Bus travel takes a different role in the car-driven culture of the United States than it does in most countries. Because the area of the US is so vast, flying is often the most attractive transportation option for traveling between cities and can be priced quite competitively when factoring in time and convenience. For shorter distances driving is usually the first choice for US domestic travelers. However, for routes that are under five or six hours, the bus is almost always the most economical and often the most convenient form of travel. Furthermore, as Amtrak (the national rail service) continues to see cuts in government funding, bus service is often the only ground transportation option for many destinations. Visitors who are planning to stick to major cities will most likely find having a car to be inconvenient, expensive, and unnecessary. Therefore, taking the bus between destinations is a great option.
Many Americans view traveling by bus with some trepidation, and, whether deserved or not, bus service in the US often has the reputation of being rather basic. In truth, the level of service varies greatly among bus carriers. Some carriers, like LuxBus in California or Transfloridian in Florida, offer deluxe buses and feature services that are rarely even found on airlines today, such as on-board entertainment and complimentary food and beverage service. Still, standard bus service is generally more on the budget level and offers few amenities. Food options are more likely to be a ten minute stop at a roadside fast food restaurant than on-board meal service.
The bus industry in the United States is dominated by Greyhound, which is the only remaining nationwide bus carrier. Several other companies such as Trailways and Coach USA are made up of independently owned bus companies that share marketing functions and branding. In addition there are several strong regional players in the bus industry. While these companies compete with Greyhound, they often end up sharing service on routes that do not have enough traffic to sustain two carriers. This is similar to “code sharing” in the airline industry.
The most recent development in the U.S. bus industry has been the “Chinatown bus” phenomenon. Several years ago a few enterprising business people in New York’s Chinatown started running buses from Chinatown in NY to Chinatown in Boston, charging less than half of what traditional bus companies did and a fraction of what it cost to take the train or fly. They targeted Asian immigrants who wanted to shop or visit relatives and needed inexpensive and convenient transportation. Although the buses were modern and comfortable, the service was bare bones—no advertising, customer service, or bus stations. Customers simply went to the bus stop, waited for the bus, and paid the driver upon boarding. For those willing to do without frills, these companies offered virtually the same service as Greyhound at a substantially lower price. Before long, word spread about the service and all kinds of travelers started using these bus lines. They became especially popular with students, budget travelers, and people for whom the service was simply more convenient.
Soon more bus companies duplicated this model and started offering service in other markets. Now you can find this type of bus service in Philadelphia, Virginia, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco. At this point the term “Chinatown bus” is used more loosely to describe this sort of low-cost/low-frills service. Many, if not most, of the company’s do not have Chinatown as there main location and may not cater to the immigrant population at all. When these companies first started operating, concerns were raised about safety standards. There is still controversy within the industry about whether these low-cost bus companies are complying with the same regulations as the traditional companies. Nonetheless, all bus companies operating in the U.S. must undergo the same inspection standards and must comply with the same rules.
Finding information about scheduled bus service is not always easy for visitors to the US. Historically bus companies have sold tickets at on-site ticket booths. Many now sell through their own websites as well. Whereas for plane travel there are many online booking sites that allow travelers to compare different carriers, it is more difficult to find route information for bus service. GotoBus.com is a centralized booking site focused on bus travel. It offers search capability similar to Expedia or Travelocity and sells tickets for many different bus and tour companies.
Overall, the bus is a great option for visitors to the US who are looking for transportation between major US cities. For most cities, a car is not necessary and will be inconvenient and expensive. In metropolitan areas there are more choices for bus service today than at any time in the recent past. Particularly for shorter distances, it is the best way to go for the budget minded traveler.