Screw Scenic Train Rides. Here’s Why I’d Rather Take the Bus, and You Should Too.
This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.
A few summers ago, I bought a bus ticket in Split, Croatia, to get to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, solely because it was more convenient than taking the train. When I relayed my travel plans to a cafe owner I’d become friendly with, he told me that the bus was a smart choice; he’d heard stories of tourists and women traveling alone, of which I was both, being robbed or harassed while cornered in the empty compartments of moving trains.
Safety had not factored into my decision-making — incidentally, the bus was also cheaper, though the difference between five euros and 20 euros was negligible — but my history with trying train rides has no doubt influenced my controversial travel opinion: I’d rather take the bus.
Some of my most harrowing travel experiences have taken place on trains. Once, when I was 18 years old and traveling solo in India, I took a 36-hour train ride from New Delhi to Goa. For much of that time, I was the only woman and Westerner in a car filled with navy boys on leave who were drinking heavily and pressuring me to do the same. Because I had been assigned a bottom bunk, which doubled as communal seating for the middle and top bunkers until everyone went to sleep, I had little recourse to keep quietly to myself.
A decade later, a few weeks before landing in Split, I found myself on another overnight train traveling from Budapest, Hungary, to Ljublana, Slovenia — only this time it was my fellow passengers who were teenagers hellbent on staying up all night, and I had just as little interest in accepting swigs of the unlabeled alcohol they’d snuck onto the train.
By comparison, the long-distance bus travel I’ve done has been a dream. Earlier that same summer, I bused from Norrköping, Sweden, to Stockholm in a roomy seat with a generous recline and steady WiFi. I found Uruguay’s bus system to be equally impressive, if a little less punctual: The buses were all clean and contemporary, with assigned seating for intercity riders while on some routes local riders could hop on and off like it was a municipal bus.
In fairness, some of my bus travels have felt more like a fever dream. In college, which I attended in Boston, I made frequent trips to New York City, usually opting to buy the cheapest bus ticket I could find — as little as $1 via Megabus if you’re lucky. Between the delays, mechanical issues, eccentric characters, and haphazard driving I often encountered on these rides, these buses reminded me more of the precarious ones I rode in northern India — where it was common for passengers to ride on top of the bus once the inside was full — than the comfortable Amtrak trains I splurged on occasionally to make the same journey.
Yet even on my craziest bus rides, I always felt as though I was gaining perspective. Where the trains I’ve taken have rarely lived up to the cliche of being romantic venues to peer whimsically out of the window at passing landscapes, more often than not, the buses I’ve taken have exceeded my expectations as a window into a destination and the people who live there. Stumbling through conversation with the older Bosnian woman who was seated next to me for the last leg of my bus ride from Split, for example, I got a lesson in Bosnian coffee culture and recommendations on where to participate while in Sarajevo.
Buses may not be glamorous, or even particularly comfortable at times, but they’re generally convenient, affordable, and educational, with close quarters that encourage conversation between riders. While train stations may or may not be central, the pick-up and drop-off sites for buses almost always are, and even the routes feel more intimate. You can learn a lot about a destination by winding through city streets and traveling down major highways, which in my experience can be just as scenic as railway lines without feeling quite so removed.
For spontaneous travelers, long-distance bus travel can also provide flexibility. In places like Bosnia, Uruguay, and India where long-distance buses may double as local transit, it’s easy to hop off and explore before reaching your final destination, without worrying about wasting money on an expensive ticket or fretting over when the next ride will come.
Say what you will about bus travel — my train-loving colleagues sure did when I pitched the idea for this story — but I’ll always consider it a viable transit option, whether the journey is 30 minutes or 30 hours. Hell — it might even be my preference.