Malawi’s best bus company is AXA Coach Service, with three classes of vehicle: Super Executive, Executive and Special. The former is a luxury nonstop service with air-con, toilet, comfortable reclining seats, USB ports, reading lights, good drivers, snacks, fresh coffee and even an on-board magazine. Services operate between Blantyre and Lilongwe twice a day, leaving every morning and afternoon from special departure points in each city (not the main bus stations).
The Executive and Special services are the next in line. These buses have air-con and reclining seats as well as TVs, but they don’t have toilets. They ply the route between Blantyre and Karonga via Lilongwe and Mzuzu daily, serving the main towns, with limited stops elsewhere.
Other smaller bus companies, including the National Bus Company, have daily services up and down the lake and between the country's main centres. These are marginally more comfortable than minibuses, but no more efficient, and they generally cost the same.
Minibuses are the most popular option because they leave regularly throughout the day. They operate on a fill-up-and-go basis; you can speed up the process, and buy yourself some comfort, by purchasing two seats. Direct long-distance minibuses are becoming less common; you will likely have to change once or twice on a long-distance journey up the lakeshore or M1. You can still buy a long-distance ticket – the driver should transfer your fare to the connecting service – but it is wiser to only pay as far as the place where you will change minibuses.
In rural areas, the frequency of buses and minibuses drops dramatically – sometimes to nothing. In cases like this, the ‘bus’ is often a truck or pickup, with people just piled in the back. In Malawi this is called a matola.
You can buy tickets in advance for AXA services, all of which have set departure times, and doing so is recommended. AXA has offices and agents at the main bus stations and departure points, or you can buy tickets at branches of Post Dot Net (post, internet and business centres found in Malawi’s major towns). A week’s notice is sometimes needed for the Super Executive coach, particularly for Friday and Sunday services.