On the bus a seventy-year-old woman sat next to me. I was reading the Qur'an. She made small talk and I obliged: destination, weather, relatives, Christmas. Stranger talk. I was sorely tempted to open up to this stranger, to tell her everything that had happened lately. So I did. It didn't really make me feel better.

Words eventually bled into the situation in the Middle East, then religion. I soon discovered that I was sitting beside a road-weary missionary from the Society for Promoting the New Testament to Perfect Strangers. Out of her cavernous purse came a trinity of little pamphlets promising simple salvation to the reader.

"... because the Bible says so."

"That's what you believe, and it's fine for you, but..."

"... no, it's in the Bible. It's God's own word. It's true."

She went on to tell me that the problem with "my generation" is that we are too educated. We're slipping away from morality, from the Bible and from God. She said that we were reading too many books by non-Christians, and that these books were damning us all to hell.

I waited a bit, then smiled at the 18- or 19-year old girl sitting across the aisle from me. She had a huge box on her lap, wrapped in a green trash bag. I dug into my bag, pulled out a book, and handed it to her. Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre.

"Can I read this?"

"You must read this."

Riding that bus made me feel like a real transient, slipping through a handful of unrelated lives; trying to extract some meaning, leave some mark, or at worst keep myself amused.

The Greyhound bus system is more than just cheap transportation, it's an American institution. It is a symbol of freedom and at the same time a symbol of loneliness.

I traveled for an entire summer around the continental United States on a bus, and I know there is a lot more to it than just what's on the surface. A greyhound bus is a place where you'll meet psychos and evangelists, but it's also a place where you'll meet sailors going home to see their family while on shore leave. I met a Vietnam Vet who served two tours of duty as a demolition expert, and now is drinking to dull the pain of his arthritis because the government health care wouldn't cover the treatment he needed. I also met an entire family of five that was moving, with all their worldly possessions in the luggage compartment because the factory in their town had closed and they lost their house.

I met a man who was taking a two day bus ride to visit his wife who was an officer in the army and was stationed in Texas. He normally stayed at home with the kids while she was the breadwinner. I met a couple truckers who were on their return trips home after making a long haul one way delivery. I met people who were going home for the first time in years and people who were crossing the continent to see an old friend or a lover whom fate had moved far away.

There is something about the bus, the anonymity coexisting so starkly with the extreme individual humanity of the people, the constant flow of uprooted people, each an individual, but yet part of an endless tide. That freedom and that loneliness is part of the american spirit. Tom Waits captures the spirit well in the song Invitation to the Blues (although technically it's a Trailways bus in the song, the meaning is there). All I'm saying I guess is that the culture of the whole thing is pretty much a unique experience.

"Hey mister driver man /
don't be slow /
'cause I got someplace I gotta go."

--"Waiting on the Bus," Violent Femmes

Greyhound buses span the United States and parts of Canada and Mexico. By "Greyhound," I mean the company proper, owned by Laidlaw, Inc. based out of Dallas, TX, and several others with which Greyhound has travel agreements, like TNM&O in the United States and PMCL Transportation in Canada.

Why ride the bus?

Greyhound is cheaper than a plane ticket. You don't have to arrive an hour ahead of time. You don't have to wait on a security checkpoint. Your family and friends can meet you when you get off the bus. There are fewer baggage restrictions. You will see the countryside. You will feel like you've gone somewhere.

Greyhound is as fast as Amtrak, but offers more flexibility. Whereas Amtrak may offer one schedule a day from my hometown to the capitol--a train that leaves at 8:35 AM--Greyhound will have four or five schedules to choose from. Since Greyhound uses the road, rather than rail, Greyhound can stop at many smaller cities that Amtrak can't service.

If you're going by Greyhound, you don't have to worry about your car breaking down, or buying gas.

Riding Greyhound can be intensely satisfying. On the bus, you will meet friendly people of diverse backgrounds (if you choose to) and become part of a "bus community." People will smile at babies and sometimes help handle luggage. You may be asked to watch someone's child. Everyone will gossip when your driver won't let a drunk on the bus.

Will I be killed?

Most people's first question with regards to riding on the bus is one of safety--or better put, fear. This is not unreasonable. There are three areas to discuss: the riders, the terminal, and the bus. With all three, also use your common sense: be patient, quiet, and don't whip out a laptop or a roll of hundred-dollar bills.

Bus Riders

People who ride the bus have enough disposable income to travel. Most people are occasional or first-time riders. Almost everyone on the bus travels alone. If people know you're riding the bus, they know you didn't opt for a plane ticket, and thus you are likely not a good candidate to rob.

The Terminal

Some bus stations are scary--but usually not the ones you'd imagine. The Atlanta, GA bus station is packed with people late at night, but guards only let passengers into the waiting area. The Los Angeles, CA station is reputed to be dangerous outside at night, but you're not going to be waiting outside. You'll be in the nice, climate-controlled, patrolled station. At larger stations, at worst you'll run into people approaching you for money for "a lost ticket," food, or liquor.

The hordes of people are your safety buffer. The scary stations are small ones. When there are only a few people waiting, you can't leave easily if a crazy person starts talking to you. You will feel arguments between other passengers more intensely. This "danger" abates when a bus arrives or is about to leave. You won't need to linger at these stations for any length of time, anyways, because you don't transfer at small stations. And if you are stuck there for some reason, bus employees can call the cops.

The Bus

The bus proper is very safe, because everyone has paid to be on the bus, and everyone will be riding together for a long time. If someone steals from you, they couldn't escape easily. The conditions are such that passengers look at what's going on around them and would know if anyone was making trouble. The bus driver has ultimate power: he or she can kick people off the bus at any time, for any reason.

Getting a Ticket

The damage: Greyhound tickets are fairly expensive. If you don't get one of the discounts mentioned below, your ride will cost you about the same as a train--or even a plane--ticket. Keep checking for discounts, and ride with someone else: then you get the "companion fare" discount listed below.

You can buy Greyhound tickets on-line (http://www.greyhound.com ), via phone (1-800-229-9424), or at any station. You will get a 10% discount if you buy round-trip tickets. Tickets bought for Friday, Saturday, or Sunday are typically more expensive than weekday tickets.

You may qualify for a discount. Greyhound sometimes has a "companion fare discount," where two people can ride for the cost of one ticket. They have a seven-day advance-purchase fare called the "Greyhound Friendly Fare." Greyhound also offers a military discount, a children's discount, a senior discount, and a Student Advantage discount. (Greyhound also offers Eurail-like tickets called "Discovery Passes" or "Ameripasses" that allow you travel anywhere you want during a specified period for a flat rate.)

Tickets last for a year from purchase. If you're scheduled to leave on January 11 at 8 AM, you can leave instead on the 4 PM bus leaving January 13. You don't have to cancel or reschedule.

Going to the Station

Most Greyhound bus stations are in the center of town. Smaller towns served often have "stations" marked by a Greyhound logo, which can include "Goody's Steakburgers" or the 24-hour gas station. Stations are described on-line at http://www.greyhound.com , and can also be found in phone books, by calling your local transit authority, or by calling Greyhound's toll-free number, 1-800-229-9424 .

What to Take

Take your ticket, if you've bought it ahead of time! Technically, you are also required to take your ID. If you are planning on sleeping, you may wish to take a "prop." See "Sleeping," below. Your trip will also be less stressful if you can avoid checking baggage.

When to Arrive

As the ticket policy (see "Getting a Ticket," above) suggests, Greyhound does not assign you a seat when you buy a ticket. If you show up at 8 AM for your 8 AM bus, the bus may be full. If you show up at 7:30 AM and the bus line already has 55 people in it, you may not get to ride that bus. If you're riding for your first time, you will get a good seat on your bus if you arrive an hour ahead of time, and will probably catch it (unless you need to check bags) if you arrive fifteen minutes ahead of time.

For the expert, how early you show up can be calculated by four variables: (1) Are you checking bags? (2) Is your bus "originating?" (3) Is your departure station popular? (4) Is the route popular?

If you're checking bags, you will have to wait in line. Depending on station (see "Checking Bags," below), you may have to wait in the general ticketing line. At peak times, there can be 30 people in the general ticketing line--all of which have urgent needs. You don't have a choice about waiting, so budget 15-30 minutes.

An "originating" bus means that your bus will be empty when boarding begins. If your bus is originating, you can show up later, because more seats will be available.

If your departure station is popular (i.e. a large city), more people will be in line, so budget another 15 minutes. If the route is popular (and most are, especially on the weekends and at night), you may wish to budget another 15-30 minutes.

Your best situation is an originating bus, leaving from small town X, at 10 AM. Your worst situation is a North Hollywood bus originating in Los Angeles, CA going to San Francisco at 10 PM on a Friday night.

The Station

Checking Bags

The bus station will have up to four stations where different lines form: a ticketing station, a customer service station, an information station, and a baggage station. These lines can be marked many ways, but usually a location fancy enough to have a baggage station will have a sign above the window. If a baggage station exists, get in that line. If it doesn't, get in the ticketing line.

Finding the "Gate"

The doors inside the bus station are called "gates." If you bought your ticket the day you are leaving, the agent may have told you which gate your bus is leaving from. You should totally trust the ticketing agent, as they--along with every Greyhound employee--have a magical ability to tell you which gate you need for any stop on any route anywhere on the continent.

If you don't know the gate, sometimes there will be clues. There may be a large board that lists departures, their main stops, and their gates. Some stations have television monitor that should show when and where your bus is scheduled to leave. There may be a sign above or on the door that says "Northbound," Southbound," etc., or that lists major towns. If you can't figure it out, or if no one is waiting in your line 15 minutes before your bus is supposed to leave (i.e.. you're in the wrong line), ask any employee.

Waiting in Line

If there's a line formed for your bus, get in line.

If there's no one in line, consider whether you want to start the line. Everyone will swarm as soon as one person starts lining up. There's no reason to start if the bus doesn't leave for an hour.

If you want, you can sit in a chair and just put your bags in line.

Smoking

Employees will happily tell you where you can go to smoke. Doubtless, this is a great way to meet people and feel better about riding on the bus, but I don't smoke so I can't say for sure. You may get "announced" at if you start smoking in the wrong place outside.

Getting, or Not Getting, on the Bus

Eventually, there will be an announcement that your bus is boarding. You may not be able to understand it. (One difference between Amtrak and Greyhound is that Amtrak has better announcement equipment.) A sure sign that you're going to leave is when the driver, or another employee, opens the "gate."

You will almost definitely get on the bus, especially if you're early in line. Even if you're way down in line, Greyhound can at its discretion call for another bus to come. As far as I can tell, the policy is that a second bus is called if there are at least ten people waiting when the bus is full. So don't worry too much about getting on.

If you don't get on and have received no instructions from the driver or attendant at the gate, you will need to speak with customer service. You may wish to leave your bags in line, in case the next bus from that gate will be going to the same place. That way, you don't lose your place. Customer service can issue you new tickets if another route (read: "set of transfers") would be faster.

Checking Bags redux: Getting Searched

Greyhound is watching out for terrorists riding the bus, so very occasionally you will be searched when boarding. My experiences have ranged from a guy searching my person but not my carry-on bag to a guard confiscating a woman's mace from her checked baggage. The policy is totally random, Greyhound's forte. If you want to be nice, ask the guard to put all the confiscated material in your checked luggage, so you can give it back to people when you get to your destination.

Loading Bags

By this point, a Greyhound employee should have either taken your checked baggage or put a tag on them to indicate their destination. If you have your bags, put them in the spot indicated near the bus. Visually check that your bags are on the bus before boarding.

The Bus

Congratulations! Take a load off: you're on the bus. There isn't much more to worry about.

Getting a Seat

You can't sit in the first row, unless you have a disability, are elderly, or are a child riding alone. This is for "security reasons." Some drivers won't even let children riding alone sit in the front, because they don't want to be annoyed by the kids.

If you are riding for a long time by yourself, you might consider trying to take the very back seat. Most people don't go to the back because of (real or perceived) concerns about being next to the toilet. Yet, if you get there early and the bus isn't going to be totally full, you will get to stretch out on the three back seats. This is by far the most comfortable arrangement.

If you would like to have a quiet ride, sit two or three seats from the front. Sitting two seats behind the front row ensures that you will not be behind a child traveling alone. The bus driver, as the only person with authority, may institute a policy that passengers should be quiet--in which case you, by sitting near the driver, will benefit from that policy. (People at the back can be fairly loud without the driver hearing them.)

If you're traveling with someone else, keep walking back until you spot an empty pair of seats. You might not see them from the front, but there will probably be joint seats somewhere on the bus. If you're not feeling lucky, still hold out for two aisle seats next to one another.

If you're traveling alone and want to keep it that way, you will more likely get a seat to yourself by sitting towards the back and not making eye contact with people looking for seats. You should place something small in the aisle seat or just sit in the aisle seat. That way, people will be moderately inconvenienced by having to get your attention and speak with you.

If your main priority is to meet someone, you can do so by sitting with the person behind you or in front of you in line, or by sitting near the front. Many people traveling by themselves will sit with a stranger at the front rather than run the risk of not finding a seat to themselves at the back. You could also wait to get on the bus, so you can choose which stranger to sit with.

The Driver

Your trip will be influenced most by your driver. When you get on, or after any major stop, the bus driver may make an announcement. If the announcement is more than a sentence or two, the driver will want everyone to be quiet on the ride and will kick people out if he smells someone smoking. (Sometimes people try to smoke in the bathroom.) A long announcement message means that, as long as you don't annoy the driver, you will have a generally pleasant ride.

If the announcement is short or nonexistent, the driver has more of a laissez-faire approach. Your ride will be more pleasant if you can eventually make way to the front of the bus. One benefit: if you're riding at night, at least the driver won't wake you up every few minutes telling new passengers where the bus goes.

Sleeping

It is quite difficult to sleep on the bus, in any respect, but I believe props can help. I did see one man, sans props, sleeping like this (where the double lines are the man, the circle is the head):

      /      /
     /  =o  /
 ___/ //___/
  |===\\ |
This did not work for me. I recommend taking something soft you can lean on: anything from a pillow to a sleeping bag. You may also consider carrying personal stereo equipment and a sleeping mask.

Rest Stops and Reboarding Passes

Buses stop every 2-4 hours for the benefit of passengers and the driver. Rest stops can be at food establishments or at a bus station. Always leave something in your seat--a magazine, a book, a pillow--to mark it.

Some stops are required; you can tell by the driver's announcement and whether people are staying on the bus. The bus may leave for up to thirty minutes at a no-name stop for refueling and a check-up. It might be gone two to three hours if you're waiting at a bus station.

The first time a required stop is made at a bus station, you will need to get a reboarding pass from the driver. The reboarding pass will let you get in a special line at the station. You don't have to be early for this line: just be present before they start general boarding.

Transferring

Your ticket will indicate where, if anywhere, you should transfer. If the bus driver made an announcement, he or she may also have mentioned where passengers bound for a certain place should get off. While it is your responsibility to leave the bus, you can also take cues from other passengers. Transfer stops are larger and many people have to change buses.

If you have checked baggage, you should visually confirm that your bags are off the original bus. You may be responsible for taking them from the bus. You should then repeat all the steps in "The Station" except for the part about checking your bags, as you will have to board a new bus.

Arriving

Congratulations! Just make sure you've got all your bags, and go! The bus may seem to have stretched time somehow. You might have been delayed at points. Usually, though, the bus will get you there by the scheduled arrival time--because drivers speed--and you'll have some fond memories and good stories to tell.

Sources

Greyhound's website, http://www.greyhound.com .
Personal experience.

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