¨On a bus, your eyes, ears, and pores are open, absorbing in the variety, the wonder, the magic of the city. It is a wonderful way to get to know the city.¨
Introduction: Public Transportation 101
For trips under 300-500 miles, I prefer buses or trains to airplanes. I do not mind spending five or six hours on a bus or a train. I like having the option of just deciding to buy a bus ticket at the last moment rather than making arrangements far in advance for a plane ticket. I find time aboard a bus or a train to be a great time to read, write, and watch the world go by.
In contrast, all the security, check-in procedures, waiting in airport lounges, transportation to and from the airport, and the complications of buying the right airplane ticket, wear me down. I will suffer through all the rigamarole involved in airline trips when I have a long trip to save time. However, I do not think I will ever enjoy traveling on a plane as much as a bus or a train.
However, I sometimes get frustrated trying to find my way around a city by public transport.
Over time, I have been on thousands of public transportation trips throughout the world. I have learned a lot of lessons from these experiences, which you will find in more detail below:
Buying Tickets and Planning Your Public Transportation Trip
- Rome2Rio is quite good at showing you a variety of options -planes, trains, ferries, and automobiles- to get between one city and another (also called intercity transportation). I would recommend, however, that you always double-check the costs for the different options that are quoted on the site, sometimes they are not very accurate.
- You can sometimes save money by buying tickets for intercity transportation online. You also can save money by buying round-trip tickets rather than one-way tickets .
- Not all bus and train stations have a kiosk to purchase tickets. Keep in mind, you may be able to buy tickets at travel agencies or through your hotel for a small fee.
- Sometimes an inter-city trip with a connection may be better than a non-stop bus trip, particularly if you are beginning or ending a trip in a small city. I learned this lesson the hard way on a bus trip from San Miguel de Allende (a smaller town) to Aguascalientes, Mexico (a relatively large place). I went to the bus station and noticed that there was one bus a day between the two points and bought a ticket for that bus. It took eight hours and left at around ten in the morning. I wanted to meet a former host family in Aguascalientes and hoped to arrive in the daytime on a Sunday so that I could spend the day with the family. I ended up arriving at six o’clock at night. When I got there, the family mentioned that I should have taken the bus to Leon (a large city) and then taken another bus from Leon to Aguascalientes. I realized when I booked my return trip that they were right. There were buses every hour or less between San Miguel de Allende and Leon and between Leon and Aguascalientes. The total time for the trip with the stop in Leon was four and a half hours and because the buses on both legs were so frequent that I could have left early in the morning and spent more time with the family.
- You can find a lot of good deals for buses and planes by looking for signs advertising deals in airports, train, bus station, and billboards while you are traveling around Europe (and, to a lesser degree, the rest of the world).
- Know when and how to pay for public transportation. In both western and Eastern Europe, you are usually required (outside of a few tourist areas) to buy local (and some long distance) train and bus tickets before you get on the bus. (You cannot pay for your trip on the bus itself). City bus tickets are sold at local stores. (In Italy, for example, tobacconists sell local bus tickets). Train and long-distance bus tickets are sold online or at the station. (You can buy most tickets online and pick them up at the station). For useful information about this read Rick Steves’ advice.
- In most of Europe, you must validate most public transportation tickets. On city buses, the machine for validating intercity tickets is within the bus itself. On both intracity and intercity trains, these machines are usually somewhere near the train tracks or ticket vending area. If you forget to get the ticket validated, you can sometimes get away with writing in the date and time on the ticket. If the police catch you without a validated ticket you will be subject to a substantial fee (up to $100-200). In some countries, like Italy, the enforcement of this rule on city buses is so lax that you could probably pay less for fines than tickets if you were daring enough not to buy tickets. In other places, like Poland (at least when I was there in 1994) the rules may be very strictly enforced causing unsuspecting travelers to pay significant fines. The Poles in 1994 found every conceivable excuse to fine friends of mine for not putting the validation stamp on the right place on the ticket.
- Unless you are in a big city, buses and trains can be surprisingly infrequent in Europe. In Italy, I frequently spent between thirty minutes and an hour waiting for a bus and even longer for intercity trains. Public transit is so scarce in Sicily that it is almost useless for most travelers. Most areas outside big cities in the US and Canada also lack convenient public transportation.
- Consider taking slower, second class buses and trains instead of express ones, particularly in Europe. In most countries, you’ll be able to save about one-third by choosing local trains. Many travelers make the mistake of buying tickets for express trains before they know that local trains are available. Yes, it takes more time (usually about 50% more time), and many local trains are less comfortable. However, you do get to see more countryside (partly because the trains stop more often and move slower) and the cost savings are considerable. In most Third World Countries, the quality and slowness of these buses and trains are bad enough so that I would recommend that most travelers stick to first class and express buses and trains.
- You can often save on accommodations by choosing to travel at night. If you can sleep on a train or bus and don’t care about seeing the countryside, this can save quite a bit. This cost-saving technique is so commonly used by many Third World Country residents, that you may find it hard to find long-distance buses, trains, and even planes that travel during the day. I must admit that I do not like traveling at night because I cannot comfortably sleep on buses and trains and I need a whole day after I arrive to recoup my lost sleep time.
Intercity, Long Distance Buses Between Cities
- I recommend that you buy tickets at least thirty minutes before your intercity trip is scheduled to leave (and that you allow, if possible, a similar amount of time for long distance trains/buses connections). Some bus and train stations are enormous. Many people wait to buy tickets to the last-minute meaning that the bus or train may be full at the last minute. During holidays, I would recommend buying tickets several days in advance, if possible.
- Some large cities have more than one intercity bus station. (Mexico City has five, including the airport!) Therefore, always check to make sure you know the correct station.
- In many places, the best, and frequently the primary, inter-city (between cities), short distance public transportation is by bus. Throughout Latin America and many parts of Eastern Europe and North America, for example, there are very few other options for public transport between cities other than the bus (or plane). Intercity bus tickets in most of Western Europe and North America cost about 20-30% less than comparable train tickets and between 10 and 70% less than plane tickets. The buses, especially in Latin America, are generally quite comfortable, frequent and convenient. The deluxe buses in Latin America include sandwiches and soft drinks, very comfortable reclining seats, and in-seat entertainment systems. However, in Europe, trains are usually a bit faster and more relaxing than buses.
- Inter-city buses that travel in rural areas in Europe, Asia, and the US, and many second-class buses in Latin America and Asia, do not always stop at the station. You need to pay attention that you are exiting and entering the bus at the right place. Sometimes, the drivers and/or electronic signs will announce the stops; however, you may not be able to understand these announcements since they are usually not in English. Also, the drivers and electronic announcements often use names of places that can be different than what you expect. Let the driver and/or some fellow passengers know where you want to be dropped off to avoid mistakes. Also, if you are taking a bus in a rural area, particularly in parts of Europe and North America, you probably will have to call for a taxi (generally it is easy to find taxis in urban and suburban train and bus stations) once you arrive, in order to get to your final destination. Taxis or sometimes motorized bicycles are almost always available throughout Third World Countries. Ask for help or, if it is available, use Uber, if this is a problem. Most people are glad to help tourists.
- Greyhound’s Bolt and Coach Companies Megabus can be a significant cost savings alternative for traveling between many large cities in the US and Canada.
- National Express in Britain and Eurolines offer inexpensive shuttles between most major European cities and airports. They occasionally run some fantastic deals. When I checked out National Express’s website, they had tickets for 15 pounds from London to Paris.
- In Central America, you want to consider taking van shuttles between major tourist centers. Most shuttles depart four to six times a day and have eight to ten passengers. The shuttles cost $25 and leave from major hotels. Similar bus trips cost around $3-$5; however, the shuttles are more comfortable and secure. (A particularly good idea if you are carrying valuable or heavy luggage). Interbus operates these shuttles in Costa Rica. I’ve seen similar shuttles in Nicaragua and Guatemala.
- While it is far from perfect, I have generally been satisfied with Greyhound for short trips in the US. The buses are usually punctual, inexpensive, clean, and reasonable. The stations are sometimes not very inviting, however. In addition, there is not much overhead room. Be prepared to check-in all but small backpacks and purses. You are allowed to check-in one bag of 50 pounds maximum. You have to pay a fee for any additional bags.
Buses within Cities (Intracity Buses)
- In most places in the developed world (and more and more in the Third World), you can find intracity (transit within a given city) public transportation schedules online and in many cases using Google Maps. Increasingly, you can also see if the buses or trains are on time using various apps and websites. Many cities also post the schedules at the bus or train stops. In some Third World Countries, getting accurate information about buses can be problematic (though it is steadily improving), especially outside of major cities. Often, the individual drivers own the buses (instead of a large organization). The owners post their routes on the bus windows. Usually, the routing information on the windows is only meaningful to locals. The only way I have found to get information is to ask locals for help. Generally, they are very accommodating; however, be patient it may take a while to find the right information. I have met travelers, and admire them, who enjoy taking these buses because it is an excellent way to connect with locals. I must admit I find it frustrating.
- It can be troublesome finding the right bus stop to get off a city bus. Often the buses are so crowded that you can’t see any landmarks and even when you can see the route, most of the places you want to go to are not noticeable outside the bus window. I’ve found that the only way to avoid these problems is to ask at least two locals for help and, even with that, accept that about one-quarter of the time, I’ll be on the wrong bus or get off at the wrong stop. (Note: The difficulty of negotiating city bus travel is one of the main reasons that I don’t visit a lot of cities for a day or two each in Europe). When I tried this type of travel, I spent almost as much time getting lost on the city bus as sightseeing. That said, city bus travel doesn’t have to be that bad. Once you’ve used the bus, you’ll be able to find your way the next time easily. In addition, many touristy cities have one or two bus routes that connect most of the main tourist sites.
- In the US and Canada, you need exact change to get on most city buses (the drivers cannot make change) unless you have a transit card or pass.
- Though riding a city bus saves money (and sometimes time and trouble) over taxis and cars, particularly in North America and Europe, it can be more trouble than it is worth. City buses are a great option if you are going to use the same route repeatedly over a week or more. (For example, if you are living in a homestay and studying the language at a school for a couple of weeks). They are particularly worthwhile if you are going to buy or rent a house overseas for an extended period. Buses in most of the developed world cost between 5-20% of the price of taxis and Ubers, cover a lot of territory, and avoid some of the problems associated with car rentals (i.e., accidents). While buses can be a significant cost savings over taxis and Ubers as well in Third World Countries, I generally think that is worthwhile to take taxis and Ubers over public transportation in most Third World Countries. A typical bus ride costs between 30 and 75 cents; whereas a taxi or Uber, will cost you $1 to $10.
- Riding a city bus can be more trouble than they are worth if you plan to travel to many places in a city over a small period. Buses can be very slow, infrequent, and complicated. I’ve spent lots of time looking for a bus stop in the middle of seemingly nowhere. More common still, I’ve got on a bus traveling in the opposite direction from what I wanted.
Subways and Trains
- In larger cities worldwide, take the subway. Subway routes are pretty easy to understand and very few tourist sites are located more than a twenty-minute walk from a station. Make sure that you know the name of the last station on your route, and you’ll get on the right train.
- The most significant problem with the subway is buying the tickets to enter the subway. Unless there is a long line, I would recommend buying tickets at a kiosk that is manned by a human being, especially if you will only use a metro system a couple of times. Many stations, especially in Europe, do not have these kiosks, unfortunately. The machines can be complicated to use at first particularly since some systems have several different types of tickets available. (Note: Many of the kiosks do have screens available in other languages. Usually, you can access these screens in English by looking for the US or UK (Union Jack) flag). Since, sometimes, you will be required to have a ticket available to exit the subway, I would recommend that you keep your ticket after entering the subway just in case.
- Here are some tips for train travel from Amtrak (the US passenger railroad company), Travel Awaits (train travel in Europe), Rick Steves (buying train tickets in Europe), Wikitravel (tips for Rail travel), Boots-n-All (train travel in Southeast Asia).
Bus, Train, and Subway Passes
Passes come with a lot of rules that can limit your flexibility. I think they were worth considering, primarily if you want to travel to many places for a relatively short time (under a month). I have not bought a rail or bus pass because I usually stay in one city for a week or more (and use it as a home base to explore the nearby countryside); Therefore, it was cheaper for me to buy an individual plane or train ticket than a pass. That said, I think that can be a useful tool in many Fifty-Plus Nomad’s kits. So, here is a distillation of some of the things I have learned about passes.
While everyone has heard about Eurail passes (check out Rick Steves’ website and guidebooks for good advice on when to buy a Eurail pass), fewer people realize that:
- After purchasing the pass, they may discover that they could have traveled for less (and often more easily) using low-cost, internal European airlines and buses. This situation is especially true if they did not plan to check-in luggage. (European budget airlines often charge as much or more for checking-in your baggage as for the ticket. See my discussion on airline tickets for more about European budget airlines).
- The passes limit their flexibility to stay in one place longer (or leave a place quicker) than expected since they have to buy the Eurail passes before they depart from their home country.
- They can’t get refunds for unused passes.
Some Additional Transportation Related Posts
- Lessons From An Express Kidnapping in Puebla, MexicoIn January 2020, I was a victim of an express kidnapping in Puebla, Mexico. I discuss what happened to me and what I learned about travel safety from the incident.
- Extra Fees: What are Ancillary (Extra) Fees and Why Are They Increasingly Becoming A Travel Industry Lifeline?More and more the travel industry depends on the sale of other products to expand and maintain its profitability. Expect to be bombarded with hints to buy other things (ancillaries) on your next cruise, flight, etc.
- Why the Sharing Economy Has Become So Popular in the Travel Industry?The sharing economy like Uber and Airbnb has made a major influence on the travel industry and will continue to affect the industry far into the future.
- Taxis, Ubers, and Tuk-Tuks 101: A Guide to Safe, Inexpensive, and Trouble-Free RidesDiscover multiple tips to help you avoid being ripped off or worse while using taxis, tuk-tuks, or Ubers.
- Car Rental 101- How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off at the Car Rental CounterRenting a car is probably the travel decision most fraught with potential problems. Long-term travelers should ask themselves if a car rental is really necessary. They should also watch out for car agency rip-offs and other problems.
- Getting to the Airport Trouble-Free: 6 Simple TipsGetting to and from the airport and airport parking will be easier if you follow the six simple tips in this post.
- Public Transportation 101: A Guide to Finding the Best Options Around the WorldA basic primer on finding the best transportation options for travelers. Learn how to avoid costly mistakes and potential safety issues with buses, trains, and subways.