But 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. 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 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!
There are four types of government buses:
• Ordinary (aka the slow 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
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)
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 distinguish between the ordinary, fast, superfast or luxury buses?
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.
Is the bus safe for foreign women?
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:
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
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 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!
Where can you store your luggage on a government 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!
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.
How to find your bus:
• 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.
Taking a VIP tourist overnight sleeper bus:
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.