We’re fresh off the night bus in Bogotà, Colombia. Inevitably, we’re not feeling fresh at all.
Despite being big advocates of travelling over-night it’s hard not to dread the morning of arrival – tired, hungry and disorientated in a new place running on max 4 hours of interrupted sleep.
Putting all of that aside, night travel is still one of the most convenient and economic ways of getting around – something that pretty much all long term, budget travellers can agree on.
The thing that’s up for debate between backpackers is the issue of safety.
With this post we’re hoping to clear up a few of the most common questions about Night Travel, giving our personal experiences and a few tips to make it as painless as possible!
Are night buses & night trains safe?
This question is very location specific, and seems to be a particularly big issue for people travelling through Mexico and Latin America.
The basic answer to this question is: yes.
On the whole, night buses in Mexico and Latin America are perfectly safe. The security issues experienced in the past have been clamped down on, and highway hold ups are now very rare occurrences.
In Mexico all passengers and luggage go through airport-like security, and alcohol is not allowed in the main part of the bus. Before departing, security personnel from the bus company (ADO) come onto the bus with a video camera and take a recording of every passenger. This process is sometimes repeated at police road blocks. In addition, you need a passport to even purchase a ticket – it’s like taking a flight. Everyone on board is registered, which seems to be extremely effective as a deterrent to petty crime.
In Colombia the process was exactly the same, with the main difference being that there are a lot of competing bus lines. Choose one of the more reputable ones which are generally promoted by hostels, and ask about their security measures when purchasing your seat. We travelled with Boliviano and felt completely comfortable.
Is night travel safe for women travelling alone?
Once again, I would say yes.
On a solo trip around Eastern Europe I frequently took night trains and never felt in the least bit threatened or unsafe. The worst experience I had was sharing a compartment with a couple who were clearly not expecting me, and were clearly not happy that I was there…
In Latin America there is a bigger culture for men to outwardly comment on women’s appearance and dress. This is almost always completely harmless, and we have never witnessed it on public transport – it’s more of a ‘showing off to mates on the street’ kind of thing.
However, there’s definitely a couple of things you can do to make yourself feel safer and avoid an uneasy night:
- Research different companies and ask a lot of questions about their general security measures
- If you’re staying in a hostel and really aren’t keen on travelling overnight by yourself, put a notice up at reception or ask around for other backpackers heading the same way. Waiting an extra day or two and leaving with a friendly face may save you some anxiety.
- Request a seat close to the driver – the back of the bus may be where the cool kids sit, but you’re further from help should anything go wrong.
- Ask to switch seats. In Latin America night buses are used primarily by backpackers and families. We usually travel with groups of women and children who are visiting relatives in other parts of the country. They’re not solely frequented by drug addicts and shady characters, as our imaginations (and mothers) may have us believe. Ask to switch seats with someone so that you’re sitting next to, or nearby, other passengers who make you feel comfortable. For me, this would probably be another woman.
- Book an aisle seat. This one comes under the same logic as sitting near the driver – you’re better poised to get out of a difficult situation. Also you have easy access to the loo.
What are the pros of travelling over night?
The pros of night buses and night trains pretty much fall into two categories: time and money, with the bottom line being that you save both.
When you need to get from A to B, but A is 17 hours’ drive from B, you’re facing a long, boring day of doing absolutely nothing. You may as well do so in the time when you’d be doing nothing anyway. Travelling by night means that you don’t have to waste a whole day that could be much better spent exploring a new place!
Also on the subject of time, night buses are usually quicker than their daytime counterparts, as there’s far less traffic in the dead of night.
If you’re travelling overnight then you don’t need to book accommodation, meaning that you’re saving a few bucks that can be put towards something more exciting.
Of course! We were gleefully regaling them this morning as we slept-walked around Bogotà!
Just because it leaves in the night, you’re not guaranteed a decent sleep. Roads in Latin America aren’t great and tend to have a lot of curves and hairpin bends – neither of which are conducive to peaceful rest. In Mexico, ADO buses play films – typically violent ones – at high volume for at least the first two hours of the ride. Finally, if your bus makes stops at various stations en-route, the lights will come on with no warning whenever people need to get off.
Remember: You’re not here to get rest. You’re here because you’re being cheap.
They leave and arrive at really awkward times. For most people, 11pm isn’t late. But when you’re waiting at a bus station 11pm may as well be 2am. Weirdly, the longer the journey the better it is. Anything 10 hours and up is pretty perfect, as you can get on and off the bus at reasonable times: 9pm-7am, for example.
If your journey is shorter than that, it’s better to get the latest bus possible and arrive at a semi-reasonable hour in the morning. It may seem like a bore waiting for the midnight bus, but it’s better than arriving in a deserted terminal at 4am with no idea of what to do.
Hostel check-ins. Tired, wearing clothes you’ve (sort of) slept in, hungry and in need of a shower, you arrive at your hostel to be told that check-in is at 2pm. This moment always sucks. You now have to kill a longer-than-usual morning before you can have a shower and lie down.
Air Con. Night buses always have ridiculous and highly unnecessary air conditioning. We don’t know why.
Advice for travelling by night:
Our list of cons has probably made night travel seem like the worst thing ever. But if you’re long on time and short on cash then it really is an excellent way to cover long distances!
Through trial and error, we’ve come up with a series of tips to make your time spent on night buses and trains as smooth as possible.
Keep your shoes on. The rubber soles ground you and stop you slipping off of your seat. Any attempts to curl up/lie sideways/prop your feet up will either end in a cramp or an argument (usually because ‘lying sideways’ involves me lying across Matteo).
Wear comfortable clothes that involve lots of layers to off-set arctic air conditioning. Bringing a towel or a scarf to lay across your laps is also strongly advised – every local brings their own blanket and sometimes also a pillow.
Try to book a hostel that has an early check-in time.
Keep a toothbrush and a change of underwear handy – it’ll make you feel human the next day.
Ear plugs and an eye mask are fundamental.
Don’t snack! It’s always tempting on any journey, but loading up on sugar at a time when you wouldn’t typically eat is the worst thing you can do in terms of getting a good night’s rest! Also – did we mention the windy roads??
Finally, keep in mind that travelling is something you do for fun, not an endurance test. If you’re not comfortable with travelling over night then don’t do it. The advice and opinions given in this post are coming from our own personal experiences – there are many, many (too many!) parts of the world where we have not been, and cannot say whether night transport is safe or not. Listen to advice given by locals and people who have first hand experience, and make an informed decision based on what you learn!