Tips for taking buses in Europe

Europe is fairly small, especially coming from a country like the United States and there are ample forms of transportation to get you from any one city to another. With all the trains and low-cost airlines, it might be easy to overlook the bus as an option, but it’s quite a good one… as long as you know what you’re getting into. Here are some useful tips that can make your bus journey a little more tolerable.

Prepare for the probability of not having air conditioning

I’ve been on several different buses now, from Flixbus to Ecolines, and have had varying results with each company, none of which are very consistent. What I can tell you for sure is that air conditioning is not a priority for bus companies in Europe. I’m sure that’s not a huge deal in November, but in the summer, you’re going to want to dress for a hot one.

The heat and stuffiness comes with other added discomforts: like the stench of BO from a large Germanic-looking dude sitting across the aisle. His armpits have the surface area of a rest stop toilet bowl and smell worse. On that bus, you will have nowhere to go and you will have to deal with the heat and the smell.

Remember that timetables are flexible

Trains are nice and exact most of the time, but bus schedules are extremely variable. I’ve learned that this is because when there is an accident on European highways, it will set you back anywhere from 45 minutes to almost 2 hours. I don’t know why or how but when you’re delayed you will be D-E-L-A-Y-E-D. So don’t make any specific plans on the day you have a bus trip scheduled. On the other hand, if there are no delays, you may arrive earlier than the scheduled time. It’s a crapshoot.

Take snacks and water

Several sandwiches and pastries still weren't enough for our Berlin-Warsaw bus.
Several sandwiches and pastries still weren’t enough for our Berlin-Warsaw bus.

If you’re going to be on a bus for 8 hours, give or take an hour and a half, you’re going to get hungry. And yes, the buses usually stop, but it may be only a 15 or 20 minute stop and may not be anywhere with food, only bathrooms and vending machines. Sometimes the buses have snacks you can buy onboard. But realistically, that won’t hold you over for the really long haul trips. I recommend buying something at the bus station before you leave, preferably something that keeps well and will not go bad or get soggy. Of course, water is always a good idea.

Be very sure of where your bus will pick you up and drop you off

This should be something you verify before you even book your ticket. Because sometimes the bus station is very central and convenient and sometimes it’s in the middle of nowhere. Usually your ticket is specific about the locations but when in doubt, ask. I recently had a connection in Vienna between Bratislava and Zagreb. We instinctively waited exactly where the bus dropped us off, assuming that the Flixbus sign at the stop meant that they all stopped there. Five minutes before we were supposed to be off to Zagreb, I walked to the bus station office just to verify and realized that we were waiting on the wrong side of the station. Granted, there are worse places than Vienna to be stranded (imagine if that had happened in Bratislava), but it would have just been an unnecessary and expensive delay. So don’t assume anything. Ask other travelers or ask station officials. Someone will help you get where you need to go.

Take the road less traveled

The bus is full, cramped, hotter, and smellier on the more popular routes. On top of being dirt cheap, the bus routes to less visited cities are half empty. In some cases, buses may actually be your only option. If that’s the case, don’t count on being able to get a whole row to yourself. Especially if your destination is popular during the time of year you’re traveling, like if you’re going anywhere beachy in the summer.

Don’t count on the WiFi or electricity

Many European bus lines tout all sorts of perks like free WiFi and electronic sockets on every seat. Neither of those is a guarantee and if you have them, there is no guarantee they will work consistently. So bring backup batteries if you need them, or bring something to do that doesn’t require a plug, like a book or a stack of postcards and a pen.

They may be hit or miss, but the best tip I can give you about buses in Europe is that you should take them. Check your options using sites like goeuro.com which gives you pricing for all available routes from one city to another, including flights, trains, and buses. Consider the cost of convenience and speed when you compare prices. But sometimes it’s really hard to pass up a bus that will get you to another country for less than twenty bucks.