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The Ultimate Guide to Bus Travel in Africa

Bus travel in Africa is an adventure. Last year, I backpacked from Ethiopia to South Africa pretty much all by public bus. For many of the bus routes that I traveled, there just wasn’t much information online. The following step-by-step African bus guides include information on bus companies, pricing, departure and arrival times, border crossings, visas, and more. Pretty much everything you’ll want to know to make each trip.

Bus from Moyale to Nairobi
Bus from Moyale to Nairobi
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Step-by-Step African Bus Guides

If you are traveling through Africa independently, chances are you will be spending a lot of time on Buses. Between researching bus routes, locating the bus terminal, and actually riding the bus, it will feel like you are spending half your trip just dealing with buses. Hopefully, this guide will make the process just a bit easier.

African Bus Travel Notes

Traveling by bus in Africa is exhausting. They are hot, rarely stop, and are packed full of people. With that being said, African buses can be a great experience with the right mindset. Fellow passengers are friendly and interesting to talk to, the views are spectacular, and you get to experience some entertaining African film and music during the journey.

Bus travel is really the only option for traveling Africa on a budget. The African rail system is incredibly limited and flights are too expensive. There are two types of bus you will encounter in your journey: coaches and minibusses.

African Coaches

I recommend you take the coach if it is available for the route you are traveling. Benefits of traveling by coach rather than minibus include:

  • Much more comfortable seating- The seats are generally in decent condition and are padded. They may even recline if you’re lucky.
  • Not packed nearly as tightly as minibusses- Many countries do not allow coaches to be filled with more people than there are seats. Minibusses will be packed as full as possible.
  • The journey will take less time- Coaches generally travel between major cities with few stops along the way. Minibusses stop every two minutes to pick up and drop off passengers.
  • Fewer transfers- Coaches travel long distance. Minibusses generally travel shorter routes between towns. This means you may have to take 5 or more minibusses to get to your destination. Each transfer is stressful requiring that you find the next bus headed in your direction and move your gear from one bus to the next.
  • Everyone pays the same price- When you purchase your ticket, the price will be printed in the office so that you know you are not being ripped off. Minibus drivers will try to overcharge you every chance they get.
  • Better Security- Coaches are run by professionals. They care about their reputation so they will put in an effort to ensure that you and your belongings all make it to your destination safely and in one piece.

The only drawback to coaches is that they are slightly more expensive than traveling by minibus. Expect to pay $1-$2 per hour of travel for coach tickets.

Link Malawi bus from Karonga to Lilongwe, Malawi
Bus from Karonga to Lilongwe, Malawi

African Minibusses

African minibusses are hell but are necessary for some sections of the trip. These small buses operate shorter routes between towns and as public transportation within cities. They are cramped, hot, and generally uncomfortable. With that being said, they do have some benefits over coaches.

  • Minibusses leave when they are full, not on a schedule- For this reason, you may be able to get to your destination faster. You may not have to wait a day or more for the next coach while minibusses leave multiple times per day.
  • Minibusses can take you more places- Wherever you want to go, chances are a minibus can take you there. You can access the furthest villages and outposts by minibus. Coaches generally only travel between major cities.
  • Minibusses are cheaper- Expect to pay between $.50-$1 per hour of travel for minibus fare.
  • You can just flag them down whenever- If they are going in your direction, they will stop and pick you up.

Minibusses also have some drawbacks. You may have to wait a few hours or more before the minibus leaves. In Ethiopia, I waited about 4 hours one morning for a minibus from Jinka to Dimeka to fill up. The driver wouldn’t leave until every single seat was occupied. I think a passenger eventually paid for two seats so we could leave.

minibus station in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Inner city minibus station in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Minibus Scams

  • Minibus operators will often try to scam tourists by charging them a higher rate than locals. This infuriates me. Don’t be afraid to confront them if you catch them trying to overcharge. 
  • Watch your pockets. My phone was pickpocketed while I was getting off a minibus in Tanzania. Luckily I got it back. This is just one of the reasons why I’ll never return to Tanzania. For more tips, check out my guide: How to Avoid Pickpockets While Traveling.
  • Many times, if you ask if a bus is going to a specific location, the answer will always be yes, even if it isn’t true. Some drivers don’t care where you are trying to go and will pick you up just so they can collect the fare. It’s best to ask several people, including passengers, where the bus is going. Sometimes it’s hard to get a straight answer. I’m not really sure if this is a scam or just a misunderstanding but it is something to be aware of.

For my complete list of scams, check out my article: 21 Common Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them.

Staying Safe on African Buses

Unfortunately, traveling on buses will likely be the most dangerous part of your trip to Africa. Auto accidents are not uncommon. For whatever reason, Africans like to drive fast. They don’t care about rough roads or blind corners. The following recommendations will help you stay safe:

  • Pick the safest seat on the bus- Ideally, you want to sit on the aisle seat near the middle of the bus opposite of oncoming traffic.
  • Travel in the newest, safest bus that you can- Newer buses have safety features that older buses don’t have.
  • Ride in coaches rather than minibusses- In the event of an accident, you’ll be much less likely to be injured when riding in a coach.
  • If you feel unsafe, get out of the bus and find another way to get to your destination- This is a hassle but there is always another way to get there.

For more general safety tips, check out my guide: Is Travel in Africa Safe? Avoiding Crime, Disease, Injury, and Scams in Africa and Is Uganda Safe?

Finding the Bus Station

The organization of buses is a mess in Africa. Some towns have big bus stations where you can purchase tickets and catch the bus. These are chaotic but manageable. Some towns just have bus companies offices scattered randomly throughout. Occasionally there are multiple ticketing offices and bus stops in the same city.

When searching for a bus you will need to find the ticketing office of the bus company that is going to your destination. Google Maps is pretty accurate for this if you know the name of the bus company. Another option is simply to ask a taxi driver or your hotel reception. They should be able to point you in the right direction.

Make sure to ask at the ticketing office where you will catch the bus when you buy the ticket. Generally, it will be right there, but sometimes there is another office or bus station that they will send you to.

Using the Bathroom While Traveling by Bus

The best advice I can give about bus travel in Africa is to not drink too much liquid before or during the journey. If you must drink, just slowly sip and try to control your intake. Drivers often go 6 or more hours without stopping for a bathroom break. There are no bathrooms on the bus. I would rather be dehydrated than suffer holding my pee for an entire day. When they do stop, it will sometimes just be on the side of the road where the bush is your toilet.

If you are having an emergency and can’t hold it any longer, you will probably have to beg or bribe the driver to stop. Worst case scenario, just tell him that you need to pee and hand him a few dollars in the local currency. He’ll most likely pull the bus over and you can go on the side of the road.

Snacks and Food on the Bus

To make the bus ride a bit more pleasant, pack some snacks for the road. Food options are limited along the way and you never know when the bus will stop. You are also at a greater risk of getting food poisoning at roadside stops. Cleanliness is hit or miss at these places. Also, you never know how long the food has been sitting out in the sun. Better be safe than sorry.

For snacks, I would usually bring a few packets of cookies and some fruit along. For all day journeys, I would bring a can of tuna and bread to make sandwiches along the way. Another option is to boil some eggs in the morning and eat them on the bus.

Ethiopian Food called Tibbs
Tibbs for lunch in Ethiopia

Border Crossings

Surprisingly, all border crossings that I encountered were fairly smooth and efficient. On average, crossing the border took less than two hours. Before boarding an international bus, do your research and make sure that the visa that you need is available at the border if you don’t already have it. For information on visas, you can read my African visa guide.

Luggage Storage on African Buses

Storing luggage on African buses works a bit different than you may be used to. African buses are often used to transport goods as well as people. Because of this, they are usually filled to capacity. Storing luggage on a coach and minibus is a bit different. 

Storing Luggage on an African Coach

While traveling by coach, your ticket usually includes one large piece of luggage plus a carry-on. The larger piece is stored in the luggage compartment below the bus if it doesn’t fit in the overhead compartments inside.

When the bus begins boarding, simply wait by the luggage compartment until the handler takes your bag. Sometimes you have to just crowd in if no line forms. Usually, the luggage handler tags your bag and hands you a ticket. This process is the same as anywhere else.  

In my experience, there are no hard rules when it comes to weight or size limits of your luggage. My backpack was never weighed or measured. If you’re carrying two large items, you may be asked to pay an extra dollar or two. The luggage handler may also ask you for a tip while loading your bag. It’s up to you whether or not you want to give him anything. I recommend not tipping.

Overall, storing luggage below the bus is pretty safe. Of course, theft is a risk just like anywhere. I don’t believe rates of theft are particularly high on African buses, but I’m sure it does happen occasionally. I never had a problem. The best thing you can do to lower the risk is to travel with reputable bus companies. They take security more seriously.

Tip: Carry any valuables or fragile items such as computers, cameras, cash, etc. in your carry-on bag. Keep this bag on your person at all times. Even though theft is unlikely, why risk it? If you’re worried about theft, consider packing ultralight so you can always carry your bag on the bus. 

Storing Luggage on African Minibusses

This process depends on the minibus and the size of your luggage. In some places, your luggage is included in the fare and sometimes you pay by the bag. Really, it just depends on how well you can negotiate. On an African minibus, you store your luggage in one of 3 places. 

  1. If you travel light like me, you may be able to simply store your bag on the floor under your legs or on your lap. While this isn’t the most comfortable, it is the most secure.
  2. If your luggage is larger or the minibus is packed full of people, the driver may store your bag in the back of the bus behind the last row of seats. 
  3. If the bus is packed completely full, you may have to store your bag on top of the bus. A luggage handler will throw or carry your bag to the roof and simply lash it down with some rope. This isn’t ideal but sometimes it’s the only option. I hate having to worry about my precious backpack bouncing off the bus and being lost in the bush. 

If you need to store your luggage in the back of the bus or on the roof, I recommend you remove any valuables or fragile items and carry them in a small bag on your person. This reduces the risk of theft or damage. African baggage handlers aren’t too gentle with the luggage. 

Zac standing in front of the bus from Moyale to Nairobi
Taking a break during the ride from Moyale to Nairobi

Final Thoughts on Bus Travel in Africa

Things change fast in Africa so parts of these guides may quickly become outdated but the general information should hold up. I thoroughly enjoyed traveling through Africa by bus and plan to return to the continent soon. Hopefully, you found this information helpful in planning your trip.

If you’re not sure if independent bus travel is for you, check out my guide to help you decide  Africa overland tour Vs. Independent Travel: My Pros and Cons List

Have you traveled by bus in Africa? Share your tips and experience in the comments below!

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