Ask others about the best way to travel around South Africa and at least one of them is bound to mention the BazBus. This will be mimicked by much of the written literature out there, especially on arrival in South Africa, as the best option for backpacking across the country. However, we managed to narrowly escape following the masses and found that the BazBus might not always be the best choice.
Even though this post is going to recommend a potential alternative travel option, this does not mean we have anything against the BazBus. If you’re a young single traveller then it seems to be a safe and relatively easy way to get around. We never used the service so cannot comment on any particulars, however, many travellers we met along the way were using it and it was clear there was a lot of infrastructure in place.
1. There are too many options!
The best, yet most confusing, thing about the BazBus is the array of options. At first it seems straight forward as you can buy single direction or return either between the major cities (e.g. Cape Town, Port Elizabeth or Johannesburg), or opt for a number of days such as 7, 14 or 21. However, even this is tricky to decide. Will you want to go back to somewhere? Can you fit in everything you want to do in a set number of days? Do you have a target city you’re trying to reach? When making this decision you need to bear in mind that some stops are compulsory, the bus doesn’t run everyday from every stop and there’s always the possibility it will be booked up so either you plan the whole thing in advance or wing-it and hope you don’t get stranded (as happened to a good friend of ours). It was only when at one of the hostels utilising the BazBus that we found you could buy single tickets from any stop to any other stop e.g. Mossel Bay to Jeffrey’s Bay meaning you didn’t have to go from one major city to another.
If you know exactly how long you’ve got, where you are leaving from and your final destination, as well as exactly how long you want in each location then the BazBus is definitely worth considering.
Want a little flexibility: not sure exactly where you want to stop; how long you’ll want to stay in each place; or where you’ll end up? Then maybe look at alternatives.
2. You go from hostel to hostel.
At first, when planning our South African adventure, this was the biggest plus. We had become sucked into the mindset of others who had barely or never travelled the country telling us what a dangerous place it was. As a consequence we felt (& our parents were much happier) that this would be a much safer option. If you’re nervous about travelling around South Africa then don’t be. Yes, it can be a potentially dangerous place, but so can everywhere in the world. However, if you listen to local advice and be sensible in the major cities then you, like the many travellers before you, will be fine. You may have an unlucky experience, but this can happen anywhere in the world including your hometown. We found that everyone we met were friendly and very helpful so please try not to pre-judge a whole nation based on a few horror stories.
The problem with going from hostel to hostel is that you don’t get to stop at destinations along the way. If you want to travel out to see things then hostel shuttles/transport (if available) can be very expensive – something you may not have budgeted for. For example we travelled to a number of places in The Crags which would have been costly to do using hostel arranged transport. We were also able to stop en-route to Coffee Bay at Qunu (childhood home of Nelson Mandela) which would have been impossible to do using BazBus as our sole method of transport. Many of the BazBus stops lie along the coast so the chances of you seeing any inland areas are much slimmer other than out of a bus window. Finally, you don’t have to use the BazBus to stay at a hostel using this service.
If you’re limited for time, want to tick off the major traveller hotspots only, and are mainly interested in sticking to coastal areas then BazBus is worth considering.
However, if you’ve got a bit of flexibility, are interested in seeing a bit more of the real South Africa away from the tourist hubs, and your main purpose isn’t to visit beach after beach to top up your tan or get hours of surfing in, then maybe consider an alternative.
3. The price you pay is fixed.
This is very appealing especially when you are trying to plan out a gap year. How much should you budget and what will that include is something I am constantly asking myself? You want to get value for money but at the same time you don’t want to have to miss out on a potentially life-changing moment or experience. Therefore, it’s really tempting to look at all the options that BazBus have to offer and assume that the best way to map out your time in South Africa is to let them sort it all out for you. Yes, you would get to see it all and you would know how much it was all going to cost before your plane even touched down. With their list of tried and tested hostels that they pick up from, you won’t even have to worry about where to stay. However, if you plan as you go along then you may find there are plenty of other offers available that may suit your tastes or budget more. Plus there are a number of great hostels out there that are not on the BazBus route but still offer great value for money. The problem with fixing all of your budget before you go is that you reduce your flexibility and your ability to be spontaneous especially if you meet other travellers as you go along and can get a better deal as a larger group – which will be more fun too!
Once again, if you are limited on the time that you have, have a very fixed idea of what you want to see or do and a tight budget then BazBus might be perfect for you. You can decide what you want to see and do before you go and budget accordingly.
However, if you want to wait to get into the country and explore the options a little further, giving yourself the possibility of saying yes spontaneously to an opportunity with your new found friends, then maybe consider an alternative.
What’s the alternative?
Rent a car. Simple. It is much cheaper. It will allow you to be flexible in where you want to go, when you want to go and how long you want to stay there. This is obviously only a better alternative if you can drive, have a licence and feel confident driving on the left. It is also great for friends or couples travelling together as you will have someone to share driving and costs with. However, if you meet other travellers along the way (which you will) and with whom you want to travel with (which is more than possible) then you can share the driving and expenditure with them too. With driving you are free to say yes to spontaneous plans and get the best value for a larger group of friends which in turn will be more fun than going alone. You can use cheap sites for booking accommodation and get great deals which are often as cheap or cheaper than those recommended by BazBus. If you want to reduce costs further you can cook in the hostels and for that you will have a car to pick up ingredients from the shops on your way. You can also meet different people – not everyone will be doing the exact same BazBus itinerary allowing you to find out more about the place you are exploring and get off the beaten track.
You won’t know how much it will cost exactly but you can still research and get a rough idea in advance. You won’t have a strict number of days in a place or even a list of destinations yet. What you will have will be freedom on the open road.
Where to start?
We used Atlaschoice for sourcing cheap offers for rental. It is much cheaper if you can drive a manual so this may not be the best option for those of you with an automatic licence. Ironically it is great to use a site such as BazBus to get an idea of where other travellers are likely to be heading. You don’t want to avoid them completely as you will want to visit the “must-see sights” and meet others to get hints and tips as well as make new friends. We used Booking.com to source cheap accommodation as well as Coast to Coast which is a brilliant backpacking guide to the whole of South Africa as well as the surrounding countries in Southern Africa. You can pick up a paper copy of the book in most hostels and it has plenty of information on where to stay and what to do as well as fantastic offers which will make you glad you didn’t book too much in advance. However, the best source of information cannot be given as a website link for it’s the people you meet once you’ve already started travelling. There are so many people backpacking through South Africa – old and young, solo and huge groups, some on a quick two week holiday on others hoping to never leave Africa! The more you talk to others, the more you will learn about what there is to do and how to do it all on whatever size budget you have.
We spent an amazing three months in South Africa with a one week diversion into Lesotho. We were glad to have had the freedom to plan as we went along and for us it allowed for a much better experience. However, even in three months there was still so much we didn’t see or do. Please contact us if you would like specific information about what we did or if you’ve already travelled through South Africa then leave a comment to inspire others.