Travel Hacks for Cheap European Bus Travel

by  Mose Hayward
LAST UPDATED ON  2023-06-19
PUBLISHED ON  2022-08-18
A FlixBus stopped in Barcelona

Your Bus Guide

Mose Hayward

Euro Vagabond

I’ve long used buses as a cheap way to get to interesting corners of the European continent.

I’ve taken buses to travel more cheaply at the last minute when my favorite train booking platform was no longer able to find a good fare, such as from Barcelona to Paris.

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.

Booking the Cheapest, Fastest European Bus Travel

There are hundreds of European bus companies. But fortunately we can find the best fares across a vast range of them.

  • 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.

What to Expect from European Buses

An Avanza bus in Barcelona

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.

Epicka Plug Adapter
Transform those two round European plugs on buses into standard plugs for pretty much any device. There are multiple USB and USB-C sockets with fast charging for laptops and phones; the Epicka is great for sharing with a travel partner or seat buddy as well as for adapting to plugs found anywhere in the UK or mainland Europe. I carry it always.
Anker 45W Wall Charger/Battery
This is a great Anker device available in the USA that combines both a charger and a battery. However, you will also still need an adapter for European plugs like the one above.
Anker PowerCore 10000 Ultra-Compact Battery Pack
Bus trips are long and you can’t count on the in-seat power working, even when explicitly offered. A battery pack like this one can completely recharge your phone several times over as well as headphones and other devices. Anker batteries are widely recommended by tech reviewers; I have had an Anker battery for a number of years and it still holds its charge. This one is what I’d most recommend for bus trips; it’s small, convenient, very cheap, and high capacity. But we’ve reviewed others as well….
Hooded Sweatshirt
Whatever the weather outside, be prepared for poor heating or overpowered air conditioning inside the bus with an item of clothing that you can remove and scrunch away in your carry-on if not needed.
Travel Shawl / Wrap
Women often recommend this option for keeping warm during bus travel.
Neck Gaiter / Buff
A lovely, multipurpose, all-genders bit of travel clothing for covering the head or neck that also works great as an eye mask. This is my absolute favorite recent discovery in travel gear.
A Kindle for Reading/Language Learning
The latest Kindles not only give you instant access to the world’s books during your trip, they allow you to quickly look up words and translate phrases if you’re attempting to read in the languages of the locales you are visiting.

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.

A Small Toiletry Bag with a Hook: The Osprey UltraLight Zip Organizer
Quick access to a small variety of items like a toothbrush that you’ll want to keep in your carry-on; most essentially, this toiletry bag has a hook. You don’t want to set your bag down on counters in bus stop restrooms.

I have written more about both large and small toiletry bags that we have tested and recommend.

Noise-Cancelling Ear Buds from JBL
Truly wireless ear buds keep you from getting tangled in cables on your long bus ride and the noise cancellation can be useful whether or not you’re actually listening to podcasts or music.

Tips for Riding European Buses

The Barcelona Nord Bus Station’s street entrance

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.

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