When it comes to value for money, buses are one of the best ways to travel long distance. They’re cheap, not overly uncomfortable, and they go pretty much everywhere. Getting a good amount of sleep while riding one, however, is a completely different story.
In order to sleep well on a bus you need to come prepared. Neck pillows, ear plugs, eye masks, and blankets may seem over the top but they’re invaluable. Get a bus at an off-peak time so it’s quiet, and bring layers in-case it’s too hot/cold. If you’re a light sleeper, listen to an audiobook with a soothing narrator.
Have the right tools for the job
As I mentioned in the intro, the most important thing you can do for an overnight bus ride is prepare well. If you’re a light sleeper, unprepared, shivering due to lack of clothing, and are reading this on a crowded bus.. you’re in for a long night! I wish there was some magical advice to make you comfortable, but a lot of this comes down to being prepared.
So how best to prepare yourself? The first step to sleeping on a bus seat is packing correctly.
Ideally, you could bring:
- An eye mask – the bigger the better to block out the most light, and try to make sure it’s adjustable and comfortable too.
- Really good earplugs – to help block out engine noise (and anyone evil enough to be playing mobile games with volume). Check out my top recommendation on the ‘recommended gear’ page at the top.
- Or noise-blocking headphones. We’ll cover how much of a lifesaver these can be in the ‘technology’ section down below
- Lots of layers – layers are super important. You never know what the bus temperature will be like. Sure, it’s a hot country, but what’s to say that the AC isn’t turned up so high an arctic penguin would be complaining? The more layers you have, the more you can be comfortable in any temperature.
- A foldable blanket of some kind – thanks to all of those great layers of clothes you’ve got with you, the blanket isn’t necessary for heat. Instead, it’s more just to provide that mental feeling of laying in bed. I don’t know about you, but being wrapped in a blanket is one of the best ways to make me feel sleepy. Even on a bus seat!
- A neck pillow – I’ve never been a fan of these, but you can’t deny they’re effective. If you want to be a pro, try putting it around your neck back to front – so that the main part is in front of your neck. This will stop your head from lolling forward, or your mouth of gaping open in that super attractive ‘adult baby’ look that we all know and love.
- Food & Drink. I’m not talking a slap-up meal, but some calorie dense food like cereal bars and a bottle of water or two will help keep hunger away and keep you hydrated. Just don’t overdo it on the water – one trip to the bus bathroom is already more suffering than anyone deserves.
- A positive attitude! All of this won’t make a difference if you spend the whole ride thinking “oh my god I can’t believe how uncomfortable this bus is. I miss my bed. Is it really THAT long left until we arrive?!?! I wonder what’s on TV right now.
Making use of technology
If there’s one “hack” to sleeping upright on a bus seat, it’s this. Get some damn good headphones, and put on an audiobook. There’s a lot of fantastic ones out there, and some even better narrators.
Make sure it’s fiction. Nonfiction is fantastic for audiobooks and I can’t recommend them enough for walks/runs/household chores, but not so great for sleeping since they tend to make you think.
Instead, search for a good (but not too gripping) story read by someone who’s voice you find soothing. You can almost always get a sample of the narrator’s voice somewhere on the audiobook page, so that you know what you’re getting into.
Personally I highly recommend any work read by Stephen Fry or Colin Firth. They both have such eloquent and calming British accents, it would be enjoyable to listen to them reading the encyclopedia – let alone a good novel. To give you some suggestions, Stephen Fry has narrated the whole Harry Potter series, and Colin Firth has covered ‘The End of the Affair’ which won the audiobook of the year in 2013.
Adopt a comfortable position
You’ve eaten and drank to keep your body happy. You’re at a comfortable temperature thanks to a jumper. Your eye mask is on, neck pillow in place, blanket snugly wrapped around you, and your earplugs or headphones are in. What now?
When I started to think about writing this article, I thought this would be the point where I’d have a ton of positions to suggest. The Karma-Sutra of bus sleeping, I thought. Unfortunately (or fortunately), there aren’t many options. So don’t worry. Your seat-neighbour’s not going to be finding you upside down with your legs in the air doing your best bat impression.
Let’s start with the best option. The window seat. The fabled window seat. There’s not much to be said here, it’s just a case of revelling in the fact you have this option as you rest your head against the window and try to pretend you’re lying in a strangely angled bed.
One pro tip – use a spare jumper/layer to act as a makeshift pillow. Not only will this help to reduce the vibration from the bus window, it also provides a great amount of support in combination with the neck pillow. This is the ultimate for sleeping on a bus.
If you don’t have a window seat, then we need to talk about recline etiquette. Without the window, you need to recline to get any sort of comfort out of this. Now, a lot of people get anxiety here – they don’t want to be that asshole who shoves their chair back in someone’s face.
All I’ll say is this: don’t worry about it. The golden rule is not to recline in the first 20-30 minutes, or at least until the bus is on the motorway. Give your rear-seatted friend some time to settle in. After that, just go for it. Worrying about someones slight discomfort is not worth missing out on your own sleep. Chances are they’ve already nodded off anyway.
Once reclined, the best position is to just lay back and rest your hands in your lap. The key here is making sure that your muscles are able to relax fully, without you toppling over. (Otherwise you’ll never get into a deep REM sleep state).
If you’re small enough to bring your knees up, or have won the lottery and have two seats, curling up is an excellent option. Again, just try to make sure you don’t need to hold yourself up. Or else you might also let yourself slip once you drift off.
Get your timings right
Listen up, this is important. Especially if you’re a light sleeper. The timing of your bus matters. If you want to get a long sleep on a 10 hour bus ride, you best not be on the bus leaving at 10am. If you are, prepare to pile in with a packed bus full of noisy kids, teenagers on mobiles, and excited tourists.
Take the hit and ride at a weird off-peak time. Leaving super early or taking a late overnight trip sucks, but it’s worth it for the quiet ride. For me, if a bus is packed full of people then it doesn’t matter how silent it is – I just can’t sleep. Everyone moves around, someone is going to be snoring, and it’s probably going to be hot.
Save yourself the stress and avoid the crowds when you book.
Finally – I want to give you a note of caution:
An unfortunate side effect of being a cheap way to travel is that buses can sometimes attract pickpockets. This goes even more if you’re travelling, and especially for overnight buses. There is no easier target than a sleeping tourist with an eyemask on and can’t hear anything thanks to earplugs.
Here are a few tips to help avoid losing anything valuable:
- Never pack anything valuable at the top of your bag. Always have a layer of ‘junk’ (dirty clothes or spare layers) sitting at the top of the bag. If they open it up for a quick grab, they won’t find anything.
- Keep everything that’s super valuable on your person. Enter the great value of a moneybelt – those are really the best option here. Otherwise, front trouser pockets or pockets of a jumper which isn’t your outermost layer are great bets for storing your valuables. If you’re at a window, you can also tuck things into the side of the seat which isn’t viewable from the aisle.
- Try your best to clip or tie any luggage bags to the storage area. A small clip or even a tied piece of string is enough to deter someone trying to sneak off with your bag – they can’t be seen struggling with it.
- Finally, when sleeping, make sure to wrap your bags onto you. For example if you have a rucksack on the floor, place your leg through one of the bag straps. If anyone tries to grab it, your leg will go with the bag – which will (hopefully) wake you up! Same goes for smaller bags wrapped around your arms.
If anyone does try to rob you, make sure make a lot of noise and alert the rest of the bus. I would suggest something along the lines of:
“Hey, asshole! That’s my stuff! And I was SLEEPING! Do you know how hard it is to sleep on a bus?! Stephen Fry was narrating peacefully into my ears around which my eyemask was wrapped above my comfy neck pillow as my head rested on my spare jumper against the window while I wore the other 2 jumpers ontop of my moneypurse with the bag you just tried to steal wrapped around my leg!!”