Long Distance Bus Travel in the United States
Created | Updated Jul 11, 2008
All public inter-city bus travel in the United States is conducted by a government-supported coalition of bus companies headed by Greyhound Lines, Inc. These companies, including Carolina Trailways in the south-east and Peter Pan in the north-east, do not compete against each other, and often operate interchangeably out of the same terminals. Facilities and service tend to be entirely equivalent.
Advantages of Bus Travel
The most attractive reason for travelling by bus is the price. Greyhound advertises prices starting at $15 (€12.36 or £8.34), but it should be understood this is for one-way travel of approximately 100 miles (161 km) if the ticket is purchased round-trip and more than seven days in advance. Both of these techniques, by the way, are good for keeping down the already-low prices. Another advantage, as compared to train travel, is the wide selection of travel times. Given the relatively low price of gasoline and consequent low demand for public transit, trains often travel only once or twice a day on all but the busiest routes. On comparative routes buses will often travel four to eight times per day. So much for the positive aspects.
Primary Disadvantage of Bus Travel
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the amount of time spent in transit may dissuade you from travelling by bus. A hundred-mile journey will be scheduled at approximately two to three hours, and may reasonably be expected to be at least half an hour late if you are travelling during the day. Bus travel at night is more likely to be on schedule, but carries its own special disadvantages, discussed below. This time should be compared to two hours at most for train travel, an hour and-a-half for private car travel, or 15 minutes by plane2. One reason for the extended travel time even with comparison to the car, which should be an entirely comparable form of travel in this way, is the seeming preference by bus drivers to travel on Federal, as opposed to Interstate highways3. Also, since it is not possible to arrange for food on the bus given the limited space4 and cut-rate prices, it is often necessary for the bus to stop for up to an hour at meal times, most commonly at a Hardee's burger restaurant. Additional extended stops may take place at major bus hubs, especially in Washington, DC, where it will invariably be necessary for you to disembark from the bus for about an hour for it to be cleaned, no matter what time of night it is.
Bus travel is also likely to be uncomfortable in many ways. The price you pay for cheap travel is in the form of footroom, seat comfort, quality of restroom facilities5, and likely odours from your seatmate. Useful conversation while on the bus is unlikely. The combination of low price and slow travel mean the bus is most commonly-used by those with little money but plenty of free time, such as foreign tourists or immigrants, the elderly, various minorities, and so on.
Travel at Night
Bus travel at night is much more likely to arrive at its destination at the scheduled time and it is less likely to be crowded. Woe betide the traveller, however, who schedules an overnight journey hoping to sleep along the way. The Greyhound travel system seems designed to make it as difficult as possible to sleep along the way. The seats are small, cramped, and made of uncomfortable material. No pillows or blankets are provided due to budget restrictions and the interior of the bus is kept at a fairly steady 50° F (10° C). At every stop, in other words about once an hour or so, all the lights in the bus come on and the driver loudly announces the stop. At hub cities all the passengers are forced to leave the bus and sit around in the station on painfully uncomfortable benches for at least an hour. Finally, at sometime around 5am the bus stops for half an hour for breakfast with all of the lights blazing the entire time.
The difference in price between the bus and train is insignificantly small and the comfort makes all the difference. If it is possible to find a convenient train schedule it is a much more enjoyable ride. Plane travel is generally faster than either, but enormously more expensive unless the booking is done really carefully. In addition, for distances less than 1,000 miles (1,600km) or so, the time involved in passing security and layovers negates most of the speed advantage.