A source of adventure for some and source of dread for others, long-distance bus rides are a necessary rite of passage for any budget traveller to East Africa. It’s not everyone that can afford to hop from place to place on a plane around the massive area that is the East African community, and honestly, you’d miss half of the fun and culture.
Luckily, in East Africa, when there’s a will there’s a bus and you can get anywhere if you have the patience and flexibility to do so. Bus rides around these parts, especially in Tanzania and Kenya, can involve 10 hours or more on very bumpy roads, so being prepared is a matter of survival. You might find these tips valuable for any long distance bus ride, not necessarily in East Africa.
When it comes to East African buses, the internet is a very bad source of information. Most companies don’t have a website or, at best, you’ll find very outdated schedules. The best way to get information is on the ground. Ask people who don’t have an interest (read: people who can’t get a cut from referring you) about the different buses available, the reputation of each company, their price and schedule before heading out to the “stage” (this is how bus terminals are called around these parts) to buy a ticket.
In each and every country of East Africa, different companies offer different level of comfort. From shared taxis where 7 people or more are crammed in a five-seater to luxury buses with AC, WiFi and a toilet such as those offered by Scandinavia Bus, Modern Coast and Mash, there is something for any budget.
Usually, hostel owners, fellow travellers and couchsurfing hosts can be great sources of information. Try to get the cost of a bus ride from a local before heading out to purchase it.
It is not rare for ticket sellers to give you the Muzungu price first. Usually, just saying to the ticket seller “sorry, but the price of this ticket should be… “bis enough to get an instant price correction of sometimes 40 to 60%. This is especially true when it comes to Kenyan and Tanzanian matatus or seven-seaters. Same goes for local buses in Kenyan cities where conductors might be tempted to keep the change if you don’t know the fare. In Tanzania, fares for local buses are written on their door.
Once you’ve got all the local information…
Book the night before
This is especially true when it comes to big long-distance coaches. Long-distance coaches often fill up quickly and often leave very early in the morning. It would be a pity for you to wake up at 4:00 am and find out that there are no seats left in the bus you wanted to take. Also, by heading to the ticket office the night before, you get to know the exact time you need to be there. Bus schedules here are prompt to sudden changes, and what was true last week might not be true this week. Try to get your driver’s phone number so you can call him in case of a problem.
When it comes to matatus, it is less necessary to book in advance as these vehicles leave once they are full. Usually matatus are used by people with smaller budgets or to travel from one city to another neighbouring one. Buying a ticket in advance might result in you getting to the stage and finding out the car you paid for has already left. However, you can still head to the stage the night before to get up-to-date information.
When you get to the stage, beware of helpers who offer you to show you the way to the ticket office you need. They’ll often ask a tip after doing so. Staying polite and friendly but clearly stating that you don’t need their help with often be enough.
Now you’ve got your ticket and are ready to board, or almost.
When we’re talking about bus rides in Tanzania or international bus rides, we’re often talking about very long rides. Often, if you’re not in one of the most luxurious coaches, these buses won’t stop or will only stop to allow you to get out once for 10 minutes in all of their itinerary. Companies like Kilimanjaro Express will give you a water bottle, a Coca Cola and a muffin during your ride, but those companies are the exception, not the rule.
This means you should buy things to be self-sufficient throughout your bus ride. Bring enough snacks, fruits and drinks to feel comfortable without being cramped. Make sure you bring things that you could eat easily on a roller-coaster without making too much of a mess, since some of the roads around here are just like that. Bringing snacks that you can share is a great way to make friends and we’ll talk more about that shortly.
You don’t need to buy too much. While you won’t be allowed to leave the bus often, at every stop, sellers will rush to your window to sell you anything from sodas to machettes going by meat skewers.
Go easy on the water by the way; the next toilet stop might be in hours.
Stock up, digitally
You’ll be on this bus for hours; looking at the scenery, sleeping and talking will only keep you busy for a certain amount of time. Whenever you have WiFi, make sure you stock up on movies, TV shows, ebooks and podcasts on your phone, readers and tablets to keep you entertained during your ride. Now’s the best time to catch up on this backlog of things you’ve always wanted to watch, listen or read. We’re in the digital age: embrace it. Binging a TV series can keep you busy for hours. Don’t forget to bring good noise-cancelling earphones, to fully charge everything the night before and keep your electronics in a small bag that is easy to keep close to you during the ride.
We’ve just mentioned electronics, but there are other things that might be lifesavers on a long bus ride.
Try to bring an inflatable neck pillow (via Amazon). They really work. A neck pillow will allow you to avoid having your neck resting in an awkward angle
Bring an eye mask. You’ll look stupid but won’t mind it once you’re asleep. An eye mask will block the lights from the passing cars and save you from waking up every time the lights come on.
Bring a fleece or a blanket – buses can get really cold at night or when the driver is an AC psychopath.
SIM cards with data are easy to come by and are really cheap in East Africa. I buy one in every country I visit. Having network and data can be a lifesaver, as it allows you to find information, call your host and make itineraries on google maps. Most East African countries require you to register your SIM card, so visit a service centre with you passport on your arrival in any new country.
Last but not least, bring a portable charger. Chances are the battery on your electronics will run out; a portable charger allows you to last longer
Keep your belongings safe
Sadly, buses are a place where you are at risk of theft. You shouldn’t be afraid of mugging – East Africa isn’t violent – but pickpocketing does happen frequently. However, there are a few things to can do to reduce these risks.
Choose bags that are slash-proof and can support padlocks. Get TSA-approved padlocks so that they are not an issue in airports and avoid key locks since keys are easy to lose (Amazon). Locking your bags is often enough to discourage potential thieves from opening them.
Keep things valuables things close to yourself. Passport, money and cards should be on your person where you can easily feel it if an adventurous hand makes its way there.
Less is safer. I am a big adept of light packing – having less luggage means fewer bags to forget or fewer bags to mind. The ideal bag fits right under your seat, where it is out of reach of thieves and very close to you. I personally travel with a sling pouch and a Pacsafe Vibe 40L (Amazon). Unless you’re going camping, you won’t need more than that.
We can finally sit and enjoy the ride, but once the bus leaves, there are still a few things to do.
This is probably the most important tip of this article. Once you’re on the bus, make sure you say hello to the people around you. On all East African buses, you’ll find at least a few people who speak great English. They’ll be overjoyed to get to meet you and learn a bit more about you. A bit of small talk might often open up to great opportunities to learn about the everyday life of the people around these parts. It is the most enjoyable part of bus rides. East African hospitality is legendary and by greeting a few people, you’ll quickly find yourself invited for dinners and fill up your WhatsApp contact list in no time with useful contacts.
Not only will you meet great people, but these people will often become guardian angels. Locals are often used to taking these buses, and they will translate whatever the conductor is saying to you, help you go through immigration and point out many useful things. Don’t be shy! Of course, always be careful with strangers and follow your feelings. Your mum probably told you that before
Do it while you can
As I mentioned before, buses sometimes will only allow you to get out of the bus once. Don’t miss that opportunity. Sometimes buses only stop 10 minutes – make sure you use that time to go to the washroom, stretch your legs and buy some food even if you don’t really feel like it right now. You might not get another opportunity. If you’re travelling with friends, try to split the tasks between yourselves to save time. One buys food while the other is going to the washroom, etc.
The previous tip becomes important here. Your guardian angel will be able to inform you about how long the stop is and shout at the driver in the eventuality that he wants to leave without you.
I said before that while you won’t be allowed out often, there are many opportunities to buy stuff. All around East Africa, at every stop or red light, you’ll find vendors rushing to your window to sell snacks and drinks. You should have small bills of the local currency to buy what you want. It is important to have small denominations as the transaction will often have to happen at lightning speed. You wouldn’t want the bus to leave before you get your change, which happens more often than not.
If you’re on an international bus, you might want to change some money into the currency of the countries you’re crossing before boarding the bus. Buses won’t necessarily stop by an ATM. It would be stupid for you to have money but not be able to use it just because you crossed the border.
Organise your arrival in advance
Once you get to your destination, two likely scenario might happen. Either you’ll get to a deserted stage in the middle of the night or you’ll be swarmed with touts and taxi drivers. Having a clear game plan will allow you to avoid getting scammed or lost. Before leaving, try to note down the address of the hotel, hostel or friend you are stopping at. Pin it on Google Maps so you can figure out where the bus leaves you and how far it is. Taxi drivers will often pretend the place you want to go is “oh so far” and overcharge you. Sometimes you might even find out that the bus passes right by your accommodation and that you don’t need to go all the way to the stage. Drivers will often allow you to drop off before the actual stop.
Even better, get a phone number so you can get your host to either negotiate a taxi fare, inform you about public transportation or organise a pick up. It is wise to also inform your accommodation of your arrival time so that someone will be at the gate to welcome you. You’ll be glad to know where you are going and how you are getting there at 4 am after a 14-hour ride.
All in all, I find buses to be quite the adventure and allow you to save a lot of money while seeing more of the scenery. By following these few tips, what can be a nightmare for some will surely turn into a walk in the park.