It’s been a long time between bus trips. Until this past year the last time I traveled any distance on a bus was 1972. That was a miserable journey and I never expected to do anything like it again. Now I have reasons to do some traveling, though, and despite the many good air travel deals available the bus remains the cheapest way to go. Aside from that, a lot has changed in the forty years during which I avoided the bus like it was some horrible contagious disease.
Tips for today’s bus travelers:
Take food and water. Your itinerary includes rest stops and meal breaks but you aren’t likely to get them. If the schedule says a 30 minute break, expect ten to fifteen minutes or nothing. Drivers will leave you behind if you aren’t back on the bus on time. Next bus will be along in 24 hours and at many intermediate stops you’ll have no safe place to spend the night.
Join the Greyhound Travel Club. You’ll earn travel points for each trip you make and be offered special fare prices.
Buy your ticket online. You’ll get a discount. You also save money by traveling early in the week and by purchasing your ticket well in advance of your trip so set this up several weeks ahead of time.
Between 1969 and 1973 I put in thousands of miles on Greyhound and Continental Trailways, and although the trips were excruciatingly long and painful I do have good memories of those days. The bus was very different then. Passengers had plenty of rest stops and drivers had plenty of time. One of the finest meals I ever ate was the result of a Greyhound stop at a little buffet restaurant in an empty warehouse in Mississippi somewhere and if the driver hadn’t stopped at it I would never have known it existed. Apparently the three ladies who hosted this feast only did this when the bus came through town. We had time to enjoy that meal and we did so. In about an hour the driver came back with a new smile on his face and I suspected this was not the only pleasurable business in that town.
In those days the bus was not in a hurry. I recall a stop in a tiny town in Kansas one night when the driver politely waited a full 15 minutes for the only new passenger to finish her long round of tearful good-byes with all her friends from high school. If it put us behind schedule, we never knew nor cared.
Traveling by bus today is a very different experience. Drivers are under pressure to stick to a very unforgiving schedule and amazingly enough, they do it. What this means for passengers is very little time off the bus, so learn to love the bus’s porta-potty. Even at the major terminals you’ll often find yourself going directly to your next bus so the drivers can buy time.
Going Greyhound today means getting somewhere through a network of regional bus companies. My trip involved four: Greyhound, Miller Lines, Jefferson Lines and Salt Lake Express. Greyhound was the only part of this with wifi on the buses, but the wifi never worked for me. The drivers explained that it depends on cell phone networks but this did not really explain why my Chromebook never connected to it. Nearly all the terminals offer free wifi that works and even the intermediate stops at truck stops and fast food restaurants allowed free access to wifi. At Butte, Montana, you have to pay $2 for a password. Next time I go through I will find out if they ever change it.
Whether you travel in comfort or not is a total crap shoot. Greyhound had the roomiest buses and Jefferson had the worst, often with seats so cramped that I couldn’t even sit with my knees straight forward. On today’s buses, comfort means only moderate pain.
Back in the 70’s it seemed that most people on the bus were visiting family or going home on leave from the Army like I was. Today it’s different. I met a lot of people traveling to new places in hope of finding work, and just as many who were clearly homeless and traveling south to better weather for the winter. Instead of military I met lots of men just released from prison, with just enough money to get home by the cheapest means. Terminals were well stocked with scammers hoping to glean money from people in transit. One fellow spent a half hour showing me a collection of rocks he kept in two plastic shopping bags. To me they looked much like rocks, but he explained that they contained dinosaur eyeballs, various colors of gold, and even some sizable diamonds. Their actual value, he said, was well over two million dollars, but since he was a little strapped for cash and I was a nice guy he’d part with one or two for maybe a couple of hundred bucks. I suggested he hold out for at least a million and he gave up on me. Last I saw of him he was asleep on the floor in a corner of the depot in Butte. Although the security people did make regular rounds of the major stops, it seemed that every depot had resident travelers who went nowhere.
Although traveling by bus isn’t as great as it once was, it’s interesting in new ways. I met a lot of people I’d otherwise not know. A lady who sat beside me for a few hours told me all about her trip to Heaven, the translucent gold sidewalks and the parking lots graveled with semi-precious stones. A fellow Vietnam vet told me a story about escaping from the Viet Cong that was exactly the same story several other Vietnam vets have told me, and I pretended to believe it even though it seemed inspired by the movie Apocalypse Now. A total stranger walked up to me and told me my ride was waiting outside. When I asked him where it might take me he said, anywhere I want to go, and now I wonder what would have happened had I accepted. I’ve learned a lot of prison dialect I hope I will never need.
Riding the bus has become part dreamscape and part nightmare, but if you live on a tight budget it’s definitely still the only way to travel.