[Last updated 02 September 2015]
If you are considering purchasing Bamba Experience’s hop-on hop-off bus pass, then this review is for you. I have tried to keep it as honest as possible so that it can be a real source of both advice and information. I hope it helps!
I bought the hop-on hop-off bus pass with the Mexican-based company, Bamba, for my 3 month trip across South America. You pick a set route which includes all of your transport as well as a series of activities. The pass lasts for up to 12 months and you can spend as long as you want in any one place, making it flexible. Whenever you want to go to your next destination, organise one of your activities, or ask for advice about a particular place, all you need to do is contact Bamba by email, Skype or phone – you just need to factor in any time differences as their offices are in Mexico. The ticket does not include accommodation or food.
I picked the Samba to Incaways route (I believe that this has since been renamed “South American Journey Ways“.) Its selling point for me was that I would have the support of a company behind me, like you would have for a tour – indeed a big part of Bamba’s ethos is that it can provide its customers with knowledge and information – but the flexibility that you have when travelling independently. The company would organise my transport, relieving me of much of the stress of wondering how to get from one place to another, and I could meet people through the activities included in my pass.
I’m now well into my second month of using my pass – what do I think of it so far?
The first point I want to raise is that the staff are great. Emails are answered within a few hours, and Skype is answered immediately if you contact them during their working hours. They’re polite, helpful and prompt.
This is where my positive outlook unfortunately takes quite a negative turn.
Relying on a third party to organise your transport and activities can make things more stressful. For example, I booked my trip to see the Argentinian Falls but on the morning of the trip there was a huge thunderstorm. Everyone else who’d booked it independently was able to reschedule without fuss. Not so for me. Not only could I not reschedule the activity myself, but I couldn’t even contact Bamba to change it because of the time difference between Brazil and Mexico. Having no power to sort it out myself was incredibly frustrating.
A second problem is that I can’t be flexible, let go and enjoy unencumbered time. My fellow backpackers often don’t decide to move on from a place until the night before, booking their transport last minute. However, leaving with them is either difficult or impossible because I need to give Bamba enough time (preferably 48 hours) to organise my transport. This is also an issue when I arrive at a destination and decide that I only want to spend a day there. Factor in the time differences of the Bamba offices in Mexico, and we have a recipe for stress as I try and sort out my travel before the offices close.
This wouldn’t be as big a problem if I was doing the Bamba pass with a friend and/or weren’t as fussed about travelling with people. Unfortunately, I can’t necessarily travel with the people I meet because I have to go with what Bamba book for me. I have often had to travel with a different bus company and then meet my travel buddies at the other end. And even if I do get on the same bus as the people I’m travelling with, I can’t necessarily sit with them because my seat has been booked separately to theirs. This isn’t to mention the occasions when I haven’t been able to leave with my friends at all because they booked their transport last minute.
For both of these reasons I have started arranging my own transport in Bolivia and forgetting my Bamba pass altogether. The stress of organising my transport – from waiting for confirmation emails that don’t seem to arrive before I am due to embark on the transport, to being unable to give Bamba enough notice to organise my transport – is greater than the financial loss (which is saying something, given my budget!)
Another criticism is the quality of advice and information offered. On its website, Bamba sells itself on the advice and support it offers. All of Bamba’s confirmation emails, sent every time you book your transport or an activity, include information about the place you’re going, what you can do there and where to stay. However, between the internet, my guidebook, and advice from friendly hostels, I’ve not really needed this information. Even the transport is relatively easy to sort out yourself on the ground if you ask around. Moreover, not all of the information that Bamba has given me has been correct. Crucially, their confirmation emails gave me incorrect advice about the border crossing between Brazil and Bolivia (which was very stressful! ), and also gave inaccurate summaries of the costs involved in their activities (e.g. entry prices.) I’ve had other questions before, varying from panic about getting to a place on time, to enquiries about the included activities, and I can’t say that the advice and support offered have been overwhelmingly useful.
It’s also worth mentioning that the website isn’t easy to navigate. I had real trouble locating the map and itinerary of my pass on their website. There were also mistakes with the itinerary posted online which caused me some confusion and worry. I know from speaking to an agent in STA that many other people have also found the website a little confusing at times. (A good improvement to the website would be an easy ability to browse the passes by country – currently you have to enter a specific ‘start city’. If the ability to browse all passes associated with a continent or country already exists on the website, I haven’t been able to find it.)
Problems contacting Bamba
Which leads me nicely on what to do when the internet’s too poor to contact Bamba. If I can’t contact Bamba I can’t travel anywhere. I’ve also wasted too much money paying to use an internet cafe just to either email Bamba or to check to see whether they’ve replied (and if I still don’t have a reply then I have to spend more money checking later in the day.) And this isn’t even including the stress of when Bamba hasn’t been able to send my confirmation email before I’m due to leave to take the transport. I always ask Bamba how much time they need to organise my transport, and double check whether I’m putting unfair expectations on their ability to book and receive confirmation in time. Yet it always seems to be a case of me stressing that I’m due to leave in a few hours and I still have no confirmation or idea of whether I can leave or not.
As a result, I feel slightly peeved about the cost of my Bamba pass. When I first looked at my Bamba pass it was around £1100, which was brilliant value for money. They put the price up to £1800*, which was a big difference, but I thought it to be fair when you consider the huge rises in costs in Brazil and the fact that my transport wouldn’t always be the cheapest (for instance, Bamba sometimes arrange flights or trains instead of the usual long haul buses most budget travellers use.)
At the time it seemed a price worth paying because you pay for the convenience and support. Of course it’s going to be cheaper if you do it yourself. It annoys me endlessly when other reviews of Bamba include complaints such as “It would have been cheaper to do it myself”, and, “There were costs in the activities I still had to pay for, like entrance fees” – what’s included and what is not is written clearly when you buy the product.
My complaint about cost arises when I factor in the extra days I’ve spent in places because I’ve needed to give Bamba enough notice to arrange transport and/or one of my activities. Moreover, because I am currently travelling with a friend and want to use them same buses as them, I am now making my own travel arrangements. I wouldn’t mind the cost of my pass if I felt that it had my trip easier, but the reality is that Bamba has both marred my trip and cost me an arm and a leg more than expected.
*The price of the pass is now a whopping £2394.
What kind of trip do you want and what kind of traveller do you want to be?
Bamba could work well if you have a relatively fixed itinerary and/or aren’t fussed about travelling with people you meet along the way. Similarly, if there’s a group of you all doing Bamba together and you just want to stick with each other, Bamba could be a brilliant, convenient choice.
But if you are a first time backpacker who wants to travel with people they meet and be flexible, Bamba is a very costly inconvenience and I would recommend that you avoid booking one of their passes (plus booking everything yourself is easier than you think, I promise!) If you’re a first time backpacker and really want the support of a company behind you, get your money’s worth and book a full package tour complete with its own bus and guide.
Only book Bamba if you want to have a relatively structured trip and will be able to give Bamba plenty of notice for bookings. Similarly, if you have plenty of time on your hands and don’t mind spending extra days in a location waiting for Bamba to organise things for you, then Bamba could be a good choice. I don’t have that long in South America – I can’t afford to spend extra days in places I don’t want to because of the 48hr contact rule. The biggest problem for me with Bamba is that I’ve paid all this extra money and I don’t see how it’s enhanced my trip at all, it’s just brought me stress.
You need to think about what kind of traveller you either are or want to be, and whether a Bamba pass will enable that or prevent it. I think that’s really the bottom line.
Considerations before booking a Bamba pass
I would like to end my review with a quick note to say that you should consider carefully the following factors when choosing Bamba:
- Find out which companies Bamba use for the activities included in your pass and check the reviews of those activities online.
- Double check that you have enough money for the additional costs involved in the activities. Not all entrance fees and costs are covered by your pass so you will need some extra money.
- How do you want to travel? (E.g. do you want to be flexible; travel with people; have a relatively fixed itinerary?)
- Is it actually quite easy to book transport yourself in that part of the world? In the case of South America, I would argue that it is quite easy to book your own transport – just look online or ask your hostel.
- Are you honestly OK with having to contact a company 48hrs before you want to do anything or go anywhere?
You need to think about what kind of traveller you either are or want to be, and whether a Bamba pass will enable that or prevent it. I think that’s really the bottom line. Bamba can potentially be a great convenience and source of advice, particularly as the staff respond so quickly – unfortunately the pass just isn’t for me.