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Chen Liang

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Road Rules: How to Travel By Bus Like a Pro

Six tips for making the best out of sitting on a bus for long trips.

While my fellow nomads are constantly in airports, surviving TSA checkpoints, eating overpriced food, and paying extra for their luggage, lately I’ve literally been on the road, traveling by bus. When I moved from Washington, DC, to New York City for graduate school, I didn’t realize I would miss DC so much. I had spent most of my adult life in DC, and the only thing keeping me from there was the miles. Nothing a nomad can’t handle.

City bus stop in Ethiopia.
photo by Yasmin Yonis

The bus life isn’t something new to me. I’ve traveled by bus all over the US, through the mountains of Ethiopia, and across the border to Canada, and even hopped on a bus in Dubai. When you spend hundreds of hours traveling by bus, you become an expert on how to survive the road. Here are important tips if you’re considering giving the bus life a try.

  1. Buses are great for last-minute and frequent trips because they are significantly cheaper than flights and trains. A round-trip bus ticket from New York City to DC usually costs $50 to $70, even when booked at the last minute. Both flights and Amtrak tickets for the same trip cost $150 to $200 or more. Traveling during the week can bring the cost down to $40 for a round-trip ticket, but weekend trips are still affordable.

Yasmin in Brooklyn.

  1. Bus rides aren’t just limited to regional areas. I’ve traveled from DC to Toronto for $50 and Houston to Dallas for $30. I know people who have traveled from Georgia to Minnesota. Almost every state has a number of bus companies, but if you’re not traveling between major cities you might have fewer options.
  2. Not all buses are created equal. Check out the Yelp reviews of your local bus companies. It will make the difference between a Spirit Airlines-esque experience and first class. Look for cleanliness and dependability and if the buses have ever had mechanical issues. Trust me: you want to avoid the ones that break down in the middle of nowhere. I wish I had done my research when I first started taking the bus. On one trip, I found myself on the side of the highway after our bus broke down. We had to wait for almost an hour in the hot sun until the backup bus arrived. I regretted not paying the extra $10 for a bus company with a better reputation and buses that actually worked.

Vinales, Cuba.
photo by Yasmin Yonis

  1. While you’re reading reviews, be on the lookout for specific details and amenities. How cramped are the seats? Legroom is more important than you think when you’re stuck in a small space for hours. Do the seats recline? Stretching your legs and leaning back makes the ride so much better. Can you charge your phone, and will you have to rely solely on truck stops for bathroom breaks? Electric outlets for your devices are mandatory (and thankfully, almost universally provided). And a clean bathroom makes for a happy ride. The last thing you want is horrible smells wafting from the back.
  2. That brings me to an important point: where to sit. This is not high school. The back of the bus is not where the cool kids sit. You want to sit squarely in the middle. Too far back and you’ll be next to the bathroom. Too far in front and you’ll be sitting next to a chatty neighbor. The people who talk too much like sitting up front so they can chat with the bus driver. Who you sit next to is also another important decision. If you can, choose an unpopular travel time (early morning, midday) so you can have your own seat. My favorite tactic is placing my bag in the seat next to me and pretending to be asleep so I deter anyone who might want to sit with me. It doesn’t always work, but it has succeeded many times. If the bus is full, it’s always better to sit with another woman. They’re usually nicer, and they share the armrest and are less likely to be a creep. The last thing you want is to be unable to escape the company of a man who tries coming on to you.

Yasmin in Dallas.

  1. You have to be strategic about what you bring on the bus. Don’t forget your phone charger, headphones, laptop, and snacks. Download your favorite shows from Netflix before you leave home. The best bus companies provide drinking water, but bring your own just in case. Most buses stop at rest stops during the day, so you’ll have the chance to grab food and use the bathroom. And if you’re lucky, you’ll book a bus that provides Wi-Fi and/or movie selections through your devices. Log in, relax, and enjoy.

My best bus rides are the ones where I can spend time on Twitter, headphones plugged in, legs stretched out, and mind at ease, knowing I’ll be getting home on time. Keep these tips in mind and buses will be a great way to travel for you, too. No TSA groping required.

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