While traveling overland between cities, you often have a choice between several modes of transport. In this guide, I break down the pros and cons of bus vs train travel to help you decide which is the best way for you to get to your next destination. I’ll also outline the pros and cons of your third option, flying.
Train Travel Pros
- You can get up and move around- In my opinion, this is the best reason to choose the train over the bus. Most long-distance trains allow you to get up from your seat without disturbing the passenger next to you. You can exit your cabin and walk around in the hall. You can also walk between cars to the dining car. You’re not stowed up for hours at a time in the same seat like you are on a bus.
- Trains offer more amenities- Long-distance trains often offer dining, a full bar, and completely flat beds. Shorter distance trains often offer power outlets, wifi, and reclining seats. These amenities often aren’t available on buses.
- More scenic- Train tracks are built in the most efficient manner between two points. They don’t follow a road. You’ll travel through scenic and rural parts of the countryside that you otherwise wouldn’t get to see. You’ll travel through places that haven’t been spoiled by infrastructure and human activity. The scenery you see on from the train is much more beautiful than a motorway. Some train routes are a destination of their own. For some ideas, check out this article about the most scenic train journeys from Travel and Leisure.
- You can lay down flat and get a good nights sleep on a train- If you book a bed on a sleeper train, you can lay down completely flat and stretch out. You’re not stuck in a seated position all night. This allows you to get a solid night of sleep and wake up rested. Some of the best sleep that I have ever gotten has been on a train. Something about the way the train rocks and sways on the tracks just lulls me to sleep. The sound of the wheels rolling on the track adds to the atmosphere. On a bus, you can never lay down completely flat. The quality of sleep is poor.
- Trains are more environmentally friendly- Trains use less fuel per passenger than buses, cars, or planes. If you care about the environment, the train is probably the greenest mode of traveling long distance. The only greener option is walking or bicycle touring.
Schedules are more reliable- Because they don’t have to deal with traffic, trains usually run on time. This means you won’t experience as many unexpected delays or late arrivals as you do when taking the bus.
- You can carry more luggage on a train- Luggage allowances are usually less strict on trains. In fact, oftentimes your luggage isn’t even weighed before you board. Many long-distance trains even have a car for luggage and cargo. There’s really no limit to the amount of stuff you can bring with you. For example, after crashing my motorcycle in Vietnam, I put it on a train with me to the next big city so I could recover. That’s not really an option on the bus.
- Trains are faster- For some routes, you’ll reach your destination significantly faster if you travel by train. This is particularly true with bullet trains which can reach speeds exceeding 300 km/h. No bus goes that fast. Of course, for some routes, the bus is the faster option. Be sure to do your research before booking your ticket if you’re in a hurry.
- Train stations are more comfortable than bus stations- This is a generalization but usually, train stations are larger and offer more seating and amenities than bus stations. The reason is that in many countries, each bus company has its own station which is usually just a ticketing office with a few seats. Train stations are usually much larger.
- Finding the train station usually easier- Most cities only have one train station. Particularly large metropolises may have two. This makes finding the station a breeze. Everyone knows where it’s at. A big city could have dozens of different bus terminals. Finding the right one can be a challenge if you don’t know your way around.
- Train travel is healthier- While traveling long distance, no matter which mode of transport you choose, you’ll spend hours sitting in the same position. This puts you at risk of a dangerous condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). To read about the condition and its cause, check out this article from the Center for Disease Control. The best way to prevent this condition from developing is to get up and walk around every 2-3 hours. This is really only possible on a train. On a bus, you can sit for 6+ hours between meal and bathroom brakes. This can be seriously dangerous for your health.
- Trains are romantic- Something about riding a train reminds us of times gone by. Our ancestors traveled by long-distance train over one hundred years ago. It’s a historic and sophisticated mode of travel.
- Trains are higher class- For whatever reason, people tend to consider train travel to be a higher class activity. It doesn’t have same social stigma that bus travel carries. Of course, this only matters if you’re the kind of person that cares what others think.
- Trains are cool- Some of us are just fascinated by trains. I can’t explain why but I am one of those people. I don’t have a model train set up in my basement* but I think that would be pretty awesome. Whenever I have the choice between a bus and train, I choose the train.
Train Travel Cons
- More expensive- The biggest drawback of taking the train is the cost. Train tickets are usually significantly more expensive than bus tickets. Sometimes up to twice the price. In some regions, it’s even more expensive to take then train than it is to fly. Both the US and the UK have this problem. For example, check out this article about UK rail fares from The Telegraph.
- Fewer destinations- Train lines are limited. Most countries only have one or two. A significant number of countries don’t have any trains at all. This means that you can usually only access larger cities by train. Buses, on the other hand, go almost everywhere on earth. You can access even the smallest villages by bus. For example, in Africa there are very few train lines. Check out my guide to bus travel in Africa for more info.
- Trains offer fewer departure and arrival times- For most popular routes, there are only one or two trains operating per day. You have to leave at those times. Buses often operate on a much more regular schedule. For example, between two big cities, there may be a bus leaving every half hour.
- The ride can be rough- Some older or poorly maintained train lines are incredibly bumpy and shaky. This makes getting comfortable or falling asleep nearly impossible. Of course, modern trains are incredibly smooth. So much so that sometimes you can’t even tell that you’re moving. Buses can be bumpy as well if the road conditions are poor or the bus is old.
- Trains are loud- The metal on metal sound of the train wheels rolling against the track makes a lot of noise. Some people have trouble sleeping because of the noise. Of course, modern trains are designed to be very quiet inside.
- Slightly more dangerous- Deaths by train accident are so rare that this point is almost irrelevant but I found this statistic pretty interesting so I thought I’d throw it in. According to this statistic on Wikipedia, train travel is slightly more dangerous than bus travel. With rail travel, there are .6 deaths per billion kilometers traveled compared to .4 deaths per billion kilometers traveled by bus. I found this pretty surprising.
- Trains can’t easily access mountainous regions- Trains can’t climb as easily as buses. For this reason, you’ll rarely find train lines running through mountainous regions. In mountainous countries, you’ll usually have to take the bus.
- Train tickets sell out more quickly- This is my personal experience. If you want to take the train, you usually have to book further in advance than if you’re taking the bus. Seats sell out more quickly. I experienced this in India. For most routes, there are fewer train seats than bus seats available.
Bus Travel Pros
- Cheaper- The bus is almost always the cheapest transport option available. Tickets are often significantly cheaper than rail or air equivalents.
- More destinations- Buses travel almost everywhere. You can take the bus to even the tiniest of villages. Anywhere that there is a road, a bus can go. For example, I traveled by bus through the Omo Valley of Ethiopia to villages that couldn’t be accessed by train or air.
- More departure and arrival times- For popular bus routes between cities, there is often a bus leaving every hour. Sometimes even more frequently. In this case, if you can’t leave the city until the afternoon, for example, you won’t have to wait around too long. Trains, on the other hand, only offer a couple of departures per day at most. You might have to wait all night until the next departure.
- Smoother ride- Buses offer the same or better ride quality than most cars. Older trains tend to shake and sway on the tracks. Of course, new buses and trains are both incredibly smooth.
- Quiet- Road noise is rarely a problem. Buses also don’t suffer from the metal on metal sound that train wheels have against the tracks. Of course, if a loud passenger sits near you, you’re in for a noisy ride. Once, while traveling to Seattle on the Greyhound bus, a particularly annoying woman kept yelling at the driver to stop so she could smoke. Eventually, the driver stopped at a truck stop and kicked her off the bus. Everyone clapped for our hero of a driver.
- Slightly safer- Buses have fewer deaths per billion hours traveled at 11.1, and by billion journies at 4.3. Rail travel has 20 deaths per billion journies and 30 deaths per billion hours according to Wikipedia. Both modes of travel are safer than traveling by car.
- Buses can access mountainous regions- Anywhere there is a road, a bus can go, for the most part. Trains generally can’t access mountainous regions. Of course, there are some exceptions to this.
- Bus tickets don’t sell out as quickly- For many routes, you can just show up at the station and buy your ticket hours before travel. If you want to take a train, you often have to buy your ticket well in advance. Of course, bus tickets do sell out. It’s a good idea to book at least a day in advance if possible.
- Buses can be faster- For some routes, bus travel times are shorter than trains. If you’re in a hurry, do your research before booking tickets.
Bus Travel Cons
- You can’t move around- While riding the bus, you pretty much have to wait for a bathroom or meal break to get up and move around. There is just nowhere to go while the bus is moving. On a couple of occasions, I’ve been on buses where the driver kept driving for over 6 hours without stopping. During that time, everyone was stowed up in their seats without any way to move.
- Fewer amenities- Bus services are pretty basic. There is no food service or bar. The seats don’t lay flat. Most buses don’t have outlets or wifi. Of course, there are exceptions. I found long-distance buses in South America to offer a surprising amount of amenities including meal service, entertainment systems, and comfortable seating. The experience is almost like taking a flight.
- Less scenic- Buses travel on the fastest road available between destinations. That’s usually the highway. These usually aren’t too scenic. Highways are flat and surrounded by human development. Trains, on the other hand, pass through untouched, beautiful land that you otherwise wouldn’t get to see.
- You can’t lay down flat- Some bus seats are better than others, but none really lay completely flat. This makes getting a good night of sleep nearly impossible for some people. Trains generally offer beds. Here, you can get a good night of sleep and arrive at your destination well-rested.
- Less environmentally friendly- Buses burn more fuel per passenger than trains. These days, many people are choosing to travel less for the benefit of the environment. Trains are pretty energy efficient.
- Less reliable- Buses must put up with city traffic. Usually, they account for this in the schedule but traffic can be unpredictable. An unexpected accident can cause an hour of delay. Trains don’t have to put up with traffic so they can keep a more reliable schedule. Of course, there are exceptions. Trains often run just as late due to mechanical issues or incompetence.
- You can’t carry as much luggage- Most bus lines have a similar luggage policy to airlines. That is one carry on bag and one checked bag. Generally, your carry-on bag must be smaller than 62 linear inches and weigh less than 50 pounds. The checked bag must fit either under the seat in front of you or in the luggage storage above the seats. Of course, baggage policies vary by bus line. You can also pay a fee to carry extra luggage. Trains usually have much less strict luggage policies. Some don’t even measure or weigh your luggage if it’s within reason.
- Buses are slower- Because they can’t travel at the same speeds and they have to deal with city traffic, buses generally have longer transit times. This is particularly true in Europe. For example, the bus from Amsterdam to Berlin takes 8 hours 15 minutes. The train takes just 6 hours 4 minutes.
- Bus stations are less comfortable- Many large cities don’t have a central bus station. Instead, small bus offices are located all over the city. These small offices typically don’t offer any amenities other than a few seats and a restroom if you’re lucky. Train stations, on the other hand, are usually large with plenty of seating, restaurants, shops, and more.
- Finding the bus station is sometimes a challenge- Because bus stations are often small and numerous, finding the right location can take time when you’re in a large and unfamiliar city. Most cities only have one main train station. This makes finding your way to the station much easier.
- Bus travel is less healthy- This mostly has to do with the amount of time that you must spend seated while riding the bus. If you spend enough hours seated in the same position, your blood can begin to clot. Usually in your leg. The clot of blood can break loose and make its way to your lungs. Here, it can cause serious problems. This condition is called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The solution is to get up and walk around every 2-3 hours. You just can’t do this while riding a bus. You can, however, if you take a train.
- Buses are lower class- One of the main reasons that people tend to dislike riding the bus is psychological. People associate bus travel with the lower class. There’s a certain negative social stigma to riding the bus. This bothers some types of people.
- Buses aren’t cool- There really isn’t any history or novelty to bus travel. It’s just a cheap way to get around. After all, nobody builds a model bus route in their basement.
Which Mode of Travel is Better? Bus Vs Train
Both the train and bus will get you to your destination in a safe and relatively reliable manner. The choice mostly comes down to cost, availability, and personal preference.
While researching for this guide, I read about a couple of interesting studies that were done to determine which mode of travel commuters preferred. Researchers performed surveys in cities all over the world.
They determined that people everywhere generally preferred trains. Through more surveying, the researchers were able to come up with several possible reasons why.
One common reason was psychological in nature. Many people simply associate buses with bad transport and trains with good transport. This could have to do with history, marketing, physical differences between buses and trains, or our culture.
Another common reason that people prefer trains to buses seems to be social in nature. Many people consider the bus to be lower on the hierarchy of transportation methods. It has a negative stigma. Possibly because the bus is commonly used by people in the lower class. Because of this, some people feel ashamed of admitting to riding the bus. Most people don’t feel this way about riding trains.
For more info, check out these two interesting articles:
- “Why Trains Shouldn’t be Better than Busses” from Pacific Standard.
- “The Myth That Everyone Naturally Prefers Trains to Buses” from City Lab.
A Third Mode of Transport: Air Travel
For longer or overseas routes, air travel is often your only reasonable option. For shorter trips, air travel may not be the best choice. In this section, I’ll outline the pros and cons of taking a flight rather than ground transport. In this analysis, I assume that you fly economy class.
Air Travel Pros
- Faster- A flight allows you to travel to the other side of the planet in less than a day. Trains and buses can’t even cross a large country in that amount of time.
- Can cross bodies of water- For overseas travel, sometimes your only reasonable option is to fly. Taking a ship across an ocean just isn’t practical for most trips. Most travelers simply don’t have the time or desire to spend weeks at sea. Of course, you can’t travel overseas by bus or train.
- Flying costs less for long journies- These days, budget airlines often allow you to fly for less than the price of a train ticket. In some cases, flying is even cheaper than taking the bus. The reason is that you must factor in the price of food when traveling long-distance overland. A bus trip across a continent may take several days. You’ll have to eat during that time. You may even have to stay in a hotel at night. Before buying a bus or train ticket, always check the price of flights and factor in any additional costs that you’ll have to cover. You may be surprised.
- Airports are comfortable and full of amenities- Airports offer plenty of seating, restaurants, bars, and shops. The best airport that I have visited was Incheon in South Korea. While on a 12 hour layover, I took a tour of Seoul and enjoyed a shower after getting back to the airport. All for free. If I had to choose between waiting around an airport, bus station, or train station, I’d choose the airport every time.
- Flights are more reliable- Because airlines cater to a business clientele, the must remain on schedule. Of course, there are occasional delays.
- Finding the airport is easy- Most cities only have one and everyone knows where it is. Some larger cities have 2-3. Airports are usually served by public transport as well.
Higher class- There is no negative stigma to flying. Fellow passengers will generally be from a higher social class than those you meet on a bus.
- It’s cool- Aviation is fascinating. I’m still blown away by flight even though I’ve flown hundreds of times.
Air Travel Cons
- Expensive- Flights generally cost more than bus or train tickets. This is particularly true with journeys that would take less than a day traveling by ground. Having said that, budget airlines often offer rates that are competitive with bus or train ticket prices. It’s best to always check prices before booking. Sometimes you get a pleasant surprise with a low fare.
- Flying is a hassle- In order to fly, you must pack your bag in an airline acceptable manner, arrive at the airport a couple of hours early, check-in, go through security, wait to board and deboard, then wait for your luggage at baggage claim. The whole process is slow and inefficient. You can’t just show up like you can at a bus or train station.
- Airports are inconveniently located- Due to the noise, airports are usually built far outside of the city that they serve. Oftentimes 20 miles or more from the city center. This increases your costs and transit times. When you take the bus or train you conveniently arrive in the city center.
- You have to book in advance- In order to get a decent price on a ticket, you should make your reservation at least 2 weeks in advance. When traveling during the busy holiday season, you’ll want to book several months in advance. Most of the time, you can book trains and buses just a few days in advance. Sometimes you can just show up and buy a ticket minutes before departure.
- You can’t move around easily- While flying, you’re pretty much stuck in your feet. There are no breaks where you can get up and walk around. Of course, you can get up to go to the bathroom but that’s about it. Unfortunately, this means disturbing the passenger next to you if you don’t have an aisle seat.
- You can’t carry much luggage- Airlines are particularly strict about the size and weight of your bags. Most airlines allow checked bags to be up to 62 linear inches (158cm) and 50 pounds (23 kilos). Carry-on bags typically must be less than 45 linear inches (about 114 cm) and 22 pounds (10 kilos). Every airline is slightly different. Make sure you check the limits before your flight. When traveling by bus or train, baggage allowances are much less strict. Oftentimes bags aren’t even weighed.
- You can’t carry certain items on an airplane- Anything that could be considered a weapon is prohibited. I had a butter knife confiscated because it had a slightly serrated edge. You must also limit your liquids to 100ml or 3.4 oz bottles. These limits make packing for certain trips a bit of a challenge. For example, I like to camp and hike. Tent stakes, trekking poles, and camp stove fuel are all prohibited. Of course, you can always check a bag, but even then many items aren’t allowed due to the fear of explosion. This includes aerosols, fuels, and large batteries.
- Flying is unhealthy- As mentioned above, the risk of DVT is higher during flights because you can’t move around. I also feel that I tend to get sick after a flight more often than a bus or train ride. Maybe due to the air quality or pressure changes.
- Less scenic- Once you reach cruising altitude, there’s not much to look at. While traveling overland, you can at least enjoy viewing the land as you pass by. I will admit, viewing a massive city from the air as you approach for landing is pretty incredible. I’m always blown away by the sprawl of the Los Angeles metro area even though I’ve flown into the city dozens of times. Mountains are also incredibly impressive from the air.
- Flying is less environmentally friendly- According to this interesting article about the carbon footprint of various modes of transport from mnn.com, a flight produces around 3 tons of CO2 per passenger. Traveling by train cuts that number in half. If you’re the type of person that cares about being green when you travel, you may wish to limit the number of times that you fly.
- You can’t lay down flat- In order to pack in the maximum number of passengers, airline seats barely even recline. Of course, if you’re willing to shell out for business or first class, you can get a lay flat seat.
- Slightly less safe- Statistically speaking, flying is incredibly safe. Much safer than driving yourself. It is, however, slightly more dangerous than taking the bus or train. I found this statistic pretty surprising. I had always assumed that air travel was the safest option.
How to Decide: Train Vs Bus Vs Plane
While deciding which mode of transport to choose, the first thing to take into consideration is cost. Check the price of flights, the train, and the bus before booking a ticket. You need to stay within budget. If you’re not sure how much you can afford to spend on transportation, check out my guide to help you make an accurate travel budget.
I don’t always choose the absolute cheapest option. My preferred mode of travel is the train. When the price is reasonably close to the price of the bus, I’ll buy a ticket. If the flight is cheaper, I’ll fly. If a bus ticket is significantly cheaper than either, I’ll take the bus instead. Generally, the bus is my least favorite mode of travel, comfort-wise.
Next, I consider the time of departure and arrival. This depends on your personal preference. Most travelers don’t want to arrive in an unfamiliar city in the middle of the night.
I’m not a morning person so I avoid early departures. If I have the choice, I like to travel by night. The main reason is that I can save on a night of accommodation. This saves me on average $10-$25 on a hotel or hostel. It also saves time. By traveling at night, I can arrive in a new destination with a whole day ahead of me. I haven’t wasted the day sitting around in transit.
Final Thoughts: Bus Vs Train Vs Plane Travel
Each mode of transport has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. The choice partially comes down to personal preference. Some travels hate to fly and avoid it at all cost. Many luxury travelers would never set foot on a bus or train. They value time more than money.
I consider my self a bit of a train enthusiast. One of my bucket list trips is to take the Transsiberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok. Possibly with a detour to Mongolia. Another train ride on my bucket list train ride is the iron ore train in Mauritania. I hope to take those rides and write about them in future posts.
Do you prefer taking the bus or train while traveling? Share your experience in the comments below!
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