Bus travel has to be one of the easiest ways to get around India. Typically it requires very little forethought – you can either turn up on the day, and hop on, or book a seat the day before for peace of mind. I’ve never known the buses to get booked out the way the trains do. Therefore they offer more flexibility. There are various different types of bus in India, and I’ve summarised a few below:
During my 3 months in India, the government buses grew to be one of my preferred modes of transport. Yes, you’re not guaranteed a seat, but if the bus originates from where you are you stand a good chance of getting one. Additionally, there is an unwritten rule that women can push their way on first and grab a seat.
The government buses tend to go a bit slower, meaning you can sit back and enjoy the view without the horrible sensation of motion sickness. This is either because they are old and a bit rickety, or because they have to be at certain stops at a designated times. I believe the private bus operators just need to get you there, and would rather do so as quickly as possible, regardless of how many people are vomiting in the back.
The toilet stops are plentiful. Usually once an hour. (Some of the private bus companies have been known to for 6-9 hours without a toilet stop, which is just unbearable!)
Of the course the government buses are also cheap as chips. And the conductor tends to have a ticket machine, so you can check if you’ve be overcharged. I’ve paid as little as 170 rupees for an 8 hour journey on a government bus.
A negative point is the lack of luggage storage. Generally if you have a big bag, this will go up by the driver. But if you have a small backpack this may fit in the rack above your head, or under the seat. I have a 36L backpack, which I could usually squeeze in.
I’d also say the government buses are only good for day time trips. At night they are too uncomfortable to sleep on, as the seats do not recline, and they can be overcrowded.
Non-AC Tourist Bus
A step up from the government bus, in terms of having a reserved seat / sleeper bed. Although these buses do get crowded, and during the day you will see an unfathomable number of local people cram themselves into the unreserved sleeper beds.
If it’s a night bus you do have the luxury of having a door or curtain to pull across so no one can peak in as you sleep. It’s a nice opportunity to shut yourself away from the incessant staring. Don’t expect much in the way of sleep though, as you will be rolling around all over the show. Not mention speed bumps sending you flying off the bed.
Toilet breaks are few and far between, and one of my friends even took the drastic measure of attempting to pee in a crisp packet while in her sleeper cabin – this is not advised, and it did not end well. I tend to slowly dehydrate myself the day or night before travel. Not the healthiest option, but does make it more comfortable!
The non-AC buses are one of the more affordable options. With 12 hour journeys costing as little as 350 rupees. They can vary greatly though, so shop around, and try to buy direct from the bus company where possible.
AC Tourist Bus
It’s my experience in India (and most of Asia), that if a mode of transport claims to have air con, it’s either like being wheezed on by someone with emphysema, or being trapped in an arctic storm. There’s no comfortable middle. For this reason, I generally avoid the substantially more expensive, AC bus. However, if you struggle with the heat it could be a worth while upgrade. Just have some extra layers handy in case the AC is a bit too fierce.
These buses tend to be the most overpriced for what you get. I was repeatedly quoted 1,600 rupees for an AC sleeper bus from Gokarna to Hampi (and the bus didn’t even leave from the centre of town!) Instead I skipped this and took the day time, government bus for 281 rupees instead, bargain.
The most expensive, and probably my least favourite of the bus options in India. Although the seat is comfortable, and you are provided with a blanket, it’s unlikely you will get any sleep on an overnight journey. On the two journeys I took on the Volvo buses, the drivers fancied themselves as Indian Michael Schumachers, and I had to continually brace myself just this stay in the seat. I don’t think it helps that the buses are newer, and can go faster than the old, clackety ones. And they remain fast at all times, especially around windy roads and on blind corners. Terrifying!
Again these buses are incredibly expensive in comparison to the government buses, and the non-AC tourist buses. However, they do tend to run at convenient times, when it comes to linking up with trains etc. If you do take a Volvo bus, I would recommend doing so in the day, as it’s seriously unlikely you’ll get any sleep.
To summarise – I’d say don’t be scared to try the government buses. There are many positives over the private operators. Fact is, all the buses have different pros and cons, but in my experience the government buses are a pleasant surprise. Additionally, I would recommend avoiding overnight travel on any of the buses, as you won’t be able to sleep, and the next day you will feel terrible. If you must travel overnight, try and get a train reservation.