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A Complete Guide for Traveling by Bus in the United States

For reaching parts of the USA that the train network doesn’t reach, there’s no better or more popular way to travel than by bus. Connecting the biggest cities with the smallest towns, intercity buses are an inexpensive way to travel that avoids all the stress and hassle of modern-day flying.

Nowadays, a growing number of bus companies in the U.S. offer wonderful amenities, including onboard WiFi, power outlets, and even onboard entertainment. Running around the clock, buses in the U.S. can take you to the next town in a quick hop, or help you save on hotel costs by traveling through the night.

Bus companies in the United States

Part of the reason bus travel in the United States is so inexpensive is the competition for passengers that exists between private companies. At present, there are no less than five bus companies offering national coverage (although the term usually excludes the non-contiguous states of Alaska and Hawaii). They also compete with regional and local bus companies on the busiest routes.

If any name conjures up the spirit and romance of traveling by road in the U.S. by bus, it’s Greyhound. The largest of the country’s bus companies, its fleet arrives and departs into an astonishing 2,000 individual destinations across 48 states, as well as cross-border services into Canada and Mexico.

Since entering the U.S. marketplace in 2018, German-based Flixbus (which is now the parent company of Greyhound, but operates separately) continues to expand its operations. However, unlike in the country where it originated, almost all Flixbus services in the U.S. are subcontracted to other companies, meaning passengers should expect a varying quality of service or onboard facilities.

Megabus is also a European import, having first made its name offering tickets for as little as $1 in the United Kingdom. It competes with Greyhound’s most popular routes, predominantly along the East Coast and in the Midwest. The company has additional routes on the West Coast, serving various destinations, including Las Vegas.

OurBus focuses its attention mostly in the northeast corner of the United States, with services running to numerous destinations, including Buffalo, Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC. It also serves various locations in Florida.

Trailways is an alliance of ground travel providers made up of several independent state bus companies, including Adirondack Trailways, New York Trailways and Burlington Trailways. These carriers were once part of the oldest bus network in the country, but currently operate as separate services.

Some of the most popular and affordable bus services in the United States are offered by so-called Chinatown buses. These bus carriers operate mainly on the east and west coasts of the U.S. where there are large populations with Chinese ancestry, although their services are available for any traveler to use. Often providing the cheapest prices, they also tend to arrive and depart from curbside stops away from established bus terminals, providing travelers with alternative pick-up and drop-off locations that may be more convenient.

Panda NY Bus is one of the largest Chinatown bus carriers. The company focuses its business on the eastern seaboard of the United States, with destinations that include Baltimore and Tampa, as well as Knoxville and New York City.

The most scenic bus routes in the United States

You won’t be able to rely on the U.S. bus network to get you to most National Parks. However, an often-forgotten reason for traveling by bus across the United States is the sheer beauty you can encounter on such road trips.

From endless fields of corn to dramatic mountain landscapes and foaming rivers, the U.S. isn’t short of natural attractions. Indeed, some routes are so scenic they are worth traveling along for the stunning scenes you’ll witness along the way – such as these three:

New York to San Francisco
It may be more traditional to follow the transcontinental routes by rail, but doing so by bus gives you a lot more options along the way. Of the multitude of iterations possible thanks to the size of the American bus network, we think those that include a pit stop in Denver to be some of the best since that will see you rise up into the Rocky Mountains and take in the desert landscapes of Nevada. To experience this three-day (actually 75 hour) extravaganza for yourself, Greyhound is the service to choose.
Book bus tickets from New York to San Francisco

Miami to Portland, OR
Another epic way to take to the roads in the U.S., you’ll need at least three and a half days to fully experience the journey from Miami, Florida to Portland, Oregon – one of the longest bus rides in the United States. Along the way, however, you’ll be able to take in parts of the Deep South, as well as the Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and the forested Pacific coast. With bus tickets starting from $212, Greyhound is keen for you to take this magical trip too!
Book your bus trip from Miami to Portland, OR

Boston to Charleston
Taking in the regions associated with the American War of Independence (Revolutionary War) and Civil War, this route from Boston down to Charleston, SC isn’t short on sights either. Best completed in the late spring or fall to avoid extremes of temperature and catch the scenery at its best, the route includes stops in New York, Philadelphia and the nation’s capital, Washington, DC. The fastest route is again offered by Greyhound, but trips like these aren’t just about getting to your destination as speedily as possible, are they?
Find cheap bus tickets from Boston to Charleston

How to book bus travel in the U.S.

Generally speaking, you’ll get the best – in other words, cheapest – fares on buses in the U.S. the earlier you book. There’s often a small number of very cheap fares used for advertising which go on sale on a particular date. Fares tend to be more expensive on the weekends (Friday-Sunday) as this is when most people like to travel. They rise further at big holiday times of year such as Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday of November in the U.S.) and Christmas. Although tickets do occasionally sell out, even at short notice, you would usually be able to find a seat.

Tickets for many long-standing companies such as Greyhound and Peter Pan Bus Lines can be bought at stations and terminals run by the company, as well as online. However, newer arrivals onto the market require you to book exclusively online – limiting their use if it’s a last-minute seat you’re after. The upside is that booking online is almost always the cheapest way to book. Tickets for many companies can also be bought at certain 7-Eleven and Walmart stores, or via smartphone apps.

When buying a ticket online, it’s always best to use a platform like Wanderu that gathers all available options in one place. That’s a surefire way to not just find the best available deal but also to find an option that best fits your schedule.

Also, it’s always well worth printing off a copy of your ticket even if you bought it online and it was delivered to you digitally. That’s because some companies still demand a paper version. And while many bus companies use mobile boarding and will happily accept and scan an e-ticket, things can go wrong with electronics which could end up leaving you stranded. The good news is that when you book on Wanderu, we will let you know whether you need to print your tickets or not.

Can you modify or cancel a bus ticket?
Basic tickets (i.e. those that are the least expensive) are generally for a specific service on a certain day and time. They are not usually transferable or refundable. Some bus companies will allow you to change your reservation for a fee, but like many airlines, it’s often cheaper to purchase a whole new ticket than pay the fee requested.

Check out our guide on how to cancel or change a bus ticket for a more in-depth look. We’ve also compiled a ranking of bus & train carriers’ cancellation policies from most to least flexible so you know exactly what you’re dealing with.

Some types of tickets are refundable and transferable, but those will cost you more, so consider carefully the likelihood you’ll need to change or cancel before you purchase them. You may have to fill out an online form or phone a specific number to change or cancel your ticket. A better option may be trip protection, which is why we put together this article on why trip protection on bus and train travel is totally worth it.

These tickets are normally referred to as flexible tickets, and will generally allow you one piece of carry-on luggage and another in the luggage compartments. These rules are more strictly adhered to at times when buses are close to capacity, such as over the December holiday season.

Tips for finding deals on bus tickets in the U.S.

Bus companies in the U.S. are quite good at advertising discounts and deals on their websites, although they won’t automatically pop-up when buying a ticket – keep an eye out for ‘apply discount’ buttons or tabs.

The most common discounts are for students (anyone who can prove they are in full-time education), senior citizens (those over 65) and serving military personnel and veterans. Signing up for email newsletters from the companies is the best way of learning about up and coming offers. Also, on many carriers, infants up to 2 years old travel for free, as long as they remain in your lap and don’t take up a seat.

If you’re traveling a lot, you might also want to sign up for frequent traveler programs, such as Greyhound’s Road Reward scheme. A flexible fare round trip will give you six points, which allows you to claim a 15% discount on your next purchase.

Daily/monthly cards & passes
Most bus companies in the U.S. operate on the basis of giving the lowest possible price to all customers on a first-come first-served basis. However, Greyhound bucks the trend by having QuickLink commuter passes on a couple of its routes.

If you travel between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Louisiana or Mt Laurel in New Jersey and New York City you can purchase one-, ten- or 30-day passes that will save you money compared to a standard ticket purchase.

Types of intercity bus services available in the U.S.

Few of the coach companies in the U.S. we’ve mentioned have first-class seating or anything other than standard economy or ‘coach’ seating on their buses. However, if you’re willing to pay a little more to be extra comfortable during your trip, there are some companies offering luxury bus services that will meet this need.

Carriers such as The Jet and BestBus Prime provide their passengers with a high-end level of service, although routes are more limited in scope than the big national carriers. Expect extra legroom, more spacious seats, on-board attendants, power outlets and USB sockets, as well as green certification.

Other companies, like RedCoach, provide both business and first-class seating on their buses in Florida and Texas, offering wider seats of 18-21 inches which recline down to 140° (that’s just 40° off lying flat). A similar level of high-end experience can be enjoyed on Vamoose’s dedicated Gold Buses, serving New York, Maryland and Virginia, and the Washington Deluxe between New York and Washington, DC.

There are several bus carriers that have pick-up and drop-off spots directly at an airport, such as the Newark Airport Express to Manhattan from Newark, the Coach USA Airport Express from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to destinations including Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport, RedCoach that has daily routes to Miami International Airport, Concord Coach Lines that offers trips directly to Boston Logan Airport from various locations in New Hampshire and Maine, and a Megabus service to different locations near to Toronto Pearson International Airport across the border in Canada.

For more information on bus carriers that can take you to an airport near you, check out our tips and tricks for taking the bus to the airport.

Getting to the bus station in the U.S.

It’s always worth double checking the location of the departing station or street location of your bus, since many cities have more than one. Usually big bus stations are located in a central part of town and they are easily accessible via public transit. However, sometimes they can be located in hard-to-reach parts of town, and since they are free to enter and provide shelter, can also attract those without anywhere else to go. Travel in groups when possible, and don’t leave your baggage unattended.

You should aim to reach the bus station at least 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time of your service. As traffic and other difficulties can delay you, you may find it best to be cautious and arrive earlier.

Most bus carriers operate out of proper stations that have somewhere to buy snacks, sit down or use the restroom. Buses tend to leave from their terminus within a couple of minutes of their scheduled time, although unusually heavy traffic can delay them from reaching other stops as scheduled. Standard traffic flows are normally accounted for in the timetable.

On the other hand, some companies – most notably Megabus and most Chinatown buses – keep costs low by avoiding the use of bus stations as much as possible. Instead, their buses can stop on the side of the road like a local transit bus or in the parking lot of a large store. It won’t necessarily be in the center of town, and won’t necessarily have any onward connecting transport.

Uber/Lyft services can help with this particular issue, but because of the business model these companies use, there are no guarantees a vehicle will be free. You may, therefore, also want to note down the numbers of local taxi companies. Taxis will often await passengers at busier stops during the day, but that will not necessarily be the case for late-night drop-offs.

Megabus also overbooks tickets with the knowledge a certain percentage of passengers will fail to turn up. On occasion, everyone does turn up, which then results in some passengers having to wait extra time for an additional bus to arrive and pick them up. Getting to the bus stop earlier will help ensure you are not put on the reserve list and have to wait for another service.

Getting on the bus in the U.S.

In the U.S. you should always travel with identification to board any form of transport, whether that’s a bus, train or plane. International travelers will already have their passports with them. Other recognizable forms of identification are those with a photograph, including officially-issued student IDs and military IDs. You must present the original and not a copy or scan.

You can find more information in our guide: What Kind of ID You Need to Travel by Bus or Train

On international services heading into Canada or Mexico, you must bring your passport. If you’re unsure whether you need a visa or not to cross the border, you should double check with the embassy of the country issuing your passport before traveling.

When it comes to seating, most bus companies in the U.S. usually operate on a first-come first-served basis. There are some carriers that will allow you to pick a seat but that option is usually reserved for premium ticket holders.

On-board experience on U.S. buses

Breaks & pit stops
Bus companies are able to offer such reasonable prices because they are not direct services from point A to point B, but stop off at various locations along the way to pick up and drop off more passengers.

On longer bus journeys of more than a couple of hours, there are usually scheduled breaks of around 10-15 minutes to allow passengers to use restrooms at service stations, buy food, and stretch their legs. These breaks don’t happen at every stop, so it is always best to double check with the driver before disembarking.

Although seats on buses are fundamentally all the same, you may wish to sit close to the driver for a better understanding of where you are. We generally advise you to stay away from any onboard toilets, since you don’t want to be disturbed by those visiting them, especially if you are traveling in the middle of the night.

Most companies now advertise onboard WiFi for customers. It should be noted that this doesn’t always work, and can also be very slow when lots of passengers are attempting to utilize it. It shouldn’t be relied on to complete important work to a deadline. It’s rare to be able to watch movies via streaming services - make sure you know how to watch your favorite shows on the bus offline. While onboard entertainment is seen as a little passé, some bus carriers do still offer it. For more information, check out our guide to bus carriers that have onboard entertainment.

Baggage policy
The amount of baggage you can bring along with you on the bus differs from carrier to carrier. Every carrier allows one carryon item. When it comes to checked baggage, some bus companies allow you to bring only one suitcase free of charge that gets stored under the bus, while others allow as many as two or three bags free of charge.

In addition, every company has set its own dimensions and weight requirements for checked and carryon bags.

For more information, please check out our complete guide to how much luggage you can bring on the bus.

Most buses come equipped with onboard restroom facilities. Usually, they offer basic chemical toilets. Their cleanliness depends on the previous people who have used them. It can therefore be a good idea to use them at the beginning rather than the end of a journey, if possible.

Food & beverages
Food and drink cannot usually be purchased onboard, but it can be consumed – just be considerate of other passengers when it comes to what you eat and how you dispose of any waste afterwards. It’s best to purchase food at a standard city supermarket than at the station, where prices will be higher.

The only animals that are allowed onboard buses in the United States are certified service animals. You are not allowed to bring your pet even if they are in a carryon container. If you absolutely must bring your pet with you, we recommend that you travel by train, as Amtrak has a pretty generous pet policy.

Wanderu is the simplest way to book bus and train travel.

With just a quick search on Wanderu, you can compare bus and train schedules and prices from hundreds of travel companies in one convenient place to find the trip that works best for you. Wanderu’s simple checkout process makes it easy to book cheap bus and train tickets hassle-free and with no additional fees. Most importantly, as Wanderu is an official partner of all leading bus and train companies, we always have the best bus and train deals out there.

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