Pros and Cons of Discount Bus Travel

A BoltBus going up the Avenue of Americas in Manhattan. Bolt offers fares to New York, Boston, Philadelphia and DC for as low as one dollar.
James Leynse/Corbis/Getty Images

If you live near a large US city, you have probably seen advertisements for low-cost bus travel. Some discount bus companies offer fares as low as $1 each way.

History of Discount Bus Travel

The discount bus industry got a jump start in the late 1990s when so-called "Chinatown buses" became popular. Chinatown bus companies, such as Fung Wah and Lucky Star, typically offer very low fares and few amenities. They carry passengers between Chinatown districts in large cities in the northeastern United States as well as the West Coast. Some Chinatown bus companies also make trips between Chinatown districts and nearby casinos.

As more and more travelers chose Chinatown buses over more expensive air and rail travel options, additional bus companies entered the market. MegabusBoltBus, Greyhound Express, Peter Pan Bus Lines, World Wide Bus, Vamoose Bus and Tripper Bus Service now provide discount bus transportation. Some of these bus lines, such as Megabus and Greyhound, serve passengers in many parts of the US, while others offer routes within a specific region or between two cities.

Is Discount Bus Travel Really Cost Effective?

Generally, yes. Traveling by discount bus takes more time, but costs less, than flying. In most cases, discount bus fares are lower than Amtrak fares, provided you book early.

For example, fares between Washington, DC and New York City can range from $1 to $25 each way. In comparison, Amtrak fares are usually double, if not triple, the price.

Most discount bus lines release their schedules and open their booking systems for reservations 45 to 60 days in advance. Some lines, including BoltBus, require you to join their loyalty program in order to get $1 fares.

Advantages of Discount Bus Travel

The most obvious advantage of traveling by bus is its low cost. You can travel for as little as $1 each way plus booking and facility transaction fees, which typically total $1 to $2, if you make your reservations as soon as your bus company releases its travel schedule.

Other advantages include:

  • Traveling by bus takes only a little longer than traveling by car, and you don't have to do any of the driving.
  • If you are visiting a city with expensive parking, such as New York City, you will save even more by leaving your car at home.
  • Some bus lines offer free WiFi and electrical outlets on their buses.
  • If you use a mobility aid or need some other type of assistance for persons with disabilities, notify your bus line 48 hours in advance, and assistance will be provided in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Disadvantages of Discount Bus Travel

Saving money is good, but there are some definite disadvantages to bus travel. Here is a list:

  • In most cases, your tickets are nonrefundable.
  • You must arrive at the pickup point well in advance of your departure time, because your driver will not wait for you.
  • Although most buses have onboard restrooms, your driver may discourage you from using it, or your fellow passengers may render it unusable.
  • You will need to dress in layers, because the bus may be very warm or very chilly, and your driver may not be able to adjust the temperature.
  • Bus seats are not as wide as train seats, and they do not have very much leg room. Traffic issues or mechanical problems may cause delays.
  • The WiFi may not work as advertised.
  • Your fellow passengers may be rude or noisy.
  • You will be left behind if you do not return from your food / restroom break on time, whether or not the driver warns you of the impending departure time.
  • Your bus line will notify you if your trip is canceled due to weather conditions, but this notification may come by email rather than by telephone.

Safety Concerns

Many discount bus lines have good safety records, but some do not. In fact, in 2012, the US National Transportation Safety Board shut down over 24 discount bus lines, citing safety concerns. You can check the safety records of US interstate bus companies online.

The Bottom Line

Discount bus lines offer a low-cost transportation alternative to train and air travel. Whether the cost savings are worth the inconveniences is up to you.