How to Travel on an Overnight Bus

I’m just back from a visit to The Hague in Holland, to visit daughter Caiti. It was a four-day visit with a night’s travelling on Flixbus at either end between her city and Paris. There was also an hour in the car to get to Chateauroux, a two-and-a-bit-hours on the train to the capital, and a half hour walk across Paris from Gare Austerlitz to the Bercy bus station with case and rucksack. Plus waiting around time, making a journey of about fifteen hours in total. About the same time it took when I went to visit her in Canada! But significantly less than the great Australia journey.

It’s a long time since I last did an overnighter on a bus. That was when I was a postgrad student at Stirling Uni travelling home for holidays, so we’re talking a third of a century. Things have changed a little bit since then. There are toilets on the buses now, so few if any stops at services where you had to be sure to get back to the bus on time, and practically everyone is attached to an electronic device of some sort during their waking hours on the journey. And there’s a lot more sprawling. I hate to say it, but it’s the youngsters who are the worst. They grab a double seat and take it all up, never mind that there are plenty of other passengers who need somewhere to sit. They’ll plop themselves in the aisle seat and shove their stuff on the inner seat, defy anyone to ask them to shove over, and once the bus is underway they drape themselves sleepily over both seats. Of course, everyone hopes they’ll end up with a double seat to themselves for the journey. It means you can shift position during the night and stretch your legs out. But bus companies obviously want to fill their buses, so even on quiet journeys it’s unlikely everyone can have two seats to themselves.

Caiti had advised me to cough or generally look diseased as a means of repelling prospective neighbours when passengers got on at the half dozen or so stops during the journey. Good advice, but since these poor folk needed somewhere to sit and my younger co-voyagers were obviously not going to co-operate without a massive sulk and/or hissy fit, I couldn’t bring myself to do it! So I ended up with people next to me most of the way. The soft touch of the coach. I guess that being small, female and middle-aged I look like a safe bet to sit next to! If you’re large, male and sullen you’re made.

I see now where I went wrong. Instead of a polite ‘bonjour’ when someone sat next to me, I should have grinned manically and started chatting jovially. “Hi, I’m Stephanie. I was born in Ipswich in 1962. I was three and a half weeks early. My mum’s name was Eileen…” and so on, and proceeded to give a full, day-by-day life history. Given the modern-day terror of human interaction it would have worked a treat, I’m sure! I’d soon have been left alone. I shall bear it in mind for next time, because yes, I’d do it again. It’s tiring and uncomfortable, but a good night’s sleep the next night and you’re caught up. And it’s so much cheaper than the train, around a hundred euros or so for my journey – and that’s for each direction.

It’s interesting too. With trains you generally just get to skirt around the seedier part of town before arriving at a station. In the bus you go straight through the middle and see the historic buildings and opulent modern business buildings. Admittedly the bus stations themselves aren’t in the best parts of town as a rule. At the Brussels Nord stop, I was shocked to see about a dozen homeless people – young men - sleeping on cardboard and under coats under a walkway. They were still there on the way back. Could the city really not provide somewhere safe and hygienic for these people to sleep? Even if they’re in the country illegally, they’re fellow human beings. On the brighter side, there were some early Christmas lights to admire and the simple foreignness of both Belgium and Holland with different shop and factory names and road signs was fascinating to see.

The bus drivers were jolly. One warned people to be sure to remember all their luggage or the next place they’d see it would be on Ebay! Another was being harangued by a French lady at a bus stop. When she finally managed to get out in English an accusatory “Do you not speak French?”, the patient reply was “We’re bus drivers!” As it is, all the Dutch drivers had perfect English. I think we can forgive them for not being fluent in three languages.

So, my few tips to finish with. In summer the buses are cold (Caiti speaks from experience) and in winter they’re boiling, so dress appropriately. Be like the youngsters and be mercilessly selfish when it comes to bagging a double seat: either drape selfishly, or look fierce or crazily friendly. Remember that manic grin. Take nibbles, water and hand wipes (the tap in the toilets never seems to work properly). Finally, simply enjoy seeing the world go by.