What Is Worse Than Long Haul Economy Flights? Long Haul Bus Journeys!

Hello from Dahab, Egypt. It sure is beautiful here.

I’ve spent the last week exploring Egypt, again as part of a group tour (I booked this tour well before my Morocco tour commenced). I knew that Egypt was a big country, and that we would be covering fairly long distances by bus.

I’ll use the term ‘bus’ in this article rather than ‘coach,’ because I’ll be comparing it to economy/coach flights and comparing ‘coach with coach’ will be confusing. The ‘bus’ was advertised as a luxury coach and in many regards it was — it had air conditioning, movies, and a bathroom on board.

I usually fly when travelling as much as I can both because I enjoy the miracle of flight and it’s usually a pretty efficient way to get from A to B. So this was the first time I would be travelling by bus for similar distance journeys.

What I had not appreciated was just how uncomfortable those long bus journeys would be. Where the journey was just a few hours, much like a low cost flight, they were fine. I’d either look out the window, have a nap, watch some Netflix, or even attempt to write an article, which wasn’t easy given how bumpy the roads were.

But we had some really long drives.

The longest bus ride in Morocco was from the Sahara Desert to Marrakech and with short stops every few hours, took 13 hours. That is about the same time as a flight from Western Europe to Asia. Also, the past week in Egypt there have been two nine hour bus journeys within a few days of each other.

And I felt like death after all three.

I can nap anywhere at anytime, even on a 45 minute flight, but can’t sleep sitting up for more than about 30 minutes at a time, so it’s pretty restless sleep. So I did manage to pass some of the time napping, but was awake for most of the journeys.

Here’s what I learned in all those hours on that bus.

The advantages were:

  • The seats had a deeper recline than a standard airplane economy seat
  • There was a bathroom on board, so we didn’t need to stop every 90 minutes for bathroom breaks
  • We did make a few stops along the way, where we could get out of the bus and properly stretch our legs (I could have gone for a run around the block if I’d wanted, which you can’t do on a plane)
  • The views out the window were more varied than a long flight

But the downsides were:

  • Very limited legroom, less than the tightest airplane seat I had ever experienced — I would estimate it was around 28″ – 29″; I’m 6’0″ and my knees were pushed into the seat in front the whole time
  • The tray table and seat pocket had been covered with an additional seat cover so couldn’t be used
  • The roads were so bumpy I would constantly be woken up when napping by a violent jolt
  • No seat back entertainment, so when movies were played on the two screens in the bus the sound was loudly played over the bus speakers; even though I didn’t watch Pitch Perfect 3 because I was trying to nap, I can tell you the entire plot (which could be written on a postage stamp)
  • Buses often drive more slowly than normal cars, so estimations of travel time on, say, Google Maps are not accurate
  • If the seat in front was reclined I could almost touch it with my nose, and certainly couldn’t use a laptop
  • No food served on the bus, so we were limited to eating convenience store snacks which other than water were mostly junky crisps, chocolate, soft drinks, etc.

The last medium or long haul economy flight I did was on Norwegian from London to Boston about 18 months ago. The plane was new and clean, the seats fine, the IFE excellent and you could order any food or drinks from the seat back screen at any time and they would be promptly brought to you. It’s only about a 6.5 hours flight but the time ‘flew’ by.

I enjoyed the flight, walked off feeling great, and would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

But these bus rides have been hell.

I emerged from each long one feeling dirty, sweaty (even though the bus did have working air conditioning), tired and very irritable.

I would rather take a long haul flight in economy, than take another of these long haul bus journeys. At least on a flight there’s proper food served to you, you can nap without being regularly woken up (assuming there’s no turbulence), and walk decent distances up and down the aisle to stretch your legs.

So what does this have to do with savvy travelling?

I realise many of you would be reading this saying ‘this is exactly why I fly rather than take a bus.’ So here’s where I got creative and solved this problem.

On Saturday night we had a meeting for the next part of the tour. All we knew beforehand was that we were driving from Cairo to Dahab the following day and on the map, it was a fairly long distance.

At 9pm that evening, our tour leader told us that the next morning we would be indeed driving from Cairo to Dahab.

It would take the bus around 10 hours (with the odd stop to stretch legs). And we would depart at…

3am.

There was a loud gasp from the 40+ attendees in the room with several people asking if the tour leader was actually serious. He assured us that he was and that it was necessary to have some time left in the day to do activities in Dahab. We did enquire as to whether anyone would want to do any activities after little sleep and a horrendous bus ride but he assured us that ‘once we were there we would change our minds.’

My partner and I look at each other in horror, both immediately reached for our phones and searched Google Flights to see if we could fly instead, to avoid the ungodly early start. Noting this was only about 12 hours in advance we were surprised to see that last minute fares were affordable given the circumstances. Unfortunately EgyptAir does not allow online bookings less than 24 hours in advance (does anyone know why?) so we had to go with the slightly more expensive Nile Air.

It was around US$100 for a ~1 hour flight the following day. I can tell you exactly how much I now value my time – $10 per hour, so $100 to save 10 hours of hell was a price I was willing to pay.

Within an hour we had booked a flight on Nile Air from Cairo to Sharm El Sheik, a very short flight but that would put us almost at Dahab (there was then a 45 minute hotel transfer from Sharm to Dahab).

The flight was perfect (I’ll be writing about my surprising experiences at Cairo airport in a separate post), and after waking up six hours after the bus group did, we arrived in Dahab only about an hour after they did. When we walked into the Dahab hotel, the group was about to leave for their afternoon activities and said to us ‘how did you get here? You weren’t on the bus?!’

We somewhat sheepishly admitted we had flown, and I asked about how the bus ride was to which they replied ‘don’t ask.’

Had the bus ride commenced at, say, 7am so we could have a decent night’s sleep beforehand, I may have sucked it up and taken the bus. But I was especially annoyed being given less than seven hours warning about the pick-up time, especially since this was feedback we had already provided the tour company. We were also expected to attend a group dinner after the meeting, which many of the group simply bailed on last minute given they would only have a few hours sleep before the early wake up.

I did discuss the flight option we found with those who were still up and about after the meeting, but most had gone to bed immediately after realising how early they needed to be awake.

Bottom line

I have been avoiding long haul economy flights as much as I can since discovering this world of miles and points, and going the extra ‘mile’ to secure premium seats now that I know how to do it.

But after the horrendous bus rides, suddenly a 13 hours Singapore Airlines economy flight doesn’t seem so bad. I’ve certainly learned a lot about what I enjoy and don’t enjoy moving from one place to the next. I’m not sure I’ll be doing another group tour anytime soon, as I am too old and grumpy to handle another bus ride like the ones I’ve had the last few weeks, especially if it involves waking up so early.

As much as there’s a fair bit of stuffing around getting to an airport, getting through security, delays, etc., yesterday was a dream and I wouldn’t hesitate to book a last minute cheap flight to avoid a long bus ride. The money spent was absolutely worth it.

Presumably there are super luxury coaches with wide seats, excellent leg room, meals served on board, etc. Has anyone taken one of these? Are they like premium economy on a plane?

Would you rather take a long haul bus ride or a long haul economy flight?

Comments

  1. In January I took a trip from Jacksonville (Northern Florida) to Washington DC. It took us 13 hours with stops. It was way worse than yours. I’m 5’7″ and my knees were jammed against the seat infront. We drove overnight and then had a full day of activities ahead. There was no seat power, the foot rest was broken, and the seats (when reclined) would hit your face. I felt even worse than what you were describing. That just makes me appreciate flying EK on 14 hour flights even more!

  2. You’ll change your mind on long bus trips if you take them in Argentina. The first class coaches there are phenomenal, with lie-flat seats, seat-back entertainment, meals, evening champagne, etc. I loved it! And, at less than a hotel night, a nice way to get to where you’re going overnight while sleeping 🙂

  3. People are going to say: are you crazy? Egypt is so unsafe. Well we just had a shooting in the USA. Taking bets that it was a angry white male Republican terrorist.

    Long flight you can watch movies. Long ride on a bus people are more willing to talk to you.

  4. I’ve been on MANY MANY long haul flights across different continents- longest has probably been over 20 hours from Poland to Ukraine. They aren’t any fun but they do allow me to travel where I usually couldn’t due to extortionate airplane and train prices so I can’t complain.

  5. Dhab is amazing. Such a chilled out place. So many come there for holiday, then decide there to quit their job and stay.
    Awesome that you arrived well- rested to enjoy it!

  6. the longhaul buses in South America – everywhere from Mexico to Argentina (as was pointed out above) are truly surprising. They truly are luxurious. Usually 3 across seating, seats that recline nearly flat, etc. way more comfortable than the buses you experienced in Africa. I took one once from Iguazu falls in Brazil to Asuncion in Paraguay. 20 years ago. Absolutely blown away by the seats. Would recommend as an option in South America for sure.

  7. Love Dahab – was there in August (best snorkelling I’ve ever done).

    Am doing Cairo to Nuweiba in a bus in December – apparently that bus is a lot worse than the one I caught to Dahab.

  8. Well, it really comes down to the specific bus (company) in question. This sure sounds awful and I had a number of trips like this, so I can sympathize.

    At the same time, long-distance bus travel in Europe has improved by leaps and bounds in the recent years. Take Lux Express in the Baltics: they offer a business class cabin in the back of the bus with 1+1 seating and lots of personal space, plus personal entertainment, wi-fi, power ports and snacks.
    RegioJet’s fleet of yellow buses now come standard with seatback screens, good wi-fi, power outlets and USB ports, free hot drinks and snacks for purchase.
    Even Flixbus offers very decent legroom and power/wi-fi throughout their massive fleet.

    Bus may still be the worst option of the bunch, but add the convenience of a downtown departure and no waiting, and I can happily see myself on a multi-hour trip on any of the aforementioned services.

  9. Definitely comes down to region and quality of bus.

    My worse was probably a bus from Madrid to Granada overnight, didnt get any sleep.
    But buses in Argentina, Mexico and SE Asia are amazing.

    The bus between KL and Penang is my all time favourite. Better than business class seats!

  10. That is why I don’t do group tours I like to be on my schedule (or if I am with friends or family) and also planning and booking it yourself is half the fun also I love flying even if in economy and wouldn’t dream about taking a bus ride over 4 hours.

  11. Well there are Good, bad and really bad bus rides. I prefer South-America as many routes do have good night busses that have 2+1 seating, good recline (or even lie flat), good padding, food etc.

    Then there is India in which there are government busses which are usually full, actually departing and cheap and not so comfortable. And then there are VIP LUXURY Volvo tourist busses (meaning they go point to point) which most likely are same kind of experience James had.

    So far my worst bus experience was from Dakar to Bamako. It was supposed to be around 20 hour journey based on Internet reports, not reports from the bus company (which said it was 12 hours). Bus it self was “OK” as it was not completely full. One problem was AC which made the bus freezing cold during the night. The bigger problem was that bus first broke down after 10 km drive. Then temporary fix was made and it was driven 50 km more to some workshop. After 5 hours of repairing we continued until it broke down again early in the morning. At this point we ditched the bus and lifted to passing car. From Bamako to Mopti bus ride was almost OK except it was 2+3 seating, kinda full including chickens and it was about 1 hour late so it did not make to Mopti before curfew so we spend the night in the desert.

    For these journeys flights were not readily available or they were extremely expensive. Most likely I would fly to Bamako next time and then rent a car for intra country journeys.

    P.S. I also would like to add safety perspective for this Bus/Flight especially for travel after dark.

  12. We crossed the Sinai (Cairo to Nuweiba) on the non-tourist bus with zero English speakers, no AC (during a heat wave of 50 degrees) with no on board toilet and only one pit stop (where the best attraction was watching a jumping spider stalk a fly), but it did have a movie in (I’m guessing) Egyptian Arabic to entertain us.
    The estimated time to our destination came and went with no sign of civilization. A few hours later, the driver stopped at the side of the road, pointed at us and said Nuweiba. We had to fight to get him to get our bags from underneath the coach (no English).
    The bus pulled away and the only thing in sight was a sky full of stars, so we started walking in the general direction we thought the ocean would be.
    Long story short, one of our favourite memories of our honeymoon.

  13. James, a few years ago I took an overnight luxury bus from Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls. It was a double-decker bus, with two attendants, 3-abreast seating, wide lay flat seats, a hot dinner and breakfast, and alcohol with dinner. I was lucky enough to score a seat on the upper deck, first row, on the single seat side. It was great! If I recall correctly the one-way fare was about USD 80.00 which I thought was very reasonable.

    Even with all of the luxury features it’s still a bus so it doesn’t provide the smoothest journey. Still, I managed to get a fair amount of sleep and arrived in Iguazu Falls the next morning in good shape. Not a bad way to go, in my opinion.

  14. The only country I’ll willingly take long bus rides in (over a few hours) is Turkey. Assigned seats with pitch equivalent to Jetblue in economy, snack and drink service, (usually) wifi, and televisions (albeit the entertainment is in Turkish ha).

  15. I will add to what everyone else has written and say that bus rides in South America are a completely different thing than anywhere else in the world. I took a bus from Chiclayo to Trujillo last year, and it was just great.

  16. I second the comment by @Stvr. Along with the very high risk of traffic accident – keep in mind Egypt has one of the worst road accident records in the world – the security profile in Egypt is such that this is a double very high risk choice. A bus of clueless tourists is an easy mouthwatering target for the many groups in Egypt wishing to embarrass the government.

    Silly choice

  17. I second the comment above about Argentina.

    On the other end of my bus travel experiences, in Guatemala I once took one of the converted US school buses (a/k/a “chicken bus” for the chickens commonly carried by passengers) off the end of the paved road to go visit a friend in the Peace Corps. 3 to a seat. You know, glad I had that life experience.

  18. @Juraj
    “Even Flixbus offers very decent legroom and power/wi-fi throughout their massive fleet.”

    Can’t confirm this. I drive Flixbus a lot (although mostly only about 2 1/2 to the next larger airport), but the legroom is “acceptable” at most. Feels exactly as tight as low-cost economy and every part of my body begins to hurt after 2 hours.

  19. Maybe it’s a generational thing or not having grown up with buses in my life, but I’ve never even remotely considered taking a bus while planning travel. The thought has never crossed my mind that I could take a bus from point A to point B. It’s always planes, then potentially a train in a country known for good trains. Otherwise I would rent a car.

    It sounds like whoever organized your tour group was an idiot. They should have organized the Nile Air flight you bought in the first place. The general adage is that if a ground journey is more than 4 hours, fly. Especially if it’s only $100!!

  20. Sounds like Army Basic Training – 3 am to the bus! Ouch!!!!

    I’ve always been a very independent traveler and find large groups to be stifling.
    I’d rather see less of a country than do a whirlwind tour of several sites. There’s a certain pace of travel that seems to hit an equilibrium point as one ages. Over time and experience one learns to set loose itineraries and find diversions which add so much to the experience. Freedom and flexibility while traveling can be both scary and exciting but mostly in the end rewarding.

    You made the right decision to take the flight and most importantly, you’ve learned a lot about yourself. Enjoying your four month adventure from afar. Good post!

  21. Only times I’ve taken a long bus journey is in South America (in Peru, Chile and Argentina) — and all of those bus journeys were superb! The longest one was 28 hours long (yes 28 hours) from Arica to Santiago and I was quite comfortable the entire way!

  22. Two years ago me and my husband did a bus ride in Peru from Arequipa to Puno – took about 8 hours and we managed to book the “premium seats” for just about $6 more each. The seats were comparable to domestic first class seats with meal service (lunch box and hot drinks with fill ups) included. I would definitely recommend this as an option for anyone wants to get around in Peru.

  23. I have also taken the south american buses, where seats recline 165 degrees, so you almost get a bed. Great stuff!

    This looks worse than greyhound, as greyhound gives you good leg room

  24. James,
    I really enjoy your contributions to OMMAT. BUT, YOU DECIDED TO TAKE A F*CKING BUS; Either for sport, thrill, or review. I almost reached for a bottle of xanax while reading your story. I feel for you and your partner, who is miraculously still with out after this journey…

    Ben, the most experienced traveler I know, can barely transit the airport there: Why would you or anyone be surprised how miserable A BUS RIDE IN F*CKING EGYPT IS?

    WTF
    — JRL

  25. @ JRL – it was billed as a fairly inexpensive tour so I knew there would be some bus journeys involved.
    I had checked rough distances and times before booking, I hadn’t anticipated just how slowly the bus would drive and how poor the roads would be on the way.

  26. Regarding the 1 hour flight vs the 10 hour bus ride, with the flight you also have to factor in time to get to the Cairo airport, check in, clear security, the flight itself, then get from Sharm airport to Dahab. So you’re not really saving 10 hours, more like 5 hours – and that’s assuming no flight delays. That said, if your main goal was to avoid a 3am departure then I agree flying makes more sense.

  27. When I was in college in the 1960s, I got a $99 Greyhound pass and went from Boston to the West Coast; stopping overnight in New Orleans, (El Paso, day only), LA, San Fran, and Chicago, and on to Ohio. I met my room mate in LA. 9 days in a bus out of 13 nights. It was rough but worth it

  28. Are you sure that’s the right map? Usually the bus between Cairo to Dahab routes via Sharm-el-Sheikh, and not through St. Catherine as the map is shown. So you’ve technically travelled the longer route.

    And by the way if you haven’t climbed up Mt. Sinai, you’ll be missing a lot.

  29. Closer to the US just take a luxury bus in Mexico. Legroom is even better than premium economy. When you book online there are often different options, – just chooses the bus with 3 across seating. It beats no leg room economy any day.
    I know this post is bus related but I also wanted to point out the legroom on Japanese and Chinese bullet trains is also excellent.

  30. Egypt is one of my favorite places. Taking buses is part of the experience, although anything more than 4 hours in a bus can be exhausting. As for security, we were always escorted by a pick up truck with young men with guns bigger then them. I felt very safe. The Egyptians are very poor especially with tourism down. We found all the sites empty of tourists and the same for the hotels. That being said, we took buses when we had to and flights when available. Hope you enjoyed the beauty of Egypt and its people

  31. I hate buses. Love the trains; on my two week Europe trip, I thoroughly enjoyed zipping around major cities on trains, especially in Italy where business class was affordable and the service was excellent. On one of those occassions, turns out the service we booked was a bus, and the legroom was like hell. Will be paying attention much more closely now; can’t understand how my sister survived an overnight bus from Portugal to Spain. Would rather try to ride a pig and make it fly the trip.

  32. @James You should try the buses from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. They are phenomenal. They have recliner seats like in US first class and only three seats per row. We were sitting at an exit row and had almost 1.5 meters of legroom (standard rows also have plentiful legroom). On top the prices are decent.

  33. RW, why not? I would like to hear about those experiences too, so that I can plan wisely if the need arises…

  34. I started reading the comments with hopes of being the first one to write something about Argentinian (and S American) buses. They are truly great, as other people commented, surprising sometimes even for locals.
    Since airport and airport transfer (let’s say, ways to get to airports, prices, distances from cities, time it takes, etc.) infrastructure is not that great and plane prices are not very affordable for a majority of the locals, there are several times when it’s more convenient to take this buses.
    That said, there are also some terrible bus experiences as well, specifically in places like the Argentina-Bolivia border crossing, and inside places such as Colombia or Bolivia.
    Awesome writting James! Love it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *