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A Brief Guide To European Bus Travel
If there’s ever a time to consider intercity, or international, bus travel it’s while backpacking Europe. Buses are a cheap, reasonably convenient, sort of comfortable, last-minute travel option. Did we mention that they’re cheap?
European bus travel is an unglamorous reality for almost all backpackers. It’s the slowest of all transport options, but also the cheapest; the grimiest, but the most accessible. With middle-and-longer distance bus travel it seems that every negative is balanced with a positive, that you have to take the bad with the good.
As a part of a loose travel plan filled with diverse transport options, the bus becomes a valuable player for a certain type of trip, offering up a modicum of comfort, for a minimum of cost. If you are doing Europe the right way, you’re going to be doing some of it on a bus.
When to take the bus
When you can’t afford anything else! The bus lacks the speed of flying, the comfort of the train and the independence of hiring a car, but they will get you to where you need to go and often at a far lower rate than the other options. Weight everything up. When working out how to travel between destinations, make a little mental matrix of how long it will take, versus how much you will save, versus how much your time is worth to you, versus how much travel money you have (left). If a two-hour flight is only €50 more than a 12-hour bus ride, then only the most broke among us will choose to go the long way. If that difference blows out to €100, maybe more of us will spend the extra 10 hours watching the world slide by.
When you’re booking last minute! Intercity and international trains now offer fares based on the same system as airlines – basically first in, best price, based on demand and availability. This means that on busier routes train tickets can really jump up when you’re booking by the seat of your pants (this pricing system is one of the reasons why you should consider a Eurail pass). Bus prices are generally standardised, whether you’re booking for a trip in the next five minutes, or five months. It’s for this reason that any true European backpacking experience will feature a healthy amount of bus travel.
When you’re travelling with a group! If you’re more than five, hiring a car is kind of off the menu, as rental prices jump right up for people movers. You might also find availability on flights and trains restricted and opt for the cheaper, longer option if it means you can stay together. Also, if you’re travelling to festivals with Stoke Travel there will often be a private-coach transport option, as we can offer a good price and put you with the people you’ll be partying with. Being able to transport groups from the centre of major cities right to their accommodation is something that isn’t possible with other means of transport.
Bus travel dos and don’ts
- Pack some snacks. There are stops usually every three hours, but you’re riding to save money, so snacks bought in supermarkets will be cheaper. If you want to eat them on the bus try to avoid stinky, or loud, foods, so that means no squid crackers.
- Bring a book, charge your iPhone, load up some movies, etc. Many buses in Europe, particularly the premium services, offer USB plugs and charging stations onboard, but don’t count on it! You’re going to have plenty of time on your hands, make sure you’re not forced to be alone with your thoughts.
- Wear comfortable clothes. Something that won’t annoy you when you’re trying to sleep. Don’t go too comfortable, though, as you’ll often be dropped off in the middle of a city, and cities in Europe are generally too stylish for you in your pyjamas.
- Arrive unprepared, especially at night. Research where your bus will drop you off and where you’ll have to go from there. Load up, or screenshot, your maps when you have WiFi (if you don’t have roaming data), so that you know how to get to your accommodation. Bus stations are generally in the middle of town, but are also infamous for their ability to collect weirdos. You want to get out of there as effectively as possible.
- Drink too much before, or during, your trip. Some buses have toilets on them, and some don’t. You do not want to be the guy asking the bus driver to stop on the highway so you can pee. A lot of the time they simply won’t. Pretty much all bus companies have policies against drinking alcohol on board, and this is mostly because they don’t want a bus full of peepee pest asking them to stop every five minutes.
- Make transfer plans too close to your scheduled arrival times. Apart from buses occasionally breaking down, they are caught up in the same traffic as everybody else, meaning that in built-up areas you are likely to be slowed down by traffic.
How to book bus tickets
You can use a service like Obio to compare not only different bus companies, but trains and flights as well. Otherwise you’ll have to research which buses drive the route you’re looking for and either book via their website, or by turning up at the bus station and reserving at the ticket counter.
“I always seem to travel the day after a big night, probably because I have to have a going away party for every place I visit. I remember one morning I rocked straight from the club to the bus, still wasted, and passed out as soon as we started moving. I had the two seats to myself, so I could sort of lay down with my legs in the aisle. After a few hours I woke up with the sun on my face and realised that I was pretty comfortable – so much so that I had my hand down my pants, protecting a massive erection. I don’t know how many of my bus companions had to step over me to go to the bathroom, but I was definitely too shy to make eye contact with any of them.” – Steve, 29, festival barman.
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