Traveling India by Bus : Is it safe for solo travelers? (and why to AVOID VIP buses!)

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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. Buses in particular.  So traveling India by bus was a must for me! But is traveling by bus in India safe for female solo travelers?

Until now, the notion of getting around India by 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. It’s much easier and more comfortable planning your India trip around train travel.

Read how to plan your first India trip (with costs)

Also traveling India, I found there’s a high population of males. It can feel intimidating to be female solo traveler in India much less alone in a sea of Indian men. 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.

Read: The ultimate guide to getting around India’s transportation

A Guide to Traveling India by Bus

I decided to make it my goal to use the public bus to get around down the southwestern coast of India. From the tourist VIP bus to the local government bus system, I traveled by various buses from Mumbai down to the southern coast (Goa, Hampi, Gokarna, Kerala and my yoga ashram) to southern tip of India and then all the way up to Madurai. Here is what I’ve learned so far…

Indian government buses

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!.

Four types of government buses in India:

Local Bus (aka the slow bus which makes all the stops)

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 to 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 to find your bus?

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.  Read more on Indian Bus Survival Guide

Read : Solo Travel Tips for catching buses in a foreign country (with language barriers)

Overnight VIP buses in India

Overnight VIP buses or 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 are 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.

Book your VIP bus tickets in advance from abroad

Okay, you don’t want to deal with the mess of Cleartrip? I get it. You can book your bus tickets from the bus company/station, an Indian travel agent or to book long distance bus tickets in advance from abroad, you can use 12Go Asia. I used to use them to book buses and trains in Thailand ! It was easy peasy.  I have not tested booking train travel in India so if you try it, let me know how it goes.

Powered by 12Go Asia system

But…

Read solo travel tips for traveling alone on overnight buses

Two things to avoid about overnight VIP buses

Do not 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

 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.

Read Safety Tips for Solo Female Travelers

Tips for handling sexual harassment on the bus

You might deal with sexual harassment on the bus. In most cases, it may be so subtle you won’t notice it. 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. 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.

Publicly call out the transgressor

Usually calling attention to their act is good thing. 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. Older Indian women might give a man 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.

Know sexual harassment in India is a cultural taboo and a crime.

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.

Read Tips for Indian Culture & Sexual Harassment

 

Dress modestly

With buses, crowds come and go. At one point your bus could be completely empty and then in five minutes you might find it packed full with folks standing like sardines. Be prepared for close physical contact. To avoid additional discomfort or accidentally stirring temptation, dress modestly. I’d say, dress to blend or be like wallpaper. If you’re blond, maybe wrap your sari over your hair to hide it a bit.

‘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: Traveling India by bus, 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 ?

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

Tips on 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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Tips on Finding your 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.  

 

 

Share your tips about traveling India by bus as female solo traveler?

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35 Comments. Leave new

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.

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

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[…] instance, in India and Japan, my initial expectations were too high, leading to either, culture shock or […]

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Avatar
Amogh Sahasrabhojanee
November 3, 2014 8:29 pm

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.

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    Avatar
    Christine Kaaloa
    November 17, 2014 1:17 pm

    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.

    Reply

[…] Adventures on an Indian bus: Is it safe being a solo female traveler in India? 7 Ways to Get Lost on a Bangkok bus How to Catch a Bus in Nepal A Guide to Transportation in Laos […]

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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 😉

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    Avatar
    Christine Kaaloa
    June 21, 2014 9:40 pm

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

    Reply

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!!

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    Avatar
    Christine Kaaloa
    June 21, 2014 9:33 pm

    @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! 😉

    Reply

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

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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.

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

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