How To Survive The Backpacker Overnight Bus.

Long distance overnight bus south east Asia

The quintessential long distance bus is a traditional form of transport in much of south east Asia, but it isn’t always an easy ride! These tips are here to help you survive the overnight journey and enjoy the almost traditional backpacker mode of transport.

The overnight bus – or train for that matter – is more than a simple form of transport or a good way to save some money on a nights accommodation while getting from A to B. It is a backpacker right of passage. Yet for the uninitiated it can be an arduous journey, one that leaves you exhausted, stressed and wishing you’d just got that hours flight after all.

Granted, cheap budget air fares have made it far more easy and just as cheap to fly most places in recent years, but the overnight bus still has a lot of advantages that many backpackers take advantage of on numerous continents.

Overnight journeys are often cheap, they are extremely convenient and do away with those annoying airport security and checking in issues. They are a huge part of the backpacker culture and in theory at least you should be able to have a good sleep and wake up refreshed in your new destination.

But as experienced travellers know, it doesn’t always work out like that. Follow these expert tips to beat the curse of the night bus and make it and survive your trip.

Security Should Always Be Your First Concern.

Theft from the hold in overnight buses is a pretty common scam in many developing countries, and travellers backpacks are prime targets as they are potential goldmines of cameras, pads, laptops and other fancy tech, as well as stashed currency and other valuables, so whatever you do keep a strong eye on your gear at all times.

Personally I never put my pack in the hold under the bus as it has been known for thieves to rifle through the luggage as the bus is on the move, or quickly make off with it on one of the all too frequent pit stops. The same goes for the overhead rack, the further your pack is away from you, the easier it is for someone to make off with it.

Don’t listen to any conductor who will try and insist you put it in the hold, just act confident and walk on with it.

If the ticket is very cheap (which many often are), it can sometimes be worth buying the seat next to you too just for your pack (and also the added comfort of not sitting next to someone), or if not simply keep it at your feet. A good pacsafe or cable lock are also essential items here and can stop a lot of opportunistic crimes before they even happen.

If you do store your main pack in the hold, make sure it has nothing more than your sweaty laundry in and keep your valuables with you in a day pack. If you get a window seat (or better still have both seats), it is a good idea to keep your valuables between you and the window – essentially using it as a cushion for your side – so that any potential thieves will literally have to go through you to get to your stuff. It is still worth keeping an eye on who takes out what from the hold at any pit stop though if you did store your pack there.

Choose Your Seat Carefully.

Sometimes you can get designated seats with your ticket, but not always, and in these circumstances it is best to be one of the first on the bus and get your pick of the best seats. Night buses come in all shapes and sizes, some luxurious, some not so much. The best seats are ones near the doors (they have more leg room and a barrier in front of you instead of another seat which can often recline, which is never pleasant), window seats with good views of the hold underneath the bus as well as who is getting on and off (see the security issues for why) and it should go without saying the seats as far away from the onboard toilet as possible if it has one! Those roadside Chimichangas that the fat guy at the front stuffed down his throat before the bus set off will come back to haunt everyone near that toilet at some point during the night!

Layer Up.

I get it, you’re in a tropical country, the temperature is somewhere near boiling point and even the Chang Beer Singlet you have on is too much, but believe me when you have 12 hours stuck under an air con unit set colder than an industrial freezer, you are going to wish you had a lot more on!

This is where layering comes in, you don’t always need a fleece jacket, but a T Shirt and a long sleeved top can mean the difference between a cozy, comfortable ride and a freezing cold one. If you stick your main pack in the hold, make sure you have a few tops stashed in your day pack with your valuables too.

For those of you who feel the cold more than most a fleece blanket is always a good idea to carry with you as well. These can easily be tied to the outside of your pack and don’t take up much weight, and even if you don’t use it to ward off any cold, you can always roll them up for makeshift pillows. Much more comfortable than the glass window!

Snacks Are Your Friend.

You will have plenty of pit stops along the way on any overnight trip, but there will still be times when you get the nibbles in between and you will wish you had something. Bring plenty of snacks to ease those hunger pangs and don’t forget drinks too, a big bottle of water is an absolute must.

Bring Something To Keep You Entertained (And Don’t Rely On Wifi!)

This should go without saying really but when the sun goes down and you can’t look at the amazing scenery passing you by any more, you will need something to do as the prospect of another 10 hours or more looms in front of you. Especially when you inevitably can’t sleep because of the noise and lack of comfort. The more you have to do the better, so bring a good book or two, a pack of cards, a notebook for writing, whatever floats your boat, as well of course as making sure all your devices are fully charged before you set off. Just don’t count on any on board wifi as it almost never works!

Bring Earplugs.

If you do manage to get in a comfortable enough position to sleep and you are feeling tired, odds are everyone else will be chatting away until the early hours and the driver will be honking the horn every five seconds, playing some insane local music or the latest dodgy DVD rip off on the buses tiny screen at full blast, so it’s always a good idea to bring earplugs or some headphones to drown out the noise too. Just be aware of your things before you nod off and make sure they are secured and by you. If I fall asleep on an overnight bus my pack is between me and the window, is secured by a steel cable lock to the seat (or even a pacsafe if it is my larger bergen) and I am laying on top of it with all my valuables stashed safely and locked away inside it. It may sound like overkill, but I have never had anything stolen from a night bus in 20 years!

Get Some Exercise.

The romantic notion of having a good nights sleep and arriving in your new destination daisy fresh and bright as a button is an absolute myth. Whilst you will probably get a few hours sleep you will arrive tired, cramped and desperate to stretch your legs and get some rest.

Exercising your muscles with a good stretching and body weight workout both before you leave and after you arrive in your new destination will do you absolute wonders. You will still probably need a good nights sleep after your first day, but at least your body won’t feel as bad as it could do when you wake up.

Be Prepared For Your Arrival.

When you arrive at your new destination early the next morning you will be tired, bleary eyed and a little stiff and sore, so the last thing you want to do is to step off the bus, have no idea where you are or where you want to go and have to deal with the hordes of taxi drivers and touts.

The more prepared you are beforehand the better. Do a little research on your destination and get a rough idea of where things are in relation to each other. Know exactly where your next stop is, whether that is a hostel, a guesthouse or another transport hub, have an offline map available that will tell you where it is, how far it is away and how to get there and also if possible have your GPS ready to tell you exactly where you are, just in case the bus driver has decided to drop everyone off closer to his home rather than the official bus station! (It has happened!)

Once you have a rough idea of what to do when you arrive, you won’t be stood around looking lost (and therefore becoming a prime target for every tout and taxi driver in the vicinity), and you can simply get to your next destination as quickly and as confidently as possible.

Now you have arrived in your new destination, you may be a little tired and cramped, but you will have survived the night bus, one of the quintessential parts of the backpackers journey, and you can set off on the rest of your adventure with yet one more experience under your belt!

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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8 comments on “How To Survive The Backpacker Overnight Bus.
  1. Haha I loved reading this! It bought back quite a few memories from my own time riding these buses and trying to save money on accommodation! Great advice too. 🙂

  2. Martin Jones says:

    Great tips, after riding these myself a couple of times I definitely agree with keeping your pack on you and either sleep on it or attach it to something.

  3. Jenny H. says:

    I keep getting really mixed messages about riding overnight buses and I’m a little nervous about doing so when I get to Thailand, especially after reading some of the safety advice here. Is it really safe to travel (and sleep) on these buses? Will my stuff be safe?

    • It is absolutely safe Jenny, don’t worry. I don’t want the safety advice to scare anyone, I want them to see it as a way to protect yourself and reduce any (already small) risk to practically nothing. It’s all about being a little sensible and having a bit of preparedness beforehand, and you will be very safe on these buses, and if you take these basic precautions, your stuff will be too.

  4. Hani says:

    It’s much easier to just get an airasia ticket for a few dollars/bhat more and fly everywhere!

    • That is true, much more so now than it used to be when I first started travelling (when the budget airlines weren’t so popular and the internet was very young!) But the overnight bus is still a popular and sometimes more convenient option (and it is still definitely a backpacker tradition!) My advice is to use both options as it suits you and your travels. 😉

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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