Here's Why Bus Travel Is Cheaper, Easier, and More Awesome Than You Think

By Deia B on 1 October 2014 0 comments
Photo: Ray Forster

Buses are making a comeback. The number of inter-city bus departures has been rising since 2006, according to a study by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University.

And it's no wonder why. Airfares used to be cheaper in the recession days of 2009, but they have risen by almost 12% since then. As of January 2014, the average domestic roundtrip flight would cost you $363.42. As airfares get more expensive and plane seats get smaller, people are increasingly seeking other alternatives, and that means a bus boom. (See also: Alternatives to Flying: Other Ways to Get There From Here)

And these are not the buses your grandparents used to take either; these companies have impressive social media followings and equip their vehicles with high-tech toys.

So here's why — and how — you should take your next trip by bus.

Reservations

There are a couple of aggregate booking websites for buses, but they leave out some of the bigger companies, which makes them rather useless for comparison shopping. Generally, you're better off booking through the bus company directly.

The biggest and most established long-distance bus company is Greyhound, which covers the U.S. and Canada. Other bus companies — like Trailways, Megabus, BoltBus, Lux Bus, Vamoose, Tripper Bus, and RedCoach — may not serve as many cities, but may compete on service or amenities.

All of these bus companies have websites through which you can check bus schedules and make reservations. You can also purchase the tickets over the phone or at the station. If possible, visit the station ahead of your travel date to buy the ticket in person. I've heard horror stories about technical issues with online booking that lead to hours of frustration with various customer service representatives.

You can't choose your seat at the time of booking, so come early and get in line if you want seating options.

Price

Most bus companies offer low prices. After all, they know that customers would probably rather pay a little bit more to fly if bus fares weren't ridiculously cheap. On average, an inter-city bus fare is 79% cheaper than an advance-purchase airfare. The difference is even bigger when bus fares are compared with airfares purchased at the last minute, according to the Chaddick Institute study.

Some companies, such as Megabus and Tripper, often advertise $1 seats. But these promotional fares are rare, and you need to time your reservation just right to get them. To improve your chances of getting these fares, check the bus websites a few weeks before your travel date.

There may be other discounts that bus companies don't advertise, so explore the website thoroughly if you book online or ask the company representative if you book by phone or in person. Greyhound, for example, offers special companion fares if you travel with a friend and advance purchase discounts if you book your seats at least one week before the trip. There are also discounts for students, members of the military, and veterans.

Amenities

The inter-city buses of today are generally clean, comfortable, and reliable. A typical bus has a lavatory on board and air conditioning.

Power sockets and Wi-Fi are becoming common as well, although the Wi-Fi can be rather spotty, in my experience. In rural areas, there may not be any phone data service, so prepare to be disconnected from the Internet. Check your emails and post your social media updates while you still have Internet connection at home or at the bus station. For the best Wi-Fi connection, travel with Vamoose, RedCoach, Tripper, or Lux Bus.

If you happen to travel on a luxury bus, you may get to watch movies on the screens on board. However, the selection is likely to be limited, so store some good movies on your laptop or download a nice ebook before the trip.

Most buses have plushy seats that recline and plenty of legroom. But some bus companies take things one step further, with Lux Bus and RedCoach providing leather seats in their vehicles.

There are even luxury buses with attendants who distribute free snacks and alcohol as you sit back in your big seat. Yes, bus travel can get quite classy.

But even with the comfy seats, it can be difficult to sleep. Inter-city buses often make multiple stops along the way to your destination and you may even have to change vehicles. Check your route for these stops and transfers, then pack some sleep aids if you think you'll need them.

Safety

You may meet some colorful characters when you travel by bus, but the biggest danger of bus travel is the possibility of traffic accidents. For example, the vehicle may not comply with safety regulations or the driver may drive under the influence.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration maintains safety records of bus companies and rates companies based on their safety standards. You can access this information on your smartphone using the Saferbus app for Android and iOS. There is also a guide for the app on FMCSA's website and Facebook page if you need help using it.

There's always a small risk of your bag being misplaced, regardless of whether you fly or take the bus. Keep your valuables with you instead of checking them in for storage underneath the bus.

When you travel by plane, it's usually easy to hail a taxi at the airport. But when you get off a bus in a small town, you may find yourself alone in the middle of nowhere at an ungodly hour, so pay attention to the times and the locations of your pick-ups and drop-offs. Don't assume that every bus station is a busy transportation hub; make transport arrangements beforehand to get yourself from the bus station to your bed for the night.

Any more bus travel tips? Let us know in comments below!

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