Save money, find adventure by riding buses on foreign trips

04/27/2012 10:37 PM

04/27/2012 10:37 PM

Anyone planning an overseas trip knows that gas prices and rental-car rates are soaring. If there’s an upside, it’s that more travelers will discover the joys of taking the bus.

I love trains, but buses are more reliable, cost less and almost always guarantee an adventure. I’ve never come back from a trip talking about what fun I had renting a car, probably because I spent most of the time arguing with my spouse about directions. But name a country and I can tell you a bus story.

Before a trip to Albania, I asked two Albanians living in Seattle what they missed most about their country. “Pace,” they smiled, describing a meaty breakfast soup made from parts of a sheep’s head.

My husband, Tom, and I looked for it wherever we went, and finally found it on a long bus ride. The driver stopped for breakfast on Llogaraja Pass, the highest point on Albania’s southern coastline. Most people marvel at the sea views, but what I remember most is following the other passengers into a mountain restaurant. Without asking, the waiters brought everyone baskets of bread and steaming bowls of soup. It was pace, and it was delicious.

In countries where train service is poor, buses are the way most people travel long distances. A first-class bus in Mexico or Turkey is far better than Greyhound — and nothing like the pictures you sometimes see of people holding chickens on their laps or squatting on the roof.

The best Turkish buses have upholstered seats with individual TV screens and head phones. Attendants in bow ties bring around squirts of cologne and mints, followed by coffee, tea and soft drinks.

Using public transportation is always good for meeting locals. Bus travelers often share snacks, smile and ask where you’re from.

The kindness of strangers can’t be underestimated. Standing on a windy street corner with our suitcases in Beijing, China, we must have looked bewildered after a bus dropped us off there instead of at the station.

An English-speaking student approached us and asked where we were going. She then flagged down a taxi, took my pen and notebook and wrote down the name of our hotel for the driver.

Not every ride is pleasant, but they’re all memorable.

I won’t forget the three-hour trip across the mountains of Bulgaria in a minibus so full some passengers had to sit in the aisles on plastic stools. It was hot and stuffy and there was no air conditioning, but no one opened the windows. A Bulgarian friend explained later that it’s considered unhealthy to breathe the outside air.

More fun was the ride we hitched on a “party bus” run by a resort in Cancun, Mexico, for guests visiting the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. We had come from Merida where a guide assured us we could see the ruins, have lunch and then “connect” to another bus onto Cancun.

This scheme, as it turned out, involved the guide making a deal with a tour-bus driver returning to Cancun with empty seats. The two split the fare — around $20 for the two of us. Everyone else on the bus had paid around $100 per person which included a tour of ruins, lunch and — the bonus for us — free beer and margaritas on the way back.

I always feel safe on buses, sometimes for odd reasons. There was the time in Eastern Turkey when four soldiers wearing fatigues and carrying machine guns escorted a prisoner to the back of the bus where he remained handcuffed to one of them for the next several hours.

We’ll be spending time in Croatia later this spring. Zagreb’s modern bus station will be our first stop after getting off the plane. If all goes as planned, we’ll be on a bus to Plitvice Lakes National Park that afternoon. And if it doesn’t? I’d be disappointed if there aren’t a few surprises along the way. All part of the adventure.

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