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A Complete Guide for Traveling by bus in the United Kingdom
Bus travel in the United Kingdom dates back to the 1830s, when public horse-drawn carriages connected its towns and cities over several days of travel. They all but disappeared with the building of the railways, but returned to fill in the blanks on the rail map – connecting up areas without train stations or regular services.
Today buses are a popular alternative to the trains for this very reason, as well as the fact bus services are usually substantially kinder on the wallet. With over 1,200 destinations to choose from across the four nations of the UK, bus travel also provides an alternative to renting a car.
Bus companies in the United Kingdom
Privatized in 1980, the UK’s bus network is made up of several operators.
Nationally, these include National Express, Megabus, and Flixbus. Most services within Scotland are operated by Scottish CityLink, with TrawsCymru providing a similar role within Wales and Ulsterbus in Northern Ireland.
Regionally, you should look out for the Oxford Tube, EasyBus and RailAir. Generally speaking, areas of the country with high populations, such as the southeast, are very well served by bus routes, whilst those with lower populations such as rural Cornwall, receive fewer daily buses.
National Express is by far the largest operator, having been the state run bus service prior to privatization. It routinely has 1,800 daily services to 59 of the UK’s 64 largest cities, as well as almost ten times as many other stops.
Megabus operates no thrills services across the country, generally connecting up second tier cities and towns. They also generally arrive at out-of-town interchanges rather than city center bus stations to avoid congestion.
A rival of Megabus, Flixbus focuses its network in the UK on the southwest and the Midlands, although it also has services to Newcastle Upon Tyne, Edinburgh and Glasgow. From London, it’s also possible to reach continental Europe, with routes direct to Paris and Brussels.
Scottish CityLink has 19 routes linking Scotland’s major cities as well as the Highlands, Belfast via the Stranraer ferry, and Blackpool during the summer. The main services from Ulsterbus have the Goldline livery, although services to mainland Britain usually use the Eurolines branding.
One of the busiest bus services in the country, the Oxford Tube operates between the university city and London’s Victoria bus Station with services up to every 30 minutes at peak times. EasyBus and RailAir connect major cities to their nearest airports, such as central London and Heathrow.
Popular bus destinations in the United Kingdom
The most popular bus destinations in the United Kingdom are its big cities, both because of the number of people who live there and because of their long lists of tourist attractions.
Services to the following cities are therefore most frequent, although tickets can sell out quickly, especially for weekend journeys:
The British capital is home to no less than four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 1000 years of history and over 300 different bus routes totaling 2,500 individual journeys each day. Major carriers include National Express, Megabus and Flixbus. Services crisscross the country and connect with the city’s airports from central London’s Victoria and Green Line bus stations, and north London’s Golders Green.
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The UK’s second city is the headquarters of National Express, sitting above the bus station on Mill Lane to the east of the center. buses take around 4.5 hours to reach London and a little over 2 hours to reach Manchester. In total there are 150 separate routes and 800 departures each day operated by National Express, Megabus and Flixbus.
Book a bus trip to Birmingham
The capital of Wales, Cardiff is a hotspot for Welsh culture and accessible from 125 locations within the UK thanks to the big three bus operators. The main bus station is Sophia Gardens, with secondary destinations being Cardiff University and North Road Bus Stop.
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Scotland’s ‘granite city’, Aberdeen has long been known as a destination for golfers, with several championship courses within easy reach. Boasting a growing art scene too, six bus companies link it with 350 stations along 36 routes.
Find and book cheap bus tickets to Aberdeen
A global city long before the term was coined, Liverpool’s attractions include Anfield stadium, its modernist cathedral and historic docks. Whilst sailings may be hard to find, buses aren’t, with 150 routes totaling 1,500 arrivals each day delivering people right to the heart of the city on its Irish Sea waterfront. National Express joins Megabus and Flixbus in providing these services.
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The most scenic bus routes in the United Kingdom
More than just a way of getting from A to B with ease, British bus routes also provide access to some of the country’s finest landscapes. These are our favorite scenic bus routes in the UK:
Leeds to Whitby
Run by smaller operator Transdev, the 840 Coastliner runs several times a day from the trendy streets of Yorkshire’s biggest city to the cliff top abbey in Whitby – the setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Much of this 3.5 hour (76 mile) journey will take you through the North York Moors. Try and grab a seat on the upper deck for the best views.
Book a bus from Leeds to Whitby
Winchester to Southampton
This National Express route is great if you’re short of time but are still keen to see quintessential English landscapes. Taking less than an hour to complete the full 14-mile journey, this route heads south through beautiful villages, including Chandler’s Ford and St. Cross, en route to its south coast destination.
Book bus tickets from Winchester to Southampton
London to Amesbury
Traveling west from the capital, this National Express route edges several regions officially designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including the Surrey Hills and North Downs. What’s more, its destination is Amesbury, the location of Stonehenge. It takes about 3 hours to complete the 84-mile journey, with most departures taking place from May through September.
Find cheap bus tickets from London to Amesbury
How to book bus travel in the UK
All the national bus carriers – National Express, Megabus and Flixbus – allow online bookings. Some, like Megabus, insist on booking online in advance – one of the ways they are able to keep their prices low. You can use Wanderu to book your tickets online and find the best deal and most convenient schedule for your needs.
Tickets cannot be purchased from drivers from any company, and so if you are planning to board at a smaller road side stop it is essential to purchase your ticket beforehand. If you are departing from a designated National Express bus station, you will usually find a ticket counter or automated ticket machines where you can buy tickets right up until the time of departure – as long as the service isn’t already full.
The cheapest tickets are generally available the earlier you book, with tickets being released at least 2-3 months before departure and sometimes even earlier. Tickets around popular vacation periods, such as Christmas, get booked up quickly, especially from cities with large populations of students such as London, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh.
You can board the bus by showing your e-ticket on your mobile device or by printing the ticket at home. If you decide to have the ticket mailed to you (at extra cost) you’ll need at least 7 days in the UK, 14 days for Europe and 28 in the rest of the world for postage. Keep in mind that not all bus carriers support this method of delivery.
Type of fares
When you buy your tickets online with National Express, you may see the additional offer of so-called restricted fares. Only available online, they are usually the cheapest available option but the catch is that they are only valid for a specific route, date and time, and cannot be exchanged in any way. If your travel plans change, you’ll have to purchase a completely new ticket.
Standard tickets allow some service and date flexibility, but to make any changes there is a charge of around £5. To avoid this charge, you could instead purchase a fully-flexible ticket, although they cost substantially more to begin with than standard fares.
Megabus has just one main ticket type. Journeys can be changed up to 24 hours before departure, at a total cost of £2.50 online.
Flixbus allows changes up to 15 minutes before departure. Cancellation up to 30 days before is free, which is perfect for plans that may change, although you will be provided with a Flixbus voucher rather than a cash refund.
If you are happy to sit anywhere, you do not need a seat reservation in addition to your ticket.
Tips for finding deals on bus tickets in the UK
Although there’s no official peak time like there is on the UK’s railways, if you can avoid traveling at the busiest times, such as on weekends and first thing in the morning, you are going to find the best of the bus carriers’ dynamic prices.
Megabus offers students 10% off full fares with a TOTUM card, whilst National Express offers a 15% discount. You will need to prove your status as a student using an NUS (National Union of Students) card if studying in the UK or ISIC (International Student Identity Card) if enrolled elsewhere in the world. You will need to bring this card with you on your journey.
Sixteen to 26 year olds in full-time education can also apply for a Young Persons buscard, giving a third off all standard and flexible fares with National Express. The card costs £12.50 per year, or £30 for three years plus postage costs. Vouchers from the Tesco supermarket Clubcard scheme can also be used to purchase Megabus and National Express tickets.
Children aged 4-14 receive a 10% discount on Megabus routes, and those aged 3-15 travel for half the standard fare on National Express. Those below this age travel free with an adult, but must not use a separate seat.
Daily/monthly cards & passes
Group tickets are sometimes available for airport transfer routes, allowing 3 or more passengers traveling together to board at a discounted rate when tickets are purchased as one booking in advance.
Season tickets are available from one month to one year on National Express. They only permit travel between two specified stops, with similar multi ride tickets allowing one person to travel along the same route 10 times in a three-month period. Both of these ticket types can save you substantial amounts of money, as well as hassle from having to book individual trips each time.
Types of bus services available in the UK
There are very few luxury bus services routinely operating in the UK with either business or first-class seating options.
However, there are ways to make your journey by bus more comfortable. All the major players in the market allow you to reserve specific seats at a small additional cost, meaning you can pick a favorite spot or avoid being seated next to the toilet for the duration of your journey.
National Express goes one better, with services such as the route between Bristol and London offering premium seating. Located on the top decks of double decker buses, they offer extra legroom and train-style tables. This add-on starts at £4 per person.
Buses are a great way of getting to and from the UK’s airports, with hundreds of connections each day. National Express also provides transfer services between Birmingham and Manchester, as well as London’s Heathrow, Stansted, Luton and Gatwick airports.
Getting to the bus station in the UK
Carriers recommend getting to the bus station at least 15 minutes before the scheduled departure of your trip. But if you’ve never been to the station before, we recommend arriving at least 30 minutes in advance, and even sooner at busy times. If nothing else, you will need enough time to load your luggage into the storage bays before the driver shuts the doors for the journey.
The UK’s bus stations are being gradually improved after years of falling into disrepair. Most bus stations have a small waiting area with departures information and public seating alongside a newsagent, food outlets and restrooms. Keep in mind that you may have to pay to use the restrooms. Many also have left-luggage facilities, although this is not guaranteed at every station. Because of the constant flow of people in and out, stations can be cold in the winter.
They generally do not allow overnight stays, and tend to close from around midnight until 5 or 6 am. If your bus is scheduled to arrive or depart inside of this time, there will likely be an alternative night entrance, or the bus will depart from the roadside.
Bus stations are generally well located close to city centers and other forms of public transportation. It is therefore normally easy to reach them. Often there will be a small taxi rank as well as bus stops. Uber can be ordered via the app for pick-ups.
Getting on the bus in the UK
Getting onto buses in the UK is usually a stress-free experience. At stations, departure boards will display the bay your bus will depart from around 15 minutes before it is scheduled to leave.
You then simply need to present your ticket to the driver before loading your luggage or getting onboard. Make sure you don’t occupy a reserved seat unless it is yours. Some carriers ask for identification, although you will usually only need to show ID on an international journey. This does not include services from England to Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland where there are no border checks.
If boarding from a roadside stop you will need to flag down the bus in good time by extending your arm out into the road perpendicular to your body. Failure to do this may mean the bus doesn’t stop.
On-board experience on UK buses
Most buses operating in the UK use airline-style front-facing seating, although you will occasionally find groups of 4 seats facing each other around a table. These are popular and often reserved well in advance. Legroom can be quite narrow for those with longer limbs – Flixbus generally has the biggest spaces between one seat and the next.
All the major carriers provide free onboard WiFi, although speeds vary. Most services also provide plug sockets (of the UK three-pin type) at a selection of seats, with USB charging points increasingly common as well.
Most buses will have an onboard restroom, located towards the back of single deck vehicles, or close to the stairs on the upper deck of two-deck vehicles. If you’re keen to sleep, try and avoid sitting near them so you are not disturbed as other passengers come and go.
Entertainment & refreshments
Carriers no longer offer entertainment such as movies as standard. The purchase of food on board is limited, and at a higher price than you would find in shops. Don’t expect more than a minimal choice of drinks and snacks even on Flixbus buses. It is much better to pre-purchase any food you’ll want for the journey and bring it onboard with you. There are no restrictions against doing this.
Top bus routes in United Kingdom
- buses to Hatfield
- buses to Plymouth
- buses to Nottingham
- buses to Portsmouth
- buses to Weymouth
- buses to Hull
- buses to Stoke-on-Trent
- buses to Cambridge
- buses to Cardiff
- buses to Newcastle upon Tyne
- buses to Penzance
- buses to Liverpool
- buses to Northampton
- buses to Bournemouth
- buses to Oxford
- buses to Sheffield
- buses to Norwich
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