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I have many talents, but driving is not one of them. I’ve never been given a driver’s license, so I’ve been forced to travel by bus in the USA. Although it’s maybe not “cool” to travel by buses around the United States, taking Greyhound buses and Megabus is often a good cheap way to travel around the USA.
Keep reading for my recommendations for the bus companies in the United States, reviews of different bus companies in the US, what to know about bus travel in the United States, and what to bring on long bus trips in the United States.
Should you travel by bus in the US?
Yes, and no. If your trip around the United States is focused on city hopping, especially within one region (e.g. East Coast), traveling by bus in the United States is a good choice.. It’s often cheaper and easier not to have a car in big cities in the United States as parking can add up. However, it depends a lot on the city as some cities have great public transportation system while others have terrible public transportation systems.
If you’re planning on focusing on the beautiful National Parks, you’re going to have difficulty getting around more rural areas of the US without a lot of money spent on taxis. Some National Parks have better infrastructure in terms of getting there without a car (e.g. Yosemite), but many parks are quite rural and require extra time/money to get there without a car. It might make sense to take a bus for some legs of your journey and do tours once you’re within a city. This will be cheaper than all-inclusive options.
Bus travel in the United States is far more sustainable than traveling by car around the United States. People love to write about road trips, but bus travel is way more eco-friendly! Similarly, not everyone can afford a car or it doesn’t make sense to drive into another big city.
As a result, I think that travel by bus around the US can be a great option for those on a budget, anyone who’s into sustainable travel, and for those who don’t want to have to bother with driving in big American cities.
Bus travel in the United States is often not as advertised online in terms of wifi and on-board entertainment. Although many bus companies are interested in creating more premium experiences and improving the average bus experience, my experiences traveling by bus in the United States has been gritty and unglamorous. This has been the case for my husband too. (What did you think you were getting when you paid $25 for a 8 hour bus across the country?)
National bus companies in the United States
You’ll encounter a lot of bus companies in the United States although many are regional bus lines that I haven’t personally encountered. Most of the time, unless it’s a major American holiday, bus travel doesn’t require significant planning beyond a day or two in advance. American buses tend to be cheaper if you book way in advance with a major company (e.g. Greyhound or Megabus) while regional bus rates tend to rise less closer to the dates.
Greyhound is the most ubiquitous bus company in the United States. Among the bus companies, the opinions about Greyhound buses online tends to be more favorable although most people I know who regularly take Greyhounds aren’t their biggest cheerleaders. The coverage of Greyhound buses is good across the country and you can get across the United States on a Greyhound on the drop of a hat.
However, you will probably have numerous stop-offs in various cities, which can add some time. However, it’s possible to get to Yosemite with a Greyhound, which is why if you’re traveling in the United States without a car. It’s often best to buy Greyhound tickets at least two weeks in advance and they have special deals if you buy online.
It’s basically very hard to get a $1 fare on Megabus at this point, but you can get some good deals on Megabus if you book ahead. I started taking Megabus when it got started. At this point, Megabus tends to be standard and their concept is getting you there. The demographic for Megabus is considerably younger than Greyhound and you’ll find a lot of students taking Megabus.
Megabus tend to be stricter about bag sizes although they more uniformly have working outlets on their buses. Coverage for Megabus is best on the East Coast, Midwest, and between college towns in the United States. They also have some coverage on the West Coast.
My husband has sworn off Megabus after the wheels almost caught on fire and the driver told the passengers it wasn’t safe to continue. He was forced to wait in the middle of nowhere waiting for a new bus to come pick them up. A couple of other friends have similar stories although I generally take Megabus given the choice as I find people are a bit more considerate.
BoltBus is a “premium” bus company that runs on the East and West coast. Their buses tend to be much newer and nicer than others that I’ve taken, however the routes are more limited to major cities on the coasts. Their plugs tend to work much more reliably and recently, they started including movies in the price of the bus.
I’ve generally liked BoltBus and I wish that they would expand to more cities. It’s my go-to choice for traveling from New York City to Washington DC.
Trailways Transportation System
Trailways is a network of 70+ regional bus companies in the United States that compromises the oldest bus network in the United States. Their network crosses the United States and I’ve taken Trailways quite a few times. I find their buses not as uniform as you’re likely to be switching companies as you switch state lines. Most of my experience taking Trailways meant that I had long layovers in rural Pennsylvania at one particular transfer point.
For smaller cities with less coverage on the big names, I find that Trailways is more reliable in helping you find a route although it might add time to your journey. It depends on the bus journey, however I find that Trailway buses tend to stop off a lot more although it makes the journey through the United States far more scenic as you’re often taking non-highway routes.
Other Bus companies in the United States
There’s a ton more bus companies in the United States, including Vonlane (Texas), Fullington Trailways (New York/Pennsylvania), Utah Trailways (Utah), Burlington Trailways (Vermont), Jefferson Lines, Bieber Tours (Pennsylvania/New York), Barons Bus Lines (East Coast), Adirondack Trailways (Canada/New York), RedCoach (Florida; premium bus), Capital Trailways (South/Alabama), Hoosier Transportation (Midwest/Iowa/Michigan/Kentucky), Indian Trails (Michigan), Peter Pan (East Coast), Orange Belt (California), etc. There’s a ton more. If you’re not seeing a route to where you’re going, I recommend stopping by the bus station to see if there’s a bus heading that way on a regional line.
On the east coast and the west coast, you’ll also find Chinese bus companies that run between the Chinatowns or downtowns of major cities on the East Coast/West Coast. The Chinese bus companies are often the cheapest option if you’re traveling to/from New York City or LA to a nearby major city.
Due to price, I often took the Chinese bus companies. These bus rides went by without incident for me, but my cousin was stranded in the middle of nowhere after a bus broke down and the bus company wasn’t helpful at all.
Things to know about bus travel in the United States
The bus stations…
With the creation of the interstate highway system, buses in the United States stopped being as popular as they were before. The bus infrastructure has suffered as a result. Most bus stations tend to be on the dingier side and do not require a ticket to enter the bus station, so it’s best to be aware of your belongings. Most bus stations in the United States tend to be located in the city center, which aren’t always in the best neighborhoods.
In the case of many of the “newer” bus lines (e.g. Megabus), their business model is about cutting out the bus station to pass on savings to consumers. This means that their bus station may be a Walmart parking lot or simply a curb on a sidewalk. As a result, you might be forced to wait outside for the bus and/or there may be no bus station for you to wait inside at. Bring an umbrella if you think this might be the case.
Finding the bus departure place may be harder than you realize!
Often, bus terminals for Greyhound and other regional bus stations are well-established terminals in the city center. However, for some of the newer bus companies, they have their buses designated in a large area. You’re going to need an extra twenty minutes at minimum if you’re taking Megabus to find your bus if it’s departing from most major cities.
In New York, I’ve found that I need the extra time to walk past all the buses waiting to find the correct departure point. Similarly, when I took BoltBus out of DC, I had to spend a while searching for the one departing for NYC as there were more than five buses departing around the same time.
You might get dropped off in the middle of nowhere
Modern-day America has been built for cars. For most major cities, you’ll be dropped of at the bus terminal, which can be far from the non-downtown parts of a city. I used to often take one route and the bus terminal was over three miles from the main downtown area, which can be tricky if you don’t have a car.
In one case, I was forced to take a taxi as it wasn’t possible to get from the bus terminal to my final destination (the airport) without it. It’s good to check where the bus stop will be as you don’t want to need to take a taxi to get there. Google Maps in my go-to source.
Avoid buses that depart or arrive late at night
Trust me on this one. A lot of cities have poor transportation after a certain hour (often eleven at night), and often bus terminals are in the heart of the city center. Unlike European cities, many American city centers aren’t uniformly safe and I recommend using some caution if you’ll be walking around with all your valuables late at night. Crime in America is an issue.
Book in advance to get the best times and prices
Many bus companies, especially Boltbus and Megabus, advertise low rates if you book as far in advance as possible. I often take Megabus and wait to see when the tickets go on sale, so I can get one of the first tickets, which is typically less than $5. If you wait too long, especially for holiday weekends, the prices will go up considerably. That said, you’ll find a bus to your destination within a day or two if you simply head to the bus station on short notice.
Not every bus still has wifi… or working plugs
Although many bus companies advertise that buses have wifi, the wifi on the bus is ridiculously slow, throttled for video, and unreliable. I’ve been on countless buses where the wifi never worked because it didn’t have wifi, the wifi was broken, or there were too many people on it at once.
It’s become trendy to have outlets, but often, the outlets are somewhere really inconvenient or they don’t work. A lot of people think initially that they’ll work on the bus, but I find that it’s not a conducive environment for working as the seat-tray makes it hard to fit a laptop in many cases.
This becomes especially true when others decide to lean their chair back. I’ve been on buses where the outlets were above you in the “ceiling”, so unless you spend the whole bus ride holding your plug in the outlet, you will not be charging your electronics. Some of the newer buses have improved upon this design and have easy-to-access plugs/usb ports.
You need identification and often your bus ticket printed
Typically, any photo identification will do, however the name needs to match the ticket. That means that you typically can’t use your friend’s ticket. If you’re a foreigner, I recommend having your passport on you.
Not all bus companies allow e-tickets, so I always print my ticket ahead as finding a good place to print my ticket isn’t always easy near the bus station. Some bus companies are better about accepting e-tickets, so check the terms to see if it’s enough to have a ticket on your phone.
The real reason that I always print my ticket? I need to have my phone charged enough for when I arrive. As a result, I recommend having it printed, so you don’t need to worry about having your phone charged up for the next transfer or for when I arrive at the destination, particularly if it’s a long bus ride. I often find myself playing on my phone, which can kill the battery.
Your bus ticket is typically non-refundable and for a specific time
Unless you pay extra for a refundable ticket, you’re often getting one for a specific time. Don’t miss your bus! Some bus companies allow you to change the ticket for the difference in ticket price in addition to a fee, but I’ve actually bought a ticket in most of those cases as it was cheaper than the change fee.
Oh, the people you’ll meet!
Dr. Seuss must have taken buses around the United States. While most of my bus trips have gone by without incidence, both my husband and I have some memorable bus travel stories as do most of my friends. Most people sleep, stare out the window, talk to friends on the phone, or chat with friends on the bus. Let’s be clear that most people you’ll encounter on the buses will be non-offensive, but as I have regularly taken regional buses through rural areas, you’re bound to meet some characters.
This following story is from my husband who took a twenty-four hour Greyhound bus from Pennsylvania to Kentucky via Ohio…
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, many students choose to take Greyhound home because it is so cheap. You’re not supposed to bring alcohol on the bus, however some people do. This student had smuggled a bottle of peach flavored vodka on the bus. He was hell-bent on talking to every girl on the bus and switched seats countless times. He was drinking the vodka and kept offering it to the girls. After they all rejected it and him, he sitting up next to me.
There was a girl nearby from Hawaii who was heading to a friend’s house in Iowa to celebrate Thanksgiving. The girl and the guy hit it off and get very drunk on the bus. They start having a big make-out session, so the whole bus was just eavesdropping while some were openly watching them. The issue was that it was night-time and they were being loud while everyone else on the bus was trying to sleep.
The first leg took us to Columbus, which is a big switching point for buses. I was heading south from there as was the guy. The girl was heading further west from there. We get to Columbus and they decide that they’re in love. The girl invites him to come to Iowa with her to her friend’s house and the guy actually switches his ticket to go to Iowa. Sure enough, they left for Iowa together to her friend’s parents house. Imagine her friend’s reaction when she shows up hungover with this random guy she met on a Greyhound.
Don’t drink too many liquids
This is a newbie bus mistake. It’s good to stay hydrated and I typically bring at least one bottle of water for longer journeys, however I generally avoid bus bathrooms. More importantly: Some buses, especially regional ones for shorter legs, don’t have a bathroom on the bus. Be sure to use the bathroom at the bus terminal before you leave!
It’s not a guarantee that your bus will stop off at a bus station or rest stop long enough for you to go inside.
For longer trips, keep in mind that the bus will probably stop off at a rest stop as they’re not allowed to drive over a certain number of hours without stopping. It’s not a guarantee for shorter journeys that the bus will stop off at a rest station long enough for you get something to eat, so bring your own food/drinks ahead.
If it looks like you’ll have fifteen minutes waiting at a station for passengers, be sure to tell the bus driver that you’ll be back to ensure that the bus doesn’t leave without you. There’s often a line for the restroom at rest stops.
Set an alarm
On long bus rides, you might fall asleep. That’s fine, however if your destination isn’t the final destination, you’ll want to set an alarm on your phone before the time that your bus is supposed to arrive. There might be traffic, but in general, it’s a safe move.
One suitcase and one backpack. Keep your valuables with you.
Remember that you’re NOT on a plane. Some bus companies are more lax about luggage, however if it’s a crowded bus or you’re traveling over major holiday, you might need to pay for an extra bag. I also recommend avoiding having your stuff in bags if possible as I’ve seen people get rejected from boarding onto buses when carrying their belongings in plastic bags.
I tend to keep my valuables in my backpack rather than below the bus, especially if the bus has a lot of stop off points I recommend labeling your bag clearly as it’s hard to find a black suitcase among 50 other black suitcases. Weird size luggage might cause issues, so ask beforehand.
Typically at stops, people take their items from the hull, so unless you want your bag taken by mistake, it’s best to keep your valuables in your backpack with you on the bus. I’ve never had a bag stolen or taken by mistake, but if it’s a long ride with a lot of stops, I recommend labeling your bag clearly and packing your backpack carefully.
Be early for the bus!
Although it hasn’t often happened, buses leave on time. More often than not, they’ll wait a couple more minutes for passengers who are running a few minutes late, but I’ve seen so many people running after the bus without success. You need time to get your luggage under the hold. Certain bus companies, including Megabus, overbook their seats, so if you’re not there early and it’s a full bus, you might get rejected on the bus and need to wait for the next one.
What to bring on long bus trips in the United States
If you’re wondering what to pack for an overnight bus trip, I’m well-experienced in these long miserable journeys that I’ve done to save money.
Be sure to bring antibacterial gel
Some bus bathrooms are best avoided. Similarly, the soap dispenser may not work. Be sure to have your own antibacterial gel to clean your hands with, especially if you plan on eating.
This is the MOST important item that you’ll want to pack for an overnight bus trip as I struggle to sleep without a good travel pillow. I have this exact travel pillow and I love how small it folds up!
Backpack that will fit your valuables, including your laptop.
I recommend looking for a carry-on friendly sized backpack that can fit your backpack as well as most of your valuables, so that they’re close to you.
Your iPad and a season of shows lined up with some headphones.
I recommend not buying your snacks at the bus station if possible as the prices tend to be a lot higher and the selection isn’t as good as going to the supermarket! Avoid peanuts as some people are really allergic. I really like to carry granola bars with me as they’re hard to smoosh and non-messy.
Wear layers and bring a sweatshirt.
You never know when the bus will be too warm or too cold, so I always try to bring a sweatshirt to put on over my clothes in case I get cold! I recommend dressing comfy and you’ll be sitting for many hours.
A good book and a reading light.
For night buses, the driver typically shuts off the lights after a certain time. Although there’s a reading light from above, I’m often very conscious of it annoying the people around me. Instead, I usually bring my own reading light as well as a good book. For a good read, I recommend Night Film (which will take you many hours to finish), the Power, or On the Road for some American travel inspiration.
External Phone Battery Charger
You never know when there won’t be a working charger on the bus and you might need to make a phone call. Don’t let your phone die and carry an external phone battery charger.
Have you traveled by bus in the United States? Anything you’d add?
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