you get stuck on an aisle seat. You’ll spend the rest of your trip staring up at the ceiling as the seat back digs into your neck.

We recommend bringing an inflatable pillow. Yes, those curved plastic pillows that look like a toilet seat. They’re not pretty, but they’re super convenient and do the job. All you have to do is pull it out, blow it up, and voila. A pillow! And when you’re done, you can deflate it and tuck it back in your bag, which saves a lot of room.

Our favorite inflatable travel pillow is the EZ Inflate Neck Pillow from TravelSmith, but any travel pillow would do nicely as long as it’s compact and doesn’t feel like you’re sleeping on a rock.

In a pinch, you could also use a jacket or sweater as a pillow—or your backpack, if you don’t mind sleeping on something with folds and zippers. Sleeping on your backpack is also an excellent option if you want to get some shut eye while making sure no one sneaks into your things. Which leads into #4…

Keep Your Belongings Close. At All Times. No Exceptions.

Most travelers already know to be aware of their surroundings and cautious of the people that are nearby. That’s why most travelers use locks on their luggage and backpacks, and why it’s a good idea to keep important information (passports, money, credit cards, identification) tucked in a hidden pocket or stored in a pouch underneath your clothes (we use the L.L.Bean Hidden Security Waist Wallet every time we travel).

However, while a bus may seem like tight quarters, you’d be surprised how easy it is for someone to ransack your belongings if you’re not paying attention. We’ve seen theft on a bus first hand—seen how easy it is for someone to grab a cell phone or iPod out of your hands and slip out the door at a bus stop.

That’s why we suggest keeping a backpack tucked between your legs or held in your arms. iPads and other tablets should be kept at waist level—even if that means looking down. It’s less easy to snatch that way. Wear generic earphones if you can (the white Apple earphones or other brands are more recognizable…and more expensive) and loop them underneath your coat. Keep any phones or music players zipped up in an inside pocket, if possible.

Locks to hold your zippers shut on a backpack are also a good idea. They won’t keep thieves out entirely, but they’ll deter pickpockets who try to slip into a part of your backpack when you’re dozing during your ride.

Bring Munchies And Liquids

This tip entirely depends on whether or not the bus you're taking allows food and beverages on board. The general rule of thumb seems to be that bottled drinks are OK (as long as they have a lid!), but food—especially messy food like popcorn, chips, or sunflower seeds—is prohibited because of potential sanitary issues.

However, if you're on a bus for hours with no stop or meal in sight, consider tucking away the following for a light snack or thirst-quencher. After all, keeping hydrated and getting the protein you need while traveling is of the utmost importance.

For snacks that won't make a mess and aren't likely to annoy your fellow passengers, we suggest:

  • Protein bars
  • Chocolate
  • Fruit snacks or fruit leathers
  • Trail mix
  • Dried fruit (like apples, mangoes, or bananas)
  • Raw almonds

For drinks, we suggest bringing drinks that don't taste bad when they get cold. Try these:

  • Water (We keep a 24 oz water bottle in our backpack and make sure it's always topped off before a bus trip)
  • Iced tea
  • Iced coffee—for caffeine, of course!

Stock Aspirin For Those Extra Long Rides

Long trips in any sort of moving vehicle can unfortunately come with some side effects, including headaches, motion sickness, migraines, muscle soreness, stomach aches, heartburn, and so on. We're particularly unlucky in this regard—almost every car, plane, and bus ride gives us motion sickness.

To deter some of these side effects, we suggest keeping a bottle of pain relievers in your bag along with your other medications (Tums, allergy meds, cough drops, etc). It doesn't take up much room, and it can be a life saver—especially when you have anywhere from 2-8 hours to go before you reach your destination, and the end of your nausea/headache is nowhere in sight.

What do you think of our tips for long-distance bus travel? Did we miss any good ones, or do you have specific tips of the trade you use to get through the long travel time? Let us know in the comments below.

Important Note: All linked items were bought with our own money. We are not affiliated with or sponsored by any of the companies mentioned and linked to them simply to help other travelers get a feel for what gear we use.