If you’re doing any sort of intrepid travelling on a budget, chances are that at some point you’re going to be staring down the barrel of a long distance bus trip. There are good reasons to take overnight buses. Not least that whilst you’re overnight on a bus, you’re not paying for accommodation. Travelling overnight also means you’re not sitting on a bus during daylight hours when you could be exploring. But, if your journey is totally hellish and you arrive frazzled, what’s the point? Here are our top tips for how to survive an overnight bus journey, arrive feeling refreshed (ish) and be ready to hit the ground running the next day.
How to book an overnight bus?
When we book overnight buses, we always try to use an agent that we trust. We don’t like to leave overnight buses in the hands of fate. So we would never arrive to a bust stop late at night and hope to board the overnight bus service.
Where possible we book in advance using Bookaway. We’ve reliably used this agent in many countries in Central America, Europe and Asia. Overnight buses tend to be popular, so booking in advance is recommended, unless you want to spend the night at the bus stop or scrabbling around looking for last minute accommodation.
When booking an overnight bus, it’s good to check out what facilities are on board. This is another reason that we like Bookaway, because they tell you whether the bus has WiFi, plug points, toilets, aircon and blankets on board. This helps with planning. Plus, you can normally see a picture of the bus seats that you’re booking which can help to make a decision about which bus to choose.
Our top tips for how to survive an overnight bus journey
We’ve taken many an overnight bus, train, plane and ferry. Some have been AWFUL, others have been OK. Let’s be honest, nobody ever steps off an overnight bus thinking “gee wizz, that was an awesome journey.” But, over the years we’ve crafted some ways to manage the trip better. Here are our top tips on how to survive an overnight us journey.
// Arrive to the bus stop with plenty of time and all your documents
The first mistake you could make at the start of your journey, is arriving to the bus stop late. Find out in advance where the bus station is and arrive with plenty of time. Many bus companies ask you to check in 30 minutes or so before you arrive. We noticed in Vietnam, that buses frequently left early too.
Be sure to check what documents or other items that you need to travel. For example, some countries are still operating COVID mask policies and you may be required to wear a mask. We’ve travelled to some countries where the drivers demand money to stow luggage. Some bus companies also expect you to print your bus tickets.
Check the requirements in advance and arrive early and prepared. The last thing you need before an overnight bus journey is to be running around, especially if it’s hot. Sitting in your own sweat overnight is never fun!
// Pack some sleeping aids
Should you sleep on an overnight bus? Yes. We think it’s a really good idea to get at least some sleep. It can be very difficult on an overnight bus, but if you don’t sleep at all, the next day could be ruined. However, sleeping aids can help.
What do I mean by sleeping aids? Well, anything that works for you to help you sleep on a bus (within reason). Maybe a beer or two can help you dose off. Or perhaps you’re someone who needs some herbal remedies or some calming yogic mediation. For me, I always pack an eye mask and wax ear plugs. Whatever it is, bring it with you on board (don’t stow it in the luggage rack!)
// Find relaxing entertainment
If you’re on a long bus overnight, you need some entertainment. But remember, you want to try to get some sleep too!
Make sure you download books, tv shows or podcasts before you board your bus. Don’t rely on the bus WiFi. If the bus is noisy, or people are snoring, a good audio book can drown out the background noise.
// Buy snacks and water
If you’re on a long overnight bus journey, chances are that you will need a snack. Even if the bus leaves at 22:00 and if you’ve already eaten dinner, you are going to get hungry and thirsty at some point.
You could go for healthy snacks if you want to feel less gross when you arrive. Or a selection of sweets (candy) and crisps (chips) if you need to the reassuring comfort during your journey!
Do not, under any circumstances, buy smelly snacks. Unless you want your fellow passengers to throw them at you. Duran fruit, fish, cheesy wotsits – these are all a big “no no.”
Hopefully it goes without saying, don’t pick anything that isn’t going to “agree with your stomach.”
// Think teeth and skin
I might be a bit weird but I find that a bed time routine helps with sleeping. So I bring my bed time routine to an overnight bus, in the form of brushing my teeth, cleansing and moisturising my face. Not only does this help sleep, but it’s also makes for a more comfortable journey and there’s less of an ick factor in the morning.
Obviously, I would never want to brush my teeth or wash my face in the toilet. So I use these chewable toothbrushes and face wipes.
// Wear comfortable clothing with layers
Buses can get really hot, they can also get really cold. Depending on your disposition, you may not want to use the bus issued blankets too. A good tip is to wear lots of loose and lightweight layers. This means you can take a layer off, or replace a layer, depending on your temperature through the night. A woolen hat can be particularly helpful if it’s chilly out – added bonus that they can cover up your ears and muffle sound/ keep your ear phones in when you’re sleeping!
// Stay hydrated
I know this is incredibly boring, but staying hydrated during your journey can be the difference between arriving feeling OK and arriving with a banging headache. It can be really tempting on an overnight journey to avoid consuming water, so that you can avoid using the bus toilet! But, from experience, this is a bad idea.
I also always pack rehydration salts, which can help to replenish you if you can’t drink too much water. Either way, keep up the fluids!
// Freshen up when you arrive
I find it really helpful to have a little freshen up kit on hand for when I arrive at my destination in the morning. This tends to include a tooth brush, travel sized dry shampoo, perfume, cleanser and moisturiser etc and a quick change of clothing. If you’re able to head to your hotel or hostel (see below) for a shower, even better. Stash your trek towel and shower stuff near to the top of your luggage.
What to do if you arrive early to your destination before check in time?
The classic travellers dilemma. You arrive off an overnight bus, train or ferry at 07:00. You’re probably carrying luggage, that despite your best efforts is too heavy.
You have a choice. You can roam around the city carrying said luggage. Or, you can try to go to the hotel and face the inevitability of being denied early check in.
What to do before you get the bus?
Here’s what we like to do instead. Contact the hotel or hostel before you get the bus. Explain your situation politely, and ask if you can leave your luggage in the hotel for the morning. I have never found a hotel or hostel that would not allow me to drop luggage off early.
You can also ask if there is a chance your room or dorm may be ready early for you to check in. Now, this one is a little trickier. Many hotels offer an “early check in”, but they will charge you for it. You want to avoid that. The rest, will most likely respond with something like this “our check in time is 14:00 but we can see whether we can accommodate you early.”
Why contact them before? You don’t have to. But in our experience, hotels are far more welcoming if you’ve forewarned them of your potential early arrival, than if you just turn up.
What to do when you arrive?
Once you’ve got this lined up, you can head straight to your hostel or hotel. Dump off the heavy bag. You can now ask if the room may be ready early. If it is? Great. You can have a little nap and a shower.
If the room is not ready early, you can ask if you can use the showers and toilets to freshen up. Then, once you’ve done that, you can explore freely!!
The reason that we nearly always do this, is that if you don’t drop off your luggage and freshen up, you will inevitably spend the morning just roaming aimlessly, or holed up in a coffee shop smelling like the inside of an old bus. This wastes your precious travel time!
There are two exceptions to this system. 1. If we arrive somewhere and have small and light luggage, then we may just start exploring until check in time. 2. If the bus stop or train station is far from the hotel and there is lots to see and do around the station.