No one looks forward to an overnight bus journey, but when traveling in some countries – or on a very tight budget- an overnight bus can be the cheapest, fastest, or even only form of transportation available for travelers.
In this article, you’ll learn how to:
- 🟠 Keep your stuff safe on an overnight bus trip,
- 🟡 Sleep soundly – even if you’re traveling solo,
- 🟢 and get to your destination a bit less exhausted from your overnight bus trip.
Learning my Way around Overnight Buses by Experience
I don’t know if I yet qualify as a “pro” when it comes to night buses, but with a dozen or so trips logged in buses chugging along highways in the dead of night, I do have some experience to draw from.
My first overnight bus trip was from Arequipa, Peru to Arica, Chile. Or, I guess I should say, the bus trip was most of the way between those two destinations. In fact, due to a complicated border crossing, that overnight bus dropped us off (at 4 am, bleary and bewildered) at the border. Getting the rest of the way to Arequipa required hiring a taxi to complete the last leg of the trip across the border!
Since that first overnight bus trip, I’ve spent more than a few nights on overnight buses in South America and Eastern Europe.
As a particularly hypervigilant traveler, sleeping on overnight buses has been the biggest challenge for me. Thankfully, some strategies for keeping myself safe on these overnight trips, plus some of my same hacks for sleeping on a plane, have helped me learn how to get at least a few hours of sleep on a bus. While I’ve never arrived at my destination in a condition I’d call refreshed and well-rested, even getting a few hours of shut-eye on a darkened night bus definitely helps ensure the following day isn’t a completely wasted travel day.
Tips for Sleeping & Staying Safe on an Overnight Bus
1. Check Your Bags
While backpacks and suitcases are occasionally stolen from the luggage compartment over overnight buses, it’s rare. Because the luggage storage section of an overnight bus is securely locked during the trip, the only time your stuff can be stolen is during loading and unloading.
If you are vigilant about watching your bag actually be loaded and locked in, and then get off the bus early to watch the luggage compartment unloaded, you can almost guarantee that your checked bags will not be stolen. Good bus lines should require that you present a luggage ticket in order to claim the matching bag.
2. Don’t Book the Cheapest Bus Ticket
There’s no getting around the fact that overnight bus trips are generally very unpleasant. However, one way to make them slightly less unpleasant is to spend a little more for a bus line with excellent reviews or even a first-class seating section.
For example, in Peru, the cheapest buses load passengers at max capacity and simply toss luggage into the cargo hold with no security.
Premium bus lines, however (which may only be 3-10 US dollars more) keep luggage secure by checking baggage tags. Some may even offer a first-class bus seat.
3. Have a Safe Place to Go on Arrival
If you’re a light sleeper and a solo traveler, an overnight bus trip is a time to be extra generous with self-care. There is a chance you will be awake all night and arrive in a strange new city completely exhausted. Been there, done that.
While getting through the overnight bus trip is unpleasant, it’s doable. The hard part comes when you arrive at dawn and have nowhere to go to sleep. Wandering around a strange city alone and absolutely exhausted is a recipe for disaster.
Instead, book an early check-in at a hostel or hostel. If early check-in isn’t available, you can pay for the previous night (the night you were on the bus) in order to have a soft bed to crawl into for a few hours after arriving in the early morning. Trust me on this: it’s worth it.
4. Buy First-Class Seat Tickets on your Overnight Bus
Even as a budget traveler, I’ve learned that when the price difference between a coach and a first-class ticket is less than $25, it’s worth upgrading.
In South America, the difference between coach and first-class bus tickets is often under $10 – but oh, is it worth it! Like flying first-class, first-class seats on an overnight bus offer wider, softer seats that recline. Some even have entertainment on the back of the seat in front of you. (If they don’t, a modified version of the way that I hang my phone on the back of an airplane seat might work on your bus seat as well)
Even if you’re convinced you don’t need to splurge on first-class bus seats, trust me, upgrading will maximize the energy you have for travel adventures the following day.
5. Be friendly and Sit Near Other Passengers
When you’re traveling internationally, it can be hard to know who is a friend and who might be a foe. However, the odds are typically in your favor if you take charge and choose. If you identify another traveler and extend kindness to them, they’re statistically more likely to do the same for you.
Most people, when they encounter kindness from a stranger, don’t respond by stealing their stuff! It’s no guarantee, but it’s something.
If you’re traveling alone and taking an overnight bus, it may even be a good idea to communicate clearly about a desire to look out for each other during the trip. If you see a group of backpackers in the bus station preparing to board your bus, consider asking if you can sit with them. You can gain some security through sitting with a group, and also chat about different destinations and perhaps learn insider tips on attractions you should explore in your next destination.
6. Mind Your Luggage
It’s tempting, especially if you scheduled a full itinerary for the day before your overnight bus trip, to simply throw your luggage into storage and collapse into your seat. Staying safe on an overnight bus requires a bit more creativity. If you plan on sleeping during your overnight journey, be aware that someone could easily take your luggage from under the seat in front of you.
If you talk to other travelers who have had items stolen on an overnight bus or train (it happens a lot!) You will probably learn that most of them have their luggage at their feet, expecting to wake up if anyone tried to steal it.
Instead of placing your luggage at your feet, consider sleeping slumped over your bag or leaning against it. Both of these positions offer a sort of natural alarm if someone tries to move your bag.
7. Tie it down
This is one of my strangest tips for overnight bus trips, but honestly: it really helps me sleep: tether your bag to your seat or your body.
Many travelers instinctually do this by looping a foot through a backpack strap at their feet, but that’s not foolproof when a clever thief is trying to lift your bag.
Instead, use a lanyard or bit of string (that I include on all my packing lists) to physically tie your backpack to your seat armrest – or even a body part. If your bag can’t be moved without major disruption, well, then you’re that much safer and insulated from theft on your overnight bus trip.
8. Have a plan for waking up
I thought it was just me who had major issues waking up after an overnight bus trip, but when I began talking to other travelers about this experience, we realized it’s a common experience.
When you wake up after a night spent on the bus, you won’t be clearheaded. There’s something about the terrible, half-dozing sleep of an over-the-road bus trip that leaves travelers woozy and bleary-eyed at arrival. This is less than ideal.
Because bus stations are places where travel crime is statistically more likely to happen, you’ll need to have a plan for how you’ll wake up and get out of the bus station as quickly as possible. Here’s how I navigate that challenge:
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How I wake up on an overnight bus trip:
1. Set a Wake-up Alarm
I set a personal alarm that will wake me up 45 minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive (I do this without disrupting other passengers by using a bluetooth-speaker headband that plays white noise while I sleep on the bus)
2. Pack Food for Breakfast + Caffeine
I always have a snack and a caffeine-heavy drink ready to enjoy when I wake up on a bus in the morning. Usually, waking up on a bus happens a little easier if I have a snack, caffeine, and time for the caffeine to kick in before the overnight bus pulls up at the bus station. (See my list of road trip-friendly meals)
3. Avoid Lingering in the Bus Station
Knowing exactly what I need to do on arrival helps me get in and out of the bus station quickly and safely.
Even if I need to buy another ticket at the bus station, I leave ASAP. When I’ve just gotten off an overnight bus, I try to avoid spending any longer and a bus station than I have to. Instead, I get to the hotel or guesthouse I’ve arranged in advance.
No one daydreams about overnight bus trips, but they are an unavoidable form of transportation on some itineraries. If you are about to take your first overnight bus trip or your 50th, these tips can help you stay safe, rest well, and arrive ready to enjoy your destination.
Lynli Roman’s unique approach to travel is informed by decades of experience on the road with a traveling family and, later, years spent as a solo international traveler. When she’s not writing about Seattle from her Pike Place Market apartment, Lynli writes on-location while conducting hands-on research in each destination she covers. Lynli’s writing has been featured by MSN, ABC Money, Buzzfeed, and Huffington Post. She is passionate about sharing information that makes travel more accessible for all bodies.