For most travelers, a city-to-city bus journey is the lowest option on the transportation ladder. Buses are usually dirty and crowded, get stuck in traffic, bump and sway, and are slow. They’re for those on a budget, only—but that may be quickly changing, thanks to sleeper buses.
Greyhound and MegaBus express options have long serviced much of the country with low, advance-purchase fares that are sometimes faster, and typically much cheaper, than Amtrak—although both set an admittedly low bar. Most trips offer onboard bathrooms, Wi-Fi, seating in pairs, electrical outlets, and little legroom or seat width to work with.
But not all buses are like that now. New bus lines operating luxury or lie-flat sleeper buses offer accommodations and services far beyond what Amtrak, airlines, or other bus lines can.
Sleeper Buses: “Moving Hotels”
A new service called Cabin is offering lie-flat sleeper buses overnight between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Trips in either direction leave at 11:00 p.m. and arrive at about 7:00 a.m., give or take traffic. Cabin’s sleeper buses feature cubicles on each side of an aisle, stacked two high and equipped with full foam mattresses and bedding. Cubicles are 75 inches long, 25 inches high, and 26 to 31 inches wide, with individually controlled air conditioning, electrical outlets, privacy light shades, and USB ports. Vertical space is so limited that all you can do in one is lie back and maybe read a little or work on a computer or tablet. If you want to be more vertical, Cabin’s buses also have small lounge areas for use before/after sleeping. Cabin buses, which it calls “moving hotels,” also provide onboard snacks, a restroom, and Wi-Fi. The fare is $115 each way.
A contributor to the blog The Points Guy tried Cabin, and found everything to be shipshape and as advertised. He also found, however, that sleeping wasn’t easy due to constant highway curves and bumps.
When a Sleeper Bus Is Worth It
Paying $115 for a trip you can make on Southwest for less than $50 doesn’t initially sound like an attractive value proposition. But the $115 bus fare covers an overnight accommodation that would likely cost you at least $100 in either Los Angeles or San Francisco. In fact, Cabin is re-creating what was once a very common travel model, especially among business travelers before the 1950s: Leave a city late evening, climb aboard a sleeping car on a train, and arrive at your destination the next morning in time for another day’s business. For the most part, Amtrak doesn’t run trains like that anymore, although a few overnight segments on Amtrak’s long haul routes allow similar schedules in limited cases. Amtrak’s single daily Los Angeles to San Francisco trip, however, is by day.
You can identify dozens of routes where the Cabin concept would be feasible, at least from a scheduling standpoint. Whether the concept will succeed as a product concept, however, remains an open question.
Luxury Bus Options
Lots of bus companies install leather seats into what would otherwise be a conventional bus arrangement and call it “luxury.” By my measure, however, a true luxury bus has roomier seating, with only three total seats per row—two on one side of the aisle, one on the other—and extended legroom. Here are several lines that meet that standard:
- LimoLiner runs several daily round-trips between Boston and New York. Trips take just over four hours, which is essentially the same time as Amtrak’s Northeast Regional trains and about a half hour slower than the Acela Express. Fares start at $79, which is higher than Amtrak’s starting point of $49 on Northeast Regionals, but cheaper than Acela’s $120. LimoLiners offer Wi-Fi, mobile phone service, snacks or a light meal, an onboard restroom, and an attendant.
- Vonlane runs a similar service linking Dallas, Ft. Worth, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio, plus College Station for football games. Dallas to Houston trips take three hours, 45 minutes, with fares starting at $100 each way. As with LimoLiner, flying may be cheaper and faster, but slightly less convenient.
- RedCoach has a first class bus option on routes linking Miami with Tallahassee via either Orlando or Tampa. Miami to Tallahassee fares start at $67 each way. There’s no Amtrak service to Tallahassee, and the first class bus fare is less than half of what you’d pay to fly—making this option a worthwile one.
- Vamoose Bus Gold Buses operate several daily trips each way between New York City and the Washington, D.C. area (Bethesda, Arlington, or Lorton). One-way fares start at $40: A lot less than Amtrak or flying.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 8 Travel Luxuries Even Cheap People Should Splurge On
- What Customer Rights Do Hotel Guests Have? Not Many
- Congressman Introduces Passenger Bill of Rights Legislation
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse (including hotel guest rights) every day at SmarterTravel.