Greyhound



The United States is a big place and traversing it requires both time and money. Travelling by road is the only option available to those with plenty of the former and precious little of the latter. That doesn't entirely explain Greyhound's iconic dominance of the road since the first service rolled through Minnesota in 1914. That's because Greyhound buses are ubiquitous, with over 16,000 departures every day serving over 3,000 destinations. The Amtrak trains may be more comfortable and often cheaper over longer distances, but they serve barely 500 stations, bypassing many major cities. Short of hiring a car, there's simply no other way to reach the nowherevilles of the USA.

Whatever horror stories you've heard about travelling by Greyhound, they're probably urban myth or entirely apocryphal yet it's equally possible there's a grain of truth to them. The fleet of buses zig-zagging the highways and byways are the temporary home of many a waif and stray, boozy evangelist, toothless crazy and lost soul. And yes, you may be sat next to a prisoner since low-risk offenders are occasionally transferred between facilities without escort. The caveat to any tall tale you hear, true or otherwise, is that Greyhound operates nearly six million journeys every year, so there are bound to be incidents from time to time. I've taken a dozen longhaul bus rides to date, and as far as I'm aware nobody was dragged into the desert in the dead of night and tore limb from bloody limb by the other passengers.

So why a survival guide for travelling the Greyhound? It's still a shock to the system to many first-time passengers and long-distance travelling by road brings its own challenges. It's a hugely rewarding experience, peering into small town America, those farthest points from the brightest lights, but if you're prepared you'll enjoy it a whole lot more.

1. Know where you're going

Don't assume a Greyhound station will be located somewhere sensible, like anywhere that's convenient to its customers. The US in general struggles with the concept of commuter transportation because the overwhelming majority of its infrastructure is geared towards car ownership. In Jacksonville, the Greyhound station is over five miles from the train station, with no local bus service between them. In Chattanooga, you'll depart the bus at the airport, eight miles away from downtown. In many instances there's no station house, just a beat-up gas station on a lonely highway. So before you travel, check up where you'll be dropped off and how much it'll cost to get where you're going next.

2. Tickets, please
To board a Greyhound, you'll need a ticket - not a reference number, not a ticket confirmation email, not a receipt. If you've printed out your ticket at home, you'll need photo ID. If you're travelling on the fly, you need to pick up your ticket in the station before you board the bus. If the pick-up point is a gas station, you can often find the ticket machine in the store. You won't necessarily be told this, however. If you don't have a ticket and try waving a reference number at the driver, whether you board will depend on whether they're having a good day or not. Some drivers will take your ID and allow you to board, on the condition you pick up your ticket at the next available station.

3. Get there early
Tickets on standard Greyhound routes do not guarantee a seat. That's usually not a problem, but some services so run full and will leave passengers stranded at the station. If you're transferring from one bus to another, the savvy drivers will often advise passengers to make a different transfer to avoid potential problems.

4. Check your bags
Something else Greyhound won't tell you - if you don't check your bags in and get them tagged, the driver will refuse to put them in the storage bins under the bus and you'll have to take them on board. Unless you've something smaller than a medium sized rucksack, there won't be room - the overhead storage is barely big enough for shoeboxes.

5. Food and drink
There's nothing worse on longhaul journeys than food envy. Any trip over a couple of hours will allow for a comfort stop at a service station or cafe, but you shouldn't depend on it. At the bare minimum pack some fruit and bottled water.

5. Dress for the occasion
New buses are slowly joining the fleet, but don't bet on yours being one of them. Your bus may have been on the road for hours and hosted several passengers in your seat before you. Assume the worst they did was order fried chicken at the last stop and wipe their hands on the upholstery afterwards, and wear clothes you don't mind putting through a hot wash. The heating system usually works but you could be on the bus for several hours; the temperature outside will change so you need to dress accordingly. My best clothing tip for longhaul travel is always to pack a fleece hooded top; it's lightweight, easy to remove and pulling the hood over your head blocks out the world and makes sleeping much easier.

6. Don't flash the cash
This is as much about showing a little humility as it is about being cautious. Many of your fellow passengers are on that bus because they're penniless and desperate. So the tourist who shows off their laptop and iPad is not only attracting unnecessary attention to their valuables, they're rubbing it in the faces of others. Stick the headphones on, but leave the laptop in your bag.
 
7. Don't take the Greyhound
If it all sounds a little too much, then don't get on board in the first place. Greyhounds go everywhere, all the far flung flecks of nowhere, but they're not always the only option. Megabus is worth checking first; their network is much smaller but they serve most major cities, their buses are newer and they're often much cheaper than Greyhound - I recently picked up a ticket just a week in advance for a six hour journey which cost $3.50. A bonus - some of the major routes offer free wifi. If you're on the north-east coast, take a look at the schedules for the Bolt Bus; they operate between Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC. Again, Bolt Bus operates newer buses, tickets are cheap when booked in advance and free wifi is offered too. Another option is the Greyhound Express; competition from the likes of Megabus has forced Greyhound to up its game, so this new service with similar facilities is available on a handful of routes.
 
Unless you catch a flash sale, flights are nearly always more expensive and it's a headache determining which services serve smaller airports, though Hipmunk is a brilliant tool to help you do that. My favourite way to cross the USA remains the train; Amtrak provides a more leisurely alternative, taking longer but providing more comfort and far grander views. Booked in advance, the prices are incredibly reasonable. You'll find similar guides to getting the most out of travelling by Amtrak here and here.




   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.