A couple years ago, I was on the hunt to find cheaper and greener ways to travel. I explored the worlds of hostels, trains, voluntourism, and even walking10 miles! I eventually found a resource that I could use virtually anywhere: the bus. Since then, I’ve taken more than a dozen long-distance bus trips across the United States, France, and Spain. Are you and your family up for this underrated travel experience?
Is It Safe to Travel by Bus?
At first, I was shocked to find out that long-distance bus services have no TSA involvement. Immediately I pictured busloads of terrorists, serial killers, and other criminals from the no-fly list. But eventually, it hit me. Buses aren’t controlled by the TSA because they don’t need to be! They’re not a typical target as they can’t cause much damage.
Mechanically, buses are extremely safe. If something goes bad in a bus engine, at worst it might break down. Contrast that with an airplane malfunction that could cause it to fall out of the sky! Add that to the fact that you’re being chauffeured by a professional driver, and the fact that buses are inspected at every stopover.
There are a few safety tips I’ve picked up specific to bus travel. I try to sit near the front of the bus whenever possible. It’s closer to the door in case of emergency, and closer to the driver in case I need to get his attention. (Bonus: it’s further away from the latrine!) I also carry a whistle on a necklace hidden beneath my shirt. I’ve never had to use it, and I don’t anticipate using it any time soon, but it would be an easy and effective way to alert the bus driver and other passengers if a seatmate was acting inappropriately.
Rest assured, all passengers are still required to show their ID and weapons are not allowed. But you do get to bring your full-sized bottle of shampoo.
Is Bus Travel Kid-Friendly?
On most of my bus trips, there has been at least one mom with kids on board. Some of the small children quietly played in their seats the entire trip. I sat next to a mom on an overnight ride. She felt bad that her infant’s constant crying disturbed other passengers, even though it was just normal baby routine. I was especially impressed by a mom and her toddler son on a long three-day bus ride. He was fine the entire time, until he had a meltdown only 30 miles from their destination!
I paid attention to how the kids behaved and the moms reacted because I wanted to know if it was a good idea to take my kids on the bus. It seems that it depends on the age of the child, the length of the trip, and the supplies that you bring.
The biggest challenge is keeping kids fed and entertained on the bus, which can easily be resolved by bringing snacks and toys. Another concern from parents was disturbing other passengers if their kid was loud or cranky. If there’s room, let them sprawl out over two seats to take a nap, or take advantage of walking up and down the aisle. The best bus advantage is not making the kids wait until a rest stop- there’s a latrine on board!
Up to this point, I have only taken the bus on solo travels. While I often travel without kids, the main reason they haven’t accompanied me on the bus is because, unlike driving a car, adding more passengers does bring the cost up. I figure having low costs for solo travel justifies a bigger budget for family trips. However, North American Greyhound offers 20% off fare for children ages 2-16, and it’s free for lap babies.
What Should I Bring?
Overnight rides are an occasion when I endorse wearing a Snuggie! Since you’re sleeping upright, those sleeves ensure that your blanket won’t fall on the floor. I also bring items conducive to sleep, such as lavender lotion and comfortable clothes. Some people bring sleep masks and ear plugs, but I pull double-duty with sunglasses and headphones instead.
Buses do take meal breaks, but it may not be at a time I normally eat, and it’s at a gas station store or fast food joint. Since eating onboard is allowed, I always pack a container with healthy snacks. Unless you enjoy dehydration, it’s also important to bring a reusable bottle. Every time I asked a store or restaurant clerk, they’ve always let me fill it up with water for free.
Even the same company in the same country will have different entertainment options for different buses. Some offer WiFi. Some have TVs. Some have a driver who doubles as a tour guide. And some offer nothing in the area of entertainment. It’s best to expect the worst and come prepared with your own devices. Bring chargers for your electronics; many buses have outlets at every seat. I also bring a GPS so I can figure out how far we are from my destination. I often hand the GPS off to a kid in the car to keep them occupied, so this can be an informative entertainment source on the bus as well!
Most of all, pack light for bus trips! With most bus companies, you’re allowed one carry-on and one suitcase under the bus. Some companies allow you to pay more for a second bag, but keep in mind that you’re responsible for transferring all of your own luggage on and off the bus, even at layovers. Except for one trip where I packed too much, I’ve limited myself to a backpack on board and a carry-on-size bag underneath, which has allowed me more freedom to explore the area when the bus stops.
How Much Money Will I Save?
There are a lot of advantages to taking the bus. It’s one of the eco-friendliest ways to travel. The slower place allows you to see more of the country you’re exploring. But, the biggest draw is definitely the lower price.
Most of my bus travel was booked several weeks in advance during summer months. With the advance booking discount, it’s significantly cheaper than flying, driving, or taking the train. I also introduced my sister to long-distance buses, and she scored a great deal on Christmastime travel. However, the discount isn’t quite as significant for off-season or last-minute travel. My sister also looked into taking the bus on short notice in March, and it turned out to be about the same price as flying.
Taking the bus saves money in other ways. Bus stations are more numerous than airports, and they’re often located in city centers, so you can skip the rental car fee or reduce taxi fare.