There are many stereotypes about the experience of travelling on a Greyhound bus, and after five long distance journeys in two weeks (Portland - Salt Lake City - Denver - Kansas City - St Louis - Indianapolis), here's my take.
First, let's dispel some myths. The buses are new and comfortable, with spacious leather seats, air conditioning, free wifi on board and at-seat power points.
However, the reality is that the people who travel on them are poor and pretty disempowered by life. And the service can be somewhat chaotic. If you want to avoid driving or flying in the States I would absolutely recommend travel by Greyhound... but be prepared for eventful journeys. The following will help you keep your sanity.
1. Take time seriously
- Be there an hour before departure at least; whichever queuing system today's driver has decided to implement you want to be ahead of the game.
- At rest stops, be back on the bus before the driver. They often report with glee the last time they left someone at a gas station in Spring Creek or Marshall Junction.
- Avoid changing buses, as it seems that most don't make their connection, usually meaning a 17 hour layover in the Greyhound Station in whichever city you find yourself stranded.
2. Get a good seat
This is more complicated than it sounds. First you have to understand the boarding system, different at each station. When you get on depends on where you are in the pecking order, all at the whim of the driver. But once you do make it on board:
- Don't be too picky about who you sit next to. Go for the first small person you find in the front half of the bus. If you hold out for a better seat buddy you could end up saddled with the severely obese man with a dog.
- Avoid the back third of the bus. This is generally where the less savory characters hang out, and the one time I ended up back there I was forced to spend the night across the aisle from a gentleman who was masturbating for much of the journey with a coat over his head.
- Take lots of clothes on board with you (and a good neck pillow). Temperature can range from sweating out the B.O of your neighbour to freezing your water bottle, so lots of optional layers are also crucial.
- Buses are often oversold, so if you don't get a seat that can mean long waits for the next bus. If you find yourself in a scram for a bus though, make sure that in the thrill of boarding your bags also make it on, as this doesn't always happen when the buses are overfilled. They then refuse to stop to correct this, as I endured on a 14 hour journey where no passenger knew if they their bag was on or not; leading to a tense ride with more than the normal dose of fights.
3. Make the right friends
This is key. Journeys can be long and eventful and being in the right company makes all the difference. Who to befriend?
- The smokers. They bond quickly and usually with the driver too - which means they are a tight gang and have information first on delays, breakdowns, general bus gossip. Do as the smokers do, get out at every stop where you have the chance, even if it is the middle of night. It will stop you getting cramp and help your bus cred.
- If you speak Spanish then declare yourself - you'll then become the bus translator and play a key role in the community, giving you good status with the driver.
- Be nice to the old men. They generally form their own wise old clique on the bus, discussing politics and the way of the world. When things kick off you want them on your side.
- Find a buddy who won't let the bus leave without you - someone to stand up and shout if you get stuck in the gas station toilet (as I once did) or fall asleep in Macdonalds on a 15 minute rest stop at 3am.
To help with making friends take lots of snacks to share, I found a large bag of fruit that could be passed around went down well, albeit with a dose of bemusement, with people whose diet generally consisted of hamburgers and cookies.
4. Do as you are told - don't ask questions
Greyhound passengers are some of the least empowered human beings I have ever met. They accept delays, breakdowns and missing drivers as an inevitability that they have no power to challenge or change. They don't really have another option if they want to travel long-distance, and Greyhound knows it. Every now and then someone kicks off and they are usually calmed down by fellow passengers (often this is the role the old men play). The drivers establish their power on the bus pretty quickly and don't take no shit; threatening to drop people off by the side of the road in the middle of Kansas or Wyoming at the slightest offence.
But I quickly learnt that trying to be an active consumer is not helpful. One time we were stuck for two hours somewhere in Utah at 2am waiting for a replacement driver who hadn't turned up. I approached the long haired night porter in the changeover station and asked politely "Please can you tell me what the procedure is here for a no-show from a driver?" I expected some kind of policy such as when he calls a manager or when we should be given food vouchers. But he just shrugged his shoulders and slumped back down. I went back to my fellow passengers, who were greatly amused by my pointless intervention.
In St Louis, I asked about the boarding system and why it was being done in a particular way. The response "Ma'am you are obstructing my vocation. If you continue to be a nuisance you will not board the bus." I kept my mouth shut from that point on.
5. Be a team player
As ever a natural order settles - leaders emerge, outsiders become accepted, the driver displays his or her quirks and you function together as a team. You get through the highs and the lows of the night. You calm any disagreements. And it becomes a strangely intimate experience. Share your sweets, laugh at all the jokes, accept kindness from others, be nice to the driver and as the sun rises and you arrive in the final destination you will find yourself fondly wishing the best to your new friends. Get a strong coffee and head out from the Greyhound Station into the world, as each of your fellow passengers embarks on whatever they have traveled thousands of miles for; a new job, a new grandchild or a long overdue visit home.