Bus Travel 101

The rare new Greyhound buses offer wifi, electrical sockets, and smoother seats, but at the cost of large metal things in the middle of them.

Due to the increased cost in tickets this year (up to almost $500 a seat), my mother, sister and myself decided to take the bus instead of plane to New Jersey from South Dakota. (We couldn’t drive because none of us have the visional capabilities to drive.)

For starters, anywhere much beyond a certain point will cost you only $184, including over the Canadian boarder. (I looked.) If you take a more common route, it’ll cost you less and you’ll have more options on times, obviously.

Many of the preconceptions about bus travel are wrong. For starters, let’s discuss the people.


The picture that most people have about those who travel by bus is that they are people trying to avoid this law. I don’t think this is anywhere near the truth.  Maybe a few of them do, but the vast majority of people are just people trying to get from point A to point B cheaply.

The only place worth getting priority boarding was Chicago, since they had a special area set up, complete with chairs.

The vast diversity of people traveling by bus astonished me. We had everything from a single woman who was pregnant at four months, to an elderly Amish couple. The ethnicity varied as well. Pretty much anyone imaginable traveled. My sister suspects we even had a muslim couple on board with their baby.

So long as you stayed out of the east coast, people were generally friendly and talkative. We talked to all sorts of people. The Amish couple previously mentioned, a woman who had to get back home and stay put until she had a baby, another woman who was going out to stay with a friend who was having surgery, a guy heading to Seattle, a girl heading to Portland who wanted so badly to see the Bad Lands (which I’m pretty sure she did.) An Asian woman who smiled at our conversations (mine and my sisters) but who struggled with English, a truck driver who was just about to start his first job and some seasoned truck drivers giving him advice.

I don’t think I ever saw anyone who i did not trust. I saw no drugs, no questionable people. Nothing of the kind.

One thing I must note however is that in New York City, besides the terminal being HUGE, no one talked there. Maybe no one trusted anyone else, but I did not trust that station.

But people are only half of what makes the trip.


Sioux Falls, SD only had one three lines for people to fill, but they brought in the luggage for you, and made certain the luggage was yours. Right now, no one is really there.

Stations can be anything imaginable, from a gas station’s bench to a large, open building quite a bit like a small plane terminal. Very small plane terminal. The stations I visited and went inside were Sioux Falls, Omaha, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh,  Newark, and New York City and I’ll describe some of those in detail later.

Let’s start with the basics. You walk into a bus station and tell them you’re going to take a bus. They ask for your tickets, which you provide, unless you are just buying them now. They’ll then have you put a label on your baggage, check the weight, put their own label on it, and hand it back to you. You are responsible for your baggage at any moment that it is not under the bus.

Once you get checked in and get your baggage, you wait. If your bus won’t be showing up soon, you can sit in the chairs, sometimes charge your electronics, or whatever you want to do. If you are very trusting, you can place your luggage in the line to save your place. This does work and is respected as saving your place in line.

If your bus is coming in “soon”, and based on the line, you want to get in line now. If you don’t get in line, you don’t get your pick on the seats. Seats are first come, first served method. So getting first in line is very important. If you don’t really care, well, then you can keep doing whatever you’re doing until they start loading.

The line for one bus stretched all the way from the door to halfway across the station. I learned later that line wasn't bad. At least everyone got on the bus.

However, you probably need to know where to stand. In Sioux Falls, there are only three rows really, and they are nicely labeled, same as Cleveland and Chicago (I think) to some extent. NYC had labels in some of them. That’s about all. These labels will tell you that this bus is going to these towns. If you can’t figure out where to go for whatever reason,  the best bet is to ask someone. Surprisingly, although the little bus riders know nothing, almost everyone who works there can tell you which line to stand in.

Side note: Chicago terminal nine is for long distance. So if the bus is going beyond so many miles (Say, to NYC), you go to number nine.

About the buses, they don’t run on time. The bus in NYC was on time; I think the bus in Newwark to NYC was on time. That was all. Sometimes they ran thirty minutes late. Sometimes they ran two hours late. Yes, we were waiting for the bus for over two hours because it just didn’t come. Twice we did that actually.

Actually, I think I must really discuss this lateness factor. Buses can run late for a variety of reasons. The bus driver may not be there yet. The bus may have encountered traffic. The bus may have had something break that they had to fix. But the bus may also be waiting for another bus to come in (that is also late),  so passengers on that  bus coming in can transfer to the bus that is waiting. I have had all of those previously mentioned reasons happened, and I benefited from the transferring one too. Otherwise, I would have missed the bus to home and have to wait a bunch of hours.

We had an 11 hour layover/wait in Chicago, but that was expected, so we went exploring in the Chicago cultural center.

So, now you can climb on board.

You bring your luggage and your carry ons with you, and hand your ticket to the driver. The driver collects all the tickets. If you are going to need to stop at another bus station for service, the driver will give you a small slip of paper for a rebounding pass. You then go out the door to where the bus is parked and running, bring your luggage to the side of the bus and either leave it there if the baggage loader isn’t there, or hand it off to the baggage loader if he is. You climb on board and find a seat.

Now, all buses are basically set up the same way. You’ll have two seats per row, and then about fifteen rows. The overhead racks are available like a plane, but they are smaller than a plane. On Greyhound, they used budgie cord across the place instead of doors.  You can also store your carryon under your seat. Although the website says you’re only allowed two carryons, I constantly had three (purse, computer, carry on) and people climb on with backpacks, pillows, blankets, pretty much anything imaginable.

Other features of the buses vary drastically. The footrests that you may hear about are merely metal things to put your feet on if you are short, that spring up if unused. Some buses may have a cloth cup holder on the seat in front of you. Some buses may have a TV, although I never saw the bus play anything. Some buses may have a radio built into the seat in front of you. Some buses may have wifi. If you are traveling through the Midwest, however, the wifi is sketchy. If the bus has wifi, it has power outlets. On one bus, those were located in the front row, middle row, back row. On another bus, they were located seemingly randomly. I only got mine by chance.

Soon after your loaded, you’ll start. This isn’t like a plane where you may be waiting for an hour before takeoff. The bus driver will announce  the rules and they are pretty basic. Don’t make a lot of excessive noise, courtesy to other passengers, we have wifi, no smoking or drinking. Our next stop is this place. Greyhound drivers won’t allow you to approach them, whereas say, Jefferson Lines (which work mainly in the Midwest again) will allow it.

Which means that I should probably clear up something about the buses. Just because I bought my tickets from Greyhound does not mean that I took a Greyhound bus the whole way. There are many different buses and bus companies. JUst to get to Chicago, I took a Jefferson LInes bus to Omaha, and then a Trailways to Chicago. After that, I transfered to Greyhound. If you’re wanting to write about someone taking a bus, go pretend to buy a ticket. You can see your whole schedule, including what bus company you would use, in the itinerary.

Compared to Chicago and Cleveland, Omaha NE had a very small station and did not have a charging station like the former two. However, the few plugs it did have were not constantly used.


Traveling can be rather boring, so bring things to do. But don’t bring THAT much. Keep in mind that half of your trip will be in the dark/at night, when you’ll probably be sleeping. Many of the buses don’t allow passengers to turn on overhead lights during the wee hours of the morning, so don’t plan on reading through the night either unless you bring your own light. (And I mean you are physical unable to turn on the lights, not that it is just a rule.) Since sleeping really isn’t that great, you’ll probably be sleeping some through the day as well. I probably spent half the trip sleeping, literally.

You are able to get up and use the bathroom during your trip. I cannot comment on that, however, as I did not. However, once, when we were in bumper to bumper traffic, the bus driver parked the bus, got up, went the bathroom, and came back.

Breaks vary, partly based on the driver, and partly based on how behind the driver is. Some drivers will announce when we leave the stop, “We’ll be stopping in Jackson for a meal break at 10:10.” Some other bus drivers will merely say, “Our next stop is Jackson for a fifteen minute meal break.” The best chance you have for meals is to get it to go, and eat it on the bus. you don’t have time either. Also, some bus drivers will say, ” We’re only having a fifteen minute meal break. You are to be back on the bus at 5:45.” While others will say, “We’ll have about a fifteen minute meal break.” Breaks can be as long as an hour. Again, look at your schedule but don’t expect it to be followed exactly. Drivers will cut down on breaks depending on how behind they are. All breaks are fast food places. When the ticket says meals available, it means that the driver is suppose to make a stop at that general time or in that general area for you to buy food at a fast food place.

There are also bathroom breaks, but they aren’t as common. They will happen though. My guess is that the bus driver is only allowed to drive so long straight through, so if they get stuck in traffic, they’ll need to take a break anyway.

Sioux Falls only had a little refreshment stand. Unfortunately, I never had time to take a picture of the "real" restaurants.

One final note about breaks. Sometimes, you have to eat in the terminal. Many of the more major terminals have a small restaurant on the inside. Yes, they serve fast food, but surprisingly, the prices are rather reasonable and the food is good. Even the coffee I thought was pretty good. Drinks from vending machines, however, are $2 a bottle. Except for vending machine prices, though, they don’t try to gouge you like airports do.

When you get to the place where you either stop traveling, or transfer, you get out, get your luggage from the side of the bus, and go back into the terminal. then, if you are transferring, you start it all over again.

The biggest complaint I have is that the bathrooms were pretty much all dirty. Not so dirty that you fear what will come out of them, but they smelled. And, if you are taking a two day trip, expect to be icky at the end. All I wanted to do when I got to New Jersey was shower.

Starting at the beginning of the line in Chicago.

I’d do some things different. LIke, instead of having my computer and my other carry on, I’d have two separate carry on. Things that I’ll probably want soon, and things that I can live without for a couple hours. You can get up, so just because you put something in the overhead bin does not mean that is it gone forever. Also, bring a water bottle. Water is rare and expensive, so if you can fill up your bottle in the terminal, that’ll help save money.

Pretty much, I plan on doing it again. I don’t like the fact that it’ll take me two days to get to pretty much anywhere, but I can handle it. People aren’t trying to get you, they don’t try to steal your things, and so far as cheap travel goes, this makes sense.

So, I hope I gave you a realistic idea of what it is like to travel by bus. If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to answer. I wrote this in part because I know that information on this is scarce, and  if you’re like me, you have loads of questions. And hopefully, this’ll start you on your way towards a cheaper way of travel.

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About Abigail

I'm an elementary education major at a college in the Midwest. I might graduate as early as December '13 but more likely May '14. I write when I can. I also knit on occasion, draw, do homework and contradict teachers to make people think. :)

2 responses to “Bus Travel 101”

  1. pat says :

    do you know of a place to buy a travel pack for a bus , something that has some things in it that will make the trip easier ?

  2. Stephanie says :

    This article was the best description I could find of what to expect. My seventeen year old son is traveling from Grand Rapids Michigan to Bismarck ND, via Indian Trails, Greyhound, and Jefferson Line, and your description was so helpful and reassuring.

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