In this article, I am going to tell you all about booking a bus in India, how to get around India by bus, and tips for safety on buses in India. For backpackers, sleeper buses are the best option to save a night’s accommodation but I’ll also share about when to choose a train over a bus when traveling India. If you’re planning a big trip to India, check out my India ebook which is your complete guide to the best of India from my 6 years of experiences traveling and living here.
Being from the Midwest of America, I didn’t travel by bus and train until I went to Europe years ago. I can remember being troubled by the London tube. Before coming to India the first time, I was nervous about transportation. Not safety, but just how to get from point A to point B traveling India by bus and train.
There were challenging times throughout the journey, but like the Dabbawalas in Bombay, Indians have a way of making things magically work. A lot of transport in India is just letting them tell you what to do and following blindly.
These days, you can book a train ticket online (here’s how) and a bus ticket as well with Redbus; but previously only Indians cardholders could. The best way to get it all set up is to make a cleartrip.com account and set up your train tickets through here. Because trains are often booked, I traveled by bus a lot. In Rajasthan, bus travel is much easier.
If you don’t set up an account then you need to book in little side-street shops as you travel. I was used to rolling up at a train station and booking things on my own, so it was a twist to let travel agents do it in a shady back alley, giving me a piece of paper and pick up time and place. You must trust.
You’ll have to decide between local and sleeper buses. I’ll explain what that means! And to stay organized keep in mind I have this post on bus travel, another on train travel, then a post on safety on trains and buses in India.
Budget Travel in India for Transportation
I always take sleeper trains and buses to keep me on budget and India was no exception. Trains are usually cheaper for overnight if you travel by sleeper class or second class. Local buses are just as cheap, but when booking through an agent it won’t be local, it’ll be a “sleeper” bus. So, if you are budgeting go to the bus stop the day of and just get a ticket rather than a sleeper bus.
Local buses are so cheap you won’t even make a dent paying, but I try to take these for four hours or less. I did take one for 12 hours once. What was I thinking…
It was like a kid’s school bus, but so full that when going around turns in the Himalayas, half the bus had to get off so we didn’t tip over or get stuck. While freezing cold, the people hanging out doors let the wind come in full blast. Lesson learned.
Booking a Bus: Go Local or Sleeper?
I do prefer trains for comfort, but in most instances, it was more convenient to travel by bus. In Rajasthan, sleeper buses would leave from nearby, while I would have to take a rickshaw 20-30 minutes to catch a train.
I would have saved a lot of money taking the lowest class train (and by a lot, I mean 200 rupees…) that sleeper buses. In Himachal Pradesh in November, trains weren’t possible at all, neither were sleeper buses. It was local buses all the way. Yikes!
If you want to go totally local and the cheapest way possible, just go to the bus stand and buy a ticket the day off. Most times, they won’t even let you buy ahead- you just need to show up when the bus is there and buy it from the driver’s helper-man. It only happened a couple times that I paid more than people going to the same place as me, but it’s so a small amount of money… best to let it go. I’m talking maybe 3o-100 rupees. Pick your battles!
When traveling by local bus, you must know when to get off to switch buses. You’ll switch throughout the night and may have to wait hours for your next bus. I would guess I paid on average 100-200 rupees for buses like these for the overall trip.
Sometimes you will get a seat, other times there are none assigned and you might have to stand. I have stood WITH my backpack for almost 3 hours before (and that was a connection from that 12 hour bus ride from hell!).
Chivalry is dead.
Even though local buses might give you a ticket and “seat”, this is meaningless most times as they are SO crowded with people standing and hanging out the doors. If you get up you may never get your seat back. You can argue right and wrong, but it will get you nowhere.
Is this not sounding like your style? Don’t worry there’s a better option.
If you pay a little more money (600 rupees or so) you can have a coffin to sleep in on a sleeper bus. This bus will take you from point A to B without you having to worry.
They are meant to wake you when it’s time to get off (the bus will keep going to more places), but lets be real, you can’t trust that happening, and it was about 50/50 for me. I take a Travel Alarm Clock and wake myself up with enough time to pack up my sleeping bag and pillow. If you’re curious what else to pack for India click here.
What You Can Expect on a Sleeper Bus
You will have an assigned seat aka coffin all to yourself. You’ll have a window view on one side and an isle on the other. Coffins are stacked on top of each other. If traveling with a friend, it’s cheaper and cozier to get a double coffin.
Don’t expect blankets, pillows, water, etc. It’s bumpy and noisy with rattling doors of each coffin. I actually get a decent amount of sleep on these once I get cuddled into my sleeping bag. I like that I can close the isle curtain.
You will pay a tip for the driver to put your bag in the bottom of the bus and just hope that it actually makes it to your destination. I have never had problems and don’t hear many stories about thieves on sleeper buses in India like you would in SE Asia. Sometimes there is no “bottom” and you can keep it in your sleeper. Other times, they put it on top. It never looks like they have enough straps for that so I always worry it’ll fall off! Obviously keep all valuables and paperwork on you.
I have an entire post dedicated to safety on Indian trains and buses. I think sleeper buses are safer because you have a little door you can slide shut and there are usually other backpackers and families on there. The down side, especially in the mountains, you have a risk of a bus crash.
Driving in India is hectic, and I’m a new learner, now lover, of their honking way of life, but if you have bad nerves, maybe stick to a train (and hope it doesn’t derail. Just kidding.)
If you’re headed to India, check out my guide to planning your trip. It takes you through visas, flights, itinerary, what to wear, and more. I also have a post with 100 tips for travel in India that will be helpful for you!
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This is great Rachel. I think when we make it there we may stick to trains at first until we get a real feel for India and the chaos ;)
Great idea. That trains are much simpler and even on the trains I started in a medium class before doing the lowest. I like to jump straight into things but in India it’s smart to ease in slowly..
Driving in India is insane! I drove a tuk tuk once – just for the experience – and it really is just a case of put your foot down, honk the horn and hope for the best! Haha!
There’s no such thing as assigned seating on the buses, even the ticketing is absolutely pointless as they will always pick people up and drop them off along the way, filling the buses to overcrowding. I completely agree about those tiny litle sleeper coffins though, always worth the extra money (except one journey where I was travelling through a downpour and the window was broke letting all the rain in! Horrible ride that one.)
On the sleeper buses and trains I did always keep my pack with me though and kept it secured to something with a cable lock, even despite the driver/ticket seller sometimes protesting. It made the compartment a little more cramped but it gave me something to rest my feet on. :)
How funny, I JUST drove a tuk tuk for first time last week! haha It’s nuts! I can’t imagine rain coming in a bus that must have been the worst ride of your life. And I also kept my pack tied up on the trains but on buses that must have been a tight squeeze because I would imagine you are larger than I am!
Booking train tickets is not an easy thing to do in India. Best to go to the railway station or do it via the numerous booking agencies. Even Indians are doing the same thing.
Yep, I agree with you completely.
once again a great read.my wife and i spent 3 months travelling india a couple of years back.we didn’t book anything.buses,trains,the occasional flight (ladkh).we just took whatever was available at that time.we hired a car and driver just once to go to kodaicanal,it was more terrifing than the bus.we seldom book hotel rooms.my wife finds places to stay intuitively.had we not done thus,we would never have found our beautiful goan family .we can’t understand why few want to travel with us.we’re so naive.we’re also 67 years of age.
Drivers can be mad here! But I’ve decided the mad ones are the best :) They get you there fastest and it’s crazy how they just never make mistakes! 67 years is still young! Will you come back to India? Thanks for your comment John!
This is pure insanity! I feel like you have to be a whole other category of brave to travel in India. I feel like any complaint I ever have on my travels in western Europe can officially be classified as #firstworldproblems. You’re grand children are going to be mesmerized by your stories. This quote… “It was like a kid’s school bus, but so full that when going around turns in the Himalayas, half the bus had to get off so we didn’t tip over or get stuck.” I can’t even.
Haha, I will admit – I think when I go back and travel Europe again it’ll seem like child’s play! lol
Wow. Your experiences are really beautiful Rachel. I somewhere read once and i think this sums up india quite beautifully – “If you can look beyond the exterior, the superficial and actually look deep deep into the soul of what India really is and surrender to her and embrace her with open arms, she shall embrace you back and what a miraculous, heartwarming and glorious experience that is”
That’s a beautiful quote and so true!
Rachel, you are a brave girl. I didn’t risk the local buses as I was very,very aware of the awful roads and speeding mad men. I took the train and what an adventure it was. It was an ordeal but I had to experience it. Ha! Ha!!
You’re right, the roads are mental! Lol I do prefer the trains.
Wow!!! I’m an Australian born indian and have been to India at least 15 times. I stumbled across this site as I’m going again next month and there is so much here that I’ve learnt!!!
I’m glad the blog is helping you!
So what you’re saying, is, to travel around (aka Jodhpur – Pushkar, or Pushkar to Jaipur) via “sleeper bus”, you just need to find an agent at the time and in the departure city and arrive when and where they tell you? Kind of like how one gets around in Thailand, except this is a bus w/ beds? Soz confused! xo
Its just like Thailand! Its much easier than you’d think :)
Great information! I was in India about 2 months ago but only used the trains and airlines for my major travel. I’d like to return to India at some point and using the bus system doesn’t sound so bad. I’m currently writing another blog post about India and hope it’s ok for me to link your post into my article to help my readers use the bus system as I never rode the buses myself. Thanks for the post and cheers!
yes please do link :) and the buses are great in certain areas and if you dont want to bother with the business of the trains and the crowds
yes, in india it is safer to prefer the private buses through some agents than local buses because sometimes it will push you in trouble.
Thanks so much for posting. Our family, husband Uttar Pradesh native and I American Native, along with our baby 16 month old will be leaving for UP the first week of October. We want to see Taj as well as perhaps go to Rajakastian. Problem is getting train ticket. Do you think our family would qualify for a tourist ticket, since two out of the three of us are American born? What are your thoughts? What agency did you use to book your train and sleeper bus ticket? I would also like to buy an India SIM card prior to arriving. Do you know if I can buy an India sim in the states online or otherwise? I really hope that I can use you as as resource during our travels to India? Thank you,
No you won’t all qualify. They are really strict about this. Also, you have to be on “tourist” visa specifically not just a foriegner. I am on business visa, so I can’t use this anymore. I don’t know about getting SIM ahead of time. Never heard of doing so.
Hi Rachel, great reading your posts.
I am wondering if I’m able to book bus tickets online, in advance from the UK. Or is that madness?
Hmmm you can try redbus.com I’m not sure if they take foreign cards though. You can also do on cleartrip and set up an account to make sure a foreign card can work & when you cancel on there you get a refund
Hope you had good time in India, traveling in India is a different when compare to US or UK. Here most of the buses are for middle class people budgets rather then comfort.
I just stumbled upon your blog and love it! My family and I (husband and two teen sons) are headed to India in May for one month. For the last two weeks I’ve been frustratingly trying to navigate the IRCTC/Cleartrip circle of hell in order to book train tickets. We like to travel not he fly. Strap on our backpacks and go! But this whole train situation has unnerved me. I had not even considered a sleeper bus. In fact, did not even know such things existed. But now I have new hope! Instead of worrying that we won’t get a AC2/AC3, I think we may just wing it and see what happens. If we get on the train with the tourist quota, then great. But if we don’t, then we can still rely on a sleeper bus. Thanks so much!
I meant, “We like to travel on the fly”.
Hi Meg, glad that the blog has been able to help you a bit. Some people never get their Cleartrip account set up- it can be a real headache. Keep in mind, the tourist quota is only offered in the biggest cities. Taktal is offered everywhere though but with a larger group of people it could be difficult to all get a ticket that way.
Hi Rachel…if you come over to Delhi I can show you all the historical places here in a single day.. :)
I LOVE sleeper buses, they are almost like a train coach. If to make a pity face, sometimes drivers are getting a pile of blankets from somewhere.
In some places of Rajasthan you can actually feel the road (though it sounds romantic, the feel of stones and road holes are actually not).
Once I have also decided to save and took an 8 hours local bus from Punjab to Delhi. Not that long journey as you have experienced, but still I have no idea what I was thinking about while taking that decision :D
Yes Rajasthan is a bumpy ride haha! I remember that. The local buses can be an interesting experience, even if just to test your patience out and see if all this yoga and mediation us tourists do in India is working when we need it lol
Hello Rachel!! I have been reading your blog and literally opened every link on it.
We will be travelling to India end of July and all of August. I know its hot and sticky but well survive. I’m a little puzzled on transport because we always drive everywhere we go.. the best experience and absolutely the easiest compared to all the comments we read was Thailand, even Bangkok wasn’t so bad. This being said, I understand in India we should take trains or buses. We were then opting for night buses all over Rajasthan to save precious day time. Do you have any suggestions? Arriving always around 4/5 in the morning how do we then get to our hotel? Are rickshaws around or are Jaisalmer and other cities okay to walk from one place to an other? We are just stuck on this.. the route will inevitably keep changing I guess. If you have any other tips please do share.
So happy that the blog posts have helped you. Night buses in rajasthan is the way to go – or private taxi if you have the budget. the trains are good to but sometimes the stations are outside of town a bit.
Hi Rachel, your block gives us great info about sleeper bus. My friends and I are planning our first time journey to India. We plan to start from Kolkata-Varanasi-Agra-Jaipur-Delhi but still wondering about online booking for bus ticket. I’ve found some website but it requires us to have mobile number in India…this make difficulties to plan our trip. You recommend us to buy ticket at the counter desk on the day of departure but due to our limited time we need plan to bet set…so any recommendation?
You can work with online travel agents who can book the ticket for you – although I don’t know them. I have gotten my US card linked onto cleartrip.com which is possible just try a few cards and you can book buses there. Did you also try redbus.in?
I will be going to Chennai, Puducherry and Velankanni in February 2017. I have been researching the routes and was surprised to find out that it takes about 4-5 hours for bus or train to travel the distance of 150 kilometers (for instance, Puducherry to Velankanni). Is this really the case? Is there a faster way? Going by taxi or rented car is faster according to my research but I’ll be traveling on a tight budget, so I would prefer to take buses or trains.
Hope you can help. Thanks!
Hi Florencio, yep that sounds about right to me – taxi will definitely be faster but yes it will be a lot more than train or bus, although in India may still seem affordable depending on what currency you travel with.
HI Rachel! I want to book a sleeper bus from Hospet to Mumbai, but bit overwhelm of which bus company to chose … is there a sleeper bus company that you particular like or could recommend ? Would immensely appreciate your input !!
I never used a particular company… paulo i know is good… but you can look on redbus.in and just choose any volvo for leaning back A/C seats or a proper sleeper which won’t be A/C but has beds. when you book in an agent office they usually don’t even tell you the company they just say where the bus will be! there are too many companies :)
I want to travel from goa to gujrat. I am thinking to opt for AC sleeper. But, can i control temperature of ac at my allocated seat?
No, and it is quite cold on these.
Hi Rachel, I’m going to India with my boyfriend next April and I’m planning on getting two overnight trains (Jaipur > Jaisalmer and Jaisalmer > Jodhpur) and an overnight bus (Johdpur > Udaipur). We were going to get 2nd class on first train, 3rd on the second and a sleeper seat on the buses, would you recommend this? I’ve seen blog posts that suggest going for 3rd class or higher if possible. The cost isn’t a huge issue but would be good to avoid paying more than is necessary.
Caitlin, 3rd class on the train is general seating so you don’t want that. You want 2nd class or 1st class.. then you have sleeper class on trains which is where you can lay down still but it’s no AC, no blankets/pillows, and less nice area of train.. then 3rd class is general seating you can’t lay down and you don’t get a seat assignment. you could have to stand. on a bus though sleeper seats either mean in a volvo seats that recline, or in a regular sleeper bus they are beds.
I hope you’re doing great! I think this blog could be updated, e-travel has got far better in India, and I think both redbus and cleartrip (yes, our taste matches) give you excellent choices for bus travel, without agent involvement.
Btw I’m an Indian, who shifted to Dublin a few months back, and I love to travel. I just came back to India for a few days, and even now I’m travelling. I keep reading through some of your blogs as a lurker, just because its sometimes amusing to see things from another eye. Sometimes it makes for a grim perspective, sometimes it makes for a fun one.
In fact, there are two friends I met in Dublin via couchsurfing, who have been backpacking across Europe, and are now flying to India. Hoping to travel with them in their first week here, and make sure they aren’t overwhelmed. Its a very different deal to backpack in Europe vs India – I don’t think much prepares you for it, but they are fantastic girls. I’m going to have to book sleeper tickets for two of my friends, before I go back to work to take them from Jaipur to Rishikesh, and just wanted to make sure it’d be fine. :-)
Btw, they had a career in nursing in America too, before they left their job and decided to backpack across the world. Kinda like you :-)
It was significance to me, thanks to the author for taking out some of your precious time and sharing your thoughts on this subject.
I am going to India this Saturday and I am planning to take the bus because I am having a hard time booking train tickets.
Anyway, reading through the article is making me nervous. Hahah…
Maybe I should take the train?
How do you book trains online?
Or do I go for the buses?
Thanks so much for all your tips and posts, they have been so valuable! Just a quick question, do busses operate on Sundays? Wanting to travel from Pushkar to Jaipur on a Sunday but not sure if that’s possible?
Yep! All days of the week.
Hey Rachel, me and my husband really enjoy your posts! We are used to off beat travelling, but so many of our friends are recommending we hire a driver in India in order to make it everywhere we inted to visit (delhi-agra-jaipur-johdpur- chandelao- udaipur) in two weeks. We are really confussed as its seems like we would be missing out on the real India and it does end up to be twice the price of taking buses. What would you recommend? Can we rely on the busses to get us to and from places in relatively the intended time?
Hey Ruta! There is no bad way to travel – even 5 star with a driver you can see the “real India” don’t worry. But buses are slow and add a lot of time into a two week itinerary. I suggest getting a driver just from point A to B at a travel agencry as you go rather than hiring someone to be with you the whole time. There are agencies in all those places who will charge like 5,000 and under for a one way driver ($100 or less)
I am so glad people like you take the time to document all your tacit knowledge – it has been an enormous help to me and I am more than grateful.
My family and I are booked to do a month trip to India Over December and January (with two children age 10 & 12) and I have two questions. From the UK I have booked some of my train journeys (involving lots of frustrating hours work) but I’ve had to book us on WL (wait list number 6,7,8,&9) for the Jaisalmer to Delhi trip for early January. Do you have any idea what the chances are of us getting on the train? I have opted for the VIKALP choice just in case things get tight as we are due to fly back to the UK on Jan 8th.
Also, we are booked to stay in Rathambore for Christmas Eve (also my daughter’s birthday) and Christmas Day which is a major treat. I am stuck how then to travel to Ajmer on December 27 and after from Ajmer to Jodhpur. From your earlier posts it seems that a bus might be a good option. My concern is finding that we are suddenly stuck somewhere unable to travel onwards. Do you think we will be able to just book a bus when we are in Ranthambore (or Jaipur) to Ajmer even in December at Christmas and consequently not to sweat sorting that leg of the journey out?
Looking forward to hearing from you.
Yeees!! I also took a 12+ hour local bus from Rishikesh to Dharamsala once… That happened to be my first bus experience as well… Despite being advised to spend the extra 500 rupees and go Volvo, I was stubborn. haha lesson learned!!
You can go anywhere by bus in India. All type buses available like luxury, ac, non ac, seater, sleeper with all amenities.