Overnight buses must be, hands down, my favourite means of transport to travel around and discover Turkey. It’s affordable, efficient, comfortable, mostly reliable and more importantly hopefully more ecological than flying domestic. To be honest, the last time I did actually fly domestic was when Lufthansa had yet another strike and changed my direct flight to Munich, to one with a stopover in Istanbul last year around this time. Usually now, unless it’s a direct flight from Ankara (a rare case in itself), I tend to book all my flights starting from Istanbul and then bus it to Istanbul – a 6 hour journey, now the norm for me.
The first question which I’m always asked (after, “how on earth does your bum survive that?”) is whether it’s safe or not. Yes, bus travel is as safe as it can be. No one I know has ever had any ‘unpleasant’ experiences when travelling by bus. I especially like that when you’re travelling solo, you’re usually seated by gender or you’re given one of the single seats (if available) – my favourite, I get to sit by the window with no one breathing down my neck or snoring.
However, from past experiences, whilst bus stations are not strictly unsafe, I do feel uncomfortable when I get stared at by almost everyone – common occurrence if you’re have coloured skin. Anyhow, that is why, to me, timing is extremely important.
Amateur blunder – the first time I did the Ankara-Istanbul trip by bus, I ended up reaching Istanbul at 3 am and had to take a taxi to my hotel because public transport had already stopped running by then. In most cities, public transport start running at 6 am which is when I usually aim to reach my destination. For example, I usually take the bus around midnight from Ankara when going to Istanbul (6 hours) or 9 pm to Antalya (8-10 hours). It makes sure I don’t need to hang around a sometimes deserted station waiting for the city to wake up. Plus it’s a wonderful way to save on a night’s accommodation. Most bus stations will have left luggage storage facilities for very cheap, so you can leave your stuff there and already get cracking on some exploring before checking into your accommodation if needed.
Buses also tend to make it easier to get around at your destination. I absolutely hate it when I have to figure out how to get to the city centre if I’m flying, which tends to be complicated, as airports are usually located miles away, and expensive as well. Most bus companies, however, will offer a free shuttle service to different neighbourhoods, in the case of Istanbul, so be sure to know where you’re going, or in the case of smaller cities, to the city centre from which you can make your way to wherever as even bus stations tend to be situated 3 or 5 km away. It definitely is a welcome bonus when the alternative would be to haul around your backpack/suitcase on the local bus or even smaller dolmuş (mini-bus) – been there, done that, doesn’t get any easier.
I do hate to reiterate but as I said, most bus companies, but not all, offer the above mentioned service. So which firm should you go for? There are more than hundred bus companies that operate within Turkey, with some even going to some Balkan countries. The bus station in Ankara or Istanbul is bigger than some airports I’ve been to so it does tend to get confusing, especially with everyone shouting and trying to attract customers. Imagine a fruit and vegetables market, but for bus tickets. My first point of call is usually Metro Turizm or Pamukkale but Ulusoy, Varan and Kamil Koç are quite good as well.
There usually is no need to buy your ticket in advance and don’t even try to book it online unless you have a Turkish credit card. Truth be told, you’re better off getting it straight from the bus station itself – shouldn’t take more than five minutes. The long-distance bus system in Turkey is quite expansive and developed so you’ll almost always find a seat on a bus – unless it’s during a festival when there’s literally a mass exodus across the country. There are frequent buses a day to about anywhere in the country. Popular routes have even more e.g. services from Ankara to Istanbul run about each 15 minutes, 24/7.
I personally tend to book my ticket in advance if I have a flight to catch afterwards ‘just in case’ and confirm if there is a shutter service available to the airport. You always want to do that since you don’t really want to end up in the middle of nowhere in a country whose language you barely speak – yep that happened too, not great.
So back to the initial question, how does my bum actually survive the 6+ hours spent sitting down? The answer is, it doesn’t need to. I don’t actually spend the whole time sitting down, unless I fell in a really deep sleep or I’m just being lazy. Those 6+ hours will usually one or two rest stops for both the drivers as well as the passengers. Usually they last about 20 – 30 minutes, enough to grab a bite, empty your bladder and a smoke, if you’re into that – most Turks are – since smoking is prohibited on all buses.
It also helps to ‘splash out’ a little bit on luxury buses rather than trying to spare every penny. Trust me, an extra 10 TL (about $3 – 4) is enough to make all the difference. You really don’t want to try sleeping in a dirty, hard and uncomfortable seat and then spend the next day getting over that.
For the most comfortable experience, it also helps to dress and pack as if you were flying. You can usually store all your luggage (no limit usually provided) in the hold of the bus but it also helps to have a day pack with the following:
- Money, passport or ID, valuables – self explanatory.
- iPad and/or Kindle – WiFi is usually available on some buses but don’t bet on it working all the time. It still helps though when you can’t fall asleep. Usually, an e-reader will be better than a book because of the built-in backlight feature. For most of the journey, the lights will be out, which makes read a traditional paperback someone challenging.
- Earphones – there usually are seaback TV screens with a variety of things to watch, in Turkish, or music that you can listen to but truth be told, the earphones they provide are shit.
- Wet wipes/toilet paper – you really don’t want any surprises, enough said.
- Blow-up neck pillow – which I got from Dubai for just a few dirhams and has been my best friend for these long hauls.
- A small blanket or big/thick scarf – the interior is climate controlled and you may not enjoy the full blast of the AC on you all night.
- Woollen socks – see the above.
- A bottle of water and snacks – that is entirely up to you. I don’t always bother with the water since you’ll have stewards coming around with hot and cold beverages and snacks – I even got ice cream on one of my trips – and you can request extra at any time. I do however always have a bar of chocolates in my bag because I’m a chocoholic and I know it.
- Hand cream/moisturiser – you don’t want cracked skin in the morning.
- Deodorant – let’s face it, there’s an 80% change you’re gonna stink after spending a night on a bus.
It also helps to wear warm but loose fitting clothes. You’ll thank me later after you end up at a rest stop with only squat toilets NOT wearing tight skinny jeans that cannot be rolled up. I also personally like wearing easily removable shoes since the idea of a whole night in tight shoes just makes me go ewww. Put on the cute woolly socks, snuggle up and sleep. That’s how it’s done.
Have you ever done any long-distance overnight bus trips in Turkey or elsewhere? How do you rate it? What else would you recommend?