The best way to learn something is by doing it, I think. However, that can also be stressful, so a bit of research can also help. I’ve taken a few long bus rides – in middle school, there was a field trip to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, and one spring break in high school, I went to Québec, Canada with my French class. However, long field trips on a bus are a bit different than a long ride by yourself with a bunch of strangers. While in France, I had the pleasure of of spending approximately 17 hours on the three buses it took to get from Salzburg, Austria to Aix-en-Provence, France. And this past week, I spent 12 hours going from Charleston, West Virginia to Detroit, Michigan. So here’s a post about bus rides, particularly long ones.
Comparison: FlixBus/Greyhound Experience
FlixBus: In Europe, buses are a fairly common way to get between cities – particularly FlixBus. Although trains are nicer, faster, and more fun, they’re also more expensive. The trip I mention above took place on a Saturday-Sunday at the beginning of November – midway through the semester. This means that pretty much everyone on the bus was a student traveling or going back to school at the beginning or end of break. Most people slept, so it was pretty quiet, but because FlixBuses go everywhere in Europe, the route is not at all direct. The important thing for me was having my passport ready. Despite traveling through the Schengen Zone where you ostensibly don’t need a passport, some border guards check anyway (usually when the bus is traveling South-North rather than vice versa) due to an influx of refugees. They just glance at your passport though; there are no questions about how long you’re staying or the purpose of your visit, and there are no stamps.
I took several buses while studying in France, and though the Salzburg and Munich stops were both a bit sketchy, the ones I stopped at in France were largely well taken care of and (usually) centrally-located to the city. An exception to this was the FlixBus stop in Aix, which I found only by chasing down the bus that was going to that stop. Generally, the buses are well-maintained and comfortable though there are not regular stops for bathrooms breaks, and it is advisable to look at the stops ahead of time and plan if you don’t want to use the bus bathroom. Prices are a bit higher than in the US.
Greyhound: Most people in the US drive or fly long distances rather than taking buses or trains. This makes trains expensive, and since Amtrak does not own most of the rail lines they travel on, there can be delays when arriving in a city and waiting for a more important freight train to unload first. Greyhound also has chronic delay problems, but it is very cheap. To address the delays though, my original bus schedule would have had me on one bus all the way through with only one long stop around dinner time. However, there was apparently no driver available for this route (???), so for the first leg of the trip, I rode on a Baron’s Bus from Ohio. This is actually a charter bus company, though the driver of my bus mentioned that they do a lot of work picking up stranded Greyhound passengers. I didn’t really mind this though since it meant that from Charleston to Cleveland, I was able to “ride like royalty” in a comfortable seat by myself with functioning air conditioning. That last detail should give you an idea about the bus from Cleveland to Detroit. Long story short, there was a further delay due to mechanical issues, so they found a spare bus for us to ride. The features of this bus included negligible air conditioning, handicap seats that moved forward and back without warning, and a lingering smell of cigarettes. It was also very crowded, and there was some confusion pulling into the Detroit bus terminal. Also thanks to various delays, I arrived at 11 pm instead of the original 7:30 pm, so I was pretty much just done with everything by the time I actually got in.
This was my first experience with Greyhound, and while I am sure there are better buses than the one I rode from Cleveland to Detroit, there were several other passengers who complained generally about Greyhound. The Baron’s Bus was very nice and clean with comfortable seats. The Greyhound, as I’ve said, left something to be desired; even if it were just cleaner, I would have appreciated it more. However, for the money I paid, I do think it was a very good deal, and I would do it again – though I think for no more than six or so hours.
What to Wear and What to Bring
For any bus trip, you can expect a certain amount of discomfort. Seats not working, air conditioning not working, traffic delays, protests (when I was in France), and of course the possibility of a stranger sitting next to you. Sometimes the stranger is an American expat who wants to talk about the US, and sometimes it is a large sweaty person who wants to sleep and in doing so blocks your exit to the aisle. So basically, if you can’t control all that, you can at least make yourself comfortable. Leggings and a t-shirt are thus a great choice, especially if you include a sweater in your personal item for when the air conditioning works too well. When in France though, I would inevitably just wear a comfortable pair of jeans since I never traveled with more than a backpack, and jeans take a lot of space.
It is also inevitable that you will get at least a little bored on a long bus trip, and you need more than just a playlist and some headphones. This is a good time to read if the trip is in the day time – I read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee on this most recent trip – but if it’s later or you’re tired of reading, a podcast is a good break from just music. (I will take this opportunity to plug my favorite: Dear Hank and John) Snacks are also important. Since I didn’t have a long stop between 9 am and 4 pm, I also packed a quesadilla for lunch – and ate it before I remembered to take a picture. As shown to the right though, I packed a variety of snacks in my Bento Box: some chopped bell peppers, almonds, cranberries, and cookies, gingerbread and E. L. Fudge. Since for the Greyhound, I had multiple bags, I also made sure to have all my important papers in my personal item rather than in a bag that was under the bus. This includes the claim stubs you need to retrieve the items under the bus. For FlixBus, there was no claim ticket system or organized checked bag process, but since I only had a backpack, this was not a huge concern for me.
Bus trips can be stressful and unpredictable, but they’re a pretty good way to travel a long distance for not a lot of money. That said, it’s good to plan on a delay and to make yourself as comfortable as possible.
Bonus Tip: Sometimes you’ll stop at a big Greyhound station that has actual food that they cook for you. It’s not five-star, but it’s cheap and good enough to take advantage of. The advertised gifts are mostly pillows and blankets.