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Traveling India by Bus : Is it safe for solo travelers?

A Guide to Taking a Bus in India, travel guide india, india travel, india tourism, buses in india, riding in indian buses

A Guide to Traveling India by Bus: Is it safe for a solo traveler?

 

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of public transportation, when I travel. Buses in particular.

Until now, the notion of getting around India by public bus intimidated me.  Every time I’d see a bus parked at a stop, it looked like a rudimentary tin cans on wheels, packed tight and spilling over with people.  Being India, the ‘majority of people’ were men. So I used to wonder if the public bus was safe for a solo female and if so, how in the world could travelers get around on them with their backpacks?

I needed to demystify my fears of the Indian bus if I was to navigate freely and cheaply. So I decided to make it my goal to use the public bus to get around .

As a foreign female, aside from being stared at, it wasn’t bad. It turned out to be an enjoyable way to get around and it’s surprisingly simple, once you get the hang of it. Or let me rephrase… it’s really not too hard.

 

 

A Guide to Traveling India by Bus

From the tourist VIP bus to the local clunker, the sleek, modern styles to ones that looked like old school buses (but fly with speed), here is what I’ve learned so far…

The Indian government bus

Most of India gets around via bus. Each region or state, has their own bus system, which runs intercity and long-distance. Buses can get very crowded, but the advantage to using them is that they run more often than trains and can sometimes, be quicker. There’s a fare collector on the bus and he’ll make his way through the bus to collect fare or you can buy a ticket at the bus station.

When it gets crowded, 70-80% of the folk are male and don’t expect incoming passengers to be discouraged by the sight of an over-crowded bus. Lack of wiggle room isn’t a deterrent for Indians.  They’re used to waiting in long lines for hours and standing in packed quarters. So they’ll just push on in…

Seating tip: They say it’s common for Indians to “lose their chapatis” on these buses (read here). I’d avoid the back of the bus, where it’s the bumpiest and most nauseating. I’ve only experienced this type of situation once and the stomach-sick man was in the very back of the bus, while I was  in the middle. I’d keep my bags off the floor!

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The four types of government buses in India:

• Ordinary (aka the slow bus)  Bus

The regular bus is best for short distances. It makes all local stops and is the absolutely cheapest way to go.
Cost: As little as 3 rupees (rickshaws start at 20 rupees).
Cons:
It’s a very basic bus. The seats are a metal bench, so it’s a hard sit.

Advice: Avoid this bus for long distances. When I was in Kerala, I made the big mistake of jumping on this bus to get from Alleypey to Trivandrum . It took 8 hours for what was only a 3 hour ride by luxury bus or train. This bus made every local stop along the highway… and probably more!

 • Fast / Superfast Bus

The signs on them don’t say  Fast or Superfast buses for nothing.  These buses are so speedy, that when the driver hits the brakes, the standing passengers can go flying. So if you’re standing, make sure you have a firm grip! But the buses are great for traveling long distances. They stop mostly at main hubs and they’re cheaper than the VIP government or VIP tourist bus.  
Cons: 
Again, it’s a very basic bus ; they’re the same as the ordinary/regular bus.

Advice: If you’re sitting, there’s no problem but if you’re standing, hold on tight and get your stance ready. The fast/superfast is very jerky so I’d definitely avoid the back of the bus, which is the bumpiest.

Deluxe (VIP or luxury) Bus

I took a curtained VIP AC bus direct from Kochi to Trivandrum. It took 5 (?) hours and made one rest stop/lunch stop at a roadside restaurant. The seats were padded, separate and reclining. There was a television monitor but nothing played on my ride.  It was not crowded.
Cost
:  It’s a bit more pricey than the previous three buses. I paid around 200 rupees, but the cost is based on distance.

How can you tell which bus is which?

Each state or region has their own type of bus style and regional government buses. All look similar (see some photos here and here). The fast and superfast, usually have signs painted on them near their front bumper, on the window sign or on side of bus.

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 Is traveling India by bus safe for female solo travelers?


 India has had a long-standing problem with ‘Eve teasing’ or sexual harassment. This crime is directed at the female sex, in general. It entails anything from catcalls, obscene gestures, slyly brushing up against a woman, showing her porn, groping or pushing up against her when there is clearly much space, molestation, etc… These are actually considered “crimes”, punishable anywhere from 3 months to 5 years in prison (read here) ! However, it’s a law that isn’t always enforced or easy to prove. If confronted in public, onlookers might or might not help you. Normally, it’s an issue of power ; moreso, than sexual thrill.  It’s an attempt to humiliate or insult a women and the perpetrator doesn’t expect there to be any recourse.  This is why you won’t find many Indian women dressed provocatively or out on the streets late at night. As a result of this problem, in metros, buses and train waiting rooms there’s “Ladies Only” sections, which are occasionally patrolled by officers.

I’ve seen an older Indian woman fire off on her perpetrator at the Delhi metro station. Her scolding shouts attracted a large crowd around them and eventually the police came to carry the man away.

Tip on handling sexual harassment on the bus:

Yes and no. Personally, in comparison to a Rome bus, where I was vulgarly groped and rubbed up against by a sweaty 50-year-old unshaven Italian or a Bangkok bus, where I had a penis poking out of its pants at me, I’d say India felt tame so far. I haven’t experienced the worst yet, but having Indian men lightly brush up against me, with their elbows (not even grazing my breast but merely my arm)…  This is sometimes their way of “copping a field” on me. It’s a form of power play and my alpha space doesn’t like being challenged.

Usually calling attention to their act is good thing. Indian women scream and give them a fresh slap. Don’t hold back if you feel the urge. It calls public attention and humiliates them. In the other  cases, I’ve either, whipped around aggressively to stare them directly in the eye, with a hot-tempered look and balled fist … or I’ve elbowed them back real hard.

Advice: Know it’s a cultural taboo and crime. Dress conservatively and just be smart. The offenses can vary and the transgressions can feel questionable or slight to a foreigner as the advances aren’t always overtly sexual. For a conservative place like India however, the transgression is large. If this happens to you, know you’re not the only target and women in India have to deal with this on an ongoing basis. If there’s police nearby you can attempt to get their help or bring public attention to the situation. You may or may not get help, but taking a proactive stance may feel better in the end than feeling a victim.

 

‘Ladies Only’ Sections in buses

India buses and metros usually have a ‘Ladies Only’ section. The metros usually have a separate car for women (and it’s optional if you want to ride in them). It’s occasionally policed. I’ve seen men sneaking in to escape peak-time traffic and crowded cars, but I’ve also seen them booted out by cops on patrol. In the bus, these sections are located at the front section of the bus. Unlike the metro, which is occasionally patrolled,  if the bus gets crowded and it’s the only space left, men will try to nab them.

Do Indian buses make bathroom stops?

Bus drivers may make rest stops at a main hub station. He’ll usually make an announcement. If he or anyone gets off the bus or you see snack vendors enter the bus, you’ll know you’ve probably got around 5-8 minutes to hit the john. I wouldn’t stray far from your bus.

Advice: Always take your valuables with you. I’m paranoid about being left behind, so I keep an eye on the bus driver. If I see him walking back, I take it as a sign it’s time to get back quickly. I’ve been on buses which left passengers behind only for the passengers to chase after the bus, screaming and banging on it to get attention. This is an option too. If your belongings are in this bus and find yourself in this situation, hope you have on your running shoes!

indian bus, bus in india sign, bus sign in india

 

Where do you put your luggage on an Indian bus?

Some buses allow you to store you extra parcels underneath or behind the bus. Of course, this is not the most convenient option for a traveler.

Advice: There’s usually a storage spot is up front next to the driver. Despite where you sit, if you kindly ask the driver if you can put it next to him, he’ll let you.  Depending if the bus is fairly empty, you might be able to plop your pack next to you. But fair warning, buses can get crowded quickly. If this happens, you’ll have to hold your backpack on your lap. Your leg will fall asleep but it’s doable!

indian bus, where to store luggage on an indian bus, traveling by bus in india

Bus Stations in India

All stations have a bathroom, snack shops and a ticket/information booth (or at the least, a desk) with attendants, who can help you. But bus stations in India can feel a little tricky.

•  A large terminal station (a big transfer hub) has many platforms and parking spaces for incoming and outgoing buses. It’ll be busy and hectic, with lots of activity going on at once.
   Tip: At first glance, it appears overwhelming.Take a deep breath- there’s a method to the madness. Look for a station master or a help desk to find your next connection.
•  A medium-sized terminal station has a row of stalls in front of its building. Bus drivers have a tendency to occasionally make rest stops at these.
•  The small town stations are the most tricky. Buses don’t always park in a designated stall nor do they always park.
•  The occasional odd configuration of a bus station: these don’t have a visible “station” per se, but passengers wait on a sidewalk and buses drive up to it. Or say it’s a dirt lot or terminal tucked in a garage.  One has to be open to the way India presents itself.  Tip: If it’s a “station” vs a “bus stop”, then there should be a help desk.

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Travel Tips to Finding a Bus in India

•  Names of destinations are indicated on a sign on the window of the bus. However, bus names are often written in Hindi or the region language.
•  Often you’ll need the help of a local or a station master to translate the bus names and point you in the right direction. There’s usually a posted timetable, a help desk and station masters to assist you should you need.
•  Most local people are helpful also, even if they don’t speak English well. They can point you in a direction or wave you down if the bus arrives.
•  Indian folk never waste their time boarding a bus. In small towns, the buses don’t always come to a full stop and promptness also ensures getting a seat.
• Bus stops can be challenging to find if you’re in a small village or town, they seldom have “bus stops” or signs, but locals know where they are and generally stand on the side of the road.
 Tip: Generally, it’s best to ask your hotel or a local person.

bus stations in india

Small Indian bus station: Passengers outside waiting for the bus to roll through. There were no designated stalls and the buses didn’t stop very long.  

 

Caution about taking overnight buses in India

Overnight VIP/tourist sleeper buses are good to take. They save on a hotel and they travel direct, generally with one meal or bathroom stop. They’re also a way to meet other travelers. They’re run by private companies (i.e. Volvo or Redbus) so you won’t board them at state bus stations.  Boarding locations can be near their offices or at an area you’ll be given instructions for.

There are two cautionary notes about the buses:

Don’t book the sleeper compartment.

I booked one from Mumbai to Goa, expecting to get my own bunk. I antied up 600 rupees for a sleeper compartment (vs. 500 rupees for the seater). When I stepped on board, I found the sleeper was for two people, but didn’t fit it. Fortunately, my other bunk companion, a travel buddy, decided to try one of the available seats below. Will they book a stranger with you in your bunk if you’re traveling solo? This is India… anything is possible.

Don’t get an A.C. bus

A.C. means freezing in most languages and I felt like I was going to die from hypothermia. The nights can get cool in India, so being next an open window in a regular non-A.C. bus was still actually chilly.

 Advice: Book a “seater” class and non-A.C. bus instead. It’s only a fraction cheaper, but spells a world of difference. You get your “own” seat and it reclines to a decently relaxed and comfortable position. Also, if you book yourself near the window, you can control the level of breeze. The nights can get cold and can be equal to A.C.

How to book tickets: Seats on these buses need to be reserved in advance. You have two choices: 1) book them with a travel agency in India or 2)  book them at Make My Trip.

overnight buses in india, sleeper bus in india

 

Interesting reading:

Indian Bus Survival Guide

 

Any tips you have about traveling India as a solo woman or by bus?

34 Comments

  1. victofazil says:

    Traveling in India by Bus is of course safe. Because, There are many buses which runs on the same route. There are bus to every location in every 5 minutes. So I am sure that you could feel Good traveling bus along with different kind of people.

  2. Please do visit Bangalore.

  3. Ken Norris says:

    done and done…..shared to my page and hopefully my female friends have read it before travelling alone!

  4. Amogh Sahasrabhojanee says:

    Nice article! Having travelled frequently on Indian buses, I would like to mention a few things.
    Unless you’re in an adventurous mood, avoid taking the slow buses for a long journey. They are quite slow, have really bad suspension, are dirty and are mostly overcrowded.
    I suggest booking a ‘Volvo’ bus for long journeys. These are air-conditioned buses and are either semi – sleeper or sleeper. A sleeper coach is of two types: a 2×2 sleeper or a 2×1 sleeper (my favorite). In a 2×1 sleeper coach, you can opt for a single berth with nobody sleeping next to you. There’s an app called Redbus, it’s pretty neat. You can book bus tickets and select which seat / berth you want. A semi-sleeper coach is your next best bet. But there’s hardly any legroom and people taller than 6 feet, like myself, experience discomfort. Also on these buses, the bus company allots seats such that a female passenger is given a seat/berth next to another female passenger only. So female travelers need not worry much 🙂
    I travel by train whenever possible, but getting train tickets can be quite a daunting task for foreigners.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      Thanks for your recommendations @Amogh! I have no doubt it will be helpful for those who are interested in traveling India. =) I have not used the Redbus app. Will need to look into it.

  5. Mr.B says:

    haha, I have good memories of sitting in the back of the bus. The only reason I chose it was because of my backpack which I worried be stolen.

    In my opinion taking a bus is a great way to explore India differently.

    Thanks for bringing back the memories 😉

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @MrB: Thanks for sharing your experienced insight. It’s differently a different way to see and “get close to” India. 😉

  6. jomcarroll says:

    Such useful advice – I’ve travelled round India on buses, and had less problem as far as sexual irritations go, but then I’m older. I think you’ve covered everything – no excuse for anyone not giving it a go, now!!

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Jom: Good for you. I never see too many travelers going by way of bus, you rock for trying it. You get double courage points for being older and still using it! 😉

  7. Chris says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve been thinking about India for a while now and I’ll recap with this before planning any trip.

  8. I really like your blog entry! I think your point about foreign women in India is important, though most women do travel through India safely, they do attract a lot of unwanted attention. There have been reports recently, discussing the issue and highlighting specific (and worrying) cases of rape and sexual harassment. I would advise travelling to India with as much knowledge of the culture as possible, it’s really not somewhere a woman should travel alone and uninformed. We provide advice and a tracker service to any solo travelling women concerned about their safety in India.

  9. Very helpful indeed! Am taking notes for my trip next month to India 🙂

  10. Shalu Sharma says:

    Very nicely explained. Its not easy on the Indian buses and I have stopped using them.

  11. Kelly Lewis says:

    Great post! There’s so much info here, really well done. How the heck do they fit two or three people on those small little beds? Madness. Are there no female-only sleeping compartments?

    • @Kelly: Ha ha thanks. (whispers) Indian men are small-boned and wiry. Two or three of them together probably make up one American body and they’re used to overcrowding. As for women, you’d think they’d have a “Females Only” Section, but come to think of it, because there is segregation of sexes and an overall conservatism, I doubt they’d book male/female strangers together.

  12. Natalie says:

    Hey, great advice! Your sleeper bus looked totally different to the ones I’ve been on though. I got a kind of actual enclosed compartment and it was just for one person. Occasionally some small children would try and climb in and sit on my chest (there was literally no room anywhere else as the whole compartment was coffin-sized), but there was this snazzy little door type thing that I could slide shut any time anyone tried to get in! I DID get the non-AC one though and let me tell you, I would have preferred to be freezing on the AC one. It got SO hot because there was no windows in my little compartment! I really don’t know which is worse – why does everyone always have to brave extremes of temperature on Asian buses?!

    • @Natalie: ha.. you’re right, I guess in Asia it can feel like an either or situation & they’re almost always extreme. …Either that or we’re unlucky. Sounds like you got a decent deal, minus the warm enclosure! Are you sure it was only for one person though? Those compartments *look* like they’re for one person by Am/Ca standard, but they’re not that way for Indians. 😉

      Another sleeper bus (Delhi to Dharamsala) I was on was a *nightmare*- it was kinda hot cause I was far from a window and the one nearest me only opened partial way (so I should tweak the info on my post some) but the compartments were the same coffin-size. They were overbooked, so the driver shoved 3 men young Indian men into one compartment. Poor guys would vascillate between lying on each other & then sitting up. All I could see were their feet dangling out.

      I think the rule in India is that you just have to be flexible if & when things take an unexpected turn. Which they do and will. There’s always exceptions to the norm and in India, there’s occasionally a blurred line to what the norm is, despite how many times you experience something.

      Eventually, I found the gov bus worked fine for me on overnight trips. You should try them– if you’re trying to save money, you might find they work well enough for your needs. Enjoy Agra! Looking forward to reading what you thought of it.

  13. This is very interesting! Obviously the parts about travelling as a female don’t really apply to me (unless my parents didn’t tell me something), but the parts about general travel and the classes of buses are super helpful, especially considering I’ll be in India next year. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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