Know your rights when traveling by bus and local transportation. Make traveling easier for you and your family with Travelers United.
by Malcolm Kenton
Intercity Bus Travel Rights
Thanks to the open access offered by the nation’s highway system, whose funding comes from a mix of gasoline taxes and other tax revenues such that no operator of road vehicles is paying his or her full share of the costs of road building and maintenance (unlike railroads, which are privately owned and use their own revenues to maintain their infrastructure), there is a great deal of competition and some innovation in the intercity bus travel industry, so it’s important to know your bus travel rights.
Traditional vs Curbside bus travel lines
Bus travel can be roughly divided between the “traditional” motorcoach carriers (Greyhound Lines Inc. and its partners, such as Trailways in the Southeast and Jefferson Lines in the Midwest, as well as independent legacy carriers like the Northeast’s Peter Pan Lines) and the more recent “curbside” carriers (including various independent brands, some of which are referred to as “Chinatown buses,” and the two leading brands, Bolt Bus (actually a division of Greyhound) and Megabus (owned by Coach USA)).
Curbside buses tend to make no or few (generally one or two) intermediate stops between major destinations, while Greyhound and regional operators make several stops along their routes. Greyhound, headquartered in Dallas, Texas, was purchased in 2012 by British multinational transportation firm First Group, but retains its own brand and remains quasi-independent. Greyhound and Megabus also operate cross-border services into Canada and Mexico.
All intercity bus carriers offer the options of booking tickets online and by phone, but only Greyhound and some regional carriers staff their own ticket offices in larger cities. Curbside carriers save money, and thus generally offer lower fares, by not investing in station facilities or ticketing staff. They generally stop on the street close to major transportation hubs like train stations, and in some cases have access to bus bays at large terminals shared by multiple bus companies.
Buying a bus ticket
Generally, passengers purchase a ticket before boarding a bus. Greyhound and the curbside carriers have “bucket” pricing systems and different fare levels akin to Amtrak, while some regional carriers may have more of a flat fare system. Generally, tickets are less expensive the farther in advance passengers book, and some deals may only be available online. Oftentimes, a ticket purchased through Greyhound will involve travel on one of its regional partners. Amtrak also contracts with a number of motorcoach operators to offer bus service connecting with its trains with through, interline ticketing purchased through Amtrak.
Many bus carriers offer the ability to print a ticket or confirmation document at home and bring it to board the bus (for some curbside carriers, this is the only ticketing option), and a few have smartphone ticketing. If this option is not offered, be sure to leave extra time to pick up a ticket from the station agent or from the driver when boarding.
Most buses have only standard coach seating, while a few carriers (like Megabus) have seating upgrades available that afford more legroom, a seat at a table, or even a seat at the front window on the upper level of a double-decker bus. If passengers book such a seat, they will select a particular assigned seat at booking. Otherwise, in most cases, seating is first-come, first-served and passengers can sit wherever they’d like.
Terminal or no terminal — it depends
If traveling from a small community or from a stop that is advertised as unstaffed, or if travelers are riding with a curbside operator, be prepared for there to be little to nothing in the way of station facilities. Passengers may have to await their bus outside in the elements. But if they are traveling on Greyhound or another legacy carrier from a large or mid-sized city, they will likely have a terminal building with seats, restrooms and vending machines (if not full-service eateries) in which to wait. It may be a terminal shared with other intercity bus service, local bus service, and/or passenger train service.
Most bus services do not offer checked baggage the same way as airlines and Amtrak do. In general, passengers will have to carry their bags to the bus and have the bus driver or station agent help them load larger or heavier bags into the cargo hold beneath the seating area. Most bus operators have strict restrictions on the size, weight and quantity of luggage, particularly that can be carried inside the passenger compartment, as the overhead bin and under-seat storage space is very limited. Many types of larger, bulky items (including bicycles, in most cases) are prohibited.
When boarding the bus, the bus ticket will be inspected and sometimes scanned, punched or torn by the driver (either on the platform or sidewalk, or from his or her seat at the front of the bus) or by a station agent just before boarding. Passengers are then free to sit wherever there’s an empty seat, unless otherwise instructed by the driver.
Most intercity buses have a restroom at the back of the bus, so keep this in mind when choosing where to sit. If a passenger is prone to motion sickness or prefer a less bumpy ride, the best bet is to sit near the middle of the bus — though the farther back passengers sit, the safer they are in the event of a frontal collision. Some buses have seatbelts and others do not — it is recommended to wear a seatbelt while seated if one is present.
Unlike trains, buses do not have cafe or lounge cars, and it is best to remain seated unless going to the restroom or getting on or off the bus. And, the view out the window, especially if traveling on Interstate highways, is likely to be fairly monotonous. Thus it is a good idea to bring enough reading and entertainment matter to stay occupied. If traveling overnight, passengers who wish to sleep should bring a neck pillow, eye cover, blanket and whatever other support they need to sleep comfortably in a seat.
Motorcoach carriers’ procedures for handling complaints vary widely, and are usually described on the carrier’s website. Passengers are more likely to get a personal response to a complaint and proper compensation from a small or regional bus travel company than from a large national bus travel company like Greyhound or Megabus.
Greyhound’s customer service is notoriously poor, a fact that has sadly changed little since First Group acquired the company. However, if passengers live near a staffed bus terminal, it is generally a better bet to bring complaints to the staff there in person, and ask to speak to a manager if necessary, than to complain over the phone, online or by US Mail.
Unlike Amtrak, where all compensation and refund decisions lie solely with the Customer Relations department, bus travel companies give their front-line employees a lot more flexibility for making things right with customers.
There is very little government regulation of the intercity bus industry, and none with regard to fares and service levels (routes, frequency, etc). A minimal oversight role of safety standards is played by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a branch of the US Department of Transportation. Complaints can be filed at its website: https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/consumer-protection/report-safety-violations
Local Transit Travel
Local and regional public transportation systems come in many forms and sizes, from expansive subway and light-rail systems with frequent service throughout the day, to commuter railroads that only run at rush hours, to small bus travel networks with service only hourly or less often.
While the number of places in the US where it is possible to visit and get around easily without a car (at least not without having to make some compromises in terms of schedules) is sadly limited, there are many small, midsized and large cities where it is possible, though it may not seem so. Of course, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle are all eminently transit-rich, but among American cities whose transit systems have gotten considerably more robust in the past decade are Los Angeles, Denver, Salt Lake City, Houston, Dallas, and Miami. Depending on itinerary, travelers may also be able to visit places like St. Louis, New Orleans, Phoenix, San Diego and Sacramento without a car.
Most cities also have a transit connection to the airport. The major airports with the best local transit connections are Washington Reagan National, BWI, Philadelphia, Newark Liberty, New York (JFK and LGA), Boston Logan, Chicago (O’Hare and Midway), Cleveland, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, Burbank, Dallas-Fort Worth, St. Louis, Miami, Atlanta and Phoenix.
Not all transit lines are created equal, even those that use the same mode. If it is a subway or heavy-rail line (also often referred to as a “metro”), it will almost certainly have its own right of way (below ground, elevated, or isolated and fenced-in at ground level), and thus won’t be affected by traffic. But if it’s a light rail or streetcar line, it will either be running on the street in mixed traffic (thus will probably run slower and be more subject to delay) or have its own right of way with crossings of streets at-grade, which can occasionally cause delays. Most bus travel lines run in mixed traffic, but there are some that have dedicated lanes or even separate busways. The latter types of bus service may be referred to as “BRT (Bus Rapid Transit),” “Express Bus,” “Select Bus” or “Rapid Bus.” Cities with substantial BRT or busway lines are Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Boston.
When riding local transit keep these things in mind:
Locations of stops or stations near a origin and destination
This can be found using maps — either PDF or interactive — that are available on most transit agencies’ Websites. To find the agency’s website, do a search for either the agency’s name, “[name of city] transit” or “[name of city] transportation authority.”
Travelers can also use a mobile app like Moovit (www.moovitapp.com), Transit (www.transitapp.com), or Citymapper (www.citymapper.com), which put stop locations, schedules (even real-time departure estimates in many cities), and transit directions at a traveler’s fingertips. Each of these is a free download for Apple iOS, Android and Windows Phone operating systems.
Google Maps and Apple Maps also offer transit directions in many cities. The Google Maps includes local transit options, complete with waking times between any bus or subway changes.
Be sure to make note of how far it is to and from the nearest stop or station, and from the nearest stop to a final destination. Factor in how long it will take to walk there, and add about 5 minutes to that estimate, in case the bus or train runs early or there is a holdup on the way. Add extra time if walking slowly, are carrying luggage, need time to buy a fare card, or if the app or the transit agency website says there is a delay, service disruption, or scheduled maintenance.
Scheduled departures from the origin station
If the transit agency does not participate in one of the apps mentioned above or in Google Maps Transit, it will take a little extra detective work to figure out the schedules. Either download a PDF schedule from the agency website (which may not give exact times at every stop, but rather at major “time points” on the route), pick up a printed schedule at the local transit hub (or perhaps at an airport, train station or hotel), or refer to the schedules posted at the stop (don’t count on all stops having printed schedules, though!).
Some routes may only depart at certain set times during the day, while others may run “clockface” schedules such as hourly or half-hourly. Only a few of the most-used routes run more frequently than that — some may even run every two minutes. Service is most likely to be the most frequent at rush hours on weekdays, and is likely to be more infrequent in the evenings (after 8 p.m.) and on weekends, especially Sundays.
What the fare is and how to pay it
This is the one piece of the equation that cannot be easily found from Google Maps or a transit app. Except for a small handful of systems, passengers will not be able to use a phone or swipe a credit card when boarding to pay the fare.
Most systems have their own “fare media,” which is generally a card that is either swiped or tapped at the fare gate or the farebox on the vehicle. A few require the purchase of a fare card. Travelers can use the agency website or signs at the station to figure out what the fare is, and many stations have machines where passengers can buy and add value to their fare card with cash or a credit/debit card. Most fare cards will work on both rail and bus travel in the same metro area, but some will only work on one mode or the other. Some systems require a ticket to be validated by a machine on the platform before each ride.
On most buses, riders without a fare card can insert cash into the farebox — exact change is often required, and the driver will almost never be able to make change. If you are paying with cash on the bus and plan to connect to another bus or to rail, be sure to ask the driver for a transfer, which can be inserted into the farebox or fare gate on the connecting vehicle.
Multiple ride passes
Most transit systems offer a variety of multiple-ride passes. Some allow unlimited travel within a period (generally ranging from one day to one month) for a set price, while others allow a certain number of rides. These passes are either loaded onto a fare card or presented in the form of a ticket or receipt that must be presented to the driver or station agent each time a passenger boards.
On some smaller systems, a day pass is worth it when taking as few as two rides. On other systems, travelers would have to take at least four or five rides to make a day pass more economical than simply paying on a ride-by-ride basis.
Note that some systems allow passengers to pay for more than one fare at a time (i.e. for a traveling companion) with the same fare card, while others do not, and will require each traveler to have his or her own fare card. Note also that some systems sell passes that are only good for either rail or bus, but not both, even though the same transit authority operates both. (Washington, DC’s Metro is a notorious example of both having passes that are exclusive to rail or bus and of not allowing multiple fares to be paid with one SmarTrip card simultaneously.)
Passengers who have boarded a vehicle without a valid fare, or failed to validate a ticket, may be asked off the vehicle by the operator or security officer and, in rare cases, may be fined.
On board a transit train or bus, expect only a bare-bones seat (or standing room, if there are no seats available) and no additional amenities. Almost all transit vehicles lack restrooms, though many rail stations and bus travel hubs have restroom facilities.
Be sure to observe common courtesy, try not to take up more than one seat, and be mindful of prohibited activities (many systems do not allow any food or drink to be consumed on board vehicles or inside stations). On some rail systems, riders will need to push a button on the door for it to open, from either the outside or the inside. On most buses and streetcars, riders will need to pull a cord or press a red or yellow button or strip just before their stop to request it, or else the vehicle will bypass the stop. Otherwise, be alert for an audio announcement or visual display announcing the next stop, and be prepared to disembark immediately with all belongings.
The best way to provide feedback or complaints about local transportation or bus travel is by contacting the transit agency directly. Contact information can be found on the agency website. Emails or US Mail letters are generally best, followed up with a phone call. If unsatisfied with the agency’s response, contact the elected officials of the city, county or state government(s) that oversee and fund the agency. Safety-related complaints can be sent to the Federal Transit Administration, a branch of the US Department of Transportation. Call (202) 366-4043 or visit this website for addresses and phone numbers of regional offices: http://www.fta.dot.gov/12317_1119.html