Updated January 26th, 2020.
If you’re backpacking South America, chances are that you and your belongings will end up on a night bus at some point. Whilst the idea of catching on of South America’s night buses can be daunting, there’s nothing to be afraid of with these hostels on wheels. In fact, they are a fantastic (and cheap) way to get around on your travels!
Night buses in South America tend to be big and modern, usually two stories high and they travel to destinations overnight, making it easy for travellers to get from one place to the next whilst saving money on a nights’ accommodation. They are generally kept very clean and are a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to flying. If you are planning to use the buses in South America, heed these tips for a pleasant journey!
South America Bus Travel Advice:
1. Do your research
It pays to look around to find the best route to your desired destination and a good company to go with. Most are pretty great but there are certainly some that are not, so jump on the web or ask other travellers what bus company they would recommend. You don’t want to end up taking twice as long to get to your destination on a bus that is also fumigating you with diesel fumes as it trundles along!
2. Try to pre-book ahead of time
Tip – Busbud are a very useful website for booking bus tickets. We found that tickets on the website were often cheaper than booking direct with the bus company!
If you’re like me and you don’t like to plan too much whilst backpacking, booking buses ahead of time can seem pointless! However, pre-booking buses (even if it is only the day before your journey) can be a massive help to your bank account and your sanity!
Picture this… you’re tired from exploring whatever city you’re leaving from and ready to get some shut-eye on your upcoming fourteen-hour bus ride. (Yes, they can be that long, if not longer!) You buy your ticket just before it’s supposed to depart and find your seat right at the back of the bus squished between an overweight grandmother who smells strongly of garlic and a severely hungover tourist who is sweating out last night’s alcohol. As if that weren’t bad enough, you’re right by the bathroom, not ideal!
When you book online with a site like Busbud, the majority of the time you can request your seats to maximise your travelling pleasure. My personal favourite is on the top level at the front by the window. To ask for this in Spanish simply say: “el frente cerca de ventana”.
Booking in advance can sometimes mean that the seats are discounted slightly too so it’s a win-win. Farewell grandma and hungover tourist, hello to cheaper seats and more legroom!
3. Don’t rely on the bus times
The roads in South America tend to be a bit questionable in some locations and the driver will often make random stops on their own schedule! Remember to be flexible with your arrival time at your destination just in case this happens. Anything can happen en route so should your bus actually be on time, it will be a happy surprise for you and a great start to your day.
4. Pack for all seasons
There is nothing worse than trying to sleep on a bus but instead being too busy trying to curl yourself into the foetal position to keep warm. South America can be fairly hot but night buses tend to have the air conditioning set to Arctic temperatures.
This is probably one of the biggest complaints with night buses in South America so make sure you add a small bus bag with long pants, a hoody and some warm socks to your packing list.
Night buses, can of course, go the opposite way too, typically in the daytime when the sun comes out. You should always make sure these layers are easily removable in case the temperature heats up or the air-con fails. The last thing you want is to be sweating buckets for hours on a night bus!
5. Keep an eye on your things
Although safety in South America is no longer the concern it once was, you are always advised to keep an eye on your stuff. Obviously, you can’t watch your big bag as it will be in the compartment under the bus but just be smart.
There are always stories about rucksacks being slashed in the under compartment and also of bags being swiped while you sleep. Although I have never experienced this and if you’re travelling with one of the reputable company’s you’re less likely to have this happen, keeping an eye on your valuables can help protect you from these horror stories.
Always keep important things like technology, money and your passport (you should keep this on you anyway, especially when crossing borders) in your bus daypack. Remember to keep it somewhere you can see it. As a general rule, I sleep with the strap of my pack around my foot when on buses, just for my peace of mind. An antitheft backpack also wouldn’t be a bad idea if you have one!
My main love of catching night buses is that your hostel and transport are one which is great for your budget. It also means that you’re not sitting on a bus for an entire day when the weather is beautiful outside. In most cases, you will sit down and sleep and before you know it, you’ll be at your destination.
My best advice is to transform your space into a bed as much as possible for ultimate sleep potential. The more bed-like, the more likely you are to actually sleep which in turn means you will be ready and awake to explore once you arrive at your destination.
- Wear an eye mask or scarf to cover your eyes so it’s nice and dark.
- Use headphones or earplugs to block out any annoying sounds.
- Bring a pillow (neck pillows help to keep you comfy and in your personal space zone – not on your bus partner’s shoulder)!
- Snuggle in a blanket to get cosy!
- Put your seat back as much as you can (most people will be doing the same so don’t be nervous and definitely don’t get mad at people doing this).
Follow all of these steps and you should give yourself a good start to a dreamy night and a great night bus experience!
7. Entertain yourself
If sleep is just not coming to you, the last thing you want to do is stare at the back of the headrest for the remainder of the trip. Entertainment is key to South America night bus survival! Some tourist buses may provide their own entertainment, although you should never expect this.
Books, Movies and TV shows are always good and if you don’t have any WiFi connection available, Netflix now lets you download the majority of their stuff to watch offline so you can enjoy it later. All it takes is a little bit of preplanning!
The same goes for podcasts and music which are my personal favourites as I tend to get travel sick if I watch a screen for too long.
Let’s not forget the good old fashioned way of starting a conversation with your seat buddy too. After all, that’s part of the reason we travel, isn’t it?! Just make sure you don’t try to strike up a conversation whilst your new buddy is trying to sleep and keep the conversation quiet. No one wants to be that guy!
8. Snacks are key
Now, this doesn’t apply to everyone, however, if you’re like me and have hollow legs and are always looking for the next meal, bringing snacks is essential.
Don’t get me wrong, the buses do sometimes stop along the way for bathroom and food breaks however, this isn’t regular. Whilst some of the food stops are great, many of them consist of nothing more than overpriced fried food, chips and cookies.
After a few bus trips, this fast-food gets very old so I always come with some fruit, granola bars, lots of water and something I prepared earlier. I usually opt for a wrap or some form of small meal in a plastic reusable container.
A little bit of healthy food on a bus trip goes a long way in not making you feel sluggish afterwards. Also to help make your journey pleasant, don’t make enemies in a confined space and make sure to stick to non-smelly foods whilst on the bus – say no to the tuna!
9. And Finally… Never, EVER go for a number 2 on the bus
As I mentioned before, there are some stops along the way which generally have bathrooms so I tend not to use the bus toilet at all, unless completely necessary and especially not for number 2’s. Just like the aforementioned tuna debate, bad smells in a confined space are not nice. If multiple people use the toilet for number 2’s, the smell will never leave and will most definitely haunt your dreams so, well, just don’t do it. Ever.
Follow these tips and you will have no problem using night buses in South America. Don’t be afraid of the long hours, just be prepared, try to sleep and happy bussing!