I’ve long used buses as a cheap way to get to interesting corners of the European continent.
And I’ve used buses to get to and from places that are not as well connected by trains, such as between Lisbon and Seville.
European buses are quite safe, generally the most affordable option, have generous baggage allowances, and are lower carbon than flying. And in parts of Eastern Europe, buses can be more reliable and faster than some of the very dated train systems.
In this article we’ll give a full guide to how to search for the cheapest trips, what various European bus companies are like, what to expect from bus travel, and how to pack.
How to Book European Bus Trips
Booking the Cheapest, Fastest European Bus Travel
- The best way we’ve found for searching European bus fares is Trainline. It tends to come up with the smartest routes and directly compares trains, buses, and combo options of both.
- Also quite useful for comparing European bus routes in some areas is BusBud, a similarly easy-to-use search and booking engine. We sometimes find cheaper-if-less-convenient routes this way and recommend running a search both here and on Trainline.
- If you want to be even more thorough you can also check routes on Omio, which arguably has the nicest interface and compares many bus options.
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What to Expect from European Buses
Bus travel is not generally as comfortable as trains, where you have the freedom to walk around and often have better views. We prefer European train travel where possible, and it’s worth noting that there are sometimes ways to get discounts in France and other European countries, including in some cases for seniors and children. That said, in most cases buses do work out cheaper, and sometimes also cover areas of Europe that are not possible or convenient to get to by train.
When we do opt for buses, we need to keep the following in mind:
- Buses can be delayed by traffic and weather, so arrival times are not exact and may be off by minutes or hours.
- There are almost always in-bus toilets on long bus routes, though most of us would prefer to really only use them in emergencies. Buses stop every few hours for restroom breaks.
- European buses are quite safe; the driver ensures general well-being and fellow passengers are also extremely likely to have your back in the unlikely event that someone attempts to steal from you, harass you, or make you uncomfortable. This is in particular a query we get from women and so it’s a question I’ve often put to female solo travellers who are experienced with taking European buses. They tell me that they have felt quite safe; the only areas where they may sometimes feel unsafe are in the neighborhoods around some bus stations, but they feel fine while on the buses and in the stations themselves. All this said, it was wise for all of us to watch out for ourselves and fellow passengers, to always keep our hand bags with us or in sight while on the bus, and to speak up loudly and immediately if anything unusual is happening.
- Baggage rules usually allow us to carry one or two small bags on the bus and to check larger suitcases; specifics that we have compiled and translated from a number of bus companies are in our table below. But note that most rules are a bit lenient; drivers are often more interested in just checking our bags and getting us on the bus than they are in getting out a scale or a measuring tape. As long as we’re not trying to transport large amounts of merchandise we’re usually fine.
- Most European buses now offer WiFi, but don’t expect to be able to watch video over it. Bus WiFi is often slow and may have per-passenger data caps. It may also cut out completely one crossing from one country to another, wherein the bus company may not have service. Or the WiFi may just not work altogether.
- There are also usually USB or regular two-round-hole European electrical sockets for charging devices, though not on all buses.
To deal with those last two points, we highly recommend carrying an external battery, a plug adapter, and having pan-European phone internet access as part of the bus travel gear described further below.
The Top Bus Companies in Europe: A Side-by-Side Comparison
There are far too many bus companies to keep track of in Europe; we outline some of the key and most useful players below and what you need to know about them.
Essential Gear to Pack for European Buses
We’ve found over the years that planning for bus travel with a few small, key bits of gear can greatly improve the experience.
First of all, check with your phone operator that you have internet service in the countries you are travelling to and through. Ensure that this option is turned on if need be. This is about more than the convenience of amusing yourself with games or posting your adventures during your trip; internet service can be a lifesaver in helping you orient yourself when you descend in a bus station on the outskirts of a city or need to message a host that you will be delayed.
If you have a European carrier, check that your service will continue to function in the destination country. For Americans, Google Fi is by far my favorite option for arriving in any country and remaining connected for a reasonable price. If you stay for longer than a week in a particular country, purchase a cheap phone SIM card for local rates.
An excellent but slightly more expensive option that I am currently using in my European travel is the Unidapt 61W Travel Adapter; it has the same features but an extra USB-C out at a high enough power to quickly charge my USB-C laptop without the need for the laptop’s own power brick.
I have written a lot more on why and how to use Kindles for language learning, as well as suggestions for learning just enough quick phrases to properly party in a new country on arrival and for more complete, in-depth language learning.
Tips for Riding European Buses
A few key things to keep in mind when taking buses in Europe:
- In the UK and Ireland intercity buses are usually called “coaches“.
- Unlike train stations, which are usually in city centers, bus stations are often located on the outskirts of large city destinations. They are usually well-connected to the city’s public transport, but when comparing bus and train options take this extra travel time and expense into account.
- Prepare to know a few key words to navigate bus stations and get to your bus. Bus company and station employees tend to speak less English than those working in airports and train stations. It’s useful to know the words for example for your final destination and transfer options, platform and bus number, toilets, and tickets.
- No matter how sure you are that you are getting on the right bus, it doesn’t hurt to say the destination or transfer stop in a questioning tone to the driver to confirm that you truly are going where you think you’re going. It’s also wise to confirm whether and when and where you will be transferring buses, if that is the case.
- Also ask when the restroom breaks will be, and, when stopped, confirm exactly how long they will be stopped for and set an alarm on your phone.
- Pack healthy food to sustain you for the journey; bus station food options are either awful or nonexistent.
Our Takeaways from Scouring Travel Forum Stories on European Bus Travel
Search for any particular European bus company on Reddit, Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, other travel forums, and Trust Pilot, and you will find horror stories of buses that were canceled, broke down, or delayed. These are undoubtedly true.
There are two things to keep in mind:
- Selection bias is at work here. Travellers are unlikely to take the time to log into these forums to compliment bus companies on an uneventful, on-time arrival. So only the worst stories get uploaded to these sorts of forums as un understandable way to let off steam.
- Such problems exist with any other travel method too. Airlines cancel and delay flights daily and are infamously awful with their customers. European trains suffer delays, strikes, and cancellations too. Travel is inherently unreliable and as travellers we have to be ready to put up with a lot and to make the best of what comes our way.
None of this is to excuse European bus companies and their behaviors towards customers. I worry that recent consolidations could make these companies even more immune to customer complaints as options are reduced.
But overall, European buses do tend to stay more or less on schedule and get to where they’re going. And travel brings us so much that the inevitable trials and risks are worth it.
European Bus Travel in a Nutshell
If I had to boil it down to three key takeaways that I wish everyone knew about taking buses…
- For most European countries, it’s worth checking both Trainline and BusBud for the cheapest tickets and best routes. In countries not covered well by those sites you may need to google, call, or physically visit the bus terminal or ticket sellers.
- Carry a spare external battery to recharge your devices. Don’t count on in-bus WiFi and seat outlets necessarily working.
- Know how to say the word “toilet” and the name of your destination in the local language. Bonus points if you can say the time and platform numbers.