Long-distance, city & rural buses in the US

There are two main kinds of bus service in the US: urban bus services and long-distance buses. Buses are the most widespread form of local public transport in the US, where more than 1,000 inter-city and suburban bus companies operate services to around 15,000 cities and towns, the vast majority of which have no other public transport services.

The bus network covers around 280,000mi of routes, on which some 350 million passengers are carried annually. Each region has its own bus companies providing local town and country services.

Long-distance Buses

Long-distance buses are the cheapest and most popular form of public transport in the US, particularly among the poor, the car-less, eccentrics and the downright weird (you meet some ‘interesting’ people when travelling on long-distance buses). Although there have been cutbacks in services in recent years caused by increased competition from domestic airlines, long-distance buses continue to survive and even to prosper. You can travel almost anywhere in the US by bus on an extensive network of scheduled routes with good connections.

A number of companies provide long-distance services, by far the largest of which is Greyhound Lines (Greyhound), formed when Greyhound acquired Trailways Lines. It has depots in most cities and large towns throughout the US and Canada. Greyhound offers the cheapest option for independent travellers seeking door-to-door transport to small towns, and areas that aren’t served by Greyhound are usually covered by regional and local bus companies (many of which accept Greyhound bus passes). It also claims an excellent safety record – around 20 per cent of the average commercial vehicle accident rate.

Bus terminals offer a host of services and usually have a restaurant, travel information office, ticket office, toilets, left baggage lockers, and baggage and parcel services. Terminals also usually have a baggage depot. Bus passes often entitle you to discounts at bus terminal restaurants (although it’s usually cheaper to eat away from terminals), nearby hotels and on sightseeing tours. Although bus terminals are usually safe places, they’re often located in run-down, inner-city areas and aren’t the best places in which to spend a lot of time (many are meeting places for drug addicts, few of whom plan to catch a bus!). Try to plan your arrival so that you arrive in time to find a place to stay in a more appealing area.

Buying your ticket

You must usually buy your ticket at a bus terminal or a central office before boarding a bus; however you can also now purchase tickets online for mail delivery or pick-up at the terminal. Allow plenty of time, as there are often long queues. Tickets aren’t generally sold on buses, except in some rural areas and on-city (urban) routes. Obtain information about timetables, connections and fares, and confirm them by checking the posted timetables. Always ask for the cheapest available fare, which may not be advertised . You can buy open-dated tickets from bus terminals or travel agents in advance, although usually it’s unnecessary or even impossible to make a reservation. Point-to-point tickets are usually considerably cheaper if purchased at least seven days in advance. Normally when a bus becomes full, another is simply put into service (which means you can arrive ten minutes before departure and be assured of a seat).

You can make as many stopovers as you wish, provided the entire journey is completed before your ticket expires (although there may be restrictions on special fares and sightseeing tours). Bus pass coupons must be validated each time they’re used, so you should arrive early at bus terminals to have your ticket stamped. In addition to boarding a bus at a bus terminal, buses also stop at designated ‘flag stops’. When you see your bus approaching you must flag it down by waving at the driver to get his attention (if a bus doesn’t stop, it’s probably full).

Bus fares in the US

Fares depend on a number of considerations, including whether you’re making a one-way or round-trip, the time of travel and when you are returning. Children under two travel free (limit of one child per adult paying customer) and those aged 5 to 11 travel for half fare when accompanied by an adult (limit of three children per adult paying customer). People over 62 years of age receive a 5 per cent discount and students up to 15 per cent off.

A companion may ride free to assist a passenger with a disability, but must be able to provide needed assistance during the trip and must accompany the disabled passenger for the entire trip (a guide dog may also accompany a passenger with a disability). There’s a variety of discount and promotional fares available, although these don’t usually apply during holiday periods.

Passengers are allowed two pieces of free baggage with a total weight of up to 100lb (45kg); children travelling for half fare are allowed 50lb (22kg). As with planes and trains, baggage is checked in before boarding a bus, for which you should allow around 45 minutes in cities and 15 minutes in small towns. You should identify your baggage with a name tag and keep your claim ticket in a safe place. When two buses are running on the same service, make sure your baggage is put on the correct bus, as it isn’t unusual for bags to end up on the wrong one. You can take a small bag on to a bus provided it fits into the overhead baggage compartment. Always keep any valuables with you on the bus.

Quality of long-distance bus services

Most long-distance interstate buses have air-conditioning, heating, toilets (essential when travelling with children), and reclining seats with headrests and reading lamps. The seats are comfortable, with the smoothest ride being in the middle of the bus away from the wheels (the best view, however, is at the front, where you also have the most leg room). Window seats are often cooler than aisle seats, particularly at night when drivers usually turn up the air-conditioning to keep themselves awake. Take a warm sweater, jacket or blanket on to the bus with you, as the powerful air-conditioning is freezing at anytime. If you plan to sleep on a bus, an inflatable pillow or sleeping bag (to use as a pillow, not to bed down in the aisle) is useful. Ear plugs are also recommended if you’re a light sleeper.

If you use a radio or cassette player on a bus, you must wear earphones. Smoking and alcohol are prohibited on all buses, although people often sneak off to the rest room for a puff (however, if you break the rules, drivers are more than willing to throw you off a bus). If you’re travelling across the US, bear in mind that distances are often vast and a coast-to-coast trip takes three days, with only brief stops at fast food joints or bus terminals every few hours and no overnight sleep stops or stops for showers (the main consolation is that you don’t need to pay to sleep on the bus).

At rest stops, you may have only a few minutes to stretch your legs or grab a hamburger and the driver may drive off without warning if aren’t on the bus on time! Many people provide their own food and drink, so that they can eat at their leisure. On long journeys you may need to get off the bus occasionally for it to be cleaned. For further information contact Greyhound Lines (1-800-229-9424, www.greyhound.com ). Greyhound publishes a huge and excellent United States of Greyhound map showing all Greyhound routes plus major parks, monuments and attractions.

City & Rural Buses

Each region of the US is served by a number of local bus companies, providing local city, suburban and rural services. Many cities also have trolley buses or coaches, operated electrically from overhead wires. Cities and states often have their own local transport authority which controls and sometimes subsidises local public transport (as does the federal government). In a few cities (e.g. Seattle) buses are even free within certain downtown areas. Amtrak provide Thruway buses to link train services and service areas where there are no rail services.

However, compared with Europe, urban bus services in the US are often poor. City buses are slow and crawl during rush hours, when it’s often quicker to walk (although bus and commuter lanes speed up traffic in some cities). Services usually operate from around 6am or 7am to 11pm, seven days a week, and in major cities there’s a 24-hour service on the most popular routes. However, services during the evening (e.g. after 6pm), at weekends and on federal holidays are often severely curtailed, when you may need to wait up to an hour for a bus (some services run infrequently at all times).

Bus drivers may not provide change, particularly when the fare is deposited in a box. In many cities there’s a flat fare for a one-way journey, irrespective of the distance. In New York City you must buy a token to travel on a city bus (tokens are also valid on the subway). You can often transfer to another bus free of charge or for a small additional fare within a short period, usually one hour; ask when boarding, as you may need a transfer ticket. Transfers cannot be used for a round-trip or circular journey. In some areas you must buy a ticket from a ticket office before boarding a bus and give it to the driver when boarding.

Rural bus tickets

In most cities you can buy daily, weekly and monthly bus passes offering large savings. You can also save money by buying a book of 10 or 20 tickets. In all cities there’s free travel or reduced fares for senior citizens (those aged over 60 or 65) and disabled people, although these may be applicable only during off-peak hours. Children under five usually travel free and those aged 5 to 12 usually travel for half fare. There are reduced for students or those under 18 in some cities.

Bicycles aren’t permitted on buses. Collapsible pushchairs (strollers) must be folded before boarding a bus (don’t forget to remove your child first!). With the exception of guide dogs and small pets in cages, animals aren’t permitted on buses. Many city buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts at the rear door and most are air-conditioned in summer. Smoking and alcohol are banned on rural and city buses throughout the US. In major cities there are ‘regular’ or local buses operating at frequent intervals (e.g. ten minutes) and stopping every one or two blocks. Limited stop buses often travel the same routes as regular buses, stopping at around a quarter of the regular stops. Express buses make few stops and mainly provide shuttle services to the suburbs.

Bus stops may be indicated by yellow kerbstones, bus shelters and signs showing bus routes, timetables and intersections. Destinations and route numbers are shown on the front of buses, but are often difficult to read. You usually enter buses at the front and exit from the middle. In many cities all stops are request stops, which means that if nobody is waiting to board and no-one has signalled to get off, a driver won’t stop. Most buses have a bell cord or a pressure-sensitive strip to signal the driver when you want to get off. Drivers may announce the names of stops, although understanding them can be difficult. A ‘STOP REQUEST’ sign may be illuminated at the front of the bus when a stop has been requested.

In many cities there are tourist or ‘culture’ bus routes, where buses follow a loop and stop at places of interest. For a flat daily fare you can get on and off buses at any stop. In some cities visitors can buy a pass allowing unlimited travel on all local public transport for a period of one to seven days. Some communities provide a local commuter bus service to and from local rail stations. Bus companies provide route maps and timetables, although you shouldn’t pay too much attention to bus times.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

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