How to book?
There are several mobile apps (redbus, goibibo, makemytrip, paytm, etc.), with which booking a bus can be very convenient, but to apply these you need to have an Indian SIM card and also, you need to find a way for the payment. If you don’t have an Indian SIM card, in theory you can use the websites of these service providers, but you still need to find a way to pay.
How to pay?
Why is payment so complicated? Because if you wanna use your debit card, you need to pick your bank from a dropdown menu and there are only a very few international banks available in the list. I found one solution: paytm, the paypal app. But you also need to find a way to charge money to paytm. For this you may need an Indian friend with whom you trust each other so that you can pay him money which he can transfer to your paytm account. Honestly in India I don’t think it would be difficult to find a trustworthy friend like this but if you don’t feel it is your way, you may just contact a travel agent. Which will make your travels a bit less flexible and a very little more expensive but is also super easy.
Private bus vs local (government-operated) bus
When booking a bus, you have plenty of options: local bus/private bus, and if private: sleeper, semi-sleepers, seater, A/C and non-A/C
When covering shorter distance (and sometimes also for the longer ones), you may find local bus service, too. The obvious advantage of local bus is that it is very very cheap, you don’t need to book it in advance and the place of departure is always very straightforward, the bus stand (although I have been to smaller towns where there was not even a sign for bus stand but usually there is :-)). There is a good chance that on these buses you will be the only foreigner, which can be be fun, but sometimes also a bit suffocating. I don’t know whether it is a general rule but as per my experiences, if the bus ride only takes a few hours, they sell as much tickets as much the demand is so here you can experience what is Indian crowd. On a Western level here you can not really talk about comfort, however, I always find these travels a really nice experience of flexibility and acceptance. And I have still not tried how it is to travel on the top of a bus. But would like to 🙂
Once I took the local bus for longer distance too, when I was travelling to the Himalayas, from Delhi to Bunthar. Because it was so cheap, so flexible and because when travelling to the Himalayas there are no sleeper buses, only semi-sleepers anyhow and at least on the local bus there was no A/C.
When you don’t see the local bus in the apps: If you are looking for a bus on a really short distance (up to 2-3 hours I guess), it may happen that you will not find it listed in your app. I remember that at the beginning of my travelling I was so stressed when I didn’t find the bus I was looking for in any of the apps and I couldn’t find a proper website listing all the local buses either. I was lucky to have a friend that time who ensured me that I shouldn’t worry, just go to the bus stand and there I will find a bus for sure. And yeah, it was exactly like that. You don’t even need to worry about the language barriers, just forget all the fancy words you know in English and tell the name of your destination. And of course prepare for the flowing. You may only learn it in the bus stand when the next bus goes but that’s fine. When travelling in India, it is impossible to plan the time anyhow. I remember that my first bus travel (on a private bus) started with a 2-hour stop because we were waiting for someone who couldn’t reach in time.
The advantage of private buses is that they are a bit more comfortable than local buses although you may still be surprised once you see what is “deluxe” in India. When booking a private bus, you can choose the pick-up point, just as the drop point. The pick-up and drop points are not official bus stands, but they are usually close to a travel agency and specified by some Landmark (some hotels, shops, etc.). Sometimes there is only one bus but sometimes you may find a whole bunch of buses queuing up. You will always get a text message confirmation of the booking stating the number of the bus. You will need this to identify your one in the queue.
Pick-up: And sometimes it also happens that there is a van coming to pick you up and take you to the bus. I remember first how strange I felt when instead of a bus just a van was coming, but then I got used to it.
Schedule: I remember that an Indian friend of mine always told me that Indian standard time is in at least 30 mins delay to the schedule. Well, when it comes to buses, it may be different. It happened to me many times that the bus departed cc 15 mins earlier than schedule. But what is good that if you travel with a private bus which you have already booked, if you don’t show up 10 minutes before departing, they will call you. And they will also wait for you.
I remember how stressed I was at the first few times when I was heading to a private bus with friends and we were late. They always just told me “chill” and after a while I learnt that I should really just chill, they will wait for me.
These phone calls can be tricky, because the one calling usually doesn’t speak too good English, but if you just use a few basic English words even if you don’t understand what they say, you may be fine. And life really is gracious. I remember when I really needed I always had someone to translate, the driver or a fellow passanger of my shared über car e.g.
How much in advance you should book? I have never tried to take a private bus without booking but you can even book it an hour before the departure time, just you need to be more flexible. Your opportunities may be a bit more limited in this case.
Volvo buses, and AC vs non-A/C: If you prefer really comfortable travelling and you are used to A/C, you may like the Volvo bus choice. My Indian friends always suggested this. But honestly I think I have never ever traveled by Volvo. One reason was that usually I covered distances which took more than 6 hours, and for this distance you will find overnight buses. And when travelling at night, you don’t definitely need that A/C (which is always there on Volvo buses).What’s more, I personally don’t like the A/C. India is a country of extremes and it is true for the A/C usage too. You may easily find yourself in a bus with 16 Celsius. Well, it depends on you general A/C tolerance.
Sleeper/semi-sleeper/seater: if you travel for long distance and there is an option for sleeper, I really suggest that because the beds in the bus are usually quite comfortable. As comfortable as they can be on the bumpy roads of India. Yeah, I had some bus rides where I could not really sleep because I had to stick to something so that I don’t fall down from the bed. And whether upper or lower bed? If you pick the upper one, no one will climb over you, but on the bumpy roads it will be less comfortable. And vica versa. There is one thing you should be aware of. If on the app you see double beds those are indeed double ones (what a surprise) which you will share with someone.