Five Things To Bring On A Long-Distance Bus Trip In A Developing Nation

chicken bus
David Dennis, Flickr

It may be a cliche, but it’s true: if you want to get off the beaten path when you travel, at some point you’re going to have to take a long-distance bus ride. Even if you’re not a backpacker, some destinations are accessible only by the most inconvenient of methods. I’ve traveled by bus, Land Rover, bush plane, horseback and canoe, and while not always comfortable, I take great delight in using alternative forms of transit.

If the idea of taking the bus gives you the heebie-jeebies, be aware that it’s primarily bus travel in the U.S. that sucks. I’ve yet to have an experience on Greyhound (it’s called the “Dirty Dog” for a reason) that wasn’t totally jacked up. There’s always a toilet overflowing, an addict nodding out and drooling on your shoulder (true story) and a guy who can’t stop screaming into his cellphone or having a conversation with himself. But I love long-haul trips in developing nations, no matter how janky the ride. It’s the best way I know of to see and experience a country. It’s cultural immersion at both its most infuriating and its best, but I’ve yet to have a bad experience with regard to fellow passengers.

There are, however, some key items you’ll want to bring with you. I speak from painful/mortifying experience. Read on for what you’ll need for any bus journey lasting more than a couple of hours (bear in mind that in many parts of the world, you can’t rely upon bus timetables; I recently took a four-hour trip in Paraguay that turned into 11 due to monsoonal flooding. And there was no bathroom on board). Bringing snacks and extra water is crucial; usually vendors will come on board during stops, but you should never rely on this.

empty toilet paper roll
GorillaSushi, Flickr

1. A blanket or ultra/microlight sleeping bag
You’d be surprised how many clapped-out buses crank the AC. If you get cold easily, 14 hours of that might render you nearly hypothermic. Conversely, if you’re sensitive to heat and in a tropical country, bring along a packet of Emergen-C or electrolyte chews (I love Honey Stingers and coconut water) and something to protect you from the sun.

2. Imodium®
Trust me, if you’ve ever suffered from gastrointestinal issues while on a long bus trip, you’ll do anything, anything, to ensure it never happens again. That said, don’t let fear deter you from trying all those great street foods. I’ve learned, however, to dial down the gluttony before a lengthy journey. Ladies, I’ve also had to deal with a UTI on a bumpy 14-hour ride through rural Mexico. Pack your first-aid kit accordingly.

3. Toilet paper
See above; if you’re lucky enough to even be on a bus with a toilet, don’t count on it being well equipped. Also be prepared for pit stops on the road, whether by your necessity or someone else’s. TP is also great to use as a tissue, as an impromptu washcloth, or to wipe that weird goo off of your shoe from the aforementioned pit stop. Hey, I’m just reporting the facts.

4. Sleep aid
Even if you don’t suffer from insomnia, you may want to bring along something to help your slumber on overnight trips. Rutted-out roads, blaring DVD players, blasting radio, crying children – sometimes all at once will make you glad you have an ace in the hole. If nothing else, bring ear plugs.

5. Baby wipes and/or antibacterial gel
You’ll be grateful for these on sweltering rides, especially when the windows are jammed open and you’re dealing with noxious clouds of carbon monoxide or dust. Also useful after aforementioned bathroom runs, and before snacking.

Five ways to make bus travel bearable

I’ve been spending a lot of time on buses lately – and not the kind that trace an east-west route across Manhattan. For the trips I’ve been taking, it’s been the best way to go, but rolling by bus is still far from exciting. From having to smoke outside with the homeless people in front of Port Authority to being stuck next to or in front of a loud cell phone talker, it’s hard to find a less appealing way to travel. Some bus lines are better than others, and I’ve been fairly impressed by the one I’m taking these days. Nonetheless, it’s still a drag.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make your bus ride much easier.

There are obvious tactics, from music to reading materials, but anyone who travels (or has merely waited in a long line somewhere) can figure them out. Instead of the basics, which you should be able to figure out on your own, let’s take a look at five tricks that only come from painful experience.1. Get in line (or on the bus) early
This may seem obvious, but the reasons come with some subtlety. You want to claim your space as soon as possible. Wait too long, and you could wind up having to set next to someone who is already on board. Step onto the bus early, and you’ll be putting someone else in that position. The odds of having your own seat for the ride increase profoundly.

2. Look undesirable
As people get on, especially when there are no empty pairs left, they have to make some tough choices on where to sit. Your goal is to make them pass you without even considering an invasion of your personal space. Eat some smelly food, wear torn or dirty clothing or cough and sneeze. This will help you win the opportunity to stretch out later.

3. Spread out
If there are multiple stops before your destination, more passengers may get on. This only happens when you’re headed toward the “big place,” though. When I leave New York, for example, I don’t worry about losing space to passengers who get on later – the net flow is outward. Yet, when I’m headed back home, it’s hard to rest easy until we’ve left the last stop before the city. To further discourage people from sitting next to me, which is harder than in (2) above, I tend to spread out a bit, pluck away at my laptop and generally make it look time-consuming and annoying to clear space for another passenger. Nobody wants to wait in the aisle, especially for someone who is not really interested in helping.

4. Enlist your friends
While you don’t want to be among the degenerates who talk on the phone during the entire bus trip, you will need to be entertained. Texts, communication via BlackBerry Messenger and even traditional email will amuse you without annoying those around you. Make sure you have a few people on board to help you out, case someone gets bored or busy … or just doesn’t care about your plight.

5. Engage the world
I think the number of tweets I send while riding the bus skyrockets relative to my already elevated volume. If you aren’t a Twitter addict already, become one if you’re going to be spending a lot of time on a bus. It’s quiet, and it will keep you busy. Follow the right people, and it will also keep you laughing. To start, may I suggest @Gadling?

[tweetphoto via @tjohansmeyer]

8 tips for surviving long-distance discount bus travel

Travel by plane, despite its many aggravations and expenses, is generally quick – in a matter of hours you can be across the country or on the other side of an ocean. Train travel, while slower, has an element of romance to it. But bus travel. . . bus travel is generally the last resort. Thanks to new low-cost bus services like Megabus and BoltBus, bus travel is cheap, but it can also be slow and unreliable, and there’s no dining car where you can while away the time drinking wine and watching the world go by. Bus travel is getting better, but it can still be a difficult way to get around. Here are eight tips for making the experience more pleasant.

Book in advance
If you don’t know by now, Megabus offers seats for as low as $1 each way between select cites. But these elusive $1 fares go quickly, and the price goes up as demand increases. Don’t wait until the cost of your bus fare is nearly as much as a plane ticket – the appeal of the bus is that it’s cheap! Book as far in advance as you can to get the best rate.

Know before you go
Get the scoop on what your bus offers in terms of power outlets and wi-fi so that you can plan your in-bus diversions accordingly. On some buses, only certain seats have power outlets, so if you’ll need to juice up your electronics, you’ll want to know where to sit. On the new site BusJunction.com, you can check routes, prices and schedules from multiple bus companies, plus see what amenities are offered on your bus. You can also read Yelp reviews to see what kind of experience others have had.

Pack light and put your luggage in last
With no restrictions or extra fees for luggage, it’s easy to go crazy and pack way more than you need. But remember there is still limited space on the bus, and everyone’s luggage needs to fit in the cargo hold. Plus the more everyone brings, the longer it takes to load and unload all the bags. If you’ll be in a hurry to grab your luggage and go once you arrive at your destination, be sure to put your luggage in last so that it is the first out. If you are bringing a smaller bag, just stow it underneath your seat.

Snag the good seats
If you don’t need to be close to a power outlet, you may think one seat is as good as another. Not so. A few seats on most buses have more leg room than others. On double-decker buses, the seats just after the stairwells, and the two seats in the very front by the window have the most room. But, if you are partial to motion sickness, steer clear of the front seats – the unobstructed view may make you queasy. Avoid sitting by the trash or by the bathrooms for obvious reasons.

Try to get on first so you have more time to pick your seat. If you are traveling with someone else, have them handle the luggage while you get seats, or just stow your stuff under your seat so you can get on before the rush. Check to make sure that your seat reclines and move if it doesn’t. If your seatmate has an odor issue, doesn’t understand the concept of personal space, or has his or her headphones on so loud you can hear the music clearly, get up and move to another seat to save yourself the inevitable hassle later.

Watch your valuables
Petty theft seems to happen more in and around buses than other forms of transportation. Use common sense and keep an eye on your valuables at all time. Keep your purse or bag at your feet rather than putting it above your head, especially if you plan on dozing off, and avoid showing off your valuables at any time. If you get up to go to the bathroom or get off the bus, make sure to bring anything of value with you.

Bring a snack for emergencies
Buses on most log-haul routes (generally of 5-6 hours or more) will stop for a short break at a rest stop so that passengers can get something to eat. Usually this will happen half-way through the ride, but buses sometimes break down or get stuck in traffic. If you get cranky when you don’t eat on a regular schedule, bring a snack that travels well, like some almonds or a granola bar. The dining options available are often limited, so consider that if you are on a special diet. Bring water, but go easy on the liquids. As the ride goes on, the condition of the bathroom deteriorates, and you don’t want to be forced to use it when you are almost to your destination.

Bring distractions, but be polite
Just as you would for a long plane or train ride, bring an arsenal of things to keep you busy. If reading in a moving vehicle makes you nauseous, bring a portable DVD player or laptop and watch movies, listen to an iPod, or plan to take a nap. But keep your entertainment to yourself. Use your headphones and keep the volume low, and keep your phone calls to a minimum. No one wants to listen to your 3-hour long conversation.

Know that you get what you pay for
Bus travel is cheap, but it can try your patience. Remember that the service is often cheap for a reason, and that by saving money, you do run the risk of being bored, stuck in traffic, listening to someone’s obnoxious music blasting from their headphones, with your only option for dinner the $1.99 steak and eggs special at the roadside truck-stop diner (okay, I’ve never had it that bad!). Consider what your time is worth and you may opt to pay a little extra to fly next time. If you do decide to take the bus, just remember to pack the most important thing of all – your patience.

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Megabus to sell 50,000 $1 fares

Megabus, the big blue bus that could, has become synonymous with dirt-cheap fares in the Midwest and on the East Coast. While not always on time, the company has a reputation for offering a better experience than competitors like Greyhound, as there is an assumption that you are more likely to be seated next to a budget traveler or college student than you are, say, a knife-wielding psychopath.

As Megabus’ popularity has grown, it has become harder to snag those elusive $1 fares, which are offered for the first few seats sold on each trip. When I first started taking the bus from Chicago to Detroit back in 2007, I rarely paid more than $10 round-trip, and paying $1 (and once, just 50 cents) each way wasn’t uncommon. But my more recent trips have been as high as $70 round-trip(though still cheaper than flying and faster than taking the train).

But this fall, getting a $1 fare might be easier. Megabus just announced that it will be selling an additional 50,000 fares for the low, low price of $1 each way. Passengers will need to travel between September 14 and November 19 and use the promo code HOTDEAL when booking. The $1 fares do tend to sell out quickly, so book your travel now to get the best price.

Jay Leno’s traveling to his future song. What’s yours?

Last night on The Tonight Show, Jay Leno’s musical guest was James Taylor. Before Taylor played, Leno told the story about why he picked Taylor to do the honors of Leno’s last show farewell. He said that as he was moving to California to give himself a shot at big time show business, he played James Taylor’s song, “Sweet Baby James.” The line “With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go” seemed apropos. [song after the jump]

Leno’s nostalgic look at a song significant to his life as he traveled from his past to his future by traveling to a new place, reminded me of my own traveling from my past to my future song.

When a friend and I traveled across the U.S. for three months–mostly by bus, after our two-years in the Peace Corps the song “America” by Simon and Garfunkel captured our emotional state the most. I remember looking out the bus window watching the scenery roll by while listening to that song with a shared Walkman and two pairs of headphones.

Neither of us had any idea what was ahead for us, but we were looking. Three months of interacting with the physical America helped with our direction. I ended up in Albuquerque, New Mexico and she headed to Washington, D.C. Since then, we’ve both traveled elsewhere.

Of all the experiences I’ve had in life, nothing was more strong than that move back to the U.S. from The Gambia, looking for a place to land where I would feel comfortable and thrive. Simon and Garfunkel were fitting companions on that journey.

By the looks of the hug James Taylor gave Jay Leno after he sang, Taylor’s song helped Leno find his way.

Have any songs helped you find your way as you’ve traveled to a new destination? Metaphorically or physically, it’s all part of the the traveler’s path. For more songs that have inspired us at Gadling, here’s our series Sounds of Travel. One of Annie’s songs was “America” as well.

And, here’s James Taylor singing “Sweet Baby James” in 1970. He’s traveled a bit himself since then.