Travelling via bus in South America is by far the cheapest way to get about & looking at the journey times most Europeans cringe. However, the buses in South America are extremely comfortable compared to ones we’ve taken in Europe, Australia & most definitely Asia (being considerably taller than most Asian their seats are definitely designed for a slighter build!!).
Forgetting comfort, it’s a right of passage for any traveller in South America so GET YOURSELF ON A BUS!!
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Booking a ticket
99 times out of 100 you will find booking a ticket at the bus station will be cheaper than online., especially in Argentina when you want to pay in cash to take advantage of the blue dollar rate. (If you are unsure about the blue dollar or blue chip rates you can read our 'How to take advantage of the blue dollar rate' blog for more information.) Buying your ticket at the bus station may involve getting shouted at by many locals vying for your attention and trying to ply their business, but hey…that’s half the fun!
There are however, a couple of websites we would recommend for checking your routes and which companies operate those routes.
www.ticketsbolivia.com (Obviously only in Bolivia!)
We did find though that sometimes there are more companies opperating the route and more departure times than displayed on these websites but it's a starting point to see whether your travel plans are viable but always best to go and check out the situation at the bus terminal.
Depending where you are on the continent the bus station will be known by different terms. What you are looking out for is “terminal de omnibus”, “terminal Terrestre” or in Brazil as “rodoviaria”.
Bus seat classes in South America Explained
When looking to book your first bus ticket in South America you may become confused with some of the terms used when booking a seat. Here is a breakdown & meaning of each class of bus seat.
This is the most basic & cheapest seats. There is roughly 70cm of space between each row of seats. The seats recline to a maximum of 35°. On long distance buses there are likely to be toilets however not guaranteed for shorter journey times.
For a bus to state they offer Executivo class must have air conditioning & have a toilet on board. The seats are slightly deeper than the Convencional class, the gap between seats slightly larger at 80cm & the angle of recline 40°.
Semi Cama/Semi-Leito (half bed)
These buses offer the same services as executive but slightly more. The gap between seats are up to around 90cm, recline up to 55° & they each have their own footrests. Often with these buses there are blankets on board too.
Cama/Coche Cama/Leito (bed bus)
These seats are the best of the best! Normally laid out in a two to one side & a single seat on the other as these seats are much wider, resembling a Lazyboy chair. The seats are much wider with a decent arm rest. The gap between seats up to 105cm & the recline generally is 80°. They have a decent leg rest & these seats will give you the best chance of a good night’s sleep. Depending on the country/company you will likely get a blanket & even a snack/meal with these seats.
What to take on board
Travelling by bus in South America seems to be one of two extremes: either the aircon is so high that you expect to have a penguin walk past or it's so hot you feel that you may pass out. My recommendation would be to travel in shorts (or at least zip-offs) & take layers!
Sleep equipment: If you are a light sleeper take ear plugs & a sleep mask. It isn't uncommon to be sat next to someone wanting to share their music with everyone on board. Alternatively, someone flicking through TikTok on full volume is a particular favourite 🤣!!
For a pillow you can get away with a jumper or something you can screw up in a ball, just make sure it’s soft, a waterproof coat is no good for sure! If you struggle to sleep on a bus consider taking a neck pillow with you. Inflatable neck pillows are the best for space but in my opinion they don’t offer the same level of comfort as a stuffed travel pillow.
This travel sleep pack contains all three!
Blanket - Becca doesn’t board a bus without her trusty travel blanket (well hers is actually a massive scarf but she uses it as a blanket). If you are a person who gets cold, a blanket will make your journey a lot more comfortable!
Supplies – Make sure to take plenty of water & food supplies with you. It’s not guaranteed the bus will stop at meal times, they may just stop to swap drivers.
Entertainment – This can come in many forms, here’s what we have up our sleeve.
· We’ve got a load of films & series downloaded onto a pen drive which we play on our laptop.
· Download films/series on Netflix or Amazon Prime (Prime Video also have a free 30 trial,).
· Download a playlist or podcast on Spotify or Amazon Music (Amazon Music Unlimited have a free 30 trial, click for more information).
· Music can get a little tedious after a while. Audible is great for listening to a book to go to sleep with is a great. My particular favourite is Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter series (Audible have a free trial).
Tip: Although you can use all these services abroad you may find that a film or series is available at home to download but not when you get overseas. If there is something in particular series you want to watch which is available in your home country download it before you leave home. Then if you get an error message saying you can’t watch the film/series in your location turn on airplane mode & it will work 😉.
Bus travel can be long & boring but it is absolutely the way to go as a budget backpacker. If you are on a shoestring you can scrimp & save on your seat but I would try to avoid it for the beasty 20+ hour journeys down in Patagonia (check out our Patagonia travel blog for inspiration) your bum will thank you.
If nothing else do it for the planet! Unfortunately travelling isn't great for carbon emissions, but you can do you bit for the planet by at least taking the greenest choice of transport! Travelling on a domestic flight emits 2.5 times more greenhouse gases per kilometre compared to the bus.
Source: BEIS/ Defra Greenhouse Gas Convention Factors 2019