Megabus: Very Cheap UK Bus Travel - Or is it?

Does Megabus Live Up to its Bargain Promise?

Megabus Glasgow to London overnight sleeper. Ed Webster ccl

Megabus offers very low cost bus travel to some of the UK's most popular visitor destinations. You could travel to Bristol, Salisbury and a clutch of other selected cities for just a few pounds but finding your chosen trip on their website is a bit like finding exactly what you want in a grab bag of  wrapped presents.

At one time the company offered train as well as coach (UK English for bus) travel. They no longer do that. And if your friends have told you about their £1 fares, they don't seem to offer those anymore either - at least, if they do, we couldn't find any.

What they do offer is relatively cheap bus services in their own fleet, painted with a blue and yellow livery. Their cleanliness, temperature control, promptness, perceived safety and general comfort seem to have mixed reviews but are apparently in line with low-cost bus and coach travel in general.

So What's The Catch?

These are the main issues you have to look out for:

Limited destinations and schedules

Such budget travel is possible because the company only serves the most popular routes and only on a limited, relatively random schedule. So the cheap fare you are after may only be offered on selected routes and only on certain days of the week. Just because you can travel to your chosen destination at 7 p.m. on Monday doesn't mean the same service is available on Tuesday. You may have to travel very early - or late, or at a time you would not ordinarily have chosen, to get the lowest fare.

Journey planning is complicated

We tried to plan a trip from London to Bath. Initially company's website offered us a fare finder without actually indicating whether there was a London to Bath journey available. Then the "fare finder" apparently became too busy so we were switched to a "Journey Planner" (there did not seem to be a way to go directly to the journey planner in the first place. When we finally tried to enter Bath in the journey planner, we discovered that we could only choose from a selection of bus stops "Near Bath".

The closest one was Bristol UWE (University of West England), a distance of just over 13 miles from Bath city center. The fare, round trip, was £8.90 plus a £1 booking fee (in May 2019).The journey outbound took two and a half hours and the return trip to London was three hours.  A further local bus trip of a little over an hour each way was required to reach Bath bus station. That cost £4 each way or a total of £8 round trip. So the total cost for a round trip booked online was £17.90. The total time spend on a bus was three and a half hours outbound, four hours return.

We compared this with schedules and prices for a London to Bath bus trip using National Express, the UK's biggest intercity coach company. The company goes directly from London Victoria to Bath. The trip takes two hours an 50 minutes outbound and three hours return at a total cost of £14 plus £1 booking fee for the cheapest ticket (restricted to specific scheduled journeys with no flexibility).

Doubtless, you can find some fares that are cheaper than the main coach companies and that go exactly where you want to go, when you want to go. But you could spend precious hours of your life trying to figure that out.

Where Does Megabus Go?

If you want a quick answer, that would be, "Guess."  The company's website promises an easier, smoother travel planning experience but we found it anything but. You no longer have to enter their booking process to search for a trip but, until you enter destinations, dates and time of day, you have no way of knowing whether the journey you want to book is available. If a service is offered on that route, you'll be given a list of available departures and when you choose one, a price or a range of prices is then presented.

You could waste a great deal of time trying out one destination and date option after another only to discover the company's lowest priced offer takes you miles from where you want to go. Or that the price is no better than normal fares from mainstream companies. 

Instead of creating a seamless approach to bus travel - which was apparently the intention when the company's most recent online booking site was created - the new website simply creates a time wasting nightmare.

One way to save yourself a little time is to go to another bus or coach company website first to see if they travel to your destination, how long the trip will take and what the cheapest fare is. Then see if Megabus offers anything better.

Bus, Train - Does It Really Make That Much of a Difference?

It can make a very big difference. Some train journeys that take two to three hours can take five to seven hours or more by bus. For example if you were traveling from London to Lincoln by train, the trip would take between two hours 36 minutes and two hours 56 minutes.  Take the same journey by bus and the fastest trip is five hours five minutes with some journeys taking more than six hours. Bus travel is undoubtedly cheaper most of the time, but it's probably worth checking the train companies' seasonal offerings, on their own websites as there are often bargains to be found.

Comparing like for like, however, Megabus only makes sense if you have unlimited time and are not too fussed about arriving exactly where you want to go. Even then, you might do just as well booking in advance with one of the national coach companies, such as National Express.

How to Book and Travel

Booking is only available online at the Megabus website. Once you've booked your journey, print out your confirmation and take it with you when you travel. 

London Sightseeing

One of Megabus's newer services is a two-hour, non-stop sightseeing tour of London that promises to whizz by 50 of the most important sights. If you think taking a nutrition pill instead of eating a meal is a good idea or that reading the TV Guide summary of a film is the same as seeing it, you might enjoy this tour. 

The Bottom Line

Many of Megabus's "Near to (name your destination)" stops seem to be close to universities, sports arenas, big out of town shopping centers and festival locations. If you are a student in the UK and have the time to familiarize yourself with their routes and schedules (which seem to change often) you could save a couple of pounds now and then. As a visitor or tourist, this once exciting and once money-saving option no longer seems worth your time and effort. 

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