How to survive long-distance bus travel in the USA

How to survive long-distance bus travel in the USA

I will admit that driving is perhaps the most popular way to travel around our vast and beautiful country. However, not only is it an expensive way to get around, but it can also be rather inconvenient to find a parking spot especially in a busy city. My preferred alternative is traveling by bus, and I have been doing it for years. It is a cheap, convenient, and actually rather comfortable way of getting around the United States. Read on to find out which US bus companies I recommend plus some of the tips and tricks I have learned from my experiences bus traveling around the country.

Is it better to travel by bus in the United States?

The answer is both a yes and no. It all boils down to where you are going on your trip. If you are traveling to big cities within one region, like the East Coast for example, then I definitely recommend the bus option. It is usually cheaper and more convenient not to have a car in cities since parking fees can most certainly take a chunk out of your wallet. However, if you are heading to cities with terrible public transport systems, then you might need to think about how to get around once you are there.

One of the best things about the United States is the many national parks scattered all over the country. If the main reason for your trip is to visit these beautiful national parks, then it might be inconvenient to travel by bus. First of all, the bus probably will not stop in front of the national parks and getting to rural areas by hailing a cab would cost a fortune. On the other hand, some parks offer great infrastructure like Yosemite National Park. So, whether you should travel by bus or not depends on your destination.

Another reason I prefer traveling by bus over driving is that it is eco-friendlier and has a smaller carbon footprint. However, it is a relatively grittier and less classy traveling method. While most long-distance buses do offer Wi-Fi and entertainment on board, the internet connection is often unstable and the television screens are usually not of the best quality. It probably isn’t the most glamorous way of getting around, but it is more sustainable, economical, sometimes more convenient, and you can even do stuff when you’re on the move which you couldn’t do if you were behind the wheel.

Bus companies offering long-distance travel in the United States

You will find many bus companies operating in the US, including a lot of regional bus lines which, to be honest, I haven’t had much experience with. I mainly use big bus companies that operate all over the country. Unless you plan to travel on a major holiday, you can purchase your bus tickets just a day or two before the day you want to leave. However, ticket prices are usually cheaper if you buy them far in advance, so I recommend that once you have your dates confirmed, you buy your bus tickets as soon as possible.

Greyhound

Greyhound is one of the largest bus companies in the United States and has great coverage across the entire country. You can even get to the Yosemite National Park via a Greyhound bus. However, because the company has such a large network and stops at so many destinations, you might have to pass through several stop points in different places before reaching your destination. This could increase your travel time and make an already tiring journey even longer.

It is usually best to buy Greyhound bus tickets at least two weeks in advance to secure a good price. You should also keep your eyes peeled for special promotions when you buy online. Compared to other bus companies in the United States, Greyhound tends to rank quite favorably, but people who regularly take their buses do not seem to be their biggest cheerleaders either. You will see complaints about power outlets not working or buses that are old, etc.

Megabus

Megabus is another household name in the US bus industry. You have probably seen advertisements promoting $1 fare on Megabus. Although this is rarely seen now ($1 trips were a lot more common when the company first started its operation years ago), you can still get some pretty good deals especially if you book well in advance. Coverage for Megabus is best between college cities or towns, especially on the East Coast and Midwest.

You will find that the people taking Megabus buses are generally younger with many students using them to get around the country. From my experience, the power outlets work most of the time, and the quality of Wi-Fi provided on board the buses is acceptable. The staff is also quite friendly, and I often find them very helpful. On the other hand, the company is rather strict about bag sizes so make sure that you conform to the requirements. Otherwise, Megabus has the right to deny taking your oversized luggage on the bus.

BoltBus

If you are traveling between major cities, I definitely recommend taking BoltBus. It is a company that provides premium services and covers cities on the East and West coasts. Their buses are relatively new compared to other bus companies, and you can generally rely on the power outlets to work. They have recently added a movie option that you can purchase when you buy your bus ticket. I wish I could take BoltBus more often, but they will have to expand their coverage to more destinations.

Trailways Transportation System

The best thing about Trailways is its large network of over 70 regional bus companies which it works with. This means that you are able to get to many rural destinations that other bus companies are not able to offer. Furthermore, the buses often take non-highway routes, so you’ll have a more scenic journey.

However, you will have to be prepared to experience long layovers and switch buses, especially when you change state lines. Consequently, the quality of buses could be improved a lot and there is the inconvenience of changing buses where you’ll have to unload your luggage and put it on the next bus.

Other bus companies

There are a lot of other bus companies available like Orange Belt in California, Vonlane in Texas, Peter Pan on the East Coast, RedCoach in Florida and more. It would be quite impossible to list them all out. If you can’t find a route to where you want to go, you can check out the schedule at a bus station to see if there is a bus on a regional line that is headed towards your planned destination.

If you are traveling on the East and West coasts, there is a chance that you can find Chinese bus companies that run between Chinatowns in large cities. I have personally taken buses run by Chinese companies several times between Los Angeles and New York City without any incident. However, there are some reports of people taking these buses and having them break down in the middle of nowhere and the staff members were not helpful at all. The prices they offer are usually the cheapest but just do not expect premium services.

What you should know about traveling in buses in the US

The bus stations might not be the safest place

As infrastructure like interstate highways are becoming more advanced and car rental companies are getting more competitive, bus travel within the United States is less popular than before. Most bus stations are located on the dingier side of town, and anyone can come and go as they please without a ticket. Therefore, make sure that you keep an eye on your personal belongings and be vigilant, especially if you are traveling after dark.

Newer bus companies like Megabus adopt a business model where they cut down on operating costs so that they can offer competitive prices. One method of keeping prices low is by eliminating bus stations completely in their routes. You will often find the drop off points are simply a parking lot or even on a sidewalk. This means that you might have to wait out in the open for your bus and this could be quite inconvenient if it is snowing or raining. So make sure that you are dressed appropriately and always have an umbrella or raincoat ready.

Allow ample time to look for the right bus

Although regional lines and Greyhound buses depart from well-established terminals in the city center which are very easy to find, some new bus companies have a designated area where their buses pick up passengers in the quieter parts of town. The designated area might be very big and locating the specific departure point of your bus could be harder than you think.

When I was traveling out of New York on Megabus, it took me about 20 minutes to get to the right pick-up point for the bus I was taking. I have also taken BoltBus from DC before and while the designated area for the buses to stop was quite easy to find, there were more than five buses that were departing around the same time as my bus, so it took me some time plus asking around to find the right place to wait for my bus.

Don’t be surprised if you’re dropped off in a remote area

Most active bus terminals and drop-off points are not in the busiest part of town because it could be quite expensive to operate a large place like a bus station in the middle of the city. You will often end up quite a distance from the downtown area and if that is the case, you might be forced to take a taxi to your accommodation. It is advisable to plan ahead and find out where your drop-off point is and how you can get from there to your final destination. Google Maps is a great resource and often gives good recommendations on how you can get to where you want from where the bus will drop you off.

Do not travel on buses that arrive or depart after 11 p.m.

This is especially true if you are traveling alone or have a lot of luggage with you. Crime is a real issue in many American cities and walking around at night on your own with a bulky luggage bag could make you a target for robbers. Although prices might be cheaper to travel in the wee hours of the night, it is not worth it because of safety reasons. Furthermore, many public means of transport do not work after 11 p.m. so you might not have a cheap way to get to your final destination if you are dropped off very far from it.

Buy your ticket way ahead of your intended travel time

While you could often just buy your bus ticket a day or two before you intend to travel, the prices are usually much lower if you buy them very far in advance. If you have a few months until you plan to travel, you could even wait a bit to see if a sale will come up for the ticket you need. However, a sale does not always guarantee the lowest price, especially if the route is very popular so to play it safe, you might want to buy your ticket as far in advance as possible.

Do not always expect the Wi-Fi or power outlets to work

Bus companies often promote that their services include Wi-Fi and power outlets at each individual seat. Although this is true, it is not uncommon for them not to work while you are on board the bus. Do not expect to use Wi-Fi services on buses to Skype your friends or stream movies while you are traveling. At best, the Wi-Fi allows you to check your emails and communicate on messengers like Facebook chat or WhatsApp.

Even if the power outlets work, they are sometimes located in an inconvenient place to charge your devices. Some buses I have been on have the power outlets on top of the seats, and the wire for my charger was not long enough to charge my phone. Many people intend to get some work done on their long bus journeys, but the onboard environment isn’t usually the most convenient setting for that. Tray tables can be too small to hold your laptop properly, especially when the person sitting in front of you leans their chair back.

Print your bus tickets

I always print out my bus tickets before a trip for several reasons. One, not all bus companies have an e-ticket system where they can just scan a code on your phone screen to get the details of your trip. Two, with my bus ticket printed on a piece of paper, I do not have to worry about my phone being charged enough to display my ticket when needed. Finally, in case my phone does not work, I have a spare set of tickets printed out as a backup of my bus tickets.

Have your ID handy before boarding the bus

The bus driver or the company’s staff member will need to check your ID before they let you board the bus. Your ID must have a recent photo of you, and the name on it must match the name on the bus ticket. This means that you cannot use someone else’s ticket even if they gave it to you.

Not all bus tickets are refundable

Most bus tickets, especially the ones bought during a sale, are non-refundable. Unless you pay extra for a flexible ticket, you can only use your ticket to board a bus on a specific time and route. If you missed your ride, some bus companies allow you to change your ticket at the last minute for a fee. However, sometimes the fee is even higher than just buying a last-minute ticket, so I did that instead.

You can meet great people on the bus

Although I have kept to myself on most of my bus trips, sometimes you can make friends on the bus unexpectedly. Most passengers sleep, look out the window or play on their phones throughout the entire journey. But I have also met people who struck up conversations with me on the bus and made the long ride much more interesting.

Do not drink too much

Obviously, you do not want to be drunk while you are on the bus, but I meant that you should not drink too much liquid in general. It is important to stay hydrated, but at the same time, you do not want to take too many toilet breaks. Regional buses do not always have a toilet on board and might not stop long enough at a layover for you to use a public toilet.

Long-distance buses will usually have one toilet, but my experiences with them have been quite unpleasant especially on bumpy rides. Make sure that you use a toilet just before you board the bus. A trick is to use the toilet immediately after you board and before the driver starts the engine. The toilets are also usually in a much cleaner state at the beginning of the trip.

Set your alarm

It is very likely that you will fall asleep on the bus, especially on long journeys. If the stop you get off on is not the terminal stop for the bus, it is wise to set an alarm on your phone to wake you up before the estimated time of arrival at your stop. I usually set my alarm at least 30 minutes before the scheduled time to make sure that I wake up in time even if the bus is early.

Always keep your valuables with you

Buses allow you to store your big luggage bags in a storage area at the hull section of the bus. Unless you are physically outside the bus, you will not be able to monitor your luggage bags. Therefore, you should always keep your valuables in a backpack that you bring with you on to the bus. This is especially true if there are many stops on your journey, so you will at least have the important things with you even if your luggage bag was lost.

Label your luggage bag clearly

As mentioned above, all luggage bags must be stored in the hull of the bus. Imagine if your bag is a black suitcase and there are 30 other bags that look identical in the same storage area, you could easily have taken the wrong one by mistake. Similarly, if there are many stops where passengers get dropped off before you arrive at your destination, someone could unknowingly take your bag especially if they are in a rush.

A bag tag with your details on it will help the person who took your bag by mistake track you down and return your suitcase to you. Better yet, mark your bags clearly so that they are easily identifiable. You can do this by tying a ribbon with a striking color to the handle of the bag or putting eye-catching stickers on the outside surface of your bag.

Things you should bring with you on a long bus journey

You might already know to bring important things like your ID, bus ticket, your wallet and phone with you on the bus, but here are some suggestions on what to take with you to make a long bus journey more comfortable.

Hand sanitizer

Buses are generally not the cleanest place to be in and the soap dispenser in the toilet hardly ever works. If you plan on eating on your journey, make sure you bring some hand sanitizer to minimize your chance of getting sick.

Travel pillow

I could not survive a long bus journey without my trusty travel pillow. If you are going on an overnight bus trip, this is perhaps one of the most important items to bring with you. Otherwise, you might not be able to sleep at all and end up ruining your trip because you have to catch up on sleep when you arrive at your destination.

An adequate-sized backpack

Bus companies allow you to bring a carry-on onto the bus with you. I recommend using a backpack that is big enough to store all your valuables, including your laptop, yet small enough to fit under the seat in front of you or the storage compartment above your seat.

A fully charged tablet and a good set of headphones

Although this is not a necessity, it will definitely make your life easier on a long bus journey. Download your movies or TV shows to the tablet before you leave your house. Do not rely on the onboard Wi-Fi to stream or download your shows.

Food

You should stock up on some easy to eat food like granola bars to bring with you on your bus trip. Do not buy them at the bus station because prices are usually more expensive there than getting them at a supermarket. Avoid bringing food that smells or need refrigeration to stay fresh like cheese and smoked fish for example.

Comfortable clothing and a jacket or sweatshirt

Many people have asked me for advice on what to wear for a long bus trip. My advice is to always wear comfortable clothes in layers and bring along something that could keep you warm. It is difficult to gauge whether the bus will be too warm or cold as some bus drivers like to blast the air conditioner while some turn the heater way too high. Instead of complaining to the driver to change the temperature, you can take off some layers of clothes if it is too warm or put on a sweater or jacket if it is too cold.

A book and reading light

A good book is a great source to help you pass the time and it does not depend on Wi-Fi or power outlets to function. However, if you are prone to car sickness, you might want to avoid reading on a bus ride that could be rather bumpy. If you plan to read on an overnight journey, bring a reading light too because the bus driver usually turns off the lights after a certain hour. You can use the reading light above your seat, but that could easily annoy other passengers who are trying to sleep.

A fully charged power bank

I cannot stress the importance of having a working phone enough, especially if you are traveling to a place you are not familiar with. Always make sure that you have enough “juice” in your power bank to charge your phone in case you need to make an important phone call or use Google maps to get to where you need to go after the bus drops you off.

If you are also an avid bus traveler in the United States like me and have something to add to my list of things to bring on a long bus journey, let me know!

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