The Art of Booking Bus Travel In South America

21 May

If you’re heading off on a South American adventure then you’ll definitely be using the extensive bus network to get around due to the limited rail and hire car options on the continent, and relatively expensive flights. Long distance or short distance, each bus trip will undoubtedly be an experience in its own right. We had some great fun on buses, saw some amazing sights and met great characters, but we also had plenty of less positive experiences too! Each country does it slightly differently, but by asking a few essential questions at the outset you can save yourself some money and a whole world of pain!

Is the journey direct or not? 

Some journeys, although having the same end destination, can take diversions that add hours to your trip – remember, you usually get what you pay for! You might also want to ask if you need to change buses at any point and if this is included in your fare.  Many buses can stop frequently during the night, letting passengers on and off the bus, meaning sleep is near on impossible! Paying a bit extra for a ‘direct’ or ‘express’ journey will be well worth the extra cash when you’re not getting woken up at 1.00am, 3.00am and 5.00am!

What time does the bus arrive? 

You don’t want to arrive at a new destination in the middle of the night for safety reasons, plus your hostel probably won’t let you in anyway. Watch out for firms advertising arrival at a civilised 8.00am, only to drive like crazy through the night and deposit you hours ahead of schedule in the middle of nowhere in the dark!  If this does happen, find a café near by and have a spot of breakfast until you catch your bearings and feel safe to continue to your hostel. On the flip side if you arrive at your destination very late in the evening, try to call ahead to your hotel so someone is waiting up for you and don’t think twice about spending a little more on a taxi to your destination.

What’s the condition of the road? 

Mountainous routes are generally very picturesque but often wind back and fourth and can cause passengers to feel nauseous. Some roads are prone to landslides and can be unsafe with sharp bends and precipitous drops so only take these routes during the day.  The road condition is really important if you’re travelling at night and hoping for a good night’s sleep! Generally, roads are paved but we did encounter a couple of overnight journeys where we got no sleep at all as the road was incredibly potholed made up of mud and lose gravel (the Sucre to Samaipata road in Bolivia is especially notorious!)

Is the bus a single or double-decker? 

You might think this is an odd question to ask, but we found buses with two levels much more comfortable and modern. The downstairs often has fully reclining ‘cama’ (bed) seats and the ‘premier piso’ (top deck) has ‘semi-cama’ seats, which still recline sufficiently, are economic and offer great views. The double decker buses will often show movies and provide food on board.

Is food and drink included?  

Premier bus companies often provided food and drinks as part of your ticket price and this this can range from a luxury meal with a glass of Malbec in Argentina to sandwiches and a bottle of water in Peru. Frequently, drivers will make regular stops in front of a service stations or ‘friends’ restaurant while they take a break, and some refreshments can be complimentary! In more developing areas, street vendors will sell their goods through open bus windows or frequently board buses peddling cheap food and drink (just keep an eye on your things in the overhead compartment as occasionally opportunist fingers can help themselves to your things!)

How secure is our gear? 

Wherever in the World you travel, there are good and bad people. Often you’ll find crime, especially petty theft, is opportunistic and committed by people living in greater poverty than you. By taking a few precautions you can prevent fellow passengers taking advantage. Keep your personal belongings on the floor by your feet and when you sleep place all of your valuables on your lap. Money belts to carry cash, cards and passports can be worn under your clothes and if you carry a padlock, larger bags can be locked to the footrest.

Larger bags and rucksacks tend to be placed underneath the bus so make sure you receive a receipt from the driver and the doors are locked at all times. Keep an eye out when doors are opened when dropping off or collecting passengers.  We met one traveller who woke up to find his shoes had been stolen but thankfully this tends to be the exception rather than the rule.  For many bus companies security is improving – the ones going extra lengths such as taking passenger registers and videoing passengers are worth the extra cost as they will ensure you and your gear arrive in one piece.

Is there a toilet on board? 

For longer journeys this is really important as there’s nothing worse than crossing your legs for hours on end! The majority of long distance buses (6 hours plus) will have toilets on board but occasionally you can be caught short (especially in countries such as Bolivia and Peru). Some of the drivers can be particularly grumpy and refuse point blank to stop for passengers who are busting for the loo so always go before you set off and pray your bladder can last the distance!

Many buses without facilities on board stop every few hours for comfort breaks – most will be at a service station but be warned other stops can be made by the side of the road, where everyone, ladies included, will need to throw caution to the wind and pee in a long line at the same time!

Remember toilet tissue is your ‘friend’.  Finding a bus toilet with paper is as unlikely as winning the lottery so always carry some with you.

Does the bus have windows that open? 

Local buses covering shorter distances will have opening windows. This is good if the weather is fine and you require a refreshing breeze but it also means people can open them at will, letting in cold air, smoke or dust when you’d rather they were kept out. If you’re taking a long distance or overnight bus, make sure you take a bus with windows that don’t open as these buses will have climate control to heat or cool as required and windows won’t rattle through the night and keep you awake

Can I see the bus? 

Due to the popularity of bus travel with locals and tourists, you’ll often find two or three different companies (sometimes more) travelling to the same place on the same day or night. If you find yourself at the bus terminal and in two minds about which company to chose, simply ask to see the bus as this will often sway your decision. Many of the glossy pictures you’ll see of ‘top of the range’ buses don’t reflect the one you’ll actually be travelling on!  Ask around at the terminal and you’ll soon get a feel for the operators with the better wheels.

Is that your best price?   

Once you’ve established which bus you’re going to take, you need to work out how much the journey will cost you.  The price tourists pay is frequently higher than the price locals pay but that’s just the way it is and not worth stressing about.  You’ll generally get better prices if you can either book in advance or leave it to the last minute – although that has to be balanced with the risk of plans changing and/or not getting a seat at all. You’ll notice buses, particularly shorter distance, are often empty right up to the last minute and then there’s a sudden rush of locals as they try and get the best price!

Bartering is often a difficult concept to grasp for us reserved Westerners but in South America everything (including accommodation and transport) is negotiable. Discounts can generally be achieved if you’re making multiple travel bookings, or if there is more than one person taking the same journey.  Even if you’ve made up your mind, feign uncertainty with the person you’re dealing with as they’ll be keen to secure your business and may tempt you with a discount.  Occasionally a nice smile and a bit of banter is enough for the price to drop by a few Pesos.  Be brave – people will generally expect you to negotiate the price and as a rule of thumb – if you don’t ask, you don’t get!

One Response to “The Art of Booking Bus Travel In South America”

  1. infused exposures May 21, 2016 at 6:41 am #

    Bringing back lots of memories with this post guys!! Wow! Great advice. I can’t reiterate this one enough: “toilet tissue is your ‘friend”. Seriously, don’t leave “home” without it!

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