How to Survive (and Even Enjoy) Long Train and Bus Journeys
October 06, 2022
As your travel date looms, you tend to worry first about the long-haul flight. How can you remain comfortable and relaxed while packed tightly into a rattling metal tube moving 500 miles per hour? And how do you navigate the labyrinthine corridors and excessive bureaucracy of a major airport?
Long plane rides can certainly be frustrating, which is why we’ve covered the topic on this blog a couple of times. But plane rides are also highly regimented, catered, climate-controlled and free of pickpockets. There’s a built-in sense of order and procedure when you fly.
Trains and buses, on the other hand – that’s another beast entirely.
At their worst, train and bus rides combine everything annoying about a plane journey – the cramped quarters and uncomfortable rattling – with a near-total lack of order. Depending on where you are in the world, you might travel on a non-air-conditioned train through sweltering temperatures, strapped tightly next to several other sweating commuters, (some of whom might be angling for your wallet), without recourse to food or water for hours.
But at their best, train and bus rides are bliss. They’re a rare opportunity to shut your brain off for a few hours and drink in some new scenery. In this guide, we explore a few tips for surviving – even enjoying – your long train or bus journey. We’ll cover what clothes to wear (obviously), how to stow your luggage, what to eat, and how to keep yourself entertained.
Wear the Right Clothes
There are some things you just can’t control about train and bus travel: namely, the notable lack of temperature regulation (at least in several parts of the world). But that’s okay. Just focus on what you can control.
While you can’t access the thermostat, you can dress for the occasion. Naturally, we recommend comfortable travel clothing made from merino wool. If you’re going to grit your teeth through a humid train journey, or chatter your teeth on a cold overnight bus, you might as well do it with breathable, insulating and sweat-wicking apparel.
Our merino wool leggings and anti-wrinkle travel dress are great options for women; they look fantastic, feel fantastic, and hold up to a range of different climates. Likewise, men can get a lot of (literal and figurative) mileage from our travel pants, hoodies and sweaters for light travel. The right clothing makes a world of difference on long overland journeys.
When Possible, Reserve in Advance
There are several scenarios where advance booking and seat reservations aren’t feasible. You might be travelling spontaneously or in a country where overland transit companies operate more laissez-faire. However, reserve in advance when possible.
With some forethought and planning, you can avoid ticket queues on the travel day, ensure a seat (because standing on a train is pretty awful), and avoid missing an overbooked departure. It’s a minor time investment in enjoying your journey.
Credit: freepik Via Freepik
Take Charge, Literally
Before departing for the train station, fully charge all of your electronics. While some modern train and bus services feature power outlets, (most often in wealthier countries), the vast majority still don’t. Charging your phone in advance will give you access to entertainment (more on that below) and ensure that you have your maps when you eventually reach your unfamiliar destination.
Alternatively, consider investing in a portable charger. The best ones run around $50 and are extremely handy in a pinch.
Take Charge, Figuratively
Once you’ve charged your electronics and reached the station, take figurative charge. Customs around queuing and boarding differ around the world. It isn’t uncommon to muscle your way onto a train in Beijing, sharing sharp elbows with the other passengers trying to snag a seat. Conversely, that behaviour is considered horrible etiquette in a place like London.
Take charge according to what’s customary. Advocate for yourself by lining up early to board, or staging yourself on the platform near your train car. If you can board before most people, you have a better shot at nabbing an overhead luggage compartment near your seat – or at least a visible sightline to the luggage section.
Bring Your Own Food and Water
By and large, buying food on the train is inadvisable. There are notable exceptions (Japan’s trains serve impeccable bento boxes), but they are exceptions to the rule. Train food is often bad, warmed in a microwave, and you have to teeter through four train cars to reach the cafeteria. Instead, buy an easily transportable meal before you reach the train station. Something handheld, like a local sandwich or wrap, tends to work well.
On bus journeys, it’s common practice to make pit stops at food court-style rest stops. The food here is hit or miss. We’ve had an amazing pad see ew at a rest stop in Thailand. We’ve also had a stomach-churning fried fish dish at a rest area in Indonesia. It’s a gamble – and if you don’t like gambling, it’s probably best to pack your own meal beforehand.
While every rest area and train cafeteria sells water, we recommend bringing your own in a collapsible water bottle. It saves you a couple of dollars and spares the earth from another single-use plastic.
Queue up Music or a Podcast that Fits the Landscape
Good audio can make all the difference on those long overland journeys. A rollicking, four-on-the-floor playlist can serve as a fitting soundtrack overtop the chugging of a train. Likewise, an informational podcast explaining the history of your destination can help contextualize your trip and connect you with your surroundings as you stare out the window of a long-haul bus.
Whatever good audio means to you, be sure to download it before you board. Wi-Fi isn’t a given on buses or trains; even if a company advertises Wi-FI, the service can be slow or spotty. To avoid getting caught without audio, prepare your playlists in advance.
Do Some Writing
If you aren’t in the listening mood, consider jotting down a few thoughts. Maybe this isn’t a universal phenomenon, but we find that train and bus journeys are the ideal atmospheres for writing. The steady, methodical sounds of the vehicle, the prosaic décor and the pastoral scene just beyond the window – they allow you to get into the right headspace, stirring up thoughts you might otherwise pass by.
Consider keeping a journal or writing a travelogue. At worst, you’ll end up with a word salad that makes you feel like you've got something off your chest. At best, you might wind up starting the next great travel novel. Stranger things have happened on a train.
Or Use the Time to Work
An overland journey doesn’t have to be a quiet, unproductive affair. It can be an opportunity to catch up on work, so you can take some spare time for yourself when you reach your destination.
If you’re travelling for work, or are living the digital nomad lifestyle, prepare what you need for a shift, fitting it neatly into a daypack. Give your laptop and phone a good charge before you leave (see above). And consider packing distraction-busting tools like noise-cancelling headphones.
For a more in-depth breakdown of travelling for work, refer to our article on what to pack for a business trip. There, you’ll find actionable advice on engineering a productive, stylish trip abroad. And while you’re on the site, check out our brand-new blazer for business travel, made from Italian 2-way stretch Merino wool that’s as comfortable as it is sophisticated.
Credit: lipikstockmedia Via Freepik
Carry Cash and Valuables Securely on Your Person
Sadly, pickpockets are a fact of life in several countries. Some prey on your pants pockets as you shuffle the aisles of a crowded train. Others work a sophisticated grift, retrieving valuables from the undercarriage of an overnight bus.
As with many things, the best offense is a good defense here. If you’re bringing valuable electronics (i.e. your phone, camera, air pods, etc.), cash, cards or important documents, hold them securely on your person. You can tuck them in a daypack that you wear on the front of your body in a "hug" position, or the pocket of a money belt. If you need to use the washroom, take your valuables with you.
On Overnights, Take All the Help You Can Get to Fall Asleep
What’s worse than an eleven-hour bus journey? A sleepless eleven-hour bus journey. We’ve been on some buses that feature night-time karaoke (looking at you, Philippines) and others that loudly play AM radio throughout the night (looking at you, Mexico).
Again, you can’t control your surroundings – only your reaction to those surroundings. So, if you want a good night’s rest, take all the help you can get. Pack some melatonin and a sleep mask, buy that mini bottle of red wine from the rest stop, and queue up a playlist of ambient ASMR. Whatever works.
It may also help to optimize comfort during your journey. At the link, you’ll find an article we published a while back on maximizing comfort on the go.
Keep Some Basic Hygiene Items Accessible
We’ve covered how to board, where to stow your luggage, how to keep your belongings secure and how to entertain yourself. But there’s still the matter of hygiene. Any time you load into a tightly cramped space with several other breathing, sweating, eating bodies, it’s bound to get icky after a while. One hour is generally manageable. But 6-plus hours – you can start feeling mighty unhygienic.
There are a few ways to counter this feeling. If possible, your first line of defense should be to crack a window. Fresh air can lift a stuffy environment better than anything else. If you aren’t sure how, don’t hesitate to ask a steward or ticket-taker.
Next, you can maintain personal hygiene while travelling by packing some essentials:
- Facial cleansers to wipe away any accumulated dust, debris and sweat.
- Mouth fresheners to revive your oral hygiene
- Hand sanitizer to keep foreign pathogens at bay
- Dryer sheets to combat the musty smell of a backpack
- And merino wool – your go-to sweat-wicking, antimicrobial, all-weather travel wear.
It’s surprising how much your mood can lift when you brush off the proverbial cobwebs. By cleaning and freshening your immediate space, you take an actionable step toward improving your overland journey.
Regular readers will spot a theme among our articles – we're big advocates of packing light. If our continual reiteration of the point wasn't enough of a clue, the philosophy is right there in our name. We think travel should feel freeing, unburdened and unbound.
It’s a philosophy especially applicable in overland travel. There are several steps to catching a bus or train: commuting to the station/depot, ascending stairs, finding the platform/line, boarding, navigating the aisle, loading your luggage, and then doing everything in reverse at the other end. Each of these steps becomes more burdensome, more time-consuming and laborious with heavier luggage.
We strongly recommend that, if you want to enjoy your train or bus journey, you pack light. Our versatile, lastingly fresh clothes are a great place to start, but there are several other tips to follow. Roll your clothes, be sparing with electronics, edit your toiletries, choose multi-purpose footwear, and opt for neutral colours you can mix and match. Not only will trimming your luggage alleviate the stresses of overland travel, but it can help you enjoy your trip more overall.
Even with their myriad inconveniences, we’d still take bus and train travel over inter-destination flights. They don’t take that much longer (once you factor in wait times at the airport), they’re cheaper, and they’re better for the environment. Finally, if you can follow the few ameliorative steps above, train and bus journeys can be more enjoyable than a flight.
Remember, ground travel doesn't have to be a nuisance. With the right planning and execution, it can even be a memorable part of your trip.
If you care to share your train and bus travel hacks, please comment below. Similarly, if you tell us your bus and train travel horror stories, please feel free – sharing unpleasant experiences can be equally as instructional sometimes.