The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Exploring Bus and Train Options in the US

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Exploring Bus and Train Options in the US

Depending on where you live, you may have encountered any number of intercity transit options—that is, buses or trains that can take you from one city to another, all across the country—and wondered which was best. With the rise of Bolt and Megabus, non-automobile modes of travel are more available than ever and it’s important to understand your options. There’s also the trusty standbys: Greyhound and Amtral. Over the last several years, living carless in cities in the West, on the East Coast, and in the Midwest, I’ve explored these options and have a few insights to share from my experience. Of course, like plane travel, trips can vary wildly, but some general characteristics prevail for each of these modes. I’ll explore some of the most widespread intercity travel options and rate them (one to five stars) based on affordability, availability, speed, reliability comfort, and enjoyment. Let’s roll.

Megabus Route Map

Megabus

Affordability: *****

While their supposed $1 fares are a rarity in reality, you can pretty much guarantee yourself a roundtrip ride for under $60, and usually more in the range of $40. My most recent megabus trip cost me only $13 for a one-way ride from Milwaukee to Minneapolis.

Availability: * * * *

Megabus is fairly well-connected between cities from the East Coast to the Midwest (and in Europe and Canada!). Its main untouched territory is the West and Pacific Northwest.

Speed: * * *

When they show up on time, these buses can get you to your destination with relative ease—at least as fast as a car would.

Comfort: * * *

Megabus has one main cool factor, which is that it’s double-decker. This not only means nice views out your window but also a higher likelihood that you might have a seat to yourself. That being said, I’ve been on some pretty uncomfortable Megabus rides in which the air conditioning was blasting way too cold, my seat-mate smelled bad and the bathroom light was out (to name a few complaints). Don’t expect any form of comfort in the way of a bus station either; Megabus usually picks up and drops off on a random, sometimes desolate road. You get what you pay for here.

Enjoyment: * *

Let’s be real: Riding the bus may have been a novelty when you started kindergarten, but by now, it’s not a particularly enjoyable activity. Megabus purports to offer wifi (although most of the time it’s extremely slow or completely broken) and it provides outlets in each seat, so at least you can distract yourself from the general unpleasantness of the ride. Hopefully you aren’t traveling too far.

Reliability: * * *

By and large, I have found Megabus to run fairly on time. I’ve definitely had a few trips that were delayed well over an hour (so don’t book your ticket to arrive five minutes before your sister’s wedding), but the system works alright. If you’re traveling between two popular destinations (such as New York City and Phildelphia), Megabus is a great choice because if you happen to miss your original bus, there’s bound to be another one just an hour or two later.

Best thing about it: Cheap. Nothing can beat that price.

4036359-BOLT_BUS_Philadelphia

Bolt Bus

Affordability: * * * * *

Very similar to Megabus. They offer a few ridiculously cheap tickets to the first people who buy for each route, and then the prices usually range from $10-40. The trip with Bolt Bus is to figure out when the tickets are going on sale (usually just one or two months ahead of travel) and then nab them.

Availability: * * *

Bolt Bus only covers parts of the East and West Coasts, but I bet they’ll grow more routes soon.

Speed: * * *

Same as Megabus.

Comfort: * *

Without even a double-decker to offer additional space, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a seatmate

Enjoyment: * *

As I mentioned earlier, no one gets excited about a bus ride.

Reliability: * * *

I’ve taken Bolt Bus at least five times and only once had a delay.

Best thing about it: Cheap, and it sometimes drops you off in better locations than Megabus. If you’re on the East or West Coast, you should definitely always check Bolt Bus in addition to Megabus because the travel times might be better and the tickets might be cheaper.

Historic Amtrak Poster

Amtrak

Affordability: * * *

While it’s usually cheaper than flying, the Amtrak isn’t the most affordable option. Depending on how far you’re going (it’s possible to traverse the entire length of the United States), you could spend anywhere from $40-$2000 on a round trip ticket. However, those more expensive tickets are for multi-day travel and include beds and meals.

Availability: * * * *

Amtrak can take you a fair amount of places, including some small and remote towns. Check the map and I bet you’ll find it’s going where you need to.

Speed: * * * *

When it is moving, the train is your quickest option because it never falls victim to traffic, and it rarely breaks down.

Reliability: *

These days (and particularly on the Seattle-Chicago route, otherwise known as the Empire Builder) it would be a small miracle to have a train that arrived even within a half hour of it’s scheduled time. Because rail travel has been so unprioritized in our nation, oil tankers get priority on many of the tracks so trips can be delayed for hours.

Comfort: * * * * *

The seats are wide, there’s plenty of space to stretch your legs, you’ve got multiple food and beverage options, and you can even get a bed for the ride if you wish. Amtrak is the mode of travel if you care about comfort.

Enjoyment: * * * * *

Ladies and gentleman, there is no better way to travel than aboard a train. You’ll take in the scenic countryside—the parts you could never see from the interstate—whilst perusing a book in the lounge car or enjoying a full breakfast in the dining car. Splurge on a room and you can recline in a cozy bed while you speed towards your destination. If you’ve never experienced train travel before, please do so before you die.

Best thing about it: This is the most enjoyable form of transportation in the world.

Greyhound Bus

Greyhound

Affordability: * * *

The greyhound is usually a little more expensive than Megabus but cheaper than Amtrak. They offer different price brackets depending on when you buy and whether you want a refundable ticket.

Availability: * * * * *

Greyhound truly is the most widespread form of interstate transit. They sometimes contract with local bus lines, so it’s possible to be riding a Greyhound without even realizing it.

Speed: * * *

It’s a bus and thus is subject to the same traffic patterns and weather issues as cars.

Reliability: ??

I can’t speak to this because I’ve only ridden it a handful of times.

Comfort: * * *

It’s a coach bus, so if it’s not too full, it’ll be just fine. If it’s crowded and the bathroom has been used by fifty different people over the last few days, it’s not so fine.

Enjoyment: * * *

You can meet some interesting folks and stop in some interesting places for bathroom/smoke breaks on the Greyhound, but this form of transport is mostly about efficiency, not enjoyment.

Best thing about it: Can take you anywhere.

So there you have it: They’re not perfect, but the bottom line is that these alternatives to car travel are worth exploring depending on your needs. They might end up being more affordable or more enjoyable, and they will always be better for the environment.

Have you used any of these intercity transit options? What’s been your experience?

Image sources: Me, MegabusBolt, Amtrak, Greyhound

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